Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin immediately denounced the Georgian claims as "a political farce." The charges, rumors about which first started circulating a week ago, have struck many as bizarre. But most analysts see at least some truth in the charges, though they caution that the broader domestic and regional dynamics involved must be factored in.
"Of course spies exist, but there is also a propaganda side to this," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, Armenia. "Georgian authorities constantly utilize Russia as an 'enemy image' and try to tar their domestic political opponents with this brush. You have to take these stories with a grain of salt."
In a press conference announcing the arrests Friday, Georgian officials said the investigation into the alleged spy ring had been going on "for years."
"Not only did they monitor secret military information but they continued to do so during the war," said Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili. "They wanted to know how many weapons we had, where we had them, and planted agents everywhere to seek information...
"We think it is one of the most serious spy rings we have caught in this country," he added.
Georgia's deputy counterintelligence chief Otar Orjonikidze told journalists at the press conference that the investigation began in 2006, after Georgian authorities offered an amnesty to any citizen who came forward and admitted working for the Russians.
He added that the spy ring included dozens of others who have still not been detained, and that it had been infiltrated and betrayed by a Georgian double agent who had won the trust of the GRU.
'An odd story' that has deeply angered Moscow
Six of the arrested Georgians are air force pilots whom the ministry said were recruited by the GRU a decade ago when they were stationed in the autonomous Georgian region of Adjaria which, under local strongman Aslan Abashidze, was in rebellion against Tbilisi's rule until 2004. Another was a naval radio operator who allegedly passed on secret communications codes to Russian intelligence.
"It's an odd story, since the people who've been arrested are either old, or former employees of the ex-leader of Adjaria, Abashidze, who had bad relations with Georgian leaders," says Mamuka Nebieridze, director of the independent Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Tbilisi. "We've had these spy scandals in the past, and they only bring a predictable reaction from Russia."
Almost 60 people have been arrested in Georgia on suspicion of spying for Russia over the past six years, including a 2006 case involving four Russian military officers based in Georgia and 12 Georgian citizens. The Russians were subsequently returned to Moscow.
Russia's independent Interfax agency quoted an anonymous Russian foreign ministry official as saying that Moscow is "deeply angered" by the arrests.
"Obviously, this was done ahead of the Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon," where Russia and NATO will seek to repair their troubled relationship, "in order to attract as much attention as possible and to harm Russia," the official said.
But Ghia Nodia, an analyst with the independent Caucasian Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development, says "these are real spies. I don't think it's an artificial action. Internal and external factors of irritation really do exist, even if relations between Georgia and Russia have stabilized lately."
Documentary film on investigation set to air today
Rumors have been flying wildly since Reuters reported a week ago that 20 Georgians had been arrested for forming an extensive spy ring within the country's armed forces and government structures. At the time, Georgian police refused to confirm or deny that arrests had taken place, and little information about the scandal was allowed to leak into the public sphere until today's press conference.
However, Georgia's pro-government Rustavi-2 TV network announced Friday that it has a documentary film of the years-long investigation set to air today, which raises questions about the relationship between journalists and authorities.
"The film depicts how the Georgian counterintelligence service managed to break the largest-ever espionage network," in Georgia, the announcement from Rustavi-2 said.
Georgian TV stations have been accused in the past of cooperating with the authorities to spread an anti-Moscow message. A notable example was the airing of a fictitious TV "news documentary" earlier this year that used real-time news reporting techniques to describe a Russian invasion of Georgia, followed by the installation of a Moscow "puppet government" headed by Georgian opposition leader Nino Burdzhanadze.
'Chronic anti-Russian spy mania'
Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement blasting Saakashvili's government, saying the "regime suffers from chronic anti-Russian spy mania.
"Over recent years the Georgian government has repeatedly resorted to fabrication of such scandals, cynically hoping to receive domestic or foreign dividends," it said. "After all, everyone has long known the price for such propaganda tricks of Tbilisi."