On Wednesday, Gen. Alexander Zelin, the commander of the Russian Air Force, announced that Moscow had deployed a state-of-the-art S-300 (SA-20 Favorit) long- range air defense system in Abkhazia, a region of the Republic of Georgia that Russia has occupied since the August 2008 war.
Since then, Russia recognized breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics. According to Zelin, the task of the air defense systems is “to prevent violation of Abkhaz and South Ossetian airspace and to destroy any aircraft intruding into their airspace no matter what their purpose might be”.
However, there is much more than the defense of Abkhazia to the Russian deployment. Taken together with the S-300 base in Armenia, it extends the strategic air space over South Caucasus and over parts of the Black Sea, furthering Russian control.
The response from the Obama Administration was faint. P. J. Crowley, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and State Department spokesman said: “I believe it’s our understanding that Russia has had S-300 missiles in Abkhazia for the past two years.” He later claimed that this is “not necessarily” a new development. This is another example of the Obama Administration’s “don’t let your missiles interfere with my reset policy” approach.
However, with this move Russia is yet again flagrantly violating the August 2008 ceasefire agreement, negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It called upon both countries to withdraw troops to pre-war positions and restore status-quo ante bellum. In addition, Russia has built up to five military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the past two years alone.
Although the range of the system is about a 120 miles, the deployment has to be seen in the context of recent Russian policies in the Caucasus. Moscow negotiated a contract extension for basing troops in the Armenian Gyumri military base till 2044. It will assume joint control over Armenian borders. As the leading member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia controls air space over Armenia. Now Moscow is reportedly selling an S-300 air defense system to Azerbaijan.
There is a clear strategy behind these actions. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hails “soft power” in the Caucasus, Moscow engages in a hard, classic political-military power projection in this strategic region, which connects the Atlantic (via the Black Sea and Mediterranean) with the energy riches of Eurasia. As President Medvedev stated in his post-war 2008 speech, this is “a zone of Russian exclusive interests”, where it is willing to use force.
Most importantly from the perspective of the United States, Russian actions are aimed at denying the United Space airspace and over-flight options. The surveillance aspect is no less important—depending on the actual deployment of the air defenses: associated radars will be able to picture or “paint” much of western Georgia and the adjoining Black Sea coastline. The ultimate objective for Moscow is to become an uncontested hegemon in the South Caucasus. And of course this has potential implications in case of an Iranian contingency.
The Russians are committed to deployments in the Caucasus that lead to the strategic denial of U.S. power projection in that region. This bears on the U.S.’s future ability to resupply Afghanistan; to use power to disarm a nuclear Iran; to ensure energy supply from the Caspian; and to help pro-Western friends and allies. These are hardly great accomplishments for the Obama “reset” policy”.