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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Georgia Unmasks Russia

From the Georgian Times:

Accusations between Georgia and Russia have continued to fly over the last month. Moscow obstinately refuses to admit it was responsible for the missile on the Georgian village, Tsitelubani, on August 6, regardless of what the international experts, evidence, radar recordings and eyewitnesses are saying. However, the Georgian defense ministry, although criticized for not shooting down the Russian aircraft violating Georgian airspace, has done an excellent job at unmasking Russia’s power maneuver towards its tiny pro-NATO neighbor.

Russian officials have mentioned the word “provocation” so many times that it has become commonplace in Russian political vocabulary. Confused by the rapid reaction and concerted efforts of the Georgian authorities after the bombing, Russian diplomats and generals have nothing but empty words in response. The Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, General Yuri Baluevsky, described the one-ton, anti-radar, guided missile shot on Georgian soil near the breakaway region of South Ossetia as “hallucinations”; yet another Russian general spoke of “gross provocation” while the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister condemned Georgia for “provocative,” vocal accusations.

The Georgian authorities summoned two groups of experts. The first assembly, comprising of technical and operational experts from Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden and the USA-- eight in total-- conducted a comprehensive probe and concluded on August 14 that on August 6 an aircraft (most likely a Su-24) flying from Russia violated Georgian airspace three times. Additionally, during the last ten-minutes it dropped an anti-radiation, air-to-ground missile (Kh-58) of Russian design. The radar information corroborated the separation of a missile from the aircraft and, the experts concluded, Georgian Armed Forces do not possess an aircraft able to launch a Kh-58.

The second group of experts worked from August 18 to 19 and comprised of five experts from the UK, Estonia, and Poland. This group confirmed that the findings of the first unit and went further to conclude that the target of the Russian aircraft was most likely the Georgian radar positioned near Gori. Furthermore, this group explicitly answered all the questions that arose before, underlining that Georgia could not have staged the incident, that Georgians destroyed only the warhead of the missile for safety reasons, and that the missile did not explode because of, “the lack of radar transmissions when the missile was launched and the short range.”

“Seven countries have confirmed the incontrovertible evidence of Russian involvement in the August 6 violation of Georgian airspace and bombing of my country’s territory. Russia meanwhile has been unable to provide any evidence that may in any way contradict the conclusions of independent international experts,” Georgian Ambassador to the UN, Irakli Alasania, explained.

Obviously, the government of a small but ambitious state has conducted an enormous amount of work to reveal to the world the aggressive face of the Kremlin. In a way, this was a stronger response than the downing of the assaulting Russian helicopter would have been. Especially dynamic was the work of the country’s defense ministry, which managed in virtually one day to gather foreign experts.

On August 29, Russian militaries conducted a press conference in a failed attempt to combat Russia’ worsening international image. Russian military expert, Akulenok, who had actually visited the impacted site on August 16-17, stated that “nothing of what usually survives an impact was present,” without clarifying how a dozen of international experts could have proceeded with an investigation if nothing was present. Not surprisingly, another flawed statement was made by Lieutenant General Khvorov who claimed, “the conclusions drawn by the Georgians are absolutely unprofessional and are political rather than professional.”

Khvorov forgot that Georgia did not present the reports suggesting Russian involvement; it was thirteen experts from seven different countries. Georgians, who did not participate in the work of foreign colleagues for the sake of maximum objectivity, only based their statements on the objective findings of the investigative groups-- statements, which were also equally convincing for Western politicians. For example, Yoshka Fisher, former German Foreign Minister, recently expressed his personal belief that Russia dropped a missile on Georgian ground to demonstrate its power to both Tbilisi and the West. The President of France Sarkozy slammed Russia, stating in front of 180 diplomats that, “Russia is imposing its return on the world scene by using its assets, notably oil and gas, with a certain brutality…when one is a great power, one should not be brutal.” It was due to the perilous and obvious nature of the attack that NATO decided to speed up integration of Georgia’s radar system into NATO’s-- by Georgia joining NATO’s Air Situation Data Exchange they will receive real-time aerial pictures of Georgia.

It is easy to agree with Russian general Khvorov’s insistence that, “such acts of provocation are the last thing Russia wants,” given the current awkward situation Russia found itself in three months after successfully managing to have the UNOMIG obscured after committing a two-hour helicopter shelling on the administration building in the Upper Kodori region of Georgia on March 11. Khvorov would like Georgia to look for the provocateur elsewhere—not at its neighbor to the North. Nevertheless, even if Georgia wanted to look elsewhere, it is difficult when experts—from the second investigative assembly-- concluded that, “the aircraft came from and returned to Russian airspace. The missile was of Russian manufacture. Within the region Russia is the only feasible nation capable of using the weapon correctly.”

If there are still some pundits and politicians wondering why the Kremlin would need to throw bombs on its pro-Western neighbor, the answer is found in Moscow. Russia is fighting fiercely with all possible means to halt the ongoing squeezing-out process of its zone of influence in the South Caucasus region. Since Russian leaders, formerly and presently affiliated with KGB, perceive NATO as their state’s primary rival in the strategically vital region, they are responding to Georgia’s aspirations towards the North Atlantic Alliance with intimidation and exacerbating the situations in unresolved conflict zones in Georgia. An example of a scenario Moscow hopes to achieve is Georgia’s neutrality-- rejecting partnership membership in NATO while failing to stop Russian pressure and meddling. This would lead to an exhausted Georgia falling pray to Russian imperialism.

Indeed, on August 30, when Georgian diplomats, the State Minister for Conflict Resolution Issues and the Deputy Foreign Minister were visiting Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement urging Georgia to stay, “a sovereign, neutral and friendly country.” It is understood that neutrality means a still vulnerable Georgia beyond NATO and in the yoke of Russia.

“If official Tbilisi undertakes steps towards real normalization of Russo-Georgian relations, our constructive response will not be delayed,” said Russia’s Grigory Karasin in a bargaining manner that left no doubt as to what Moscow meant under Georgia’s steps towards normalization. To prevent further occurrence of events that Russia will surely label as “provocation” Europe must embrace Georgia into its fold. Some question as to why NATO needs Georgia as a member-- fearing Russian military aggression towards NATO. Nevertheless, for those who would not give up on Georgia, on the brink of full-fledged democracy and paving Europe’s path to Asia, that question has long been answered. The full transatlantic integration of a 4-million Georgia, contributing 2000-strong troops in Iraq, and in Afghanistan and Kosovo, will be made irreversible by inviting it to join the MAP. Prescribing new reforms under the Membership Action Plan and ultimately ushering Georgia into the collective security club will further boost regional security. This will also make Russia reluctant to bombard one of the most dynamically reforming states, and will ease tensions between them.

Russia is trying in vain to change things that are building unalterable momentum. The West world is realizing how aggressive Russia’s intentions are. The offensive maneuver on August 6, though important in itself, shows Russia’s likely guilt in past incidents and rows with Georgia, like the spy scandal of last October, the Kodori shelling case, and the bid of Russian military assistance to separatist regimes. What happens between Georgia and Russia bears ramifications for European security, and there are lessons to be learned for all. Those in Europe who have been indifferent previously should speak out now and take necessary actions.

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