All in All, S-300 Is Just Another Brick in the Wall

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

November 28, 2010

The installation of the S-300 air defense system in the Russian-occupied Georgian region of Abkhazia, although described by Moscow as necessary for territorial defense, is aimed at cementing Russian dominance over the South Caucasus East-West Corridor, in which the United States has a strategic interest.

By Khatuna Mshvidobadze

November 28, 2010

The installation of the S-300 air defense system in the Russian-occupied Georgian region of Abkhazia, although described by Moscow as necessary for territorial defense, is aimed at cementing Russian dominance over the South Caucasus East-West Corridor, in which the United States has a strategic interest.

“We have deployed the S-300 system on the territory of Abkhazia,” Russian Air Force Chief of Staff Alexander Zelin told a Moscow press conference on August 11. Although Zelin did not specify which S-300 system, many analysts believe it is the S-300PS (NATO-designated SA-10B Grumble-B), which is similar to the S-300PMU export version of the system. The S-300PS can target aircraft, cruise missiles and even some tactical ballistic missiles within a range of 90 kilometers at altitudes between 25 and 25,000 meters.

Others believe that the deployed S-300 may be a more advanced model, or that it incorporates more advanced components that would give it a range of 150 kilometers.

The S-300s are deployed at Gudauta, on the Black Sea coast in northwestern Abkhazia, and at Sukhumi, also on the coast in central Abkhazia. In a contingency, they would likely move southeast, down the coastline to Gali, which abuts Georgian-controlled territory. From there, a 150-kilometer range would cover the entirety of the Black Sea coast still controlled by Georgia. A 90-kilometer range would cover most of it, leaving only a narrow corridor, roughly between the port city of Batumi and the Turkish border.

Regardless of the model, the S-300 is a fully mobile air defense system that can be set up, fired and prepared to move on in minutes. It is considered to be highly effective against all but the stealthiest aircraft, such as the American F-22 Raptor.

Although Moscow and its puppet authorities in Sukhumi often shriek about some imagined Georgian threat, Georgia has no air force that could threaten occupied Abkhazia. The Georgian air force boasts but a handful of Su-25 close air support aircraft and a few helicopters, and it is unlikely to acquire any greater capability in the foreseeable future. So the S-300 must fulfill some other Russian geopolitical purpose.

S-300 Directed Against NATO and the U.S.

“This is directed not so much against Georgia as against NATO and the U.S.,” Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Temur Yakobashvili told the Associated Press.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev confirmed as much during a visit to the Gudauta base. “You must make sure,” he told Russian occupation forces there, “that no one sticks his nose in here.”

All in all, the S-300 is just another brick in the wall that Russia is attempting to build along Georgia’s Black Sea coast. Moscow’s aim is not to block everything, but to substitute Tbilisi as the gatekeeper of the South Caucasus East-West Corridor that connects the West to the Caspian Sea and the center of Eurasia.

This challenges Georgia’s independence and livelihood, of course, but it also strategically challenges the United States and NATO. For example, the South Caucasus East-West Corridor is part of the so-called Northern Distribution Network, developed to resupply NATO forces in Afghanistan as an alternative to the dangerous route through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass. The Northern Distribution Network comprises a southern and a northern route. The southern route is Georgia’s East-West corridor, which carries about half the Northern Distribution Network’s traffic. The other half travels the northern route through Russia.

Critical Northern Distribution Network Under Threat

Ceding control of the entire Northern Distribution Network to Moscow would be a bad strategic choice.

Beyond the war in Afghanistan, the region between Turkey and China is likely to continue generating security challenges to the West. Moreover, the futures of Asian Russia and western China remain uncertain. Therefore, maintaining access to the South Caucasus East-West Corridor by which to outflank potential problem areas is sound strategy.

The corridor offers even greater potential for free movement not only of energy resources and raw materials but of all kinds of goods and services. This could lead to economic liberalization and democratization for a large swath of Eurasia, altering the course of history.

This is no overstatement. Some geography, however, is necessary to explain it. The Eurasian continent is vast, and its heartland, to borrow Halford Mackinder’s term, is practically inaccessible. To the north, it is bound by ice. To the east, unwelcoming mountain ranges tower above frigid seas. To the south, the heartland is hemmed in by a string of mountains and deserts stretching from the Stanovoy Mountains that rise above the Sea of Okhotsk, all the way to the Caspian Sea that straddles the traditional line between Asia and Europe. Russia’s strategic history has been to seek its natural borders to the east and to obsess about the three relatively open approaches from the west.

Today, Russia effectively controls two of these western approaches – the North European Plain and the passage from the Romanian lowlands through Ukraine. Then there is the third route, controlled by Georgia and Azerbaijan – the narrow corridor from the Black Sea, across the Kolkhida Lowland, along the Rioni and Mtkvari Rivers to the Kura-Aras Lowland and the Caspian Sea.

Across the Caspian Sea lies the Eurasian heartland, which contains incredible wealth. But it is relatively poor and unsuccessful because of restricted access, perpetuated by the corrupt Russian oligarchy in Moscow. A fully effective East-West Corridor would break Moscow’s stranglehold on Central Asia, including large swaths of Russia itself.

Georgia Is East-West Corridor Linchpin

With so much at stake, Turkey, Iran, India, China, western countries led by the United States and, of course, Russia are eying the region. Georgia’s unique position as the linchpin of the East-West Corridor is a major reason for Russian aggression against Georgia, from czarist times to today.

Russia’s 2008 attack on Georgia was also an attack on the corridor. Russian air and missile strikes bracketed the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline. Russian troops established checkpoints on the east-west road, destroyed the Kaspi railroad bridge and seized the port of Poti. These were signals that Russia can at any time choke the East-West Corridor.

The Kremlin’s geopolitical outlook also accounts for Russia’s occupation and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. Today, Russian forces are refurbishing old bases and building new ones. They have stationed more than 4,000 soldiers, 1,000 border guards, 150 tanks, armored personnel carriers and air defenses in each of the two territories. From these perches, Russian forces are postured again to pounce upon the East-West Corridor without notice. Slamming the gate shut with the S-300 was just the next logical step.

And Russia is not neglecting the flanks and approaches to the corridor. In August, it forged a deal with Armenia to extend until 2044 its lease on the 102nd Military Base at Gyumri, with a possible further extension to 2049. Four months earlier, Russia signed a lease with Ukraine to maintain its Black Sea Fleet Headquarters at Sevastopol until 2042, also with a possible further five-year extension.

Russia Investing in Black Sea Dominance

In June, Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy announced plans to modernize the Russian navy. Analysts expect to see the Black Sea Fleet boosted with three new submarines, four frigates and six missile boats. Moreover, the Russian navy is seeking to buy from France, or build under license, four Mistral amphibious assault ships, likely one for each fleet, including the Black Sea Fleet. “In the conflict [against Georgia] last year, a ship like that would have allowed the Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not 26 hours, which is how long it took us,” Vysotskiy remarked in 2009.

To Georgia’s north, Iskander surface-to-surface missiles (NATO-designated SS-26 Stone) have been deployed in North Ossetia.

Russia is unabashedly using hard power to create its image as proprietor of the Black Sea, the South Caucasus region and the East-West Corridor. Unchecked, the Kremlin’s geopolitical pretensions will transform the Black Sea into a strategic cul-de-sac for the West. If Russia establishes itself as gatekeeper of the East-West Corridor, every contingency will be met with complications, bargaining, delays or maybe outright blockage. Although the West has convinced itself that Moscow shares many of its interests, Russia’s approach is and will remain a zero-sum game.

And the looming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics present a further complication. Many observers believe that Russia’s North Caucasus region could explode momentarily and that Moscow may seek to squelch problems well before the world press turns up in Sochi. With a steady stream of Moscow blather about imagined Georgian involvement in North Caucasian unrest, fueled by a sense of unfinished business from the 2008 war, it is easy to envisage a Russian sweep into the North Caucasus extended into Georgia.

In case of further conflict, whatever the reason, Russia is constructing a situation in which outside powers will think long and hard before helping Georgia or even staging a modest demonstration of support such as a port call on Batumi or Poti.

The S-300 in Abkhazia is not an issue in itself, but a sign of a much broader Russian strategic challenge to the West. Regrettably, the reset mood in Washington and other Western capitals is such that few have dared to examine both sides of the coin that Moscow has tossed into the air. When the coin falls, Washington and allied capitals may find their positions on the Eurasian continent weakened, maybe even dislodged. And an iron law of geopolitics says that to regain a position is much harder than to sustain it.

Khatuna Mshvidobadze is Senior Associate at the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi, Georgia.