Leading Russian officials are loudly protesting the forthcoming NATO staff exercise in Georgia. The exercises do not involve any armed troops and are essentially a crisis management drill. Yet, as the Bard said, “the lady doth protest too much.”
Since March 25, the Russian Federation has significantly increased its military presence in the occupied Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow built up its forces, Georgia officials say, particularly in the areas adjacent to the troop separation lines in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region.
In parallel with this buildup, there has been increased maneuvers of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet close to the waters around Abkhazia. Russian aircraft fly regular patrols in Georgian airspace over Abkhazia. These actions were conducted in the wake of the April 9 opposition rallies in Georgia, adding tension to already complicated political situation in Tbilisi.
On April 10, the Georgian Ministry of Defense accused Russia of reinforcing its military presence in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Contemporaneously, Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze announced that he is “highly concerned” about a build-up of Russian troops and heavy infantry on the two regions administrative borders with Georgian-controlled territory. Other Georgian officials say that if the opposition fails to remove President Mikheil Saakashvili, a Russian military operation to remove him may be forthcoming in May or June.
Russian troops are reported to be gathering in the Akhalgori region of Georgia– a mere 25 miles from Tbilisi. In an April 8 statement to reporters, Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zghuladze said that 150 Russian armored vehicles had been moved to Akhalgori in South Ossetia, and 35 such vehicles to the district of Gali in southern Abkhazia. Russian SU-25 planes have been patrolling both regions since April 7. According to a Georgian official, Russian troops are also on high alert, including at all checkpoints. And the whole 58th army in the North Caucasus military district, which invaded Georgia last year, is on alert.
President Saakashvili stated in an interview on April 11 that Russia has 5,000 troops stationed in each of the breakaway regions. Saakashvili also went on to say that that despite the large-scale military build-up of the Russian forces both in the breakaway regions and on Georgia’s borders, he did not think that Russia would “renew any large-scale military adventure.” Instead, he believes these movements are aimed at “possible internal unrests [in Georgia]”, i.e. aimed to destabilize his administration.
The NATO unarmed staff exercise in Georgia is the bare minimum the West can do to send a signal to Russia not to undertake another military adventure in Georgia. The question is, whether Moscow will listen – even as the Obama Administration is offering it an unclenched hand and a “reset” button.