Cablegate: Georgia-Russia: Putin-Saakashvili Meeting Off, Leaving Little Clarity and Much Suspicion

Published: Fri 21 Jul 2006 02:02 PM
DE RUEHMO #7863/01 2021440
O 211440Z JUL 06
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 MOSCOW 007863
E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/21/2016
REF: MOSCOW 7769 Classified By: Deputy Chief of Mission Daniel A. Russell. Reason 1.4 ( b, d)
1. (C) Georgian President Saakashvili will not meet President Putin in Moscow at the July 21-22 informal CIS Summit. Both sides agreed to announce they would set up a special meeting in the near future. In a bid to improve the atmosphere Georgian DFM Antadze, meeting with Russian DFM Denisov July 19, agreed to start work on a Counter-Terrorism Center and to hold talks in September on Georgia's NATO aspirations. But on the core issues -- separatist conflicts, Russian peacekeepers, and Russian economic measures that express irritation with Saakashvili and his allies -- neither side appears willing to budge. The Russians claim to understand that the status quo cannot be eternal, and are working on alternative proposals, but these are not likely to be acceptable to the Georgians. War talk has gripped Moscow. However, both the Russian negotiator for South Ossetia and the Georgian Ambassador believe that the warmongers on both sides can be controlled.
End Summary.
Off to the Races: The Races Are Off
2. (C) Several CIS heads of state canceled their visits to Moscow July 21 for horse races hosted by President Putin the following day. It became clear that Putin would only have one or two bilateral meetings. On the morning of July 21 the Kremlin informed the Georgian Embassy that Saakashvili would not be among them, and Saakashvili decided not to come. Georgian Ambassador Irakli Chubinishvili told us that both sides agreed to play down the cancellation in public, and to announce that the horse races did not provide a suitable venue for the serious issues they needed to discuss; and that they would set up a separate meeting in the near future.
3. (C) Popov and Chubinishvili, while not upbeat, were convinced that the cancellation would not have serious effects. Chubinishvili told us that DFM Merab Antadze (who has just been nominated to be Minister for Conflict Resolution) had seen Russian DFM Denisov July 19, and had tried to improve the atmosphere by offering to start work on a Counter-Terrorism Center that the Russians had proposed (on June 13, Saakashvili had told Putin that the time was not right to start on that Center). Antadze also agreed with Denisov on talks to start September 7 on Georgia's NATO aspirations.
4. (C) Both Chubinishvili and Popov questioned what might have come out of a Saakashvili-Putin meeting. Chubinishvili feared that when Saakashvili asked to start negotiations on withdrawing Russian peacekeeping forces per the Georgian Parliament's July 18 Resolution, Putin would simply say "no," Saakashvili would reply that the peacekeepers would be illegal, and the conversation would stop there. Popov painted a similar scenario. The Russians read the resolution as a "poorly timed political declaration" couched in the wording of an "ultimatum." "Our peacekeepers will not leave," he said flatly.
Russian Thinking on the Future
5. (C) We suggested to Popov that the resolution might have been designed to get Russia to engage in serious negotiations, and that it was the natural result of 14 years without progress. Popov maintained that Russia does not see the status quo as tenable forever, and wants a lasting solution that accommodates the aspirations of both the Georgians and South Ossetians. Russian think tanks, he said, have been trying to come up with an appropriate model. He mentioned a "protectorate" on the order of the Marshall Islands (we assume he meant the Compact of Free Association by which the independent Marshalls receive assistance and benefits from the U.S., which is responsible for defense and has certain other defense-related rights). We asked with whom South Ossetia would be associated -- Russia or Georgia? "Perhaps a condominium," Popov replied. (Comment: the previous day, MFA negotiator for Transnistria Nesterushkin had also raised the Marshall Islands as a model (Reftel). The Kremlin may be about to adopt this as a proposal involving "free association" with the CIS, not Russia. However, such a solution is unlikely to be acceptable to Georgia. Chubinishvili believes Georgia will withdraw from the CIS by the end of the year; the Russian proposal may be an attempt to convince Georgia not to leave. End Comment.) MOSCOW 00007863 002 OF 003
6. (C) We explored with Popov whether Russia was opposed to any changes that might allow a resolution of the current tensions over peacekeepers with something each side could show to its constituency. We asked about international civilian policing, which was mentioned in the Georgian resolution. Popov replied that the issue of bilateral Georgian-South Ossetian policing was raised at the June meeting of Interior Ministers in Tskhinvali. The abortive Joint Control Commission (JCC) meeting that was scheduled for Tbilisi this week was supposed to have discussed the issue. It would be taken up at the next JCC, which was scheduled for Moscow in late July-early August (Popov thought it would actually take place in mid-August). Law enforcement was an absolute necessity, he agreed, but he warned that resistance from those on both sides who earn money from smuggling would have to be overcome. He made clear that the "contraband barons" included both the leadership of South Ossetia and Georgian DefMin Okruashvili.
Rumors of War
7. (S) We have been impressed with the unanimity with which Russians of all stripes -- in and out of government, and of varying politics -- believe Georgia is about to start a war over South Ossetia. Many believe the U.S. has been egging Georgia on. One analyst told us June 20 that he knew that President Bush had given Saakashvili a "green light" when the two met on July 5. Russian intelligence has further alleged that the U.S. is training Okruashvili's MPs near the borders of South Ossetia.
8. (S) Popov was convinced that neither the Russians nor the South Ossetians would start fighting. Popov said that the Russians were unhappy with Kokoity, whom they viewed as impulsive and erratic, and who would behave irrationally if cornered. One of the main functions of the Russian PKF was to keep the South Ossetians in line. Popov said that the PKF's commander, General Kulakhmetov, was the best the PKF had ever had, because he refused to let the PKF be drawn into Kokoity's schemes. Popov said he was confident that Russia could keep things quiet inside South Ossetia
9. (S) Chubinishvili also told us July 18 that he thought there would be no war. He revealed that Saakashvili, when in Moscow in June, had feared that the Ossetians would start driving Georgians out of their villages inside South Ossetia. Saakashvili thought he might have no choice but to respond with force. Chubinishvili and FM Bezhuashvili had tried to convince Saakashvili that this was suicide, and Chubinishvili believed they had convinced Saakashvili -- for the moment. But Chubinishvili also recognized that DefMin Okruashvili would be working on Saakashvili to give him the go-ahead. Ultimately, Chubinishvili believed, this was just a tactic -- Okruashvili did not really want to fight, but wanted to be able to go on TV and declare that he had been ready and would have gone had he just received an okay. Ultimately, the Russians did not want a war, Chubinishvili believed, because it would upset the status quo (he did not imply that Saakashvili shared that optimism). And the South Ossetians would hold back because the fighting would be in their villages, destroying their houses.
10. (C) Popov remained suspicious of Georgian intentions, however, and especially of DefMin Okruashvili, whose goons had detained him and Russian Land Forces Deputy Commander Yevnevich twice between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali (Popov found bitter amusement in the fact that the "savages" who detained and cursed him had stooped to stealing his two ballpoint pens). He said that Okruashvili was undercutting Saakashvili's efforts to deal with the Russians. The fact that Okruashvili was still in his post indicated to Popov that both Saakashvili and the U.S. were satisfied with him -- since, Popov believed, the U.S. had enough influence to "get rid of" Okruashvili if he were really a hindrance. Nonetheless, Popov said, if the U.S. could ensure that the Georgians did not start fighting, the Russians could ensure that no one else in South Ossetia would, either.
11. (S) While Popov's remarks about Kokoity conveniently support the case for keeping Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, we believe he is sincere both in his assertion that Russia wants to keep a lid on the situation and in his assessment that the Georgians are capable of launching military action. Though most actors appear to want to avoid war, the potential for miscalculation is still significant. MOSCOW 00007863 003 OF 003
12. (C) The Russians will probably view the replacement of Khaindrava by Antadze as a mixed bag. They will be pleased that the new negotiator is a low-key professional diplomat who believes in negotiating in private, and not in the press. But they had also come to see Khaindrava as a member of the "Party of Peace," and his removal after a very public spat with Okruashvili is already being seen as an indicator of the latter's power, influence and ability to dictate Saakashvili's policies.
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