Friday, 11 May 2012

Georgia, Chechnya, And The Abkhazia 'Plot'

The blame game between Russia and Georgia over shady bombings and sabotage plans has been rumbling on for years now. In Abkhazia, ‘terrorist plotters’ are fingered as Georgian agents by Moscow and Sukhumi, whilst Georgia regularly detains ‘Russian spies’ accused of occasional bombings. Russia also occasionally accuses Tbilisi of supporting Islamist militants in the North Caucasus. Unravelling fact from fiction is never easy in these cases, but the tale has taken a rather surprising new turn.

Russian intelligence claims on 4-5 May to have foiled a plot by North Caucasus militant leader Doku Umarov to attack the 2014 Winter Olympics, due to be staged in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi. The proximity of the site to the North Caucasus has been cited before as a cause for concern but there have been few credible hints of a plan to attack the games.

But the FSB now claims to have seized a stash of weapons including anti-tank rockets, surface-to-air missiles, mortars, mines, grenade launchers, and even a flamethrower. Quite a haul. The FSB claims that Georgian intelligence was involved in supplying the weapons (Tbilisi denies it), which would not be so remarkable if the haul hadn’t been found in Abkhazia.

Russia says that Umarov was in charge of the whole operation, which involved militant groups in Turkey (presumably although not explicitly North Caucasus diaspora groups with ties to the rebels) shipping weapons through Georgia, with the assistance of Georgian intelligence, and into Abkhazia. From there the weapons would be shipped to Russia over the next two years for use against the Olympics.

This doesn’t add up. First off, Abkhazia is a Russian protectorate, guarded by Russian soldiers and hosting large numbers of agents from Russia’s multiple intelligence agencies. Although smuggling is fairly extensive along the border between Georgia and Abkhazia, using the province as a staging ground for large quantities of heavy weaponry would be extremely foolish. If Georgian intelligence was really in on the plot, why not just store it in western Georgia, away from the swarms of Russian and local agents in Abkhazia?

And if it was just Doku Umarov in charge, why place such a major operation outside your usual area of operations and under the control of an apparently new branch of your organisation (the ‘Abkhaz Jamaat’, according to Russian reports)? Especially since Abkhazia’s relatively small Muslim population and general absence of radical Islam do not make it a very conducive environment for the hardline Caucasus Emirate.

Chechnya and Ingushetia may not be exactly safe zones for the Islamist insurgency but they are more secure than villages near Guduata in Abkhazia, near a major Russian airbase. True, moving the weapons from the North Caucasus to Sochi would be further than from Abkhazia but this hardly outweighs the risk of holding them there for two years.

This is without getting into the likelihood that Doku Umarov is working with Georgian intelligence. The Caucasus may be a place where the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but since the Pankisi Gorge crisis of 2001-2002, there has been no indication that Georgia has any substantive contact with violent North Caucasus resistance to Russian rule.

So as usual, untangling fact from fiction in this case is almost impossible. Was there a plot? Was it a false flag operation? Was there any Georgian involvement? And if the plot was genuine, what does this say about the quality of Russian intelligence – in Abkhazia and around the Winter Olympics?

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