ROAR: “Enemies had better not fly to Abkhazia”

As Russia’s military announce the deployment of S-300s in the former Georgia’s republic, analysts say these air defense systems were deployed there two years ago.

Moscow has deployed an S-300 surface-to-air missile system in Abkhazia, Air Force Commander Col. Gen. Aleksandr Zelin said on August 11. He explained that the system has been deployed to ensure security of the republic and Russian military base located in it.

The system should defend facilities in Abkhazia, while the air defense means the Ground Forces are responsible for protecting facilities in South Ossetia, he explained.

Abkhaz Prime Minister Sergey Shamba said on August 11 that the deployment of the S-300s fully conform to bilateral agreements between Moscow and Sukhum. “It is a defense system,” he told Interfax. “It is meant to defend the Russian military base and the territory of Abkhazia and is not aimed against any third country,” he said.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry has protested the move. It poses a threat “not only to the Black Sea region, but to security in Europe in general,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Russia has recognized for the first time that its air defense systems have been delivered to Abkhazia and enemies had better not fly there,” Kommersant daily wrote. According to the paper, “Moscow began to deploy elements of this system in Abkhazia in autumn 2008, after the end of the war in the Caucasus.”

The S-300 deployed in the republic will not only defend it from Georgia’s potential threat, but will also “cover Olympic facilities in Sochi,” the paper noted, citing military analysts.

At the same time, it is still unclear how many S-300 batteries have been deployed in Abkhazia, the paper said. The Defense Ministry has not added to the information submitted by Zelin.

So far the nearest air defense systems were deployed near Sochi, the paper noted. However, Moscow considered the plans to station S-300 in Abkhazia some years ago. In July 2003, first deputy premier of the Abkhazian government Astamur Tarba said Sukhum had asked Moscow to defend the republic’s airspace from Georgian drones, the daily said.

A source in the Russian Foreign Ministry told Kommersant that this request had been considered. However, Moscow refused to supply the air defense systems due to the republic’s uncertain status at the time – Russia then officially considered Abkhazia as part of Georgia.

“Everything changed after August 2008,” the paper said. After Moscow officially recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the first elements of the systems began to arrive in Abkhazia in autumn 2008, the paper noted. “In particular, additional radio-location sets were deployed in the south of the republic.”

Abkhazia’s Defense Minister Merab Kishmaria also recognized the fact the "air defense systems had been deployed long before Zelin’s statement,” the paper said. “It was necessary because of the constant threat from Georgia and the fact that Abkhazia and Georgia have not signed the peace agreement,” Kishmaria told the paper.

At the same time, “a civil part” of Abkhazia’s leadership may not have known the details of the military co-operation between Moscow and Sukhum, the paper assumed. At least, the head of the republic’s Foreign Ministry Maksim Gvinjia yesterday “did not hesitate to deny the fact that Russian S-300s were in the republic,” it added.

The move is a preventative measure in case the Georgia’s aviation steps up its activities in the region or starts to increase, the paper said. The S-300s will be able “to control part of the airspace in Georgia,” Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the National Defense magazine, told the daily. Another task will be covering Olympic facilities in Sochi, he added.

At the same time, Russia does not plan to deploy the air defense systems in South Ossetia, a source in the Defense Ministry told the paper. The air defense group of the Ground Forces is enough to cover the airspace in that republic, he added. However, South Ossetia’s Defense Minister Valery Yakhnovets, appointed last week, made it clear the systems would not be out of place there.

The first reaction of the West to the news of the deployment of the S-300s in Abkhazia was calm, Kommersant said. A source in the NATO headquarters told the paper that “the alliance’s position remains unchanged.

“We do not recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and so we do not welcome the appearance of Russian defense systems in these regions,” he said. But this move “does not cause alarm either,” he added.

The US State Department has made it clear Washington is not surprised by the move. “I believe it’s our understanding that Russia has had S-300 missiles in Abkhazia for the past two years,” Philip Crowley, the department's assistant secretary, said during a press briefing on August 11.

“We can’t confirm whether they [Russia] have added to those systems or not,” Crowley said. “This by itself is not necessarily a new development. That system has been in place for some time,” he added.

President of the Institute for Strategic Assessments Aleksandr Konovalov believes it is “senseless to cover Abkhazia with such systems from Georgia’s air attacks” because Tbilisi has limited military aircraft.

“I think the S-300 would be useful in this place if a US aircraft-carrier entered the Black Sea and posed a threat,” Konovalov told Gazeta daily, adding that it was “absolutely unrealistic scenario.”

Observers note that Russia’s 2007 contract on supplying S-300s to Iran provokes more concern in the US and Israel. Moscow is still delaying the delivery of the systems although the deal has not been officially cancelled.

Sergey Borisov,
Russian Opinion and Analysis Review, RT