On May 26 the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) released its report on the downing of a unmanned Georgian aerial vehicle (UAV), which was reconnoitering Russian-controlled Abkhazia on April 20. Contrary to UNOMIG’s traditional tolerance of Russian pressures on Georgia, this report holds Russia responsible for the air incident. The unarmed reconnaissance drone, more or less a flying video camera, was trying to monitor illegal Russian and Abkhaz military movements in the conflict zone under the control of Russian “peacekeepers” (see EDM, May 1)
The report should help UNOMIG shore up its credibility, particularly after failing to criticize Russia’s deployment of supplementary ground forces in the same area in late April and early May. The report’s value, however, seems limited by its admonition to Georgia that it was wrong to fly an UAV over the area. Given that the Georgian UAV was flying in internationally recognized Georgian air space, monitoring aggressive troop movements about which UNOMIG itself was in the dark, UNOMIG’s admonition to Georgia on this score looks like a compensatory sop to Moscow.
Immediately after the incident, Georgia publicized video and radar evidence showing that a Russian fighter plane had shot down the UAV and then returned to Russia. For their part, Russian government and military authorities as well as the Abkhaz offered a number of mutually contradictory versions, all denying Russian involvement.
UNOMIG created a fact-finding team of seven, highly experienced aviation and radar technical specialists for an independent investigation into the incident. Its May 26 report evaluates Georgia’s video and radar evidence as authentic, professionally competent and convincing. The report’s findings are very close to Georgia’s. It concludes that a Russian Air Force fighter plane, either a MIG-29 or an Su-27, shot down the Georgian reconnaissance drone with a short-range Vympel R-73 air-to-air missile at the time and location recorded by Georgian monitors. The plane then returned to Russian air space in the direction of Maykop-Krasnodar.
According to the report, the shooting “took place very close to, or even inside, an international air way, at a time when civilian aircraft were flying.” The Russian plane “probably received directions to the target from ground control” in Russia; or as a lesser possibility from the command-and-control center at Babushara near Sokhumi airport, which is also Russian-manned.
One remaining question is whether the plane entered Georgian air space from Russia or took off from the Gudauta base in Abkhazia. The base, with its strategic runway, hosts a residual Russian garrison, despite Russia’s commitment to have closed Gudauta by 2001, as required by the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty package. The Georgian evidence, authenticated by UNOMIG’s investigation, shows the Russian plane gaining altitude over Gudauta.
Abkhaz authorities claim to have downed seven Georgian UAVs during the period from March 12 to May 12. This claim can only be taken as meaning that the Russian military were involved. UNOMIG’s May 26 report confirms three of those incidents (March 18, April 20, and May 12). Following the first of these incidents, UNOMIG by its own account warned Georgia’s Defense Ministry that such flights, whether manned or unmanned, constituted military action and therefore contravened the Moscow cease-fire agreement of 1994, which bans military actions by “the parties” (Georgians and Abkhaz) against each other. The French-led UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (which since 1994 has deferred to Russia in the Abkhazia conflict) expressed that concern to the UN Security Council on April 14. Apparently, the UN’s attitude up to that point emboldened Russia to continue shooting at Georgian reconnaissance drones, setting the stage for the April 20 incident.
UNOMIG, again by its own admission, had been blindsided when Russian and Abkhaz troops began their threatening movements in April (see EDM, May 1). The Russian side failed to inform UNOMIG about the numbers, armaments, and directions of those troops and their movements. Moreover, UNOMIG lacks any aerial monitoring capabilities. Chiding Georgia for seeking to gather information about a gathering threat was tantamount to asking the country to lay itself open to unprovoked attack in its own territory. Unmanned and unarmed reconnaissance flights, moreover, hardly qualify as military activities. On the contrary, they may be construed as aiming to prevent military clashes, such as unprovoked or surprise attacks, through timely provision of intelligence.
The UNOMIG report finds that Russian military action in the conflict zone, outside the “CIS peacekeeping” operation, is inconsistent with the 1994 Moscow ceasefire agreement (see above). With this argument, UNOMIG persists in the fiction that the “CIS operation” with its 100 percent Russian personnel under Russian command is somehow not a Russian operation. UNOMIG also “reiterates its position that the overflight of the conflict zone by surveillance aircraft constitutes a breach of the Moscow agreement.”
While exposing Moscow’s account of the incident as false, the report can help rehabilitate UNOMIG’s reputation somewhat. However, blaming Georgia for gathering vital intelligence, which UNOMIG itself is incapable of doing, even in a crisis situation, underscores the need of transforming this “peacekeeping” operation.
(“Report of UNOMIG on the Incident of 20 April Involving the Downing of a Georgian UAV over the Zone of Conflict,” UN press release, May 26; Itar-Tass, May 6-27).