The Georgian army, defeated in the five-day war with Russia, is recovering and preparing to ward off potential Russian aggression. "Our defenses should be ready to repel potential Russian aggression. All the military programs and priorities for 2009 will be developed based on the experience of the Russian war," said Georgian Minister of Defense Vasil Sikharulidze when he presented the document entitled "The Vision of the Minister of Defense 2009" to Diplomats, Journalists, and NGOs at the Sheraton Hotel on February 17 (Rezonansi, February 18, 2009).
Speculation over a possible military provocation by Russia against Georgia intensified after the statement by Pavel Felgenhauer, a well-known Russian military analyst, that Russia will try to renew hostilities with Georgia with the arrival of spring:
While snow covers the Caucasian mountain passes until May, a renewed war with Georgia is impossible. There is hope in Moscow that the Georgian opposition may still overthrow Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime or that the Obama administration will somehow remove him. However, if by May, Saakashvili remains in power, a military push by Russia to oust him may be seriously contemplated (EDM, February 12, 2009).
Nevertheless, President Mikheil Saakashvili neither has the intention to step down nor to give in to Russia without resistance. "Russia is the enemy, whose major, ultimate, and well-defined goal is to finally break up Georgia and wipe it from the world map," Saakashvili told the Georgian parliament, adding that he would "make Russia pay for the displaced population and victims of war" (www.civil.ge, February 12, 2009).
Saakashvili’s threat sounds less convincing considering the country’s lost territories and severe defeat in the five-day war last summer. Military experts in Georgia agree with this assessment, namely, that Georgia’s defense capabilities after the August war have greatly deteriorated and that the 2009 state budget does not adequately respond to the current military needs. Since the Defense Ministry will receive only 900 million GEL ($540 million) this year—500 million GEL less than in the 2008 budget—the country will have to struggle to replace what was destroyed and will have little left to spend on developing its forces, analysts say.
In an interview with Jamestown, the former commander of the Georgian National Guard, retired General Koba Kobaladze, said that "With the reduced budget, the Defense Ministry can only partly restore the military’s material losses, and it will require years to turn Georgian personnel into professional officers to replace those killed in the war" (interview with the author, February 12, 2009).
At present the Georgian army is much less battle-ready than it was before August. As a result, "the security and the country’s level of defense ability are in question" (Georgian Times, February 12, 2009).
Speaking about the losses suffered by the Georgian army in late August 2008, Saakashvili noted that "It will take a year and a half to restore the military infrastructure destroyed as a result of the Russian aggression" (Interpress News, August 26, 2008). Hence, Georgia still places significant hope in its NATO partners, particularly the United States, with which Georgia signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership at the beginning of January. It remains far from clear, however, what Barack Obama’s administration will give priority to—cooperation with Georgia in defense and security or the development of democracy and the media, which are perceived to have deteriorated further in 2008 (see, for example, the Freedom House report, Freedom in the World 2009).
"In Georgia they are not trying to hide [the fact] that reforming and re-equipping the army is now even more difficult than prior to the Russia-Georgia war," said Irakli Sesiashvili, a Georgian military analyst (Prime News Agency, February 16, 2009).
The August war with Russia also revealed the problem of deserters in the Georgian military structures. The media widely covered the cases of army deserters who were imprisoned following the August war; naming up to 50 officers and servicemen (www.presa.ge, February 2, 2009).
At the end of January, Georgian military police arrested Colonel David Asabashvili, the head of Military Engineering Forces, and Colonel Revaz Sakhvadze, the head of Air Defense of Ground Troops, who were charged with exceeding their authority (Arsenali, February 21, 2009).
At the same time, however, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has intensified its efforts to expose the enemies of the country and is performing the functions of the special services as well. On January 21 two locals of Armenian nationality, Griogor Minasyan and Sarkis Akobjanyan, were detained. The two live in the Samtskhe-Javakheti Region of Georgia, which is densely populated by ethnic Armenians. According to official information released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, "they were detained [for] forming an armed unit, its preparation, and espionage" (www.presa.ge, January 23, 2009). The detention of Minasyan and Akobjanyan was the second arrest on charges of espionage in the last two years in Georgia. In September 2006 Georgian Special Forces detained four Russian officers of the Russian Military Headquarters in Georgia. The detentions received widespread coverage in the media, and an attempt to turn the arrests into a public relations show, was soon followed by a rapid deterioration in relations between Russia and Georgia, which ended in the massive deportation of Georgians from Russia and the suspension of air connections between the two countries (Arsenali, February 21, 2009).
National television channels have tried to improve Georgia’s tarnished image by providing extensive coverage of a new recruiting drive, under which some 600 soldiers are already being trained, as well as reporting about the formation of a new artillery brigade to be armed with Israeli, Czech, and other modern weapons.
Otherwise, dozens of Russian tanks and artillery systems, fully ready for attack, are located in Akhalgori district, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. And nobody knows who will pull the trigger first.