The years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 were a period of both and excitement and chaos for the citizens of what were now 15 independent republics. With the exception of the Baltic States, the rest of the countries were ill-prepared for the social upheaval that they were to endure now that Moscow was no longer in a position to micro-manage every element of people’s lives.
What filled that vacuum of power was a veritable cornucopia of characters that ran the gamut of inspiring to bordering on certifiably unhinged.
This was most present in the republics of the North and South Caucasus, none more so than in Georgia, which suffered from civil war, a coup, and two disastrous Russian-backed wars that saw Tbilisi lose control of more than 20% of its territory.
The end of the Soviet Union opened offered the US’ intelligence services the opportunity to carry out previously unheard of operations in areas that were closed to foreigners prior to December 1991. In the summer of 1993 in the Trans-Caucasus, the area that covers Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the new centre of those operations were headquartered in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, which was still reeling from the effects of bloody street fighting 18 months earlier, while its government was desperately clinging to life support as its beleaguered ramshackle army was in full retreat in the breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia.
The Georgian president at the time, former Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev, Eduard Shevardnadze, had requested that the CIA train his bodyguards as well as a small but well-armed elite unit called Omega that would protect him from Russia’s elite Spetznatz Alpha force, which had tried to kill Shevardnadze on at least two occasions since he took over for Georgia’s ultra-nationalist, first post-independence leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
Given the task for the training was Arkansas-born veteran CIA field agent, Freddie Woodruff, who arrived in Georgia and quickly established himself as one of the many characters operating in the chaos of the early 1990s Caucasus following stints in Leningrad, Turkey, Ethiopia, and Kazakhstan.
Woodruff was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head on August 8, 1993, while returning to Tbilisi from a trip with Eldar Gogoladze, a veteran Soviet security officer who was the head of Shevardnadze’s security detail, and two local female companions, one of whom – Marina Kapanadze – was thought to have had ties to Russia’s intelligence services, who were deeply enraged that American spies were moving into areas previously controlled by Soviet intelligence.
Russia’s security apparatus, in turmoil at the time, was resentful and demoralised, as was only nominally loyal to the pro-Western course set by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Never removed or tried by the Yeltsin government, the remnants of what had been the KGB were still dominated by Soviet hardliners who generals viewed the Americans that were setting up shop in places like Tbilisi as an existential threat in areas they considered parts of their sphere of influence.
In an effort to quickly wrap up what was an embarrassing episode, the corrupt Georgian police arrested and convicted an alcoholic country bumpkin and Abkhaz War veteran, Anzor Sharmaidze, finding him guilty and sentencing him to 36 years in prison for Woodruff’s murder.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Michael Pullara an American lawyer who has researched the case for more than decade, has revealed in a new book The Spy Who Was Left Behind that the US State Department and the FBI were never fully satisfied with the findings of the case, much of which remains classified and buried in layers of mystery that point to one of the first instances that a new Cold War between the West and Russia was nearly guaranteed less than two years after its first incarnation had so triumphantly come to an end.
Key witnesses that helped convict Sharmaidze retracted their testimonies, claiming their depositions were recorded under duress, while forensic evidence that was used in the trial was known to have been falsified or tampered with, and key figures in the case, including Woodruff’s lady companion, Kapanadze, have disappeared without a trace.
What is now known is that Shortly before Woodruff was shot, veteran CIA officer and Soviet specialist, Aldrich Ames – who would soon be unmasked as a KGB mole – visited Woodruff in Tbilisi on agency business.
This has reopened the question as to whether Russian assassins, aided by collaborators in Georgia, were responsible for killing Woodruff.
Ames is known to have handed over the names of CIA assets and station chiefs to the Russians, many of whom ended up dead or disappeared.
The case remains an unsolved and black mark in building trust between what are ostensibly two allied intelligence agencies – the CIA and Georgia’s SSU – as Tbilisi continues to attempt further integration with Western institutions, including eventual NATO membership.
However, with Georgia now dominated by a government that is more inclined to forge closer ties to Moscow, and a state security service that is both highly politicised and deeply infiltrated by Russia’s FSB, the likelihood that the full story behind Woodruff’s murder will ever be made public is becoming increasingly remote.