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6th Dec 2019

US cables shed light on EU 'Friends of Russia' in Georgia war

  • Tskhinvali road sign (Photo: Nir Nußbaum)

A cache of secret US cables on the 2008 Russia-Georgia war paints a vivid picture of how the EU was split into 'Russia-friendly' and 'Russia-hostile' clubs, with German diplomats "parroting" Russian arguments and Latvia suggesting that Nato should consider sending arms to Georgia.

The cache of around 120 cables from US embassies around Europe covering the period from 7 August, when the war 'officially' began, until 19 August, about one week after it ended, was published on Wednesday (1 December) on the website of the WikiLeaks-affiliated magazine Russian Reporter.

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One cable dealing with an extraordinary meeting of Nato ambassadors in Brussels on 12 August ran with the sub-heading: "Nato allies lack cohesion during first meeting on Georgia crisis." A follow-up cable on 13 August carried the heading: "Allies divided down the middle."

The 12 August cable, dealing with attempts to cobble together joint action on the crisis by the North Atlantic Council, saw EU and Nato members Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the UK broadly warm to proposals to suspend the Nato-Russia Council and to issue a Russia-hostile statement. But a Russia-friendly camp, led by France and Germany and including Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Spain, blocked the moves.

The 13 August talks, on whether a Russian ship, the Ladniy, should take part in a Nato exercise, pitted the same Russia-hostile camp (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the UK) against the Russia-friendly one (Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Slovenia).

"A number of allies - especially Germany - are parroting Russian points on Georgian culpability for the crisis. Intelligence releasable to Nato allies on this point might be a useful tool," the 12 August US cable commented. "The German-led side ... is unlikely to support anything more than a slap on the Russian wrist in the upcoming Nato ministerial," the follow-up cable said.

New divisions emerged inside the EU diplomatic forum, but the broad outlines of the split - with the Baltic states, Poland and the UK pitted against France, Germany and the Netherlands - stayed intact.

Commenting on the internal debate on whether or not to water down Russia-hostile language at an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on 12 August, Swedish diplomat Johan Frisell told his US counterparts: "One camp's overriding priority is to stop the suffering and ensure the cease-fire is respected, that it is too early to judge or blame and the EU cannot appear biased. Members include Malta, Cyprus, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. The other camp says Georgia made mistakes, but the overriding concern is that Russia launched a full-scale invasion of a sovereign nation in violation of international commitments ... Members include England, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, the Baltic states, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria."

Mr Frisell lambasted French President Nicolas Sarkozy for giving in to pro-Russian language in the so-called Six-Point Plan, a cease-fire agreement letting Russia keep its troops in Georgia indefinitely: "According to Frisell, Sarkozy's 16-hour trip to Moscow and Georgia was a carefully orchestrated routine that resulted in the 'Sarkozy Show.' Although the cease-fire agreement was not ready after the 16 hours, France wanted a success story and prematurely announced such. The result was a flawed document with which many EU countries have taken issue."

The remaining cables give a more nuanced image of German-Russian diplomacy than the Nato reports. In one text, the Czech foreign minister said his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was "visibly shaken" by Russia's actions. A Hungarian diplomat said Mr Steinmeier told Moscow it had "crossed a Rubicon," but the Kremlin ignored his plea for a pull-back. Chancellor Angela Merkel, for her part, declined to speak with Russian PM Vladimir Putin, because "it would needlessly increase Putin's standing if she sought contact with him."

Italy comes in for some of the heaviest US criticism. One cable on Italy's pro-Russian stance said: "Berlusconi and Putin have already spoken and we expect Russia to try to use the personal relationship between the two to urge Italy to derail efforts to condemn its actions in international fora."

On the other side, Washington was surprised by the profundity of disquiet generated in Riga and Warsaw.

The then Latvian foreign minister, Maris Riekstins, put forward a list of potential Russia sanctions which included pulling the 2014 winter games from Sochi and kicking Russia out of the G8. Latvia's secretary of state, Normans Penke, on 12 August said Nato should discuss military aid to Georgia. "Penke, a former ambassador to Moscow, has a reputation ... for being somewhat soft on Russia. You wouldn't have known it today. His passion seemed genuine and his frustration with Russia, and the inability of Nato to respond forcefully, was deep," the US cable said.

A separate US cable noted: "Poland has taken on a surprisingly forceful leadership role during the Georgia conflict." The Polish foreign ministry "overcame significant opposition within the EU" to call an EU ministerial on the crisis and suggested energy sector sanctions against Russia. The then Polish chief of staff, general Franciszek Gagor, offered an adventurous explanation why Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili attacked Russia in the first place: "Poland believes Saakashvili was manipulated by Russian agents - possibly even among his advisors - to open the door for military action in Georgia with the object of destabilising the Georgian government."

The treasure-trove of new information on the 2008 conflict also recorded a 'humourous' Freudian slip by the Russian ambassador to Slovakia.

Following one heated exchange in Bratislava, senior Slovak diplomat Stefan Rozkopal "claimed the Russian ambassador actually referred to the 'Soviet Union,' before correcting himself, and made other such verbal 'slips' that created a very anachronistic atmosphere."

The US cable then turned the joke onto Mr Rozkopal himself, depicting him as a typical Russia bore from the former-Communist EU countries: "Rozkopal is a facile diplomat, who, like several others in the Slovak MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs], believes he has better insights into Russian thinking and tactics than most European (and certainly US) diplomats."

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