Vienna, August 13 – Russia’s intelligence services failed to detect and warn Moscow’s top leaders about Georgian plans to send forces into South Ossetia, a shortcoming that cannot be covered up by Vladimir Putin’s decision to hand out awards to more than 50 FSB, SVR, and GRU officers, according to a Russian analyst who tracks that country’s security community.
Indeed, Vladimir Yermolin writes in an article posted on the Grani.ru portal today, these awards are the height of hypocrisy because they have being given “for the timely and precise supply by the intelligence services of various levels of the General Staff of the Armed Forces and consequently of the country’s leadership” (http://grani.ru/Politics/Russia/p.139995.html).
The course of events suggests that no such information was provided, at least in a timely fashion. “The introduction of Georgian units into the unrecognized republic [of South Ossetia] was, judging by Moscow’s reaction political and military, sudden.” In fact, he notes, Moscow dredged up the term “from distant 1941” – “perfidious attack” – to describe it.
Georgia’s quick moves clearly caught Russian peacekeeping forces there off guard. They were soon trapped, without a chance for “a timely withdrawal or assistance” for almost a day. They had to burn secret documents lest they fall into Georgian hands. And the only person who did flee in a timely manner was republic President Eduard Kokoita.
Clearly, tactical intelligence broke down, Yermolin argues, but so too did strategic intelligence at the level of Russia’s national command center. On August 8th, President Dmitry Medvedev was at a recreation facility in Samara oblast, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev were at the Beijing Olympics.
They clearly had not been given a head’s up about what the Georgians were about to do, Yermolin suggests, or at least one of them – perhaps Patrushev – would have been in Moscow or at a military facility in the North Caucasus Military District.
Thus, Yermolin continues, it turns out that “it is easier to spy in Senegal than in Georgia.” Or “in a word, neither from Tbilisi, nor from the observation posts, nor from the raids of special forces, nor from the air, nor from the cosmos, nor from our remarkable ‘spies,’ nor from anywhere else came to Moscow the signal about the invasion being planned.”
Indeed, as far as one can tell, Yermolin suggests, those who were watching television or listening to the radio may have known about Georgian plans at nearly the same instant that Medvedev, Putin the other senior leaders in Moscow did, a serious intelligence failure given Russian involvement in the region.
The only place where the security agencies demonstrated their “skills” during the start of this crisis was in seizing “Georgian spies in Moscow.” With regard to providing the kind of warning intelligence services are supposed to provide, they did “not a thing if one judges by the results.”
What might have happened in the Russian intelligence services had worked more effectively? Moscow could have raised an alarm diplomatically and reinforced its position on the ground in Ossetia militarily. Tbilisi would certainly have denied that it planned to do anything and complained yet again about what Moscow was doing.
But – and in Yermolin’s view, this is the important thing – with good intelligence, Moscow would not have yielded the initiative to the Georgians and would thus have been in a position to defend Russia’s interests in the region with much less loss of life and much less loss of its political position.
There is of course one possible justification for Putin to hand out these awards to his colleagues in the intelligence business: Some of them may have been involved in “convincing the Georgian leader and his generals that Moscow would not risk introducing forces on the territory of Georgia.” For such an effort, Yermolin says, it is of course “possible to give awards.”