Did we just sidestep a war in the Black Sea?
23:51 08/19/11

There are many early warning signals and indications pointing to this.At the end of May, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg was interviewed on Russian FM radio Kommersant. 

Schwarzenberg recounted the problems in relations between Russia and Europe. When asked by the interviewer about Russia’s ambitions to regain its superpower status (“Does Russia's aspiration to play this sort of equal role with the United States in international affairs concern you?”)  his reply was categorical:  “To a certain degree it does concern me - above all Russia's attitude to its neighbors. Georgia is one of the examples. One can also recall problems in relations with Belarus or Estonia. Today, when we are discussing the subject of missile defence with our Russian partners, they, as it were, quite confidently declare their readiness to include in their sector of responsibility countries lying between the EU and Russia. [which includes Ukraine too] You understand, all this talk about the "near abroad" and "zones of special interests" belongs to the past. ” 

The interviewer then focuses specifically on Georgia. He prods further: “You mentioned Georgia. Three years ago you on one hand rigorously condemned the actions of Russia and on the other you did not support the idea of introducing EU sanctions against Moscow. What has changed since that time?” Schwarzenberg replies: “A lot has changed. Russia has stationed serious military contingents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This has seriously changed the balance of power in the region. After all, these forces are far more than enough not only for the defence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but also potentially for a new war against Georgia. The question is: Why are such large garrisons needed on these disputed territories?”

That begs the obvious follow-up  question: What other direct evidence is there that  Russia is gearing up for a new war against Georgia? There were several solid  indications that Russia may be preparing for a military engagement in Georgia in 2011, or 2012 at the very latest. The three main ones are:
1. Military exercises and the deployment of rocket attack systems in South Ossetia

2. Construction of a railroad between Sukhumi and Ochamchira in Abkhasia.

3. Increased NATO presence in the Black Sea basin.

At the end of May 2011, the Russian Black Sea Fleet conducted one of its largest military exercises over the past three years, one that was designed around the scenario of a large-scale landing operation. Such training for the Black Sea Fleet may only be necessary if it is planning a landing operation in Georgia since there are no other potential targets for such activities. Interestingly, the exercise coincided with the planned peak of pro-Russian opposition rallies in Tbilisi. In December of 2010, Russia disclosed the deployment of “Smerch”  multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) in South Ossetia. ( Russian Ministry of Defence). “Smerch” is a long-range (up to 90km) MLRS system, which may be capable of reaching the suburbs of Tbilisi from some locations in South Ossetia, and is capable of completely destroying the city of Gori. Its destructing power approaches that of a  small tactical nuclear weapon. Note that “Smerch” has a minimum range of 20km. This makes it unsuitable for the goal of protecting Tskhinvali, but suitable for supporting an offensive towards Georgia's Tbilisi and Gori,  if Russia decides to repeat the 2008 war. At the end of January, 2011, Russia had also confirmed the deployment of "Scarab B" (“Tochka-U”) tactical missiles in South Ossetia. (also, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense). These systems have a minimum range of 15km and  a maximum of 70km, and are designed for destroying high value targets. The same considerations as those for “Smerch” apply to this deployment.

Reconstruction of the railroad in Abkhasia started in 2011, with an officially-declared fully commercial agenda. Unlike in 2008, government-controled "Russian Railways" company is doing the job this time. The railroad will link the Russian city of Adler (near Sochi) to the Abkhasian capital Sukhumi, and further south to the Ochamchira Township on the Black Sea coast. Linking Adler to Sukhumi is well justified commercially due to the summer tourist season. On the other hand, tourist interest in Ochamchira is insignificant and cannot justify extending the railroad. However, such an extension might be justified if one considers that Ochamchira is the front-line base of the Russian Navy, and the last station on Abkhasian territory of the former Caucasus rail line before the current Abkhasia-Georgia border. Linking Ochamchira to Adler allows for the rapid deployment of considerable military forces to the front line between Georgia and Abkhasia.

We know that NATO is significantly increasing its military presence in the Black Sea basin,  according to European Command of the Armed Forces,  U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, testifying before Congress. The Admiral said that in 2011, the operative and tactic groups of the Navy had drafted a military training plan, in which 14 countries of the Black Sea region were involved. The enhancement of the area aims at training the partner states for the Afghanistan peace mission. Stavridis said the US marine forces have already conducted the first mission of drones in the Black Sea, however, he did not specify the date of the operation. When questioned by Senator John McCain about military cooperation with Georgia, the Admiral answered that American instructors continued to train Georgian soldiers, but denied that the US was supplying Georgia with weapons.

If Russia was actually planning to attack Georgia, the arrival of the US cruiser USS Monterey in the Black Sea recently put a serious crimp into their plans. It is not accidental that Russia vehemently protested against its deployment  in the area. A Moldovan newspaper writes: “The recent presence of the US cruiser USS Monterey in Romania's territorial waters has put an end to Russia's dominance in the Black Sea. ” While stationed in Batumi,  the  "Monterey" would be able to provide superb Air Defense and vessel movement radar information  to the  Georgians. And the Russians  would be unable to disable it as they did with Georgian Air Defense radars during the 5-day war in 2008 using tactical missiles. We may see many more such “friendly”  NATO visits until the mountain passes in Georgia get closed in by snow in the fall.

The summer of 2011 promises to be an interesting one in the Black Sea Region, indeed.

Walter Derzko

Source: ePoshta

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