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Georgian base closure shifts strategic balance

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  • Georgian base closure shifts strategic balance


    Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
    June 30 2005

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

    By Irakly Aladashvili in Tbilisi and David Petrosian in Yerevan

    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