In an October 18 news conference, Georgia’s First Deputy Defense Minister Mamuka Kudava and Coastal Guard commander Davit Gulua announced that Russian warships are conducting live-fire exercises of an intimidating nature off Georgia’s coast, mainly off Poti. The Russian ships are exercising mainly in the “zone of Georgian responsibility” (beyond 24 miles from the coast), but crossing intermittently into the “adjacent zone” and moving to 16 miles from the coast during the ongoing exercises.
Apart from general advance notifications in late September-early October, Russia is not informing Georgia about the ships’ movements, much less requesting Georgian permission. The Georgian officials at the news conference described these exercises as breaching international maritime law, threatening merchant shipping and Georgia, and adding a dimension to Russia’s economic blockade of Georgia (Imedi Television, Itar-Tass, October 18).
Not wishing to stoke the already existing tensions with Russia, the Georgian government hesitated to complain publicly or frequently. Georgia’s UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania did so at his October 3 news conference in New York, noting that Russian warships were arbitrarily entering Georgia’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone during the exercises, without authorization from Georgian authorities. Terming these actions a threat to Georgia and to security in the Black Sea, Georgia “call[ed] upon the Russian side to immediately cease these trainings” (news release, October 3). The intrusions and live-fire phases of the exercises have proceeded intermittently since then.
According to Georgian officials, Russia has several times warned international merchant shipping to avoid certain areas on the approaches to Poti, Supsa, and Batumi temporarily because of the Russian exercises. Inasmuch as the Russian ships intrude into Georgia’s economic zone, the unilateral closure of merchant shipping lanes within that zone is a further breach of international law, Tbilisi officials have noted (Interfax, October 18).
The warships involved in this exercise include the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, missile-armed cruiser Moskva; the patrol ship Pytlivyi, and landing ships Azov and Tsezar Kunnikov. While maneuvering beyond the horizon, they conduct target practice on air and surface targets on certain days.
The Russian squadron participated in the Turkish naval operation Black Sea Harmony — which is being conducted periodically in areas close to Turkey based on advance planning — from the end of September until the second week in October. Then on October 4, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told the media that Russian warships exercising near Georgia were part of the Black Sea Harmony operation (Itar-Tass, October 4, 18).
This is evidently not the case, however, given that Black Sea Harmony is a Turkish operation and it takes place at specified dates in other Black Sea areas, not off Georgia. According to Kudava, Turkey told Georgia through diplomatic channels that this Russian exercise has no connection with Black Sea Harmony; that Ankara found the Russian claim surprising; and that it had received no information from Russia about the latter’s intention to link its exercise with Black Sea Harmony. Clearly, Ivanov tried to portray a unilateral Russian exercise as a part of a joint Turkish-Russian exercise, although the latter had already ended and had, in any case, been held in another part of the sea. “We are not going to change our plans each time the Saakashvili regime sneezes,” Ivanov bluffed.
Turkey is not the only party embarrassed by this Russian procedure. The ships involved in these rogue actions against Georgia are also participating periodically in NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor (OAE) in the Mediterranean, as well as in the periodic activations of the BlackSeaFor naval squadron of the riparian countries. NATO has insistently sought Russian participation both for political-symbolic reasons and in the unrequited hope that Moscow would accept OAE’s extension in one form or another into the Black Sea.
BlackSeaFor, originally a confidence-building measure, has seen its tasks expanding in recent years. Russia favors turning BlackSeaFor into a regional security instrument of the riparian countries, so as to minimize NATO’s role. Russian naval threats to Georgia, however, confirm BlackSeaFor’s irrelevance to regional security. It has no means to protect Georgia from Russian rogue behavior now, anymore than in 2004 when Russia’s navy delivered a coastal guard ship complete with Russian training crew for Abkhazia, and with Vladimir Zhirinovsky on board for political emphasis. Coincidentally, Georgia held BlackSeaFor’s rotating command at that moment; and Russia itself is holding that command now, even as Russian ships that exercised with BlackSeaFor in August are threatening Georgia in October.