On August 8 – the third anniversary of the beginning of the short-lived armed conflict with Georgia – the Kremlin press service announced that President Dmitry Medvedev had sent to parliament for ratification two agreements on establishing military bases in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – recognized by Moscow as independent states. The treaties allow Russia to keep 3,800 soldiers in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia with heavy weapons for 49 years without paying any lease. The military base agreement may automatically be prolonged for an indefinite period (Interfax, August 8).
The agreements were signed more than a year ago and have been implemented. The Russian parliament is at present in summer recess until September, when a move to ratify may begin. There was no practical need to send the treaties this week, but Kremlin officials told journalists this was done intentionally – to mark the anniversary of the invasion of Georgia (Novye Izvestiya, August 9).
Last May during a major press conference Medvedev listed the invasion of Georgia as the main achievement of his presidency: “This was very important for Russia to deem itself strong, no matter how other nations interpreted these events” (EDM, May 19). In a recent interview Medvedev accused top US officials of involvement in provoking the conflict (www.kremlin.ru, August 5). By showing resolve in defending its core national interests with the use of military force and defeating US-sponsored Georgia, Moscow forced Washington to treat Russia as an equal for the first time since the end of the Cold War and to begin the “reset” policy in 2009 (RIA Novosti, August 8).
This month Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, announced that “it would be very good,” if the people of Belarus and South Ossetia decide to join Russia (Interfax, August 1). Medvedev differed, stating he did not see any legal way that South Ossetia could join the Russian Federation (www.kremlin.ru, August 5). A recently published opinion poll by the Levada Center shows that a majority of Russians (53 percent) today believe Abkhazia and South Ossetia must be independent, while in 2004 a majority believed South Ossetia must join Russia. At the same time the vast majority (almost 70 percent) think negatively about Georgia. The vast majority of Russians, concludes the pollster, do not care much about Abkhazia or South Ossetia per se – any outcome is acceptable, if it punishes Georgia for being too independent of Russia and allegedly too close to the US. Russian leaders and the vast majority of Russians agree that it was a war with the US by proxy (Vedomosti, August 9).
In his interview Medvedev acknowledged the main objective of the invasion of Georgia, was to “destroy and demolish the Georgian military” (www.kremlin.ru, August 5). This seems to have been a sound strategic plan: if Georgia’s best army and interior ministry troops had been decimated, ambitious opposition figures could have torn postwar-Georgia to tatters, turning it into a failed state as in 1993 after the lost war in Abkhazia against Russian-supported separatists. But the objective was not achieved: the Georgian military was promptly given orders and swiftly withdrew taking most of their more modern weaponry with them, while the chaotic Russian advance hit emptiness. As a result, many of the Russian “heroes” that were directly in charge of the invasion were swiftly and unceremoniously discharged from service: the Commander of the 58th Army, Lieutenant-General Anatoly Khrulev; Commander of the North Caucasus Military District, Colonel-General Sergei Makarov; commander of the Ground Forces and in August 2008 of the staff of the joint forces grouping, Army-General Vladimir Boldyrev (Komsomolskaya Pravda, August 8).
Georgia is still seen as a formidable foe and a sizable part of the modern weaponry the Russian military is now procuring is posted to face south. The garrisons in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been supplied with the newest T-90 tanks, long range Smerch and Iskander missiles, and new armor and artillery. Airbases in the North Caucasus have all been given the new Mi-28N night attack helicopters, Su-34 long-range bombers, modernized Su-25SM attack planes (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, August 9). Of course, there is a continuous insurgency in the North Caucasus, but Su-34 bombers, ballistic missiles and new tanks are not used against the rebels – they are deployed primarily for a possible new invasion of the South Caucasus.
The formation of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is peculiar. Of the 4,000-strong armed forces garrisons in each republic, less than half (some 1,500) are in fact posted in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The rest are in the North Caucasus, in Vladikavkaz and Mozdok, taking turns in forward posting. The ceasefire line is patrolled by some 1,500 border guards. Economic deprivation of the separatist regions and the lack of artillery and tank training grounds in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are cited as reasons to keep the garrisons divided (Interfax, August 8).
South Ossetia has no airstrips and the only road north through the Roki tunnel is constantly closed for half the year by snow avalanches and landslides. New tanks, guns and armor are in depots in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, only hundreds of meters from the ceasefire line, while half of their crews are in Vladikavkaz, separated by 170 kilometers of winding mountain roads. Such a position is utterly indefensible. The Russian command seems not to be considering a Georgian attack at all, though official propaganda constantly stresses Georgian “aggressiveness.” Russian military planners seem to be fully certain that if it again comes to combat, Moscow would exclusively, like in August 2008, decide the timing, allowing ample time to bring in additional manpower and reinforcements to begin a new invasion.
Moscow has expelled UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and has steadfastly resisted all attempts to deploy any neutral observers on its side of the ceasefire line. Medvedev has announced that Russia may forfeit WTO membership if Georgia continues to insist that a neutral EU customs monitoring mission should be placed at the Roki tunnel and on the Russian-Abkhaz border (www.kremlin.ru, August 5). Such a mission could monitor not only the movement of trade, but also Russian troops, undermining the possibility of a surprise mass invasion, like in August 2008.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has declared Moscow’s arch enemy, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili “a pathological case.” Lavrov has also insisted that “all Western leaders,” who publicly “support Georgian territorial integrity,” privately tell Moscow, it is no more than “politically expedient” lip service (www.mid.ru, August 8). Russia seems to have successfully isolated Georgia, pressuring Western nations for the sake of “reset” to effectively ban the supply of new defensive weapons to Georgia. As in August 2008, the West is today passively sitting and waiting, hoping that nothing bad happens.