Moldova and Georgia are planning to reclaim territories by force

Georgia and Moldova may start using armed force in South Ossetia and the Trans-Dniester region as soon as the second half of July. These actions will be synchronized, part of an overall plan to fight so-called “separatism” and discredit Russian peacekeepers.

With support from the OSCE and the United States, the leaders of the GUAM countries (almost all of whom came to power after a series of “orange revolutions”) are planning armed incursions into the Trans-Dniester region, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. According to sources in Moldova, this topic was discussed at a secret GUAM meeting in Chisinau on July 12, attended by a representative of the Euro-Atlantic advisory group from the South-Eastern Europe Cooperation Initiative Center.

The meeting was organized by the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration. Official information about the meeting’s results is very brief. The Info-Prim news agency quotes a Ministry communique as saying that the agenda included discussion of measures that should be taken by Moldova, currently chairing GUAM, to institutionalized this group of states, and the possibility of changing the status of GUAM.

According to Chisinau sources, it was declared at the meeting that fighting separatism is the top-priority objective for all GUAM countries, including Ukraine. The recent statements of GUAM national leaders make it clear what kind of action these countries plan to take in the immediate future. Information available from open sources makes it possible to conclude that Georgia and Moldova may start using armed force in South Ossetia and the Trans-Dniester region as soon as the second half of July. These actions will be synchronized, part of an overall plan to fight so-called “separatism” and discredit Russian peacekeepers.

The use of armed force in Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia appears to be planned for a later date, depending on the results of military operations aimed at taking over South Ossetia and the Trans-Dniester region.

What kind of military operations might take place on CIS territory in the immediate future? Who is behind all this, and how? We shall attempt to answer these and other questions relating to the steps taken by GUAM countries in fighting the recalcitrant autonomies.

Saakashvili’s aggressive peace initiatives

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili recently announced his conflict regulation plan for South Ossetia. According to him, Georgia will be making some “aggressive peace initiatives.” In reality, these can hardly be described as peace initiatives. “We have no intention of allowing this conflict to remain in a frozen state, and the status quo will not be maintained,” said Saakashvili, noting that he does not intend “to wait another century for this problem to be resolved.” Saakashvili said: “This is my Sukhumi, my Abkhazia, and I don’t intend to give them away to anyone. We do want peace, for there is nothing more terrible than war. But let everyone remember this well: the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not be frozen.” As we can see, Georgia’s young reformer didn’t speak openly of his intention to use armed force to bring South Ossetia back into Georgia – but his words about resolving the problem soon indicate that an armed force scenario cannot be ruled out.

Saakashvili expressed his views on South Ossetia at the July 11-12 conference on Georgian-Ossetian conflict regulation in Batumi. Murat Dzhioev, foreign affairs minister of South Ossetia, maintains that the conference was organized as a public relations exercise by the Georgian government. Dzhioev says: “We heard such proposals repeatedly last year, but then there was an escalation of tension in the conflict zone. The very phrasing – ‘aggressive peace initiatives’ – seems to indicate the real nature of these initiatives.”

According to South Ossetian sources, before the end of summer 2005, Georgia intends to deploy paratroopers in the vicinity of the Rok Tunnel on the border of North Ossetia and South Ossetia. According to Tbilisi sources, the aim of this operation is to disrupt communications between South Ossetia and Russia. According to the plan of the Georgian General Staff, this operation will create a buffer zone between the Rok Tunnel and Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia; this would then be maintained by reserve troops and residents of local Georgian villages, as well as Georgian police units. The extent to which they can achieve their objectives and hold out remains uncertain, but Georgian strategists consider that the buffer zone would enable paratroopers to take complete control of this strategic route. The idea is that taking control of the Rok Tunnel would enable Georgia to cut off support channels for South Ossetia and use force to replace the South Ossetian government.

Simultaneously with the Rok Tunnel operation, there would be an attempt to take over Tskhinvali and a number of other locations in South Ossetia. Georgian tanks would be sent into the conflict zone, supported by militia units made up of local Georgian residents. According to Tskhinvali sources, indirect evidence for this scenario can be found in the intensive training provided over recent months for the rapid response units of the Georgian Armed Forces and police. According to a source from the Defense Ministry of South Ossetia, Georgia has developed a plan that involves taking over and destroying some important fuel and energy, transport, and media infrastructure in South Ossetia. For this purpose, special commando detachments with over 300 men each have been established in Tbilisi, Gori, and Zugdidi; these personnel have been trained for paratroop assaults, as well as fighting in cities, in forests, and in mountain territory. They could be deployed very soon. After all, it’s the height of summer – the most suitable season for military operations in the South Caucasus. The rainy season will begin in September, and that could frustrate the efforts of Georgian commandos to seize the Rok Tunnel and Tskhinvali.

Incursion planned for late July

Moldova seems to be planning a no-less-dangerous scenario. With support from Ukraine, Moldova has already organized an economic blockade of the Trans-Dniester region – by setting up joint customs posts. Chisinau has refused to participate in the United Monitoring Commission (UMC) for Trans-Dniester conflict regulation. This led Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to say that Moldova’s representatives in the peacekeeping operation’s command bodies are deliberately refusing to cooperate in ensuring stability in the region. Lavrov noted: “I get the impression that the Moldovan authorities have made it their aim to do everything possible, or even impossible, to not only block Trans-Dniester conflict regulation, but also worsen Russian-Moldovan relations even further.”

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin considers the existing peacekeeping mechanism ineffective, and proposes replacing the peacekeepers with international observers.

On June 10, the Moldovan parliament called on Russia to withdraw its troops from the Trans-Dniester region by December 31, 2005. At a meeting of the Moldovan Supreme Security Council on July 7, President Voronin called on the international community to cooperate in ensuring the withdrawal of Russian military hardware from Trans-Dniester. Similar statements were issued simultaneously by the United States and Ukraine. This demand was also made at the Moldovan Supreme Security Council meeting by Sergei Pirozhkov, chairman of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council. Steven Mann, US negotiator for Eurasian conflicts, stated after a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Boris Tarasiuk that the United States intends to cooperate with Ukraine in resolving the conflict between Moldova and the unrecognized Trans-Dniester Moldovan Republic (TMR). At the same time, the United States notes the need to supplement this plan with measures including a complete withdrawal of Russian troops and military hardware from the Trans-Dniester region, in line with commitments undertaken by Russia.

Even as they put pressure on Russia, Moldova and its allies are also making plans to discredit Russian peacekeepers and take over the recalcitrant autonomy by force. These plans were described at a press conference by Vladimir Antiufeev, TMR minister for state security. According to his information, in the course of recent consultations “in Chisinau between representatives of the United States and Romania on the Moldova-Trans-Dniester issue, a secret decision was made to support and assist Moldova’s aim to shut down the Trans-Dniester peacekeeping operation.” Georgia is also prepared to help. According to Antiufeev, Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasile Shova is cooperating and planning joint measures with Georgia – meeting with officials including Georgy Kheindrava, state minister for conflict regulation, who is responsible for negotiations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Antiufeev said: “We have received information from sources close to Voronin that when Romanian Defense Minister Teodor Anastasiu met with the Moldovan president on June 21, 2005, they discussed the possibility of Romania supplying arms and ammunition to Chisinau in 2005-06, and providing military support to Moldova in the event of military operations against the TMR.”

Chisinau is already making preparations for an armed conflict. According to the TMR State Security Ministry, in the event that military action begins, the Second Company of the Moldovan peacekeeping forces, intended solely for use in the peacekeeping mission, would cease to take orders from the Joint Military Command of the Peacekeeping Forces and start taking orders from the Moldovan Defense Ministry. The TMR State Security Ministry also points out that the Moldovan peacekeeping forces have restructured their infantry units with the aim of increasing the total troop strength of the Moldovan peacekeeping contingent to 500. In January 2005, by order of the Moldovan Defense Minister, newly-graduated officers were replaced by more experienced officers throughout the Moldovan peackeeping forces. In April-May 2005, conscripts were replaced by contract personnel in Moldovan peacekeeping units stationed in the Security Zone.

Chisinau also has plans to exert ideological pressure on TMR residents. The TMR State Security Ministry reports: “According to our information, in the second half of July and August 2005 the Moldovan special services are planning to provoke an acute rise in tension within the responsibility zone of the peacekeepers.” The TMR State Security Ministry points out that the Moldovan police and the Moldovan Information and Security Service have already begun active subversion efforts in the conflict zone, especially in the city of Bendery. As a destabilizing factor, the Moldovan special services are inciting conflict situations on the TMR border, including residents of nearby villages. Active propaganda efforts are under way among them.

At the same time, Chisinau is seeking a permanent Moldovan police presence in the city of Bendery, with unrestricted movement for the police across TMR territory. The TMR authorities consider this unacceptable. (The Moldovan police triggered the armed conflict in 1992.) Moldova also intends to block the proposal of military commandants from Russia serving by rotation in Bendery and Dubossary. And once Moldova and Ukraine control the Trans-Dniester sector of the border with Moldova, the plan is to filter all movement by Russian citizens to Trans-Dniester territory. The TMR authorities also fear that under pressure from the West, Moldova and Ukraine might organize a blockade of supplies for Russian peacekeepers in the TMR, and ban movement by the Russian military contingent.

TMR State Security Minister Vladimir Antiufeev said: “If the peacekeeping operation that includes Russia is shut down, the TMR would have to station its own armed forces along the border with Moldova – and then it would only be a matter of time before a large-scale armed conflict breaks out. We are appealing to the Russian government to increase the Russian peacekeeping contingent from 500 to 2,400 personnel and station a helicopter squadron at the Tiraspol military airfield. Russia has the right to station that amount of peacekeeping forces in its own Security Zone, under the 1992 agreement.”

Russia has not responded to Tiraspol’s proposals as yet, but the Foreign Ministry has expressed concern about the situation developing in the TMR conflict regulation process and Russian-Moldovan relations.

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Thus, there is a certain probability that Chisinau and Tbilisi may start active combat operations in the regions where Russian peacekeeping forces are located. So far there is still a possibility to avoid conflict and sit down at the negotiation table with Moscow’s mediation. However, it seems that these options are not acceptable for Saakashvili and Voronin. They intend to deal with their unruly border regions quickly and aggressively, in the spirit of “orange revolutions.” They fail to understand that this would make it impossible to avoid great bloodshed. South Ossetia, supported by forces in Russia and Trans-Dniester, and with capable armed forces of its own, can repel aggressors. In any case, the main question now is what Russia will do. If it agrees with the American plans for regulation in the conflict zones, Russia would substantially reduce its own geopolitical influence, as in the case of Adjaria. But a clear defense of the principles of non-violent peacekeeping would contribute to strengthening Moscow’s position.

Russia has the tools (including armed force) to keep the situation in the TMR and South Ossetia within peaceful channels. But mistakes and inconsistency could lead to a radical change in the situation, with peacekeeping issues near the borders of Russia being settled by the OSCE and NATO. At this point it is necessary to note that the planned combat operations in South Ossetia and the TMR are only tests for the militarization of other conflicts in the CIS, namely in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, Moscow needs to determine all its strategic positions, due to the attempts of the West and NATO to change the geopolitical situation in the Trans-Caucasus and western CIS.