On August 22, Russian Deputy Defense Minister General Dmitry Bulgakov stated that as of the end of July, Russia had deployed 500 railway troops to restore the portion of the north-south Abkhazian railway that became non-operational since the 1992–1993 war in Abkhazia. General Bulgakov specifically was referring to the 20.5-mile-long section that runs from the seaside town of Ochamchire (southeast of Sokhumi) to the Enguri River, along the “border” with Georgian-controlled territory. Russian troops already cleared a 5.5-mile-long section of vegetation and removed almost a mile-long section of decaying railway track (Civil Georgia, August 24).
Although, General Bulgakov stressed that the restoration of the railway was being done solely for civilian purposes (Politcommersant.ge, August 24), his assurance is hardly convincing against the background of recent history. In May–July 2008, just prior to the outbreak of the August Russian-Georgian war, Moscow restored another section of the Abkhazian railway—the 34-mile stretch from Sokhumi to Ochamchire (Civil Georgia, July 31, 2008). In August 2008, Russia successfully used this rehabilitated section of the railroad to rapidly deploy Russian troops and military hardware and open a second front to the west of Georgia, as Russian forces were already attacking the country from the northeast, via Tskhinvali region (South Ossetia) (Smr.gov.ge, pp. 30–45).
So why is Russia restoring a further segment of the railway now? In this part of Abkhazia, Russian economic activities, as well as Georgian-Abkhazian economic exchange are virtually non-existent. Moreover, previous talk of reinstating the Russian-Georgian railway connection via Abkhazia (see EDM, January 31, 2013; February 7, 2013) had, more recently, gradually faded into the background. Subsequently, economic explanations for the rehabilitation of the railway are not plausible.
Hence, another question arises: Is Russia preparing a second major military assault on Georgia? This question gains additional urgency if viewed in the context of Russia’s other recent actions in Georgia. Specifically, last July, Russia annexed additional Georgian lands, adjacent to Russian-occupied South Ossetia. It captured a further portion of the 520-mile Baku-Supsa oil pipeline and came within 1,000 yards of Georgia’s vital East-West Highway (see EDM, July 20). Moreover, that same month, Moscow conducted large-scale artillery drills in South Ossetia and the North Caucasus republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia. Overall, 1,500 artillerists and 300 artillery pieces participated in the exercises (Newsday.ge, July 16). Also, on August 18, a Russian M-8 military helicopter flew from occupied South Ossetia into Georgian-controlled Gori district and, after brief aerial maneuvers, left the territory (Ipress.ge, August 19). All these actions—the gradual annexation of additional Georgian lands, nearby military drills, and regular flyovers by Russian air forces over Georgian towns—are reminiscent of Russian tactics before August 2008, which Moscow successfully escalated into a full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia. Clear parallels between now and 2008 can certainly be drawn.
But the timing of such antagonistic behavior bears further explanation. After all, the Kremlin has far better relations with the present-day Georgian government than it had with President Mikhail Saakashvili’s administration. Since 2012, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition government in Tbilisi has undertaken a rapprochement with Moscow.
The answer arguably lies in recent developments in relations between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Georgia. Specifically, in May, the United States (a key NATO member) and Georgia (an Alliance hopeful) conducted joint military exercises named Noble Partner (Imedi TV, Channel 1 TV, May 11). Furthermore, in July, NATO and Georgia conducted another joint military exercise dubbed Agile Spirit 2015 (Georgiatoday.ge, July 8). The drills angered Moscow, which expressed its displeasure in the above-cited ways: i.e., by annexing additional Georgian lands, restoring a new section of the Abkhazian railway, holding Russian military drills in South Ossetia, and carrying out a flyover above Georgian-controlled Gori district. These actions certainly should be viewed as Russia’s response to recent developments in NATO-Georgian relations and as a clear warning of further possible escalation.
However, the real irritant to Moscow was undoubtedly the opening of the NATO-Georgian Training and Evaluation Center (JTEC), on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on August 27. At the opening ceremony, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili took pains to stress that the NATO-Georgian training center was not directed against any neighboring country, clearly referring to Russia. Also, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that JTEC would contribute to international peace and security (Imedi TV, Channel 1 TV, August 27).
Moscow, however, did not seem convinced. In fact, the Kremlin sees the Center, as well as the prospect of Georgia’s NATO membership, as a direct threat to Russia. The spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, sounded rather threatening and belligerent with regards to the NATO-Georgian JTEC’s opening. As she stated during a regular news briefing, the opening of the JTEC facility was the continuation of NATO’s “provocative policy,” which will become a “serious destabilizing factor in the region.” Zakharova ominously declared that the promise of NATO membership for Georgia led to the 2008 war and warned that the same may occur today (Civil Georgia, August 27).
Clearly, however distant Georgia’s NATO membership may be, Russia certainly is worried that this South Caucasus country may, in fact, integrate into the North Atlantic Alliance at some point. And Russia’s recent actions in Georgia represent a clear signal that the Kremlin will do whatever it deems necessary to stop Georgia’s movement toward the Euro-Atlantic community from taking place. As the tragic events of 2008 showed, Russia’s threats cannot simply be dismissed as a bluff. They should be taken with outmost seriousness and addressed accordingly. Hence, it is important that Georgia and its Western partners have a clear action plant if Moscow decides to prevent Georgia’s eventual NATO membership by, perhaps, preemptively taking it over by force.