Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 122

From June 11 through 23, Georgia hosted the NATO-led exercise Cooperative Partner 2001. Held annually in the Black Sea region, this year Cooperative Partner was conducted for the first time in Georgia and constituted the largest exercise ever held in the South Caucasus by NATO thus far.

The exercise is by definition an amphibious one. Seven NATO member countries–including the United States, Turkey and Italy–and six partner countries–among them the Black Sea riparian countries Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria–took part this year. Approximately 4,000 troops, some thirty-five ships, two submarines and fifteen combat airplanes and helicopters were involved. A multilateral staff, deployed from the Allied Naval Forces South Europe and the Naval Striking and Support Forces Southern Europe–both based in Naples, Italy–directed the exercise, with partner countries integrated into NATO command and control.

The exercise unfolded in the waters off Georgia’s naval base Poti, at the Kulevi training range and the Meria and Senaki airfields. The original plan was for it to be held at the Gonio training grounds outside Batumi, but the Russian military based there and Ajaria’s Russia-leaning leader Aslan Abashidze did not consent. The scenario included elements of an antiterrorism operation to release hostages, of peacekeeping operations, and of disaster relief and rescue. The joint forces practiced amphibious and airborne landings, armor convoy movements, refueling ships moving in the open sea–at one point, a Bulgarian tanker refueling Turkish and Georgian combat ships–and communications among the various national elements involved in the multinational operation. Testing the interoperability of NATO member forces with those of partner countries was the overall goal.

Besides the logistical support, Georgia’s contribution to the exercise included four missile cutters, four coastal guard vessels, a landing craft and several marine and special-purpose units. These form the nucleus of a downsized, modern force that Georgia has begun creating with support from NATO countries. Meanwhile the conscript army–obsolete, badly trained and dramatically underfunded–is slated for attrition.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, in a broadcast to the country, defined the military significance of the event as “a step toward bringing Georgia’s armed forces up to NATO standards.” The political significance he described as “confirmation of our country’s readiness to move toward deeper Euro-Atlantic integration. Inasmuch as we are an integral part of Europe, no one should be surprised that NATO exercises are being held in Georgia.” Shevardnadze underscored the peaceful character of the exercise, “not directed against the interests of any country.” That message failed to register in Moscow, however.

In advance of the exercise and again during it, Georgia officially and publicly invited Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, the Naval Commander in Chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov and senior officers of Russia’s General Staff to watch the exercise. Moscow ignored the invitations. Russian military analysts interpreted this year’s Cooperative Partner exercise as familiarization by NATO with the physical conditions and logistical facilities of Georgia’s seaboard, as part of contingency plans for joint operations there in crisis situations. The Moscow analysts had interpreted Cooperative Partner exercises held previously on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast similarly.

During the first phase of the exercise, the Moscow daily Izvestia published a story–which was then picked up by television channels–portraying Cooperative Partner 2001 as a rehearsal for an imminent Blitzkrieg against Abkhazia. Almost certainly planted by Moscow military officials, the story purported to reveal a plan by NATO and Georgia to climax the exercise with a joint air, naval and ground force operation that would recapture Abkhazia for Georgia. The story, furthermore, anticipated that Russia’s “peacekeeping” troops there would absorb the main blow. Those troops’ commander, Major-General Nikolai Sidorychev, lost no time pledging to resist any such assault. Georgia’s Defense Minister, Lieutenant-General Davit Tevzadze, termed the story “a load of trash.”

Cooperative Partner 2001 is to be followed up by the Cooperative Determination-2001 command-and-staff exercise in November in Baku. Azerbaijan is also slated to host Cooperative Best Effort-2003, the first major field exercise to be held by NATO in that country (NATO releases, Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Black Sea Press, Tbilisi Radio, Anatolia news agency, ANS, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, June 11-23; Izvestia, June 13; see the Monitor, February 1, 13, April 12, May 30).