Reports reached the West in May that the Russians were evacuating their two big Soviet-era military bases in Georgia on the shores of the Black Sea – the 12th base in Batumi and the 62nd at Akhalkalaki to the north, 19 miles from the Turkish border.
These movements should not have generated much general interest outside of an arcane handful of Caucasian strategic experts in Washington and other Western capitals including Jerusalem. After all, on March 31, Russia and Georgia signed an agreement to evacuate Russian troops and hardware from Batumi by 2008 and Akhalkalaki by December 2006. Moscow also undertook to quit its command post and two bases in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
However, as the Russian troop withdrawals unfolded, US and Israel watchers were suddenly jerked awake by the first photographs coming in from the spy satellites tracking them.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources disclose the images revealed the retreating Russian units moving along not one but two routes. The first showed small groups of Russian officers and soldiers heading out of Georgia carrying only their personal kits, the second was jammed with convoys of trucks loaded with weapons and logistical systems, radar and ammo. Freight trains were also pressed into service. This route wound out of Georgia and headed into Armenia where the vehicles halted at Russian Base 102 in Gyumri in the north.
A Russian military spokesman explained this relocation by stating that “the property of the 62nd (Akhalkalaki), Georgia, would be reassigned to replenish Russia’s 102nd base in Gyumri, Armenia.” He added: “The transfer of this property to any other party is not envisioned.”
But Armenia was not the “the property’s” last stop.
In any case, US experts on this complex region found it hard to believe the Georgians would hold still as heavy Russian weapons replenishments entered Armenia, their archenemy, or that the Russian base in Gyumri had developed a sudden need for extra hardware.
Top line Russian weaponry heads out of Armenia, into Iran
The close watch on the Russian supplies convoys continued and, lo and behold, a third route surfaced, this one heading out of the 102nd base in Armenia and into Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources were able to trace Route No. 3.
From Gyumri, the trucks and trains rolled on to the Armenian capital of Yerevan. There, they were offloaded onto Armenian and Iranian trucks and trains, which turned south to the Iranian border.
The freight crossed the border and halted at the Iranian town of Sadarak. Its next stop was the Iranian-Azeri town of Naxcivan and then on to Tabriz.
On May 18, ten trucks rumbled out of Alhalkalaki, their cargoes hidden under tarps, together with dozens of Russian APCs.
They were followed the next day by a convoy of self-propelled 2C1 howitzers and 28 trucks.
And on May 23, by 372 boxes of Grad System 122 rockets, a field kitchen and 28 trucks of BM-21mm missiles.
When June came round, the Russians speeded up the evacuation of hardware, using trains.
Sunday, June 18, a train carrying 47 pieces of anti-aircraft weaponry left the Georgian 62nd Base. It was the tenth train reaching Iran in June.
Monday, June 19, a second such troop train set out, its 35 cars carrying military equipment, ammunition and munitions.
A third train is expected to collect more equipment before this weekend.
According to our sources, after this grand clearance, 5,000 Russian troops remain on the Akhalkalaki base together with 335 tanks – mostly T72, heavy armored cars and enough equipment for two armored infantry divisions, including surface missiles, anti-air rockets and a pile of engineering equipment.
An engineering brigade is attached to every Russian army division for laying roads, building air strips for light air craft and helicopters and throwing up bridges. All of this equipment is destined for Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts make five salient points in reference to this wholesale transfer of Russian war materiel to Iran:
Putin plays a cool hand against Washington
1. Given the timing of the project, Russian president Vladimir Putin must have intended one in the eye for US-European policy plans. He could have waited till December, 2006, but he ordered it to go forward in broad daylight as the United States and Europe were waiting on tenterhooks for Iran’s response to a package of incentives for halting uranium enrichment. President George W. Bush stressed in Vienna Wednesday, June 21, after his summit meeting with European leaders that Tehran must make haste and respond within weeks.
Neither was Putin bothered by the proximity of the G-8 summit of industrial nations opening in the Russian city of St. Petersburg next month.
2. Neither Iran’s nuclear ambitions nor the Iraq war has inhibited the Kremlin’s willingness to sell the Iranian army the most sophisticated weapons in its arsenal for use in a potential military clash with the West.
3. Iran has allocated $7 bn for arms procurement from Russia. Some of the orders Moscow has already filled include anti-air, nuclear-capable Tor-M1 cruise missiles, considered by experts the most advanced of its kind in the world. Iran has purchased these missiles to secure the Bushehr atomic reactor and other nuclear sites.
Our sources in Moscow and Tehran report that the Iranians are using the Georgian weapons deal as a lever to squeeze Moscow to part with the technology for the home production of the sophisticated Russian X-5518 nuclear cruise missiles, known also as Kh-55 or AS-15s. Tehran already has 12 of these missiles, which have a 3,000km range and are capable of carrying a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead. They were purchased on the black market of Ukraine in 2005.
Our sources add that the Islamic Republic has dropped hints that if the Russians are forthcoming on this missile technology, Iran will continue to buy large quantities of conventional weapons on the scale of the Georgian consignment.
4. The Americans are looking into the information that Armenia allowed Russian weapons shipments bound for Iran to transit its territory in return for Moscow’s guarantees of the safety and rights of the Armenian community in Georgia after the Russian pullout.
This guarantee applies most directly to the Armenian population of Akhalkalaki and the personnel employed at the Russian base.
Yerevan was motivated by concerns about two potential hazards:
One, that as soon as the Russians are out of the way, the Georgians will hound the Armenian minority; Two, that Georgia will hand the two evacuated bases to NATO, thereby bringing Turkish troops too close for comfort to the Armenian border.
5. The onset of the Russian military exit from Georgia is coupled with the start of a pull-back of the 1,500 Russian troops based in the semi-autonomous provinces of Abkhkazia and South Ossetia.
On June 14, the rulers of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria (a separatist province of Moldova) met in Sokhumi and signed a trilateral accord on defense cooperation.