Georgian Base Closure Shifts Strategic Balance

The transfer of Russian military hardware from Georgia to Armenia may alter the balance of forces in the South Caucasus.

Georgian Base Closure Shifts Strategic Balance

The transfer of Russian military hardware from Georgia to Armenia may alter the balance of forces in the South Caucasus.

On May 30, after years of disagreements, Georgia and Russia finally agreed on a timescale for Moscow to close its two remaining military bases in Georgia. Moscow and Tbilisi are now negotiating the technical details of the pullout – and the critical issue of what will become of the significant numbers of Russian tanks in Georgia.

The Russian bases at Akhalkalaki and Batumi are to close up by the end of 2008. Russia plans to transfer some of the equipment now stationed there to its military base in Gyumri in neighbouring Armenia.

Although Georgian officials have hailed the pullout agreement as a landmark, some observers believe the transfer of more Russian armaments to Armenia could upset the already fragile balance of forces between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The neighbours are still involved in a long conflict over the disputed Nagorny Karabakh territory and lands adjacent to it.

Peace talks to end the decade-old conflict have dragged on for years. Recently, Azerbaijan, which lost 14 per cent of its territory to ethnic Armenian forces in the fighting, has shown increasing impatience with the situation.

The relocation of military hardware from Russia’s bases in Georgia to sites in Armenia has been greeted with more concern in Azerbaijan. President Ilham Aliev says his country will raise defence spending by 70 per cent as a result. Azerbaijan has often accused Russia of covertly backing Armenia in the conflict.

"It is true that this hardware is not being handed over to Armenia but remains at the disposal of the Russian base," President Aliev said on June 25 as he addressed graduates at the Azerbaijani Higher Military School. "However, it will nevertheless be transferred to Armenian territory - and we have had to take proper steps, which we did by increasing defence expenditure in the budget."

According to the Military Staff of the Russian Troops in the Transcaucasus, at the beginning of 2005, there were 1,700 military personnel stationed at Batumi. In addition, the base had 31 tanks, 131 armoured fighting vehicles, AFVs, and 211 other vehicles, and 76 large-calibre artillery systems.

The base at Akhalkalaki had 1,800 personnel, 41 tanks, 67 AFVs and 61 other vehicles, and 64 large-calibre artillery pieces.

Three trainloads of weapons and munitions, including chemical and nuclear warfare protection gear as well as anti-aircraft missiles, have left the Batumi base for Gyumri since the agreement was signed. Under the terms of the deal, around 40 per cent of Russian equipment in Georgia is supposed to be relocated to Gyumri.

Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov said the relocation did not mean that Armenia or Russia would exceed international agreements governing arms restrictions in the Caucasus. And, on an official level at least, Yerevan says the relocation is a normal measure regulated by treaty obligations.

Some argue that Armenia needs the boost in weaponry on its territory that the closure of the Russian bases in Georgia will give it.

One Georgian expert predicted that in the event of a resumption of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia would try to prevent new overland shipments of Russian armaments reaching Armenia through its territory. “If the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is resumed, it may be assumed that Georgia will try to maintain complete neutrality and will not allow the Russian military to deliver additional ammunition to Yerevan,” said the expert, who did not want to be named.

“However, it will be first and foremost Armenia that will suffer from Georgia's neutrality, as it will find itself under an almost total blockade."

"Today, the only thing that Yerevan - whose economic potential cannot be compared with that of Azerbaijan -- can think about is replenishment of the stocks of Russian military equipment and ammunition."

However, a number of experts in Armenia believe that the relocation of Russian heavy armaments to Armenia will reduce Yerevan’s security, not increase it.

Anatoly Tsyganok, a professor at the Academy of Military Sciences, said, "All the control units for Russian anti-aircraft systems in this region are currently in Georgia. Moscow reinforced them not so long ago, in 2003 and 2004, as it considered it possible that unsanctioned missiles could be launched from the south, perhaps Iran, aimed at Russia.

"The impending elimination of these units will sharply reduce control over the entire system. As a result, not only Russia but also Armenia will encounter new problems.”

Four Russian military bases remained in Georgia in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 2001, in pursuance of agreements reached at an OSCE summit in 1999, Russia gave up the Vaziani base located near Tbilisi and the Gudauta base in Abkhazia.

Some observers say the two bases that were left lost any real strategic value for Russia.

"The two bases remaining on Georgian territory were then deprived of the main component - the airfield in Vaziani," said Koba Liklikadze, an observer on military affairs. "As there was no railway line to reach them, the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases found themselves blockaded and encountered problems with the transportation of military contingents, fuel, and weapons."

Moscow and Tbilisi had been negotiating on the closure of the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases since 1999. The Georgians had maintained that itn could be done in three to four years, while Moscow initially demanded 17 and later 11 years.

Talks on closing the bases were significantly stepped up after President Mikheil Saakashvili and his team came to power in Georgia.

Georgian defence minister Irakly Okruashvili said that the agreement to close the bases marks the end of 200 years of a Russian military presence in Georgia.

However, the question is whether Georgia will become a "demilitarised zone", as its leadership has said it wants, or join NATO, to which the government also aspires.

This question particularly worries the almost 100,000-strong Armenian community in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, as the Akhalkalaki military base located there is not just the only source of jobs for the locals, it is also viewed as a guarantor of security against NATO member Turkey – located right across the border.

Some Armenian security officials are disappointed with the Russian-Georgian agreement to liquidate the bases, seeing it as a capitulation by Moscow.

"Moscow has given in to a weak country [Georgia], failing to protect any of the diplomatic, economic, and military issues linked to its national security, as well as the matters relating to its sole ally in the region, Armenia," an Armenian expert close to the government who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR.

Irakly Aladashvili is a military observer for the Kviris Palitra newspaper in Tbilisi. David Petrosian is a political observer for the Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan

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