GEORGIA-RUSSIA MISSILE ROW CALLS FOR THE WEST TO REVISE ITS STRATEGY IN EURASIA
The Power and Interest News Report (PINR)
Aug 21 2007
Moscow complained this week that the United States and Europe accepted
Georgia’s interpretation of a missile incident that occurred on
August 6, when a Russian-made anti-radar missile (a Kh-58, called
AS-11 Kilter by N.A.T.O.) fell on Tsitelubani, South Ossetia. Sweden,
Latvia, and Lithuania joined the United States in a panel of experts
whose mid-August report confirmed Georgia’s claims that the rocket
fell from a Russian airplane, which flew over Georgian airspace for
about 23 minutes.
An in-depth analysis of the incident reveals that Moscow’s accusations
against an alleged Georgian plot are unlikely to be true since
Tbilisi’s air force simply lacks the capabilities to launch such
a strike. Right after the incident, Russian officials advanced the
hypothesis that Tbilisi could have bombed South Ossetia in order to
accuse Moscow, but Georgian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets are not capable
of performing that type of operation. Military analysts currently
believe that the Kilter was dropped by a Russian Sukhoi Su-24.
The tactical reasons for the August 6 actions remain unclear.
However, the use of an anti-radar rocket may have two explanations.
Politically, it could mean a strong message to Tbilisi: Russia will
not sit idly while Georgia offers the U.S. clear collaboration in
Washington’s anti-ballistic missile projects. Furthermore, Russia
could be suggesting that it will not allow Georgian military forces
to storm South Ossetia without making Tbilisi "feel" its presence
there. Also, dropping (and not firing) an anti-radar rocket augments
the probability that concrete material and human damages would be
contained — which proved to be the case.
On the basis of the already elaborated evidence, some important
political-strategic issues emerge. First of all, Moscow is clearly
pursuing its goal to indefinitely weaken Tbilisi by exposing
Georgia’s repressive military actions in South Ossetia (and in
the other breakaway region, Abkhazia) as counter-productive for a
comprehensive settlement of the conflict. At the same time, Russia is
trying to maintain strong ties with the region’s steadfast separatist
groups. Moscow has, in fact, the capabilities to remain influential
in the wider Black Sea region’s frozen conflicts (Transnistria,
Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh). While Ukraine
remains fundamental to Russia’s geostrategy and security policy in
the region and in Europe, Georgia is now the most heated battleground
in the Russo-Western struggle for power and interests in the Former
A Long Series of Military Incidents
The Kilter incident in South Ossetia came five months after three
villages in Upper Kodori (Abkhazia) were reportedly attacked
by ground-to-ground rockets and anti-tank guided missiles. The
United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (U.N.O.M.I.G.) came to
this conclusion after it examined data submitted by Georgian radar
systems. Moscow, though, has officially denied that such data were
reliable, and has claimed that no Russian air force flights were
operating in the area on March 11 and 12.
U.N.O.M.I.G. also declared that it obtained no answer from Moscow about
the serial numbers found on the residues of the Russian-manufactured
weapons. The March 2007 Abkhazian incidents followed years of strained
Georgian-Russian relations. Moscow had repeatedly accused Georgia
of failing to assist Russian efforts to fight Chechen activities
in the Pankisi Gorge region. In November 2001, the U.S. State
Department issued a worried communique after Russian military forces
attacked alleged Chechen rebels in the above mentioned area with
helicopters. Other incidents were reported in the following years.
However, Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow deteriorated even further
after Mikhail Saakashvili became president of Georgia on January 25,
2004. Saakashvili vowed to end Georgia’s security dependence on Russia
by forging closer ties with the United States and joining N.A.T.O. as
soon as possible. Moreover, he wholeheartedly supported U.S.-backed
efforts to set up oil and gas pipeline networks as an alternative to
Moscow’s rising Gazprom-inspired networks.
Georgia is now the catalyst of Russo-Western tensions in the wider
Black Sea region. Abkhazian and South Ossetian issues must, therefore,
be understood in this wider analytical framework. Ethnic conflicts
in Georgia, Russo-Georgian rivalry, and great power politics all
intervene to make the context extremely complicated.
[See: "Intelligence Brief: Escalating Tension between Georgia and
While Tbilisi accuses Moscow of actively supporting armed separatists
in Georgia’s breakaway regions for years, the West sides with Georgia
but only cautiously. France and Germany, and thus the core of the
E.U. foreign policy force, do not really question the involvement of
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (O.S.C.E.) in
the wider Black Sea region’s frozen conflicts. However, since Moscow
retains veto power in the O.S.C.E., Russia can easily counter U.S.
attempts to decisively weaken Russian regional influence.
The timing of the incident also raises questions. Russia is
saber-rattling: strategic bombers are now regularly flying again
beyond Russian airspace, like in the Cold War years; military expenses
are on the rise; Moscow announced a moratorium on the Conventional
Forces in Europe Treaty (C.F.E.) and openly accuses Washington of
unilaterally destroying the European strategic balance by setting
up a B.M.D. system without consulting Russia. At the same time, the
Kremlin has adopted rigid stances on Kosovo, Transnistria, and Georgia.
The impression is that Russia wants to reposition itself clearly
as a re-established global power before the United States elects a
new president in the fall of 2008. American pre-election tactics,
Washington’s difficult Middle East campaign, and high oil and gas
prices give Russia an opportunity to accelerate its comeback.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Moscow will seek an extreme
diplomatic crisis with Washington in the coming months and years.
Instead, it will presumably formulate a broad proposal, designed to
re-negotiate its strategic relations with the West. Briefly said,
Russia wants to re-negotiate what it had to do in 1990-1992 from
a weak position, during its deep political, economic, and military
crisis that followed the perestroika years.
Main Implications for Global and Regional Actors
The Tsitelubani incident and the following inquiry have some important
ramifications and implications for both global and regional actors. The
U.S. and E.U. low-key protests signal the weakness of the Euro-Atlantic
alliance at this moment. Apart from some sensationalist articles in
the press, which try to validate the theory of a full-blown neo-Cold
War, Western diplomatic reactions have been cautious.
Western divisions, which stem from the different security and strategic
cultures in Europe and the United States, continue to hamper the birth
of a comprehensive Atlantic geostrategy in the wider Black Sea region
— notwithstanding the sea of printed proposals and studies on the
issue. Russia is successfully exploiting such a void, especially at
a time of U.S. fatigue in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
As a consequence of such Western tactical difficulties and strategic
dilemmas, Russia will remain confident and at times threatening in
the South Caucasus, despite international condemnation for actions
such as those carried out in Upper Kodori or South Ossetia.
Russia’s rigid stance and military responses to N.A.T.O.’s progressive
expansion in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus has not stopped
European administration from forging closer ties with Moscow when it
comes to energy security. Instead of an either/or logic, E.U. states
in both Central and Western Europe opt for a policy mix when it comes
to energy strategy. In fact, they launch new projects together with
Gazprom (such as Germany, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria among
others), but also with the U.S.-U.K. axis in an attempt to diversify
their oil — but especially natural gas — acquisitions from the
Former Soviet Union.
At the regional level, Saakashvili’s willingness to join N.A.T.O. and
the E.U. will likely continue, but Tbilisi probably expected more
support. However, Saakashvili enjoys a strong consensus at home and
is unlikely to change his firm stance on South Ossetia.
As a result, Georgia’s breakaway regions will remain highly volatile
even though Georgia’s domestic policy appears to have entered a
cycle of relative stability. International decision-makers will need
to consider political risk in Georgia from a geopolitical, rather
than political-economic, view: deeply rooted geopolitical conflicts
involving ethnic minorities and outside powers will remain a threat
for the country’s stability in the foreseeable future.
Moreover, although Georgia accuses Russian peacekeeping missions of
merely serving Moscow’s interests, Tbilisi still lacks the capabilities
to fully govern its breakaway regions on its own.
The results of the missile incident’s ongoing inquiry appear
to contradict Russian claims and will presumably augment Moscow’s
negative image among Euro-Atlantic decision-makers. However, this
seems to be a calculated risk by Russia. At the moment, the Kremlin
gives less importance to its international image than to its ability
to put pressure on some geostrategic hotspots.
Driving a wedge between pro-Western elites in former Soviet states
and the enlarged N.A.T.O. is critical for Russia’s geopolitical
interests. Therefore, look for Moscow to insist on a series of
negotiations on the wider Black Sea region’s frozen conflicts and
Kosovo, which will seek to secure Russian interests and influence.
The U.S. and E.U. will now have to make a fundamental decision: either
they opt for a harder stance and try to continue the expansion of the
Euro-Atlantic geostrategic realm deep inside Eurasia, or they will
need to take Russian interests seriously. This latter possibility
would mean that the broad arc of instability extending from Belarus
to Central Asia through the wider Black Sea region will assume a
bipolar structure (the Euro-Atlantic combine and Moscow being the
two poles), where Russia will be able to project power and influence,
notwithstanding the E.U. and N.A.T.O.’s enlargement.
Report Drafted By: Dr. Federico Bordonaro
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