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.
A Georgian court has charged Maj. Borisov, who is based in the Russian-occupied province of Abkhazia, with being the mastermind behind a spate of 12 bombings and attempted bombings throughout the country in the past year. These attempts include the detonation of a military-grade explosive about 100 yards from the U.S. Embassy in Tblisi on Sept. 22. No deaths or injuries were reported.
If the Georgian charges are true, it implicates a branch of the Russian military in plotting a lethal attack on U.S. territory three months before the U.S. Senate voted to ratify a new strategic arms control treaty with Moscow touted as the centerpiece of President Obama’s policy to “reset” relations with Moscow.
Mr. Utiashvili, director of information and analysis for the Georgian Interior Ministry, said he shared details of the ongoing probe into the embassy bombing attempt with U.S. security officials in Washington.
Georgia’s efforts to track down those responsible for the bombings and the plot against the embassy were discussed during talks Monday with State Department and Pentagon officials, he said.
“These are extraordinarily specific and detailed allegations delivered by the government of Georgia,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican. “On the basis of this report, the Congress should examine these allegations of a Russian-sponsored attack on a U.S. Embassy and its personnel.
“If true, a Russian-sponsored attack on a U.S. Embassy would constitute the most serious crisis in U.S.-Russian relations since the Cold War and put to lie any ‘reset’ in bilateral relations.”
A Russian Embassy spokesman said the charges by Mr. Utiashvili were false. A State Department spokesman declined to comment, noting “as a matter of long-standing policy, the State Department does not comment on investigations or intelligence matters.”
In 2008, Russian military forces invaded the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after skirmishes broke out between Georgian forces and Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. To this day, Russian troops remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russian government recognizes the two provinces as independent countries, despite a near consensus of almost all other U.N. member states that say the territories are Georgian.
One element of the Obama administration’s reset policy has been that U.S. pressure on Russia over its occupation has been muted at times. Despite Georgia’s participation in the Afghanistan War, the Obama administration has maintained a de facto arms embargo on Georgia.
Mr. Utiashvili said last month that Georgian investigators matched the design of the military-grade explosive found at a railway bridge in Poti to the bomb found in front of the U.S. Embassy in Georgia in September. The explosives are known as RDX in the United States and hexogen in Georgia.
“In June, we have found a number of bombs, they all come from the same source, these are Hexogen explosives and they are often stored in a juice box or candy box,” Mr. Utiashvili said. “The bomb we found on the railway bridge was the same design as the one in front of the U.S. Embassy in September.”
It turns out the bomb on the railway bridge never exploded. Nonetheless, the operative who placed the bomb on the bridge told his GRU handlers that it had, according to Mr. Utiashvili.
“The Russians wanted to check the information … so the deputy to Borisov called the European Union monitoring mission in Georgia and offered help with the casualties after the explosion on the railway which never exploded,” Mr. Utiashvili said. “The European Union mission told us this.”
Yevgeny Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, dismissed the charges. “All these rounds of allegations are absolutely false and baseless,” he said.
Mr. Utiashvili said he traced the bombings in his country to Mr. Borisov after running checks on the temporary cellphones found from suspects arrested for placing the bombs.
“We have identified the terrorist phone numbers, from the suspects we have arrested,” he said. “Though these were temporary cellphones, they would always call the same number after every explosion. The phone number would be traced to an Abkhazia number belonging to an ethnic Georgian named Mukhran Tskhadaia who works for the GRU.”
Mr. Tskhadaia and Mr. Borisov have been sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison for their roles in the bombings.
Mr. Utiashvili said that after receiving the call from the bomber, Mr. Tskhadaia would “call a number we know belongs to the GRU.”
“This is someone who is officially registered in the Russian Defense Ministry. He is the deputy to Maj. Yevgeny Borisov, who we believe is the real mastermind of the bombing campaign.”
Although the shooting war between the two countries has stopped, both sides have engaged in something of an intelligence war. Mr. Utiashvili said a recent operation uncovered a GRU-sponsored espionage ring that included the official photographers for the office of Georgian president and foreign minister.
Earlier this year, WikiLeaks disclosed a cable written in 2007 by the U.S. ambassador to Georgia at the time, John Tefft, that alleged Russian involvement in a 2004 car bomb attack in Georgia, bombings of the Georgian-Russian pipeline and a helicopter gunship attack in 2007.
“The cumulative weight of the evidence of the last few years suggests that the Russians are aggressively playing a high-stakes, covert game, and they consider few if any holds barred,” Mr. Tefft wrote.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to take up a resolution condemning Russia’s troop presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia later this month.