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Russia Stokes Tensions With Georgia As Troops Gather Near Border

Posted by Kris Roman on July 1, 2009

Russia was accused of stoking tensions with Georgia yesterday as it mounted a huge military exercise, in an ominous echo of last summer’s war. Thousands of troops and hundreds of armoured vehicles began the “Caucasus 2009” manoeuvres across southern Russia, close to the border with Georgia.

Soldiers based in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were also taking part, as well as elements of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the air force and the elite airborne troops.
Lieutenant-Colonel Andrei Bobrun, a Russian military spokesman, said: “The aim of the exercises is to establish the state of battle readiness and troop mobilisation deployed in Russia’s southwest region.” The military held similar drills before the war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia last August. The Kremlin later defied international pressure and recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
The latest war games are Russia’s largest since the conflict and are being overseen directly by General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of General Staff. The Defence Ministry said that 8,500 troops, 200 tanks, 450 armoured vehicles and 250 artillery pieces were involved in the exercises, which last until July 6, the day on which President Obama is due to arrive in Moscow on his first official visit to Russia.
Georgia accused Moscow of “playing with fire” by staging the event so close to the conflict zone. Alexander Nalbandov, the Deputy Foreign Minister, said: “This is aimed at further increasing tensions in the region.”
Some are fearful that the exercises are a prelude to fresh hostilities with the aim of entering the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and toppling President Saakashvili. Andrei Illarionov, a former Kremlin adviser to Vladimir Putin, said that Russia may take action shortly after Mr Obama’s visit and claim that the United States was tacitly accepting its decision.
“The main goal is to turn Georgia into something like porridge from a political, military and ethnic point of view,” he told reporters. “Most important is the destruction of the political stability of Georgia.”
The Kremlin loathes Mr Saakashvili and is determined to wreck his drive to pull Georgia out of Russia’s orbit by gaining membership of Nato and the European Union. President Medvedev has called his Georgian counterpart a “political corpse” and says that he will never meet him.
Pavel Felgengauer, a military analyst who predicted last year’s conflict, also said in a new book, The Guns of August 2008, that powerful forces in the Kremlin regarded Georgia as unfinished business. He wrote: “The Russian troops did not go to Tbilisi in August 2008 but this does not imply that they will never do so.” He noted that overstretched supply lines halted the Russian advance last year. This year, Russia had already set up forward bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia that were capable of supplying an invasion force.
The Russian Ambassador to Nato yesterday threatened Georgia with the loss of more territory, a day after the alliance resumed military ties with Russia, frozen since the war. Dmitri Rogozin told Georgia to “abstain from military operations” against South Ossetia and Abkhazia, adding: “Each time Georgia takes this step, it runs the risk of shrinking in size.”

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