End Game Not Far Off, Call!
Russia moves ahead in its Caucasian game by strengthening its backing of Georgia's breakaway regions, Sergei Blagov comments for ISN Security Watch.
By Sergei Blagov in Moscow for ISN Security Watch
The Kremlin made a series of new gestures in support of Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 8 August meeting with Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh and visiting the Russian military base at Gudauta.
During a 13 August meeting with South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, Medvedev reiterated that Moscow's policy toward the two breakaway republics would remain unchanged.
Furthermore, on 11 August, Russian Air Force Commander General Alexander Zelin, announced that S-300 air defense missiles had been deployed in Abkhazia, "to prevent violations of airspace and countering any aircraft intruding for any reason." Zelin also said that Russian combat aircraft could be deployed to protect the Russian military base in Abkhazia's Gudauta.
Subsequently, Russian officials clarified that the S-300s were deployed in Abkhazia back in 2008, and that only the deployment sites had been changed recently. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a 13 August statement that the deployment did not constitute any violation of Russia's international commitments.
Georgia, of course, disagrees, but is holding few of the cards in this game. Tbilisi accuses Russia of violating a ceasefire agreement reached in August 2008 with EU assistance. Hoping to stir up western action, the Georgian authorities are loudly claiming that the S-300 deployment is targeted against NATO and US forces in Eastern Europe.
The move also sparked rumors that the Russian deployment was aimed at countering a possible US and Israeli air strike via the 'northern route', from airbases in Romania crossing the Black Sea and Georgian and Azerbaijani airspace.
Russia has been reluctant to supply the S-300 to Iran despite its earlier contract with Tehran. Earlier this month, the Iranian authorities claimed that the country managed to procure four units of the S-300 system, sparking denials in Moscow and Minsk, Belarus.
The issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's recognition has also undermined Russia's relations with its once closest ally, Belarus. On 3 August, Medvedev accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of failing to deliver on his pledges to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On 13 August, Lukashenko claimed he had never made any such promises. The back and forth continued several days later when the Kremlin threatened to release transcripts of Lukashenko's alleged promise.
On 26 August 2008, Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and pledged to defend its new allies "by all means." The Kremlin's move followed a brief violent conflict between Russian and Georgian forces in South Ossetia, the so-called five-day war on 8-12 August 2008. Subsequently, the EU and the US lashed out at Russia's move as "irresponsible."
The Georgian crisis was seen as a by-product of the West's decision to recognize Kosovo's independence. But Russia has continued to insist that the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia cannot be compared, and Russia still had no plans to recognize Serbia's breakaway province, backed by the West.
Russia's latest moves in the region are a clear signal that Moscow holds all the cards in this game, having come out the clear geopolitical victor in the 2008 war, and that the west lacks any substantial means to force Moscow to re-think its policy in this region.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based correspondent for ISN Security Watch.