NATO's Georgia Exercises Test Russian Resolve

The exercises won’t be cancelled as Kremlin has demanded but Georgia should beware of lending them too much significance.

NATO's Georgia Exercises Test Russian Resolve

The exercises won’t be cancelled as Kremlin has demanded but Georgia should beware of lending them too much significance.

Russia’s relations with Georgia – and with the West – have plunged to a new low following NATO’s announcement that it’s going ahead with military exercises in Georgia.



Both NATO and Tbilisi say the exercises, lasting from May 6 to June 1, were planned before the last year’s war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia.



But Moscow insists they are untimely and may bring a new chill in Russia’s ties with the alliance that had just begun to thaw after a months-long freeze following the August 2008 conflict.



Russian president Dmitry Medvedev denounced the NATO decision as “short-sighted” and as an obstacle to the resumption of full contacts between Russia and the alliance.



The Russian leader said Moscow would follow closely what happened on its southern border and “take one decision or another”.



Moscow has already declared that it won’t take part in the Russia-NATO council meeting scheduled for May 7 unless the exercises are called off.



But the alliance appears set to go ahead, while Tbilisi has described Russia’s demand for the exercises to be cancelled as interference in Georgia’s internal affairs.



“Russia has no right to dictate its will to us,” Georgian foreign minister Grigori Vashadze said recently.



“It would be better if it started to un-occupy Georgian territory, instead of making all these comments about the NATO exercises in Georgia.”



Shota Malashkhia, who chairs the Georgian parliament’s commission for the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity, told IWPR there would be no backing down now.



“The NATO exercises will take place without fail and it’s not up to Russia to decide what happens in a neighbouring state, or how, all the more so since it’s not a NATO member,” he said.



Georgian TV channels have been intensively covering the preparations ahead of the exercises, which will be held at the Vaziani training base, 20 kilometres from the capital, and involve over 1,300 military personnel from 19 countries.



The Georgian authorities pin great hopes on the forthcoming event as an indication of Georgia’s continuing strategic importance to the West and to Europe.



The speaker of parliament, David Bakradze, said hosting the multi-national military exercises meant the country was entering “a new phase of relations with the European Union”.



“A series of important events have been planned in connection with the exercises,” he said.



“These have to do with economic cooperation, free trade, a simplified visa regime and free movement of citizens. In other words, there is a whole set of real privileges.”



Georgia’s defence minister, David Sikharulidze, struck a similar line. “The exercises serve to bring Georgia closer to Euro-Atlantic structures and heighten its compliance with Western standards,” he declared.



Russia, conversely, says the exercises may encourage Georgia to seek revenge for the defeat it suffered in the last year’s war.



The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said he hoped NATO’s support did not lead Georgia to believe it could act with impunity, “instead of drawing the right conclusions from those events [in 2008]”.



Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, sent a letter to the alliance, making much the same point.



He said Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, would “view the presence of NATO troops and military machinery on his territory as a new indulgence for undertaking new attacks on the neighbouring republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia”.



Rogozin also noted that the alliance was gearing up to hold the exercises at a time when Georgia was gripped by internal political instability.



The Russian defence ministry urged the alliance to “postpone the exercises in Georgia or cancel them”, recalling the unfortunate aftermath of last year’s NATO exercises in Georgia – held shortly before the war over South Ossetia.



The alliance, however, has made no moves to appease Moscow, saying only that Russia was welcome to join the manoeuvres.



Alliance spokesman Robert Pszczel did however say that the upcoming exercises would not involve heavy military equipment.



Tbilisi, meanwhile, has turned the tables on Moscow, noting that Russia is right now conducting military exercises across the border in the North Caucasus, as well as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.



Andrei Nesterenko, of the Russian foreign ministry, did not contest the claim but described the exercises as “routine”.



For their part, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have joined in the Kremlin’s chorus of denunciations, declaring they may now conduct their own exercises.



The Abkhaz leader, Sergei Bagapsh, said NATO manoeuvres in Georgia would not help stabilise the situation in the Caucasus.



Georgian military experts say Russia wants to make Georgia appear confrontational in the eyes of the international community.



“The explanation for Russia’s negative, if not hysterical, reaction to the NATO exercises is that since last August Moscow has been trying to present Georgia as an aggressive state, which one should think twice before dealing with,” Shalva Pichkhadze, head of a non-governmental organisation, Georgia in NATO, told IWPR.



But Pichkhadze cautioned Georgia against expecting major dividends from the exercises, noting that NATO had no desire to ruffle Russia’s feathers.



“Given its problems with Iran and Afghanistan, the alliance is more interested in cooperation with Russia than Russia is in cooperation with the alliance,” he noted.



“Russia does not aspire to become part of NATO, it does not depend on the alliance and places no high value on its relations with it.”



However, another expert, Tornike Sharashenidze, described the exercises as a test of whether Russia could dictate policy to its smaller neighbours.



“Since the August war, Russia has come to think of itself as the strongest power in our region,” Sharashenidze told IWPR.



“It believes it has a right to influence situations more actively. Let’s see … whether it will have any impact on the manoeuvres in Georgia.”



Mikhail Vignansky is a correspondent of Vremya Novostei in Tbilisi.

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