Officials in Georgia confirmed November 5 that they have broken up a Russian spy ring involving “dozens” of people, who for years had passed Tbilisi’s military secrets to Moscow, possibly including information about tactical and strategic plans during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
After a week of suspense surrounding earlier media leaks, Tbilisi produced 13 suspects -- four Russian and nine Georgian nationals. They are accused of working for Russian military intelligence (GRU), using specially developed spy hardware to send coded security and defense intelligence to Moscow.
In an unusual revelation about sourcing, Georgian Interior Ministry officials said they acted on tips from a former Soviet Army officer-turned-double agent, who had been working in the GRU. The ministry claimed that Georgia’s 2006 decision to offer an amnesty for foreign intelligence agents willing to cooperate with Tbilisi had helped pull off this “major counterintelligence operation.”
“Since  many people have contacted the Interior Ministry and this operation had been planned based on the information provided by them,” said Otar Orjonikidze, deputy intelligence chief at the Georgian Interior Ministry. He encouraged other spies in Georgia to turn themselves in by contacting the Interior Ministry by phone or email.
The roster of arrested Georgian citizens includes six armed forces pilots (Vyacheslav Pluzhnikkov, Gabriel Ustalishvili, Davit Meskhi, Gela Kakabadze, Gocha Diasamidze and Tarial Abashidze), one naval radio communications engineer (Eduard Abdulayev), one Batumi hotel manager (Ruslan Galogre ) and one businessman (Bakur Kiguradze).
Aside from one alleged GRU liaison officer (Yuri Skrilnikov), the аrrested Russian citizens include two executives from the Batumi office of the American reservoir management company Saybolt Core Laboratories Co. (Armen Gevorkian and Ruben Shikoian), and another businessman (Petre Devrishidzе) from the nearby town of Kobuleti.
The Interior Ministry claimed that the group has been operating since 2006 – a timetable that would have spanned the August 8-12, 2008 war. Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili could not be reached to explain why the government did not detain the alleged spies during the conflict.
At a Tbilisi press conference, the ministry distributed videotapes containing the confessions of two of the suspects, who claimed they were threatened and blackmailed into cooperating with Russian intelligence. Gabriel Ustalishvili, a Georgian armed forces helicopter pilot, described the coded language he had used when reporting Georgian military flight timetables and pilots to his Russian contacts. “‘Two parrots flew out of the cage’ meant two helicopters took off,” Ustalishvili says in the videotape.
In keeping with the tendency to turn foreign policy scandals with Russia into a televised spectacle, the Interior Ministry granted access to the pro-government Rustavi-2 television network in order to make a documentary about the arrests of the alleged spies. That program was scheduled to be broadcast during prime time on November 5 in Georgia. The story first broke on October 29 with a report by the Reuters news agency. The Interior Ministry never officially confirmed the initial Reuters report, but Rustavi-2 appears to have been privy to the operation for some time.
Throughout this week, Rustavi-2 has aired trailers for its November 5 documentary, which is named after the double agent, “Enveri,” who allegedly proved critical for the success of the operation (also called “Enveri”).
Other pro-government TV channels have portrayed the story, along with the arrests of Russian sleeper agents in the United States earlier this year, as fresh evidence of the decline of Russian intelligence. The Imedi news channel, which notoriously shocked Georgian audiences earlier this year with a fake Russian invasion report, claimed that the Interior Ministry had chosen November 5 as the date for its news conference because it coincided with Russia’s Military Intelligence Day.
The Kremlin condemned the arrests of the four Russian citizens and dismissed Georgia’s spy claims as “farcical.”
“The regime of [Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili is afflicted with spy mania on anti-Russian grounds,” declared the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry in a statement. “For the past several years, the Georgian leadership has resorted more than once to fabrication of such scandals in a quest for domestic and external political returns.”
An unnamed “competent source in the security structures” told the state-run RIA Novosti agency that the four detained Russians have “no relationship at all to Russian special services.”
Another unnamed Russian official from the Foreign Affairs Ministry contended that the scandal was cooked up with the November 19-20 North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Lisbon in mind. Georgia wanted to use the spy scandal in order to make a fresh push to gain admission to the Atlantic Alliance, Russia’s Interfax news agency cited the unnamed official as saying. Drawing “attention” at the December 1-2 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Astana could have been another objective, the official claimed.
Back in 2006, the televised arrest of four alleged Russian spies brought on a harsh response from Moscow, including the severance of communication, travel and financial transfer ties with Georgia, and the deportation of hundreds of ethnic Georgians.
But the timing of the event could have a domestic dimension as well. The Georgian Interior Ministry news conference came two days ahead of the third anniversary of clashes between riot police and protesters in downtown Tbilisi. Opposition groups have been trying to use the date to stage anti-government rallies.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.