Large-scale military exercises in South Ossetia (the region of Georgia occupied by Moscow as a result of the 2008 Russian invasion) involving units of the locally stationed 58th Army of the Russian Armed Forces came to a close on June 17 (Lenta, June 13). The exercises included 3,000 servicemen out of the 4,000 Russian military personnel attributed to the so-called “Berlin Guards Military Base,” located in the vicinity of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Over the course of the exercises, the Army utilized 500 units of military hardware, including T-72BM tanks, BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled howitzers.
It is worth pointing out that some Russian troop units in South Ossetia are stationed only 500 meters from the strategically important Baku–Tbilisi–Kutaisi–Poti highway, which connects the eastern part of the South Caucasus (including Azerbaijan and Armenia) with the Georgian Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi. “Cutting” this highway could essentially paralyze the entire South Caucasus region. Furthermore, Russian troops and artillery in South Ossetia are also located dangerously close to pipelines that carry oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea basin westward to global markets.
Over the past decade, the Russian Army has repeatedly carried out maneuvers on the territory of South Ossetia. Frequently, the exercises in this region have involved large-scale use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Illustratively, during an exercise last January at the Dzartz training ground, 1,500 Russian troops engaged in maneuvers and utilized Zastava, Granat, Orlan and Leer UAVs. In the concluding stage of the exercise, the units practiced “firing from […] combat vehicles, tanks and self-propelled howitzers” with targeting support from UAVs, according to press service of Russia’s Southern Military District (SMD) (Sevosetia.ru, January 25). And the June 2017 exercise featured a similar use of UAVs (Sputnik-ossetia.ru, June 9).
Irakli Aladashvili, the editor-in-chief of the independent military and analytical magazine Arsenali, told this author that, in recent years, the Russian army has been using UAVs more and more actively, not only for reconnaissance but also for target designation of salvo fire systems and for adjusting artillery fire. “We see this tactic in eastern Ukraine, where Russian UAVs play a very large role in the shelling of Ukrainian army units. In 2008, during the aggression against Georgia, the Russians practically did not use these devices,” Aladashvili said. He noted that Russian troops are also using UAVs for reconnaissance deep in Georgian territory. “They sometimes even fly over Tbilisi” the expert reported (Author’s interview, June 18).
An important unique feature of the Russian Army’s recent training maneuvers in South Ossetia was the mention of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the description of the simulated scenario that would be exercised. “The service members will work out their units’ proper actions in response to air raids of the hypothetical aggressor, overcoming the contaminated areas in the conditions of the enemy’s use of weapons of mass destruction [author’s emphasis] and electronic suppression,” says the statement released by the Russian Army command just ahead of the exercise (RBC, June 13).
The Georgian military does not possess any sorts of weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, there is no precise data about whether the Russian armed units stationed in South Ossetia are armed with WMDs. All types of WMDs (including tactical nuclear weapons) were removed from the territory of South Caucasus as early as 1989—just as the ethno-political conflicts in the region began to escalate. Moscow was worried about the security and safety of these weapons in the conditions of armed conflicts in Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nevertheless, in the past several years, Russian officials have repeatedly accused Georgia of developing biological weapons at a United States–funded biological research facility outside Tbilisi, opened in 2012 at the initiative of former US Senator Richard Lugar (Civil Georgia, March 19, 2011). The facility is often referred to as the “Lugar Laboratory” (Civil Georgia, August 12, 2012).
Notably, shortly before the large-scale June military exercises in South Ossetia—the description of which explicitly made mention of WMDs—the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed concern over the US-funded Georgian biological/medical research facility. In an April 29 statement, Moscow criticized the US’s compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The Russian comments were issued in response to the US State Department’s 2017 Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments. The Russian foreign ministry said in its statement that questions about US compliance allegedly remain unanswered, causing “growing concern” in Moscow. The foreign ministry added that Washington’s conduct is forcing Moscow to “think about the real, not publicly declared, military-biological agenda of the United States.” The statement further reads, “We are concerned over the consistent development of the US military-biological infrastructure along the perimeter of Russia’s borders. Significant strengthening [of] the US Army Medical Research Directorate [Lugar Laboratory] in Georgia (Alekseevka village) is particularly disturbing” (Civil Georgia, May 2).
Four years ago, in July 2013, Gennady Onishchenko, who heads Russia’s state consumer protection agency, Rospotrebnadzor, said the bio-research laboratory represented “a powerful offensive potential” and was in violation of the BWC. In June 2015, the Russian foreign ministry accused Washington and Tbilisi of “trying to cover [up] the true contents and direction” of the research being done at the Lugar Laboratory. In February 2016, Onishchenko, claimed the facility could infect mosquitoes with the Zika virus. The United States and Georgia have repeatedly refuted all such insinuations, emphasizing that the Lugar Laboratory’s purpose is strictly limited to identifying and mitigating medical threats and combating endemic diseases (Civil Georgia, May 2).
Vakhtang Maisaya, a doctor of military sciences based in Tbilisi, noted that the secretary of the National Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev, has also repeatedly accused Washington and Tbilisi of using the Lugar Laboratory to manufacture biological weapons. “These are absolutely unproven, fake accusations. But Russia uses false statements about the laboratory to exert pressure on Georgia. And judging by the description of the latest military exercises, now we are talking not only about the diplomatic and political but even military pressure on Georgia under the pretense of the existence of a ‘biological laboratory’ near Tbilisi,” Maisaya argued (Author’s interview, June 18).
By all appearances, the continual baseless accusations directed at the Lugar Laboratory combined with this month’s military exercises on occupied Georgian territory with an explicit WMD component are being used by Moscow to exert further pressure on Georgia. But these activities by Russia can also be expected to color negotiations with the US on a whole range of strategic security issues during the run-up to next month’s meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.