High-level Kremlin consultations Thursday, Aug. 28, focused on Russia’s next arena of operations, as the US-NATO naval presence in the Black Sea began to outnumber the Russian fleet.
While Moscow is often unpredictable, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that the three sites discussed intensely were Ajaria in southern Georgia, the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine and Transdniestria, Moldova. The three regions have in common large Russian minorities accounting for 50-60 percent of the population and their high value as strategic assets for Russia’s hitherto unchallenged military dominion over the Black Sea.
In the meantime, Moscow successfully tested-fired an intercontinental ballistic Topol RS-12M missile, claimed to be able to pierce any US missile shield. By making good on Russian president Dmitry Medvedev‘s warning of “a military response” to the US missile shield in Europe, the Russians also added emphasis to a statement Wednesday, Aug. 27, from Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of staff.
He said NATO had exhausted the number of forces it can deploy in the Black Sea under international agreements. “NATO – which is not a state located in the Black Sea” cannot continuously increase its forces and systems there.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, Russian decision-makers fully appreciate the importance of correctly timing their moves for the most unsettling effect on their adversaries.
One move they consider executing the day before US Vice President Richard Cheney‘s arrival in the region on Sept. 2 for visits to Georgia and Ukraine – or alternatively, the day after he leaves, is to drop troops on the Crimean Peninsula.
Their pretext would be the need to defend their big base at Sevastopol in view of the threatening stance of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko and the ominous NATO presence in the Black Sea.
Another option might be to inflame a secessionist rebellion in Georgia’s Ajaria to round off Moscow’s reckoning with Mikhail Saakashvili, and then send in Russian troops to “protect Russian civilians.”
French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt have both raised the alarm about Moscow’s three potential targets, calling the situation “very dangerous.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s analysts outline the strategic importance of the three regions:
Situated on Georgia’s southwestern border with Turkey, Ajaria’s population is half ethnic Georgian and half Russian.
It is the only part of Georgia which is predominantly Muslim.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet is deployed opposite the Ajarian capital of Batumi, which is an important link in the oil route from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Caspian oil from Azerbaijan is treated in its refinery.
Last November, Russia withdrew from its military base at Batumi. By recovering the base, Moscow would punish Saakashvili by chopping off a third chunk of territory after his loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; gain a Black Sea base at Turkey’s back door, round off its control of the Black Sea’s eastern seaboard and control the gateway to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the anti-Russian Orange Revolution of 2004, demanded on Wednesday, Aug. 27, the renegotiation of the contract which Russia holds for the lease the Sevastopol base on its Crimean coast until 2017, in order to raise the rent.
Thursday, Yushchenko called on the West to set up a task force to restore Georgian territorial integrity after Moscow recognized South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources stress that the new Putin-Medvedev doctrine, as illustrated in the Georgia crisis, is not to let any anti-Russian step or declaration go unanswered. Yushchenko, whom Moscow has never forgiven for his 2004 defiance, had therefore better be prepared.
Both strategically important and a symbol of national pride, Sevastopol is deeply ingrained in the Russian consciousness, although it was handed to Ukrainian control in 1954. More than 60 percent of Crimea’s two million inhabitants are Russian. Moscow has denied reports that it distributed Russian passports as it did in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Divided Moldova, whose strategic importance on the Black Sea’s western coast matches that of Abkhazia and Ajaria on the eastern shore, lies between Ukraine and Romania and south of Poland. Russian missiles installed in Moldova would counterbalance the US missile shield on Poland’s Baltic coast.
This small country’s disproportionate importance also rests in its location opposite the Ukrainian port of Odessa and the Crimea, with easy access to the Russian base of Sevastopol at its tip.
The separatist region of Transdniestria, a narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border, declared its independence in 1990, later fighting to join Russia. It has never won international recognition and its ties with the Moldavan government remain tense and unresolved to this day.
The situation is complicated by the presence of Russian troops and a huge weapons arsenal left over from Soviet days.
Monday, Aug. 25, Medvedev warned Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin in no uncertain terms not to make Georgia’s mistake of using force to recover breakaway Transdniestria.
“After the Georgian leadership lost their marbles, as they say, all the problems got worse and a military conflict erupted,” said the Russian president.