Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 219

At dawn on November 28, Russian aviation bombed Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, which lies well inside that country’s borders. The action continued a pattern set by the Russian bombing raids in October in Georgia’s Kodori Gorge. The latest raid in Pankisi, however, was of unprecedented scope and range, involving as many as six Su-25 fighter-bombers and four Mi-24 assault helicopters, and penetrating so far away from the Chechnya combat theater into Georgian territory as to rule out the excuse of “navigational error.” The unmarked planes, crossing over from Russia, staged five attacks, bombing and strafing the environs of two villages and a hydropower station under construction. According to preliminary assessments of the damage, two people were killed in the attacks.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher expressed “deep concern about these intrusions which undermine stability in the region. We have raised these issues with the Russian government in the past and will do so again,” including–according to the spokesman–when Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Moscow next week.

Following this latest incident, the command of Russian forces in the North Caucasus and the Defense Ministry in Moscow issued the familiar disclaimer that “no Russian planes operated in the said area at the said time.” Such disclaimers often followed air attacks on Chechen villages in both wars there. Meanwhile, Moscow continues charging that Georgia hosts “Chechen terrorists” in Pankisi andeven in Tbilisi.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s reaction reflects a twofold diplomatic predicament. He must now try especially hard to avoid casting himself and his country as an inconvenience to the West’s latest overtures to the Kremlin. Beyond that, he faces again the familiar, Yeltsin-era predicament of having to pretend that the Kremlin leader was innocent in the matter, or was even sabotaged by the “hardline” Russian generals who attacked Georgia. Thus, on November 28, Shevardnadze declared on national television that Putin may well have been “unaware” of the Russian generals’ decision to bomb, and that their decision may have been intended to “scuttle my meeting with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” which is planned for tomorrow (November 30) as part of the CIS summit in Moscow. “I must meet with Putin and try to find better ways to coexist,” Shevardnadze concluded. Apparently with an eye to internal public opinion, he added that “we might shoot down one or two planes” if the bombings continue.

Presidential spokesman Kakha Imnadze commented that the recurring Russian attacks form part of a psychological strategy, “aiming to coerce Georgia into changing its foreign policy orientation.” Georgia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in a public statement decried the “undisguised aggression,” and demanded an immediate end to air strikes and violations of Georgian air space. Georgia’s Defense Ministry and border troops announced measures to strengthen border surveillance.

From a technical standpoint, Georgia is poorly placed to shoot down the attacking planes. In this latest incident, Georgia’s air defense was able only to track the planes. Last month, when some of the intruding planes may have been “Abkhaz”–that is, Russian-owned, loaned with their pilots to Abkhaz authorities–Georgia’s Defense Ministry let out the word that its soldiers in the Kodori Gorge could next time use portable anti-aircraft missile launchers in legitimate defense. From a political standpoint, Georgia may well lose inhibitions about shooting down intruding planes, if Moscow continues to insist after each incident that such planes are never and cannot be Russian ones.

Meanwhile, with one week to go until the year-end meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and two days until the CIS anniversary summit, Russian actions at the Gudauta military base in Georgia are flaunting OSCE commitments and CIS rules. Although the former are binding and the latter are made to be breached, Moscow’s conduct at Gudauta suggests that President Vladimir Putin continues to expect that both organizations might ultimately condone Russia’s military presence in Georgia.

Russia failed to close down the Gudauta base and repatriate all the equipment and troops by July 1, as required by the adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and the OSCE’s 1999 decisions. Thus far, Moscow has only repatriated a part of the weaponry and troops, transferred another part to the Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia on Georgia’s territory, and kept the base open, with a residual garrison and some treaty-restricted weaponry. Moscow has also thwarted the international inspection at the base, as mandated by the CFE treaty.

On November 9, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and the Foreign Affairs Ministry issued separate statements claiming, incorrectly, that Moscow had met all its obligations at Gudauta. On November 12, the Russian side repeated that claim in a letter to the OSCE’s chairmanship, then circulated the letter as an official OSCE document.

On November 22, however, Georgia set the record straight in an appeal to the entire OSCE community of fifty-five countries. It pointed to the transfers of armored combat vehicles and artillery from Gudauta to the Russian “peacekeepers,” a move that breaches the CFE ceilings. It also zeroed in on the contradiction between Moscow’s November 9 statements claiming that the base had been terminated, and the November 12 statements trying to justify current and even intended activities at the base. The appeal underscored the mandatory nature of international inspection to certify Russia’s compliance or noncompliance with its obligations. In this appeal, Georgia reserves the right to withhold confirmation of the Russian compliance, unless “urgent and detailed explanations” are forthcoming. Under the CFE treaty, “withholding confirmation” amounts to an official statement that the treaty has been violated (Prime News, Georgian Television, Russian Television, Interfax, Western news agencies, November 9, 13, 27-29; see the Monitor, September 21, 25, October 3, 12, 23-25, 30-31; Fortnight in Review, October 26, November 9).