MANEUVERS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE FRONT

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Russia’s South Caucasus maneuvers as a response to NATO exercises

The Russian-Georgian confrontation looks like it might escalate to a conflict between Moscow and NATO. In the lead-up to NATO exercises in Georgia, Moscow has started building up ground and naval forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia is also planning large-scale maneuvers.


The Russian-Georgian confrontation looks like it might escalate to a conflict between Moscow and NATO. In the lead-up to NATO exercises in Georgia (at Russia’s former Vaziani military base), Moscow has started building up ground and naval forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia is also planning large-scale maneuvers.

The exercises at Vaziani will involve 1,300 military personnel from 19 countries – including Kazakhstan and Armenia, Russia’s allies in the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). North Caucasus military district spokesman Andrei Bobrun told the RIA Novosti news agency that the Russian exercises are a routine event – part of the conclusion of the winter training season.

The Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters also told us that it is only holding routine training and military maneuvers. Thus, Russia’s military leadership is trying to avoid linking these exercises with the NATO maneuvers in Georgia.

Last year, before Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia, the region was swept by large-scale military exercises – some organized by the Russian Armed Forces, others by NATO. NATO held its Immediate Response 2008 international military maneuvers at the Vaziani military base between July 15 and July 31. Meanwhile, Russia was holding the Caucasus 2008 exercises near the Rok Tunnel, in Abkhazia, and at the Black Sea Fleet – with around 8,000 troops involved. Military leaders in Moscow denied any connection between the Russian maneuvers in the Caucasus and NATO’s exercises in Georgia.

Russia’s latest maneuvers have already raised some apprehensions in Georga. According to the Georgian Foreign Ministry, Russian Navy ships are present in the Black Sea, in direct proximity to Georgia: “at least twenty military vessels, carrying weapons.” Allegedly, Russia also plans “flights by fighter jets, transport planes, and helicopters from military airfields around Georgia.” The Georgian Foreign Ministry claims that Russia has also “increased its military presence on the occupied territories of Georgia.”

In contrast to Defense Ministry leaders, the Russian Foreign Ministry doesn’t deny the region’s high militarization or the direction of the maneuvers. The Foreign Ministry has been quite frank about the scale of Russia’s military preparations in the South Caucasus. Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said the other day that these “military exercise are a demonstration and a warning directed at Georgia,” due to “the concentration of Georgian commandos and military hardware in direct proximity to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, along with preparations for further acts of provocation right under the nose of the international presence.”

NATO’s decision to hold exercises in Georgia is viewed by Moscow as an act of provocation. At his recent meeting with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, President Dmitri Medvedev said: “This is a wrong and dangerous decision. When a military bloc holds exercises close to points which used to have a high level of tension, and are still difficult, this could lead to complications. This will not facilitate a positive mood among the residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.”

Despite this, NATO not only decided to hold its maneuvers in Georgia, but even invited Russia to participate. Moscow refused, of course – and decided to show some muscle in the South Caucasus. For the first time, the armed forces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will participate in large-scale maneuvers organized by the Russian military. Following consultations at the Russian Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry on April 17, President Sergei Bagapsh of Abkhazia said: “The Western nations are supporting Georgia, holding exercises. But we can respond to those exercises in kind, by holding other exercises in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

Thus, in response to the militarization of Georgia and NATO’s support for Georgia, Moscow is taking analogous measures – building up its military groups on the borders.

Obviously, under certain circumstances this could lead to localized armed clashes, or perhaps even war – with an unpredictable outcome, given present-day conditions. Russia has been weakened by the economic crisis, ill-considered military reforms, and international isolation in response to Russia’s handling of the Georgia question. But the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry don’t seem to be too worried about that. In the wake of last August’s five-day war in South Ossetia, and flattering comments from President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the top brass seems to have become convinced that the Russian Armed Forces are invincible.

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