Did a Russian Terrorist Really Blow Up the American Embassy in Tblisi?

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by Joshua Foust on 7/22/2011 · 14 comments

Eli Lake dropped a bombshell in the Washington Time this morning:

A bomb blast near the U.S. Embassy in Tblisi, Georgia, in September was traced to a plot run by a Russian military intelligence officer, according to an investigation by the Georgian Interior Ministry.

Shota Utiashvili, the most senior official in charge of intelligence analysis for the ministry, said in an interview with The Washington Times that the recent spate of bombings and attempted bombings – including what he said was a blast targeting the U.S. Embassy – was the work of Russian GRU officer Maj. Yevgeny Borisov.

The case against Russia and Borisov, however, is not so clear-cut. One problem with the piece is that it only quotes Georgian officials alleging Borisov’s involvement—to put it kindly, they have a vested interest in blaming everything on Russia. In 2009, I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about how Georgia and Russia were both ramping up efforts to portray each other as heartless tyrants oppressing people and starting wars.

What I found particularly interesting was how the pro-Georgia side was resorting to almost apocalyptic terms to describe Russia—led by Senator John McCain, the narrative is obsessed with Russia trying to “restore the old Russian empire,” as if large countries should not seek influence and power in their near-abroad. Perhaps uncoincidentally, McCain staffers like Randy Scheunemann have long-standing ties to powerful DC lobbying firms hired by the Georgian government.

Russia has had less luck, in general, getting its side of the 2008 war out to Western publics. The separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia hired in 2009 LA-based Saylor Company, founded by a former LA Times reporter, to advocate on their behalf. While Saylor tries to advocate that Abkhazia and South Ossetia need the Russian military to protect them “Georgian aggression,” their message hasn’t really seeped into the general discourse about Georgian-Russian relations. Neither province is widely recognized as independent and Georgia considers them rogue provinces with no legal independence. Russia has recognized both, however, and has opened embassies in Sukhumi and Tshkinvali.

Thus, Lake writes that Russia is “occupying” the two regions, even though the two regions have violently resisted rule from Tblisi and publicly sought Russian military support and diplomatic recognition. Lake includes a quote from the Russian embassy in DC fifteen paragraphs down, where they deny any official involvement—as if the embassy here would know about covert operations happening in Georgia.

I tried to search for information on this notorious terrorist Borisov (his picture is at the top of this post). I could only find Georgian sources on him. One claimed Borisov was identified by a convicted Georgian terrorist, Gogita Arkania, in a prison interview to Kommersant. I could not find that interview on Kommersant’s website using a few different spellings of his name, which doesn’t mean all that much but it does make me wonder: who, exactly, is pushing this guy as a terrorist?

There’s no way to prove any of this. And, at the end of the day, Borisov could very well be a terrorist. But the evidence Lake reports to charge Russia with bombing the U.S. embassy is terribly circumstantial and limited in sourcing: literally the people with the most to gain from blaming Russia for their own internal problems are pushing this out to journalists. When you combine that with the somewhat alarming tendency in American politics to refuse to admit that the cold war is over—McCain’s desperate quest to portray Russia as a threatening empire is only the most prominent example of this but there are others—it’s difficult to take these charges at face value. Georgia has been caught several times misleading journalists about Russia’s perfidy in the region. Do we have any reason to think this time they’re not?

Update: Something else about Lake’s piece really nags me. He describes the Obama administration as enforcing a de facto arms embargo on the Georgian government. I think he means that President Obama canceled the billion-dollar arms deal President Bush proposed immediately after the 2008 deal. That is hardly an embargo, and is indicative of the other misleading, frankly inflammatory language Lake used to construct the rest of his story.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Corsair8X July 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm

But if Borisov works for GRU, then is he still a terrorist? Wouldn’t that mean that Russia was giving the orders or was the assumption that Borisov had gone rogue? Dangerous story real or fake because unless the story involves a rogue agent, then I would think you are in “act of war” territory then. If fake, then that’s a dangerous story to be slinging around.

Joshua Foust July 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm

That’s a good question and one I wanted to avoid for the time being. This is already a mess the way it’s reported. I’m willing to allow some leeway in how we describe this guy’s affiliations, bosses, and support network.

Corsair8X July 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Just to be clear. My last sentence was aimed at the originator of the story and not Registan. I’m sure you understand, but just so other readers don’t misunderstand.

Catherine Fitzpatrick July 22, 2011 at 5:19 pm

1. “the narrative is obsessed with Russia trying to “restore the old Russian empire,” as if large countries should not seek influence and power in their near-abroad”

Er, just how much influence and power, Joshua?! That’s a pretty chilling thing to say, giving Russia a rather large pass. Do you not like small countries? Or you just don’t like Saakashvili because he was Western-educated, a bit of a buffoon, etc? What is it really?

It’s become so fashionable to beat up on Georgia. Are they never right? You could argue just as strenuously that Georgia has no incentive to stage this bombing as well. Against the US Embassy?!

2. If Russia didn’t do it, and we don’t know that they did, are you suggesting the Georgians “did it to themselves” merely to finger Russia? Or “some rogue Georgians”? Because that would be the hypothesis you’d be implying.

Or “some forces” trying to “discredit Saakashvili” etc. etc.

3. It always seems hard for you guys to say that Russia is bad, and once you get into the “anti-bias bias” regarding Russia, it’s hard to let go.

But what if in fact Russia did organize this “plausible deniability” provocation? They’ve done things like this before (Litvinenko poisoning; for that matter, there are a lot of other poisonings.)

The Cold War had a good reason for starting that is often overlooked: mass crimes against humanity by Lenin and Stalin. It’s often portrayed as merely some sort of arms rivalry, or some sort of “anti-communism”.

And it has good reason for persisting: continued Russian medling and unhelpfulness in numerous situations in the near abroad — Transdniester, where it fuels the conflict directly, Belarus, where it bails out the dictator, etc.

And of course the continued serious human rights violations, like creating a climate of impunity if not complicity in the breaking of journalists’ arms, the killing of reporters, letting lawyers die in jail, etc. Not to mention what happened in Chechnya and the North Caucasus in general.

Your portrayal of the two breakaway regions also is generally accepting of the Russian narrative. How much of the “violent resistance” is Moscow-incited and abetted?

Years ago, despite outcries and objections from the UN and OSCE, Russia began handing out passports to Abkhazians in defiance of international law. They did this to make trouble. They endlessly provoked.

That’s not to say that the Georgian leadership couldn’t have done more to enfranchise IDPs and refugees and much more. But to portray this complex situation as only provocations by Georgia is really selective indignation.

If Russia was entirely blameless in this matter, why does it so strenuously resist OSCE monitors in this region? It’s clear they view this as a reciprocity for Kosovo, which they see as wrongdoing by the West.

Joshua Foust July 23, 2011 at 10:59 am


For one, all countries have the right to seek influence. Russia included. However, it has NOT become fashionable to beat up on Georgia. In DC, at least, criticizing Georgia in some circles is almost as bad as criticizing Israel—they are the lone secular western democracy surrounded by enemies, etc. It is most certainly not a fashion statement.

“Do you not like small countries?” I think it’s best I not respond to any of the rest of your comments. You’re not interested in discussing this topic seriously.

Dafydd July 27, 2011 at 8:21 am

This was not an article that ‘beat up on Georgia’ it queried the veracity of a serious claim that Russia had set a bomb off uncomfortably close to the US embassy in Tblisi.

In answer to your numbered points

1) power and influence is sought by many countries outside their borders. Egypt over the Nile. China, India, USA all do this. Saudi Arabia and Iran also. Pakistan does this in Afghanistan. This is the world we live in. Any country that joined the CTSO acknowledges this. As does and country that seeks NATO membership.

2) Russia may not have done this. There was no comment in the article as to who did. There was no suggestion anywhere apart from your reply that Georgia might have.

3) Russia can be bad. There, is that good enough, or not?

Russia has done things like poison Litvinenko (we assume, I think reasonably). That does not mean it is the source of all evil. Sometimes we are relieved that Russia committs murders abroad less frequently than in their Soviet past. Nevertheless, Russia does seem particularly committed to exacting revenge on people that they feel have betrayed them.

The Cold war did indeed have a good reason for starting, but it was not the reason you state. The famine of the 1930s, the great purge of Stalin and the Russian civil war were all BEFORE WWII. The cold war was after.

The US and west in general was content to ally themselves with the Soviet Union despite and during crimes against humanity which were of the greatest order. We did this perhaps because we perceived the Soviet evil as marginally the lesser when compared to Nazis, or perhaps, in the case of the US solely becuase an ally of Hitler attacked at pearl harbour.

The Cold War happened because of intense rivalry for dominance (particularly in Europe) between the US and USSR and because neither side was stupid enough to actually start a hot war.

Overall, I do not think Russia is incapable of setting a bomb off in a foreign capital. Very few governments are that nice. But I do not think Russia would deliberately set a bomb off close to a US embassy anywhere just at the moment. I do not think the Russians are mad, I think they are calculating, intelligent and just recovering from a sense of humiliation and wounded pride. I certainly do not think that Georgia is a reliable source when it comes to Russia.

Charles H July 22, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Corsair8x: Don’t be concerned, Foust fakes things all the time. He is the bloggers poster child for lazy research and self promotion.

anan July 23, 2011 at 12:27 am

“Corsair8x: Don’t be concerned, Charles H fakes things all the time. He is the bloggers poster child for lazy research and self promotion.” Hey just playing with you Charles. 🙂

Catherine Fitzpatrick, for the record them Russians rock! Russia is a generally positive force for global and Asian stability and a contributor to global commons that generate positive externalities for the global system. Let go the binary zero sum mindsets. Rather think of new creative ways for Georgia, Russia and other countries to work together in ways that benefit all of us. Don’t think Joshua meant everything that you implied.

Joshua Foust July 23, 2011 at 11:00 am

Charles, it’s clear! I am a 100% fake. See Catherine’s comment, too: she thinks I hate small countries and am reflexively pro-Russia. So true.

Grant July 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm

It’s pretty hard for Russia to argue it’s position in the U.S, close to a century of U.S/Russian rivalry and the view of Georgia as a small democratic state* threatened by an authoritarian giant rings well with the American public.

*Despite the fact that Georgia isn’t strongly democratic as much as a nation where none of the factions can really dominate politics.

Nikolaus July 24, 2011 at 6:37 am

I can help with the Kommersant interview: http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1681065

Alan July 24, 2011 at 10:17 am

cfitzpatrick…do you not like large countries?? What is it REALLY??

Osman July 26, 2011 at 4:31 am

Rumor has it that Joshua hates small countries. lol

Andor July 30, 2011 at 3:27 pm

When Obama first came to the White House he avoided Saakashvili. Now Saakashvili has become a daring of Ms. Clinton AND Mr. Obama. Does it signify a serious shift in the Russian-American reset intentions? Or is it just the money Saakashvili spends on the lobbyists?

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