APR 20 2009



Russia has sent an official notification to NATO’s general secretary, Hoop Scheffer, proposing that "all upcoming military exercises planned in Georgia should be postponed or canceled.”

On any other day of the year, I would read news article discussing a disagreement between NATO and Russia regarding Black Sea naval activity and dismiss it, but this isn't an average day. Earlier this week, as per the agreement between Russia and the Ukraine, Russian officials notified the Ukraine that 22 of its Black Sea Fleet vessels will leave Sevastopol for military maneuvers. Those ships were expected to depart earlier this week, but it was noteworthy when all of the amphibious ships deployed first rather than all of the ships at once.

The Black Sea Fleet has now deployed all 22 ships, which is getting some attention in the region because regional news reports have noted the Russian military exercises taking place in the Caucasus since the political turmoil and protests began last week in Georgia. There has been a lot of discussion over the past several days, mostly unverified hearsay and internet chatter, of movement of Russian troops towards the Russian-Georgian border and into Abkhazia as part of those exercises. Those rumors were confirmed today when an EU monitor told Reuters "it had registered Russian reinforcements at the boundaries between Georgian-controlled territory and South Ossetia and Abkhazia."

A confidential assessment compiled by EU diplomats in Georgia and seen by Reuters said the Russian reinforcements included tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and "Grad" multiple-rocket launchers.

"Thus the situation at the ABL (administrative boundary line) remains in flux and volatile as Russian/South Ossetian forces continue to establish new facts on the ground," said the the assessment, dated April 13.

This afternoon, the Eurasia Daily Monitor also noted the chatter in the region, and weighed in on the unfolding events.

It is important that the Russian military acknowledges its mobilization and forward deployment of troops and ships. At present, it is impossible to know precisely how many additional army units have been moved within striking distance of Georgian territory. However, the composition of the naval force that disembarked from Sevastopol is not secret, since the Ukrainian authorities must be informed. It seems to be larger than the force that was deployed against Georgia last August. Four large amphibious landing craft left Sevastopol last week, while in August 2008 only two were reportedly deployed to insert a regiment of marines into Abkhazia in the small port of Ochamchira, close to the border with Georgia (Vlast, August 18). The marines were later deployed in the invasion of Western Georgia.

The report goes on to note:

After the war, Georgia disbanded its navy, handing over its surviving ships to the local coast guard. The Russian naval flotilla lead by "Moskva" will not find any opposition at sea, but the deployment of a large amphibious force formed of thousands of marines armed with heavy weapons on board is a threatening sight. The low capacity narrow roads leading from Russia into Georgia (one into Abkhazia and another leading into South Ossetia) create immense logistical problems in rapidly deploying large military contingents into Georgia if Moscow opts for a "humanitarian intervention" to bring about "regime change." The insertion of a sizable marine force with heavy weapons was used last August to bypass the clogged up overland routes and this could prove important again. The Russian military knew beforehand the exact timing of its pre-arranged invasion and fully controlled the pre-war armed provocations by the South Ossetian forces, whereas in the present crisis the situation is much more volatile.

The Jamestown Foundation's Pavel Felgenhauer has a fantastic record when it comes to observing military activity in that region. Just prior to the breakout of hostilities last year, he wrote an article regarding the Russian railroad troops that had completed to connect Russia with Abkhazia. These railroads were used within 10 days of his article to supply the Russian military forces that moved into that territory, thus removing Georgian rule. Last month he noted that with spring melting the snow and ice that prohibits any military activity between Russia and Georgia, Russia's political influence into Georgia was sure to follow. He was right.

Russia's intentions are unclear. On the same day Russia tells NATO to cancel military exercises, Russia also agrees to hold a fifth round of Geneva talks involving negotiators from Georgia, Russia, United States, and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia, and South Ossetia on May 18-19.

There is widespread belief that Russia helped finance the demonstrations that began April 9th, but it is noteworthy those demonstrations have become smaller and smaller each day. After a week of demonstrations, polls indicated the public mood was shifting away from the opposition, and Saakashvili remains the most popular politician in Georgia despite the protests and well funded media campaigns against him. Many experts appear to be in agreement the calls for his resignation have failed, and this will end in negotiations. To date, the opposition has dismissed any suggestion of sitting down with Saakashvili, so it is unclear when those negotiations will happen.

Given that the Russian funded political unrest with demonstrations has failed to achieve its goals, would Russia take military action instead?

It seemed very unlikely war would break out last August on the opening day of the Olympics. Russia may not be making a move against Georgia, but this is one of the largest Black Sea Fleet exercises we have seen in a long time, and the EU is monitoring large troop movements at the border at the same time, so even without a fire there is plenty of smoke.







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