Western military experts confirmed that an aircraft from Russia had entered Georgian airspace on Aug. 6, dropped an anti-radar guided missile which failed to explode and returned to Russia. Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili said on Aug. 28 that an air defense radar station, 5 km from the rocket crash site, had been the target.
On the other hand, Russian Air Force chief of staff Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov charged that the missile incident had been staged as a provocation against Russia.
“There is no need to search for an enemy in the north [Russia]: a provocateur must be found somewhere else,” he said pointing to Tiblisi.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Moscow and Central Asian sources report that in the three weeks since that first incident, Russian air incursions occur daily over Georgia’s strategic and military locations. Some days, two Russian fighter bombers fly at varying altitudes producing sonic booms or simulating low bombing dives.
On Aug 21 and again on Aug. 25, Russian warplanes dropped the same kind of anti-radar guided missiles fired in the first incident on Aug. 6. Georgia’s air force and anti-air defenses are not up to coping with these Russian over-flights. The government in Tiblisi therefore resorted to a different sort of retaliation.
Wednesday morning, Georgian police in Gory detained three peacekeepers from the Ossetian battalion of the join peacekeeping force which monitors the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. This force consists of three battalions – Russian, Georgian and Ossetian.
No anti-air defense batteries from the West
The Georgian president has made desperate appeals for a supply of ground-to-air missile batteries to Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. None has responded. It is feared in the West that Georgia’s deployment and activation of anti-air missiles against Russian warplanes would trigger an instant crisis in relations between Moscow, the US and NATO. Russia is capable of invading Georgia or even deploying the troops based near Tiblisi to overthrow Saakashvili and replace him with a Russian stooge.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources link the escalation of Russian air harassment against Georgia with the advanced discussions between Washington and Tiblisi for the construction of a big America air base in the Lower Kartli region between Kareli and Gory.
The base would be located 80 km north of the Georgian capital, but only half an hour’s drive from South Ossetia, which Moscow regards as its southern border and bulwark against the troubled Caucasian Muslim republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and Alania.
For Russian president Vladimir Putin, a new American base in Georgia is perceived as part of the Bush administration’s master plan to build up military pressure on the Russian Caucasian from Central Asia, on the one hand, while deploying missile interceptor bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, on the other. America would thus acquire control of the skies over the Black Sea and the Caspian regions to boot.
Moscow’s concerns about American footholds in the Caspian and Central Asian regions were covered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly in July and early August. Those concerns have spread in recent weeks to US naval activity in the Black Sea region, aroused by the visit paid by the Sixth Fleet USS Forest Sherman guided missile destroyer in early August to the Bulgarian port of Varna for joint exercises with the host navy.
American units have also been deployed in Bulgarian military and Romanian military facilities, causing disquiet in Moscow over US plans for the Black Sea and Turkey.
Georgia under Russian military threat
Last week, our Moscow sources reveal, Russia transmitted a warning to Saakashvili through intelligence channels that its bombing raids over Georgia would intensify according to the pace of his talks with Washington. Should those talks culminate in accord on the location of an American air force base in Georgia, Russia would resort to radical military action to prevent this happening.
Clearly the row over a lone missile has exploded into a major tussle between Washington and Moscow over the Caucasian and the Black Sea. President George W. Bush faces a dilemma over whether to go ahead with the base in Georgia. He must decide what guarantees Washington can offer Saakashvili’s regime against a Russian bid to unseat him and how NATO will respond to a Russian military attack on Georgia.
Three energy-related issues complicate the impasse and further raise temperatures between Moscow, Tiblisi and Washington:
1. The construction of the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline which will cut Russia out of the middleman’s position for transporting crude oil to the West.
2. The projected gas pipeline linking South Ossetia with the neighboring Russian North Ossetian Republic. Georgia is withholding the go-ahead for this project which is funded by Russia’s Gazprom.
3. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources have learned as we go to press that the Kremlin is resolved to very soon replace South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity with a politician on whom they can count absolutely in the unfolding Caucasian crisis.