Talk of a Georgian War-Round 2 is in the air in Moscow. A March-April 2009 time frame is cited.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources report that president Dmitry Medvedev has two goals in mind – testing incoming US president Barack Obama and finally removing Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, Vladimir Putin's pet hate. Only this time, the Kremlin is determined not to fight with one military hand tied behind its back as it did in the first round last August. Russia is therefore engaged in its mightiest military buildup in the Caucasian since the Cold War.
The strategic gains which the Russians chalked up then will be the basis for further expansion. After all, no one challenged their illegal grab of bits of Black Sea coast and territorial waters by their virtual takeover of Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia.
Three signposts point to the coming conflict:
1. Russian naval redeployment on the Black Sea and Mediterranean
On Dec. 5, Russian Navy spokesmen Capt. Igor Dygalo said that two Russian war flotillas from the Barents and Black Seas are on their way to the Mediterranean where they would merge into a single fleet for a stay of several months. The first is led by the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier accompanied by two guided missile destroyers, the Admiral Chabanenko and Admiral Levchenko, with two supply ships in tow, one a tanker.
The second is the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser Peter the Great, one of the largest warships afloat, with three accompanying vessels. This group comes from a joint Caribbean exercise with Venezuela.
In the view of Western military sources, this formidable concentration of Russian warships in the Mediterranean within easy reach of the Black Sea bespeaks revised tactics: Moscow has laid down an outer defense ring for the inland sea, along whose shores new Russian bases are also going up.
Whereas in August, the Russian navy stuck to the eastern shore of the Black Sea and found itself in an inferior position in relation to US and NATO strength, this time, the Russian general staff and Navy Command have placed the entire expanse of the Black Sea within quick range of its new Mediterranean naval girdle.
This stratagem aims at freezing out potential Western or Ukrainian interference by blocking the Black Sea region to a second return of a large concentration of US or NATO warships.
It also cuts out Moscow's dependence on its naval bases at Sevastopol in the Ukrainian Crimea. Last time round, the pro-western Kiev government opened the door to US warships, allowing them enough proximity to the Russian Black Sea Navy to keep track of its slightest movement. By holding its war reserve fleet in the open Mediterranean Sea, the Russian Navy enjoys greater freedom of maneuver for responding to calls for Black Sea missions.
Therefore, domination of the Black Sea is seen by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources as one of Moscow's top strategic objectives today.
Black Sea bases expanded and renovated
The Russian fleet's expansion of its Black Sea presence will be anchored on Novorossiysk on the Russian coast, a station soon to be established on the Abkhazian coast at Sokhumi and the old Soviet submarine base at Ochamchire in the southern part of the enclave.
This takeover is work in progress. So too are the Gudauta land and air base and the Gali border facility which are undergoing renovation. The program will allow the Russians to add 16 new ships to their Black Sea fleet by 2015. But this is a long-term program.
Meanwhile, Moscow hopes to force the Ukraine to allow the Russian fleet to keep its base at Sevastopol after 2017 when its lease runs out. This will give the Russians time for the lengthy operation of relocating its large Crimean fleet to its new Black Sea ports.
2. Russia's crack 58th Army remodeled, rearmed
A second sign that a sequel to the Georgian conflict is on Kremlin's minds is the massive retraining, modernization and rearming of Russia's 58th Army posted at Vladikavkaz, the town which commands the northern approach to Georgia.
Established in 1995 to defend Russia's southern border with the Caucasian, the 58th Army was actively involved in the war with Georgia this year. It has since been assigned with making sure that Tbilisi would not again attack South Ossetia or Abkhazia.
Composed entirely of career officers, this 70,000-strong force's combat proficiency is on a par with that of an elite rapid intervention force. It has two infantry divisions, 5 or 6 infantry brigades armed with 600 tanks and 2,000 armored personnel carriers, an air force arm, helicopters, artillery, intelligence, electronic warfare and communications units.
Russian war planners have quickly and efficiently applied the lessons drawn from the Georgia conflict in the interim four months. They have had select units retrained in commando tactics for operations behind enemy lines, including field intelligence missions and guiding the air force and artillery to behind-the-lines Georgian targets.
In August, such missions required special forces to be flown into the Caucasian from bases around Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The converted 58th Army has been equipped with the military vehicles lacking in the first round; its air force has been augmented with a large number of drones, as well as assault and transport helicopters, the lack of which in August reduced the mobility of Russian forces between arenas.
Some of the units have also been outfitted with anti-air weapons including shoulder-borne missiles and self-propelled guns and rockets.
The Kremlin seeks to test Obama's mettle
3. The third sign of an approaching war is provided by American and European marine security firms escorting vessels going in and out of the Black Sea and safeguarding their cargoes. This month, they informed their clients that security fees would remain at the wartime rate imposed at the end of March 2009. These firms were clearly acting on information which convinced them that an armed conflict is impending.
Sunday, Dec. 7, US president-elect Obama told NBC's “Meet the Press,” in an interview that he was determining when he would meet Russian president Medvedev or prime minister Putin, stressing that after he succeeds to the US presidency on Jan. 20 “…it's going to be important for us to reset US-Russia relations.”
Helped by robust economic growth, he said, energy-rich Russia has become “increasingly assertive.”
Referring to Georgia and the Russians' “threats against their neighboring countries,” Obama said: “I think they've been acting in ways that are contrary to international norms.
“We want to cooperate with them where we can,” he said, citing nuclear non-proliferation and joint efforts against terrorism. “But we have also to send a clear message that they have to act in ways that are not bullying their neighbors.”
According to the ominous preparations on the Russian side, Medvedev and Putin are seriously contemplating putting Obama's words to the test in the weeks after he takes office.