Russia’s Continued Aggressive Policy Targets Georgia and the West

March 29, 2011

March 29, 2011

As Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appeared before the European Parliament in Strasbourg last November 23 to commit his country not to use force to recover its territories occupied by Russia, the Russian General Staff laid the groundwork for another aggressive step against Georgia. Within weeks, Moscow revealed its deployment of 9K58 “Smerch” multiple launch rocket systems and U9K78 “Tochka” short-range ballistic missiles (SS-21 Scarab) in the occupied Georgian territory of South Ossetia. Lamentably, these moves cannot be chalked up as just further instances of Russian bravado. Rather, they fit neatly into Russia’s strategy to dominate Georgia and maintain a choke hold over the South Caucasus East-West Corridor, thereby bolstering its quest to reestablish a privileged sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

Smerch and Tochka are highly mobile offensive weapons, adding impressive firepower to Russia’s already deployed occupation forces, which include main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, air defense systems and more. Smerch can destroy personnel, armor, artillery and fortified positions within a range of 20 to 70 kilometers. Tochka is a tactical ballistic missile with a range of 70 or 120 kilometers, depending on the model. It can deliver high explosive warheads, cluster munitions or mines. In 1999, Russia used Tochka missiles in a vicious attack on the city center of Grozny, Chechnya.

Russia Flouts International Observer Groups

These forces are marshaled behind the Cold War-style borders that Russia has erected to shield from international scrutiny the territories that it captured. The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia-UNOMIG-once patrolled the separatist-controlled Georgian territory of Abkhazia. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe-OSCE-once observed a large patch of South Ossetia. Since the 2008 Russian invasion, both observer groups departed, victims of Russian vetoes.

The European Union Monitoring Mission-EUMM-whose mandate covers the whole Georgian territory, patrols the Georgian-controlled side of the administrative boundary line. But when its patrols reach a Georgian checkpoint on the road that leads to now desolate South Ossetia, they can only peer through binoculars at a Russian flag waving above road barriers and pillboxes. Beyond lies what has essentially been transformed into a vast military base.

What the EUMM can-and does-report is Georgia’s scrupulous observation of the memoranda of understanding that it has with the EUMM not to have heavy military forces within a perimeter of approximately 15 kilometers around the Russian-occupied territories. Moreover, the Georgian Armed Forces are in no posture to fight a war, partly due to damage sustained from Russia’s 2008 attack and partly due to an unacknowledged arms embargo on Georgia maintained by the western countries.

This despite the fact that Russia remains in breach of the August 12, 2008 Six-Point Ceasefire agreement negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the name of EU presidency which ended the hot phase of Russia’s war on Georgia. That document requires Russian forces to pull back to pre-war positions, that is, to the positions held by Russia’s so-called “peacekeeping force” in the region.

Why, instead, is Russia building a military camp of territorial proportions and still adding firepower with systems like Smerch and Tochka?

Moscow Now Dominates Southern Route of the NATO’s Northern Distribution Network

Because Russia’s offensive, mobile weapons are now perched within minutes of Georgia’s East-West lifeline, which is synonymous with the South Caucasus East-West Corridor that connects the Black and Caspian Seas and the Southern Route of NATO’s Northern Distribution Network that resupplies the alliance’s forces in Afghanistan.

Although Georgia’s 70,000 square kilometers encompass broad swaths of the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains and other areas, most of its population, agriculture and trade exist in the Kolkhida Lowland, adjacent to the Black Sea, and along a narrow passageway formed by the Rioni and Mtkvari Rivers.

The Mtkvari River flows through Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, into Azerbaijan, across the Kura-Aras Lowland to the Caspian Sea. Since 1883, this has been the rail route, and since 1907, the pipeline route for oil and now gas, leading from Baku to the Black Sea and hence to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe-the beginnings of the South Caucasus East-West Corridor.

The East-West Corridor offers energy diversification to Europe and growing prosperity and the hope of democracy to the South Caucasian and Central Asian countries. Today, the East-West corridor also carries about one third of the supplies headed for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network. In sum, the complex of roads, railroads, pipelines and airspace that runs from east to west across Georgia – just a few kilometers from Russian-occupied South Ossetia – is a critical challenge to Moscow’s plan to keep and expand its influence over the region.

A Strong, Independent, Democratic Georgia is a Beacon of Hope to Every Post Soviet Country

A strong, independent, democratic Georgia signals to every post Soviet country that success is possible-if Georgia can do it, why not Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan or, frankly, Russia? And Georgia owns the key to the East-West Corridor. A reliable alternative route between Europe and Central Eurasia would break the political and economic stranglehold that Moscow maintains on the Central Asian republics and on its own heartland.

Finally, although NATO’s war in Afghanistan is in Russia’s interest, Moscow wants to make it clear that it-not Washington or Brussels-decides what will cross the Eurasian land routes to Afghanistan.

Continuing Russian militarization of both occupied Georgian territories undermines security and stability in the region to serve Moscow’s geopolitical purposes. Smerch and Tochka draw attention to Russia’s stand-up military readiness for further escalation at a moment’s notice.

Moreover, they fit with deployment of the S-300 air defense system in the Russian-occupied Georgian territory of Abkhazia, revealed last summer. S-300s are positioned at Gudauta, on the Black Sea coast in northwestern Abkhazia, and at Sukhumi, also on the coast, in central Abkhazia. Depending on the model, S-300’s range is either 90 or 150 kilometers, with which Russia can cover the entire Black Sea coast still controlled by Georgia, the former leaving only a narrow corridor, roughly between the port city of Batumi and the Turkish border.

S-300 and now Smerch and Tochka underscore Russia’s strategy of maintaining a choke hold on the East-West Corridor-from Abkhazia, Russia can control the gateway; from South Ossetia, it can sever the passage.

If the west remains idle, it may forsake geopolitical presence in the heart of Eurasia, risking the crucial benefits of economic, military, political and cultural access, energy, raw materials, markets and-in the long run-potential economic liberalization and democratization of the region.

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

[The opinions expressed in JINSA Global Briefings are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).]