On July 30, it was announced that Russian Railroad Troops have completed their mission in breakaway Abkhazia and are withdrawing. A battalion of some 400 men of reportedly unarmed Railroad Troops was sent to Abkhazia to repair the railroad on May 31 without warning or the consent of the Georgian government. Despite strong protests from Tbilisi and Western capitals, the Railroad Troops continued their work in Abkhazia for two months.
The troops have repaired 54 km of Soviet-built tracks with 20 tunnels and bridges south of the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi to the coastal town of Ochamchire. The railroad was out of use since the early 1990s, a period which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Georgia-Abkhaz war. At a colorful official ceremony in Dranda, south of Sukhumi, the commander of the Railroad Troops General Sergei Klimets told journalists that the railroad operation was “purely humanitarian” to help the people of Abkhazia, but Abkhaz officials said there is much more work left to do before this one-track railroad will have any commercial usage (RIA-Novosti, Interfax, July 30).
The Russian military uses railroads to deploy heavy weapons and armor to the battlefield. The acute military, strategic and tactical importance of the railroad system in Russia explains the existence of special Railroad Troops whose task is to keep the tracks in order during and in preparation for war and to organize makeshift armor battlefield disembarkment points (see EDM, June 12).
The German government at present is working to organize a Georgian-Abkhaz peace conference in Berlin in an attempt to defuse the prewar situation in the region and has hailed the withdrawal of the Railroad Troops from Abkhazia as a positive development. But the Georgian minister of reintegration, Temur Yakobashvili, told journalists that the conference in Berlin planned for this week has been postponed indefinitely—for a month or more—because the Abkhaz side did not agree to come. The conference in Berlin was to consider a German-sponsored peace plan for Abkhazia that Sukhumi has already rejected (RIA-Novosti, July 30).
The Russian military and Abkhaz officials have announced that Moscow and Sukhumi are in negotiations about the possible return of the Railroad Troops to Abkhazia for more restoration work (Interfax, July 30). Today the mission is indeed fulfilled—the tracks in Abkhazia are ready for rapid deployment of additional Russian troops, supplies, heavy weapons and armor direct to the possible future battlefield. The restored tracks today end some 35 km from the Georgian-Abkhaz separation line on the Inguri River, just out of reach of the Georgian artillery, which makes perfect military sense. The scene in Abkhazia is all set for major military action. The railroad unit that was deployed in Abkhazia has not been removed far—it has been withdrawn to a base a couple of kilometers north of the Abkhaz (Georgian) border at Gumaria close to Adler, south of Sochi (RIA-Novosti, July 30). If in the future Railroad Troops are required to support possible action in Abkhazia, they may move in at short notice.
While the tracks were repaired and peace negotiations stalled, the Russian military has been running major military maneuvers Kavkaz-2008 in the North Caucasus close to the Georgian border since July 15. It was announced that some 8,000 servicemen, 700 pieces of armor and artillery, and 30 aircraft are taking part in the exercises that officially are to prepare for encounters with terrorists. But there have been reports in the Russian press that the number of troops is substantially higher (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 18). The maneuvers involve airborne, motor-rifle and mountain troops of the North Caucasian Military District as well as paratroopers from the 76th airborne division from Pskov and marines of the Black Sea and Caspian fleets. Paratroopers were deployed on the border with South Ossetia on the Roki and Mamisoni mountain passes of the main Caucasian ridge. The paratroopers were reinforced by mechanized and mountain troops. Black Sea fleet marines landed near Adler, supported by airpower and Black Sea battle ships firing artillery and antiaircraft missiles—all, allegedly, to prepare to fight “terrorists” (ITAR-TASS, July 23).
Officially, the maneuvers ended last weekend, but it is not clear if all the troops have indeed withdrawn from the border with Georgia. The Kavkaz-2008 exercises are a preparation for a possible large-scale military confrontation in the region and may be a cover for a deployment of combat troops at border positions for an imminent outbreak of hostilities on Georgian territory.
While the Russians were playing war games in the north of the region, Georgian and U.S. soldiers had their own military exercises—Immediate Response 2008—on a much lesser scale in the south of Georgia near the Turkish border. At the same time in South Ossetia, constant shooting incidents continued, with both sides blaming the other (RIA-Novosti, July 29). There are abundant pretexts to begin a conflict. The coming weeks will be critical: A war of words and provocations may turn into the real thing.