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.