Russian anger simmers as a month of Partnership for Peace (PFP) military exercises featuring NATO states starts in Georgia. But NATO claims that there is no agenda and that Moscow was fully informed.
Twenty nations are to take part under NATO's leadership
Around 1,000 soldiers from over a dozen NATO member states and partners were to practice "crisis response" at a Georgian army base east of Tbilisi, around 70 kilometers (44 miles) from the nearest Russian troop positions in South Ossetia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has responded to what he calls dangerous "muscle-flexing" by sending troops to the border with Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, just days before the start of the two operations; "Cooperative Longbow" - based on a fictitious crisis response operation - and the "Cooperative Lancer" field training exercise.
Moscow retains some 3,800 of its soldiers in each of the two Georgian provinces.
Russian officials state that the decision to bolster its forces on Georgia’s borders was taken long before the maneuvers were announced and was unrelated to Moscow's criticism of the planned exercises, according to a report by the Interfax news agency.
The Russian response has baffled sources at NATO who claim that the month-long maneuvers are not even a NATO mission and that, as part of the Partnership for Peace program, Russia was invited to take part – only to refuse the offer.
The Partnership for Peace was set up in 1994 and is described by NATO as a program of practical bilateral cooperation between individual Partner countries and the alliance. It "allows Partner countries to build up an individual relationship with NATO, choosing their own priorities for cooperation," according to the program's mission statement.
Russia was invited but declined twice, claims NATO
"This is not a NATO exercise," an alliance spokesperson confirmed to Deutsche Welle. "This is a PFP exercise. It's not even an ambitious exercise. It has two parts; a classroom scenario and a live combat exercise but even that is only 400 people, with extra staff bringing it up to 1,000. These exercises have been going on for years and are strictly routine. They're needed because these countries regularly cooperate together. There was a similar one in Armenia last year and frankly no-one took any notice.
Russia chose not to be involved in the PFP exercises in Georgia
"Because it's a PFP exercise, it's open to everybody which also means that everybody was fully informed when it was proposed in late spring of last year," the spokesperson added. "Nobody was forced to participate and Russia chose not to. But they knew exactly what was going on and there was no issue. Even when they said recently that they were concerned about the exercise, we said: 'although the subscription date had passed, why don’t you send some observers?' But they declined that as well. There is nothing controversial from our point of view."
Alexander Rahr, the director of the Russian/Eurasian program at the German Center for Foreign Affairs, believes Russia has every right to be concerned - not from a military point of view but a psychological one.
"Russia does not see these exercises as a military threat," Rahr told Deutsche Welle. "It's purely psychological. Russia thought that after the war last year, Georgia's hopes of joining NATO had been crushed. Now NATO states have their military personnel in Georgia and regardless of what the official line is, it is a signal of support and one which says Georgia has not been forgotten. Moscow is now wondering if NATO is now offering Georgia a route in via the back door, and this reignites their concerns."
Partnership for Peace mission, not a NATO mission?
A press release on the web site of SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) says the aim of the exercises is to improve "interoperability between NATO and partner countries, within the framework of Partnership for Peace, Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative programs."
Some observers believe NATO is testing Russian tolerance
It adds that these exercises "are part of the NATO Partnership-for-Peace program, allowing partner countries to build up an individual relationship with NATO."
Despite the insistence of NATO that these are multilateral exercises open to all PFP members, observers have criticized the decision to hold the maneuvers in the flashpoint Caucasus region and many have questioned why NATO has chosen Georgia as the location at such a delicate phase in relations with Russia.
NATO and Russia only recently resumed formal contacts which were suspended when the West accused Moscow of a "disproportionate" response to Georgia's assault on separatists in South Ossetia which led to last year’s five-day Caucasus conflict.
NATO rejects claims of provocative measures
Medvedev says the exercises are "wrong and dangerous"
NATO has rebuffed claims that the decision to undertake military maneuvers in Georgia is a provocative measure aimed at pushing the boundaries of the newly restored relations.
"There’s no mystery, no secret and no political point," the NATO spokesperson said. "The hot political events took place in August last year and this exercise was scheduled before that. There were lots of countries who offered to host this and a year ago, Georgia volunteered. But it could have been anyone.
"Georgia is not on any blacklist. Georgia is a Partnership for Peace country," he continued. "Frankly, there is no connection, through the scenario or the decision, with Georgia. It could have taken place in Azerbaijan, Albania or the UK…wherever. Georgia just happened at that time to volunteer."
Alexander Rahr believes there is more than pure coincidence behind these exercises taking place in Georgia at this time. "This is a very blunt response by the West," he said. "It is a direct response to Russian military maneuvers in Venezuela and before that in China."
No show of support for Saakashvili or his ambitions
Saakashvili has been under domestic pressure recently
NATO is also keen to reject claims that that the exercises are intended to show the alliance's support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been the target of weeks of opposition protests in Tbilisi over his record on democracy and the war with Russia, and his NATO membership ambitions.
"No-one should misuse this exercise for any political reason. Nobody should read more into this than there is," the NATO spokesperson concluded. "From our point of view, this is a routine, useful exercise and we don’t really see why there is all this commotion."
Alexander Rahr disagrees. "This is of course very important for Saakashvili and for his NATO ambitions," he said. "Whatever is said, it is a show of support for the Georgian leadership and a huge psychological and political boost for Saakashvili. It has drawn international attention to him again and he will make sure that the Russians see this as a signal from NATO that Georgia has not been forgotten."
Author. Nick Amies
Editor : Chuck Penfold