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16 Apr, 2009 12:09

NATO drills may spark Georgian aggression

Russia calls on NATO to cancel or at least postpone its scheduled military exercises in Georgia.

Russia’s Envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told Itar-Tass news agency that “the exercise will be provocative.”

“The very fact of holding this military exercise at the time when the internal situation in Georgia is worsening is a reason to suspect that it is an act of interference in the internal affairs of this country.”

By going ahead with the war games, NATO appears to be offering support to Mikhail Saakashvili, Dmitry Rogozin says.

“Any attempt to cheer up the Saakashvili regime looks monstrous in regards to the victims sacrificed at the altar of his Napoleonic ambition,” Rogozin was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.

He said he has already sent a corresponding query to NATO's Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

In his turn, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia hopes NATO member countries “will avoid steps which may encourage Georgia for permissiveness and impunity.”

“The display of NATO's support to the Georgian regime will hardly send a correct message to those who sincerely wish stabilization in the Caucasus,” Lavrov told Interfax.

“Hopefully, NATO countries will draw the right conclusions from last August’s events. It is necessary to understand that it’s dangerous to arm Georgia,” Lavrov said.

Earlier the Head of the centre of military estimates at the Russian Institute for political and military analysis, Anatoly Tsyganok, said it would be better if the training was cancelled.

“How can it be taken? The Strasburg-Kehl summit where there was much talk about restoring the normal work of the Russia-NATO council has just finished, and the North-Atlantic alliance is holding exercises in Georgia without consulting the Russian side,” he said.

Caucasian conflict of August 2008

Georgia attacked the breakaway region of South Ossetia on August 8, 2008, killing about 300 local residents and ten Russian peacekeepers stationed there. Initially, South Ossetia said the number of victims was some 1,400 people.

Russia intervened, repelling the attack and many countries, including NATO members, accused Moscow of using disproportionate force against Georgia.

But as more evidence surfaced admitted that Tbilisi played a major part in escalating the conflict.

Next month 13 hundred NATO troops are due to take part in war games several kilometres from Tbilisi, that's just a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border. And some see this as a slap in Moscow's face, says Ivan Eland from Peace and Liberty Centre at the Independent Institute.

"It's a needless poke at Russia after this war. I think Georiga bear a lot of responsibility for starting the war and the Bush administration, who was in power at the time, couldn't do much about it, because it's in Russia backyard. That is the reason why the U.S. should not expand into Georgia," says Ivan Eland.

Games in Russia's backyard

Meanwhile, NATO press officer Robert Pszczel told Interfax that NATO’s military exercises in Georgia were planned a long time ago and have no relation to the current political situation in the country. 

Pszczel added that all the participants of the Partnership for Peace programme, including Russia, were extensively informed about the drills and were invited to participate.

“These exercises were not a surprise,” NATO press officer said.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Serbia and some other countries will also take part, though they are not NATO member countries.

Pszczel reminded that a similar drill last autumn in Armenia didn’t cause such a reaction. “Georgia is also a full-fledged member of the Partnership for Peace programme,” Pszczel pointed out.

But NATO could have called off the maneuvers, had it decided not to repair its relations with Russia, suggests Mikhail Troitsky from Moscow State University of International Relations:

“Once the relations with Russia have been mended and that has been acknowledged by both sides, it’s become an important issue, a matter of prestige for the alliance to show it’s not backing out of its support for Georgia, or, as they say, for Georgian democracy,” says Troitsky.

The Cooperative Longbow/Lancer 2009 exercise is scheduled to start on May 6 under the aegis of NATO. The timing of the event is particularly sensitive because opposition forces in Georgia are currently holding mass protests.

The international exercise at the Georgian military base of Visani will involve 900 troops from 23 NATO members and partners. The month-long event will include staff and field training.

Georgia is eager to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The issue is one of the major stumbling blocks in the alliance’s relationship with Russia. Were Tbilisi to join NATO, Moscow believes its security would be compromised. So far Georgia’s accession has been put on hold by NATO.