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Abkhazia playing power games with Russian missiles

Two years ago, Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia with Russian support. This summer, the breakaway republic announced its possession of Russian missiles in a bid to demonstrate its claimed sovereignty.

S-300 anti-aircraft missiles

Russia stationed anti-aircraft missiles in Abkhazia two years ago, yet Abkhazia just recently made their existence public

The breakaway republic of Abkhazia recently acknowledged its possession of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, raising concern among Western governments that the security situation in Georgia could deteriorate. DW talked to Vladimir Evsejev, a military expert at the Center for International Security in Moscow, who warns the Russian leadership against expanding its military presence in the region.

DW: In the middle of August Russia stationed anti-aircraft missiles in Abkhazia. What's behind this move?

Vladimir Evsejev: Actually the problem isn't new. Russia had stationed these anti-aircraft missiles in Abkhazia two years ago right after the war with Georgia. For some reason the leadership in Abkhazia has decided now of all times to make it public. The announcement came from Abkhazia, not from Russia.

I don't think this step was discussed with Moscow. That says to me that the Abkhazian government wants to underscore its independence from Russia. Russia was simply confronted with this statement and had no choice but to confirm it as fact.

What was the goal of the Abkhazian government?

Abkhazia is striving for international recognition of its independence. In contrast to South Ossetia, Abkhazia is capable of being independent. It has the right conditions: Access to the sea, mineral wealth, and good relations with Turkey - which is ready to support the development of Abkhazia. The recent announcement should be viewed in this context: Abkhazia is seeking to be internationally recognized.

The EU reaction was very strong. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said the stationing of missiles raised the risk that tensions in the region could rise.

The Europeans cannot be happy about such a development, that's clear. Even if there were no S-300 missiles in Abkhazia, the EU would still wonder what business a Russian military presence had there. Also, the S-300s are not dangerous for Georgia in any way, nor for neighboring countries. They're defensive, not offensive weapons.

Should Russia continue to arm Abkhazia?

Russian soldiers in Abkhazia

An expansion of Russia's military presence in Abkhazia could provoke Georgia

More arms would mean more tension, which is not advisable. The weapons arsenal that Russia already has there is sufficient to prevent a new armed conflict. If Moscow were to bring new weapons into Abkhazia, it would provoke the Georgian government to implement countermeasures.

The S-300s alone are sufficient to protect the entire territory of Abkhazia from an air attack. At any rate, I can't imagine that it would come to such an attack in the first place. To that extent I agree with the US government that Russia should refrain from expanding its military presence in Abkhazia in any way.

How do you see the chances for a normalization of Georgian-Russian relations?

These relations have come to an impasse. Moscow has taken the uncompromising position that it won't negotiate with Tbilisi as long as Saakashvili is in power. Saakashvili doesn't intend to give up his office and will remain president of Georgia for a few more years. That means the Russian leadership has sacrificed the opportunity to start any kind of dialogue with Georgia.

Contacts with other politicians like Nino Burjanadze (opposition politician) have not brought Moscow any further, because Burjanadze is not one of the current decision makers in Georgia. We're not going to get out of this vicious circle in the near future.

On the other hand, if Russia manages to avoid provocation, it can try to improve relations through small steps. Recently, measures were introduced to restart air traffic between Russia and Georgia. This could contribute to an easing of tensions without Moscow directly coming into contact with the Georgian government. This step-by-step approach, which the US often uses, would be sensible in the current situation.

Interview: Sergei Morozov, Deutsche Welle Russian Service (sk)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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