CIB

Collateral Damage in Poti

Date: 12/29/2021

Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.


Sometimes, being thrust into affairs created by others will haunt you. Especially if the nightmares involve the deaths of people whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As it turns out, my actions would make matters worse. Sometimes the attempt to rescue an assignment simply creates more problems.

This week’s Spy Tale takes me back to 1993 and the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia. I was hastily moved into the capital city of Tbilisi under cover of appraising crude oil and natural gas pipeline systems following the dismantling of the USSR one year earlier.

The real concern involved worsening relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. The problem would fester, providing off and on rises in tensions, until Russian forces finally attacked the Georgian region of South Ossetia in 2008.

The seeds for that, however, were sown in 1993-1994 with a brief civil war that would be a harbinger of things to come. Russian air and naval forces figured prominently in support of an insurgency against the Georgian government, with the insurgents primarily coming from a Russian ethnic population.

It was during the early stages of this conflict that the tragedy to be described below took place.

Source: wikiwand.com

Today both South Ossetia (attached to North Ossetia within Russia) and the more strategically important Abkhazia in far northwestern Georgia on the Black Sea remain under Russian control. The Kremlin regards both as “autonomous areas,” likely the model of what Moscow has in mind with Donbass and Donetsk in the ongoing border crisis with Ukraine.

In what would become a recurring theme, the Georgian moves were justified by alleged abuses committed against ethnic Russians living in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

By this time, my base was back in the US. But I still retained a UK academic position as a regular foreign lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). That location has figured in a number of earlier Spy Tales entries.  London had been my “other home” for almost two decades, interrupted by a multi-year period in which I had several prolonged residential stays in Moscow and frequent journeys elsewhere on assignment. Previous Spy Tales have introduced some of these periods.

My operation was supposed to clean up, or at least provide some clarity about, a genuine mess created by somebody else. While I reported to the CIA Station at the US Embassy in Tbilisi, the primary assignment involved the aftermath from parallel sensitive operations on the Western Georgian Black Sea coast near the ports of Batumi and Poti.

US Embassy, 29 Georgian-American Friendship Ave, Tbilisi photo: diplomacy.state.gov

Then and now, Batumi is a seaside resort (with all the positive and negative connotations) as well as Georgia’s second largest city close by the Turkish border. It has a large airport and provides a significant outlet for shipping. But it is its status as a terminus for an important pipeline moving across the country from the Azerbaijani oil fields further east that justified my interest based on my cover.

Source: ft.com

From the standpoint of my cover, this was a clear concern for global energy routes. However, it was up the coast at Poti that our operational focus was largely fixed. It was close to Russian naval installations and had experienced fleet support for insurgents coming down from Abkhazia. Ultimately, territory just north of the port would be annexed to Abkhazia (and its land bridge directly into Russia).

Port of Poti photo: ship-technology.com

Poti may well be the most important flash point in the post USSR Russia-US “great game” that few ever knew about. It provided a perfect vantage for all matters in the northern Black Sea as well as an important link to similar activities taking place to the west in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, it was some very bad planning and knock on bad operational execution in both ports that resulted in a major black eye for US intelligence. Despite my intentions, I became part of the problem.

With the USSR collapsing, several ops had sought to develop pockets of support in Georgia that would allow us close in intelligence locations to assess Russian troop movements in the Caucuses and naval strength in the Black Sea, along with serving as later launching points for other missions.

As soon as the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 new countries, relations soured between Russia and Georgia. Much of this arose from a long-standing ethnic difference. Georgia is a fundamentally different culture from Russian, having its own history, language, and unique alphabet. Even the Orthodox religions of the two countries have major disagreements dating back centuries.

Despite Stalin being Georgian, the republic uneasily was part of the Soviet Union following it being absorbed (for the second time) in 1921. Tbilisi established the primacy of Georgian laws over Soviet in 1989, declared independence in April of 1991, and finally became its own country after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the USSR on December 25, 1991.

Washington had for some time seen an opportunity in what was regarded as the “soft underbelly” of the newly independent Russia. The primary objective was to develop Georgia into an erstwhile ally (more like a state dependent on American support).

However, the rapid decline in the situation over the summer of 1993 required that US activity intensify.

There were two immediate objectives. The first was to provide on the ground support for Georgian intel activities seeking to assess the relative strength of the insurgency on the Black Sea coast and the intentions of the Russians. Second, we had our own agenda and that involved turning some Russian assets among the Georgian population in both Batumi and Poti to work for us.

That is where I had some connection with the ongoing operations. As I have noted on several occasions in earlier Spy Tales, my primary responsibilities involved counterintelligence (CI). I watched and reacted to what somebody else’s intel officers and agents were doing. Almost always that was the Soviet KGB and its Russian successor the SVR. And a CI specialist was needed here.

Given its proximity, Georgia was an essential place for their activities. This included a move as well by the FSB, the new Russian internal intelligence holdover from the Second Directorate of the KGB. Within the Russian ethnic population of Abkhazia, the FSB had already developed a sophisticated network of assets. Technically, these were Georgian citizens recruited to spy for Russia. But many of these had closer affinity to relatives in Russia than to Tbilisi. To sweeten the enticement, a number of these assets were given Russian passports.

There was an early indication that our efforts were being undermined, as much because of the hasty way in which the ops were being moved forward as anything else. Just as hostilities began in October 1993, we lost one of our own outside Batumi. His body was never recovered but there was little question his mission had been compromised by Georgians working for the Russians.

The last known contact with his own agents had taken place at a location he would often use – Batumi’s central piazza.

The Piazza, Batumi photo: gobatumi.com

It was assumed that Georgian agents were used in the hit. It is extremely unusual for one intel agency directly to kill operatives of another (of course there are exceptions, as I recounted in “The Firestorm in Vienna,” Classified Intelligence Brief, November 17, 2020).

Standard operational procedures should have dictated that all major activity be suspended while an after-action review was conducted. Instead, headquarters gave instructions to expedite everything.

What had suspect planning to begin with had even less moving forward. This is almost always a recipe for a disaster.

As soon as I arrived at the embassy, the palpable panic was already underway. The Chief of Station outlined what we were expected to do (there were three of us, all with different specializations and assignments. We had been airlifted in under different covers from different locations in Europe). It made no sense.

The orders were to forge ahead with the initial op parameters, despite the clear indication that the officer’s loss was tangible evidence that objectives had been severely compromised.

Ordinarily, I would have completed a detailed personal assessment of opposition strength, along with the likely assets they had in place before I did anything. One had to assume by this point that some of our assets had actually turned (or had been playing on the other team all along).

Not this time. I was supposed to do my normal CI responsibility while at the same time servicing what was left of our asset network. This latter matter put me (and, as it turns out, them) in an untenable position. I had little experience working with such networks during expanding hostilities. We did not know each other, I had no local language skills, and from beginning until end of this terrible assignment my “knowledge” of the Georgian situation was confined to briefing books and a total of barely ten days in country.

I had no time to acclimate and was flying blind. Necessity may be the mother of invention but it is also the conveyor of corpses.

I left Batumi to others. My main interest had to be the integrity of the operation in Poti, where SVR/FSB activity was rapidly integrating with intelligence units of the Russian miliary.

My cover would have provided a rationale to travel to Supsa. Located on the coast between Batumi and Poti, this is the main interchange in the pipeline system.

I went to Supsa quickly, moving north shortly thereafter under the guise of inspecting storage of replacement pipe sections at the port of Poti. I doubt this excuse was believed by anybody.

A meeting with the supposed head of our Poti network was arranged (by the station back in Tbilisi; I did not even know his identity). We met in a park near Niko Nikoladze, the well-known “Old Clock Tower.” The meeting was uneventful and the contact agreed for us to meet again the next day in town.

Niko Nikoladze, the “Old Clock Tower,” in Poti photo: 123rfl.com

The following morning his body was discovered at the place where we were supposed to meet – on the second floor of this building in Poti’s rundown port area of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti.

personal operational photo, declassified 2012

Most of the others in our network were quickly detained by Abkhazians sympathetic to Russian interests or simply disappeared. A more formal after-action review concluded that as many as six more were lost, all stemming from that meeting I had with the murdered network leader. Meanwhile, I was moved out quickly after the debacle in Poti.

Given the circumstances surrounding the events, no blame was leveled. “Unavoidable collateral damage” was the conclusion.  That’s not the way I saw it. At least seven body bags had my name on them.

Dr. Kent Moors


This is an installment of Classified Intelligence Brief, your guide to what’s really happening behind the headlines… and how to profit from it. Dr. Kent Moors served the United States for 30 years as one of the most highly decorated intelligence operatives alive today (including THREE Presidential commendations).

After moving through the inner circles of royalty, oligarchs, billionaires, and the uber-rich, he discovered some of the most important secrets regarding finance, geo-politics, and business. As a result, he built one of the most impressive rolodexes in the world. His insights and network of contacts took him from a Vietnam veteran to becoming one of the globe’s most sought after consultants, with clients including six of the largest energy companies and the United States government.

Now, Dr. Moors is sharing his proprietary research every week…knowledge filtered through his decades as an internationally recognized professor and scholar, intelligence operative, business consultant, investor, and geo-political “troubleshooter.” This publication is designed to give you an insider’s view of what is really happening on the geo-political stage.

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