Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Georgian MP Identifies Expat Oligarch in Russia as Financier of Failed Coup

[Photo Credit: St Petersburg-based businessman Alexander Ebralidze. Photo courtesy of Itar-Tass.]

An influential member of the Parliament of Georgia and the chairman of its Committee on Defense and Security, Givi Targamadze made a number of revelatory remarks during the weekly program Position on the Rustavi 2 television channel late on May 22. Targamadze claimed that the failed mutiny at the Mukhrovani military base on May 5 was sponsored by Alexander Ebralidze, an oligarch of Georgian descent, who has been living in Russia for the past three decades and who is also known to have personal ties to the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In particular, Targamadze noted:

"I have been refraining from naming a person who has organized everything, unless this person himself announced that after this failed mutiny he could no longer wait and would run for the presidency in the next elections – this is Mr. Ebralidze; and if there is someone who may think that in today’s Russia it is possible to be a billionaire oligarch in St. Petersburg uncontrolled by the most famous St. Petersburgian, i.e. [Russia’s PM Vladimir] Putin, is very wrong."
Originally from Batumi and currently based in St Petersburg, Ebralidze, who does not even possess Georgian citizenship, is the General Director of the Open Joint Stock Company Talion. In 2007, the Georgian Times estimated his fortune at $300 million. It appears that Ebralidze is extremely well connected. According to, Putin's former judo coach and presently General Director of the judo sports club Yavara-Neva, Arkadiy Rotenberg is on the Board of Directors of the Talion. In addition, among Ebralidze's friends are the Speaker of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of Russia's legislature - the Federal Assembly) Sergei Mironov, St Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko and Vice Governor Sergei Tarasov. Ebralidze's past criminal record is equally impressive. He has been convicted twice - first time for assault and illegal possession of weapons and second time for hooliganism and resisting authorities.

Alexander Ebralidze is the President of the World Congress of the Nations of Georgia, which was established in March in Vienna, Austria, according to the outfit's multilingual (English, Russian, Georgian and German) website and blog. The first founding convention of the World Congress of the Nations of Georgia attended by 1,500 delegates representing 14 nationalities from 18 countries was held in Sochi on May 13-15. The chief organizer of the convention was the Ossetian entrepreneur Gocha Dzasokhov, who was once close to the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili but who broke ranks with him in the aftermath of the August war last year, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda. Apparently undeterred by the fact that he does not have a Georgian passport, at the conclusion of the convention Ebralidze made a sensational statement proclaiming that he was ready to run for the presidency in Georgia, which caused consternation and subsequent walk-out of a small delegation of opposition figures from Tbilisi. It should be noted that the delegation from Tbilisi, among others, included the former State Minister of Conflict Resolution Georgiy Volskiy, the famous Georgian film director Revaz Chkheidze (who was elected an honorary president of the World Congress of the Nations of Georgia) and Malkhaz Gulashvili, the president of the media holding Georgian Times and the Co-Chairman of the Public Commission for the Restoration of Russian-Georgian Relations.

The resolution adopted by the aforementioned founding convention basically represented the reiteration of the Kremlin's demands. It read, "Georgia must become a neutral, non-bloc-member country developing relations with its neighbors and all states of the world...No military threat for anyone should emanate from the territory of our motherland. Georgia should, in turn, receive international guarantees of non-interference in its internal affairs. Georgia's most important priority must be restoration and development of good-neighborly, equal relations with the Russian Federation."

In his interview on the Rustavi 2 Targamadze also made other important remarks regarding the pro-Russian members of the Georgian Diaspora in Russia. In particular, he alleged that the Mukhrovani mutiny organizers held several preparatory meetings in an unspecified Commonwealth of Independent States country. The prominent criminal authorities of Georgian descent, who are active in Russia - Tariel Oniani and Bondo Shalikiani - were purportedly the initiators of those meetings, according to Targamadze. It should be noted that on May 18, President Saakashvili identified Shalikiani as one of the "active sponsors" of the ongoing opposition demonstrations in Georgia, while in March, the Georgian Minister of Internal Affairs, Vano Merabishvili called Tariel Oniani as one of the active instigators of unrest.

Perhaps the best description of the main motivational factors that drive the Kremlin handlers of Ebralidze's project is provided by the Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent Vladimir Vorsobin, who states:
"And in Moscow they probably understood: in order to restore Russia's influence, it will be necessary to deal with the Tbilisi political terrarium. While the disillusionment of Georgians with the U.S. policy is great and while the Tbilisi authorities are unstable, Moscow received a chance to win back from the U.S. at least a small platform for the pro-Russian politicians. In Sochi, for instance, there were already two 'agents of influence' - for the national majority and minority. Thus, however awkwardly and bluntly, the preparation of the political 'landing party,' it seems, have begun."

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday Shorts

One Suspected Organizer of the Mukhrovani Mutiny Killed and Two Wounded in a Shootout with Police in Georgia

Late on Wednesday, May 20, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (M.I.A.) of Georgia carried out a special operation to detain the three suspected organizers of the Mukhrovani mutiny - Gia Krialashvili, Koba Otanadze and Levan Amiridze - upon receiving a tip about their whereabouts. The three were hiding out at a summer cottage in the vicinity of the Tskhvarichamia village in the Gldani suburb of Tbilisi, according to the MIA press release. Apparently the culprits were on their way to escape to the Russian-controlled breakaway region of South Ossetia when they were ambushed by the Georgian police. In an ensuing two-hour shootout Krialashvili was killed while Otanadze and Amiridze were wounded and taken to the hospital, where they were treated for non-life-threatening injuries. The police seized firearms, $3,700 in cash, four mobile phones and several SIM cards from the fugitives. It should be noted that following the abortive mutiny attempt at the Mukhrovani military base on May 5, the M.I.A. announced the bounty of GEL 50,000 ($30,000) for the information about the location of the wanted coup plotters. Later the bounty of GEL 200,000 ($121,000) was announced by the M.I.A. for the information leading to the capture of the alleged mastermind of the Mukhrovani mutiny, Koba Otanadze.

Gates Signals Obama Administration's Effort to Include Russia in the Development of Missile Defense Options

At a hearing of the Subcommittee on Defense of the House Appropriations Committee on May 20, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates presented the highlights of the fiscal 2010 budget plan. In remarks accompanying his prepared testimony, Secretary Gates pointed out that there was still enough money from Pentagon's fiscal 2009 budget to begin the construction of missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland if the Obama administration decides to proceed with those plans. However, Gates emphasized that the Obama administration had a "great" interest in cooperating with Russia on the missile defense. Gates stated, "The reality is that radars located in Russia supplementing those in the Czech Republic would give additional capability to the sites in Europe." Separately, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy told the defense writers at a recently held breakfast meeting that the Pentagon was negotiating on the missile defense issue with Russia. She noted, "We are also looking at the full range of technological solutions, are there better ways to do this, and importantly, can we do this in a cooperative manner with Russia."

Poland Expects Delivery of Patriot Missile Batteries from U.S. by Year End as Russia Threatens to Position Iskander Missiles in Kaliningrad

On Monday, May 18, the Polish Deputy Defense Minister Stanislaw Komorowski told Reuters that Poland expected the Patriot missile battery to be deployed in Poland by the end of 2009 irrespective of the Obama administration's decision on the missile defense system in Europe. In particular, Komorowski noted, "Regardless of the decision (on missile defence), President Obama has said other cooperation with Poland, including strategic projects such as modernisation of our armed forces, will definitely be continued." Warsaw's insistence on the deployment of Patriot missile battery is in full accordance with the agreement reached between the Polish government and the Bush administration last year, which specified that in exchange for Poland's decision to host 10 long-range interceptor missiles as part of the U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe, Washington pledged to upgrade Polish air defense.

The terms of the bilateral security arrangement on the deployment of the Patriot missile battery spell out a number of caveats. As envisioned, the Patriot air defense unit will be based in Poland on a quarterly basis in 2009, 2010, and 2011 for training Polish personnel. From 2012, according to Komorowski, a Patriot missile battery will be permanently deployed near Warsaw. Komorowski explained, "At present, we cannot afford to buy Patriot batteries because of budget constraints but by 2013 we will consider starting to acquire that kind of theater missile defense system for our armed forces." Komorowski told the Financial Times that the U.S.-Polish talks on the establishment of the legal framework for the deployment of U.S. forces in Poland were expected to be wrapped up in July and this was to be followed by the arrival of 100-110 U.S. soldiers and 196 short-range missiles for the Patriot battery by the end of the year.

Notwithstanding the Obama administration "reset" policy towards Russia, according to the Financial Times report, "Polish officials have sought and won assurances from Washington that it would still go ahead with the Patriot deployment." The confidence of Polish officials is evident in Komorowski's comments, who stated, "We undoubtedly expect a clear 'yes' from the American side, it is just a matter of time...because there is no reason to think that the threat from Iran has grown smaller since last year." Sensing that the Patriot deployment in Poland will undoubtedly become a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations, Komorowski spoke in favor of developing a robust dialogue with Russia, but he stressed that it does not imply forgetting Russia's military invasion of Georgia and Moscow's subsequent recognition of Georgia's two separatist regions as independent states. Moreover, Komorowski noted, "In 1999 [when Poland joined N.A.T.O.], everybody thought the cold war was over. But last year we had Georgia. An independent country was invaded by our partner - Russia."

As expected, in response to the Polish statements, an unidentified member of Russia's General Staff repeated to the Interfax news agency Moscow's past threat of positioning the Iskander surface-to-surface missiles in the Kaliningrad region, which borders on Poland. In a rare glimpse of the psyche of the Russian top brass the same unidentified senior military official interpreted the Patriot deployment in Poland as "a response to Russia's objections to plans to install elements of the U.S. strategic missile defense in Europe."

Head of European Commission in Moscow Comments on Russia's Idea of Sphere of Influence

Ahead of the E.U.-Russia summit in Khabarovsk scheduled for May 21-22, the head of the representation of the European Commission in Moscow, Ambassador Mark Franco gave a lengthy on-line interview to the Russian news portal on May 12. The 70-minute interview is in Russian and can be streamed on-line at the website. Ambassador Franco responded to a wide array of questions submitted by website visitors on-line. Particularly noteworthy were his remarks with regard to the issue of the Sarkozy-Medvedev ceasefire agreement. When asked whether Russia adheres to the ceasefire agreement Ambassador Franco stated, "On a number of questions - yes. On a number of questions Russia actually fulfilled the requirements, obligations, which were accepted in accordance with this agreement. There are also other aspects of the agreement. I mean, in particular, the presence of Russian troops on the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These issues go beyond the provisions of the agreement. And the EU thinks that in the relationships between Russia and the EU in the area related to the provisions of the Sarkozy-Medvedev plan, there are indeed reserves for improvement." Franco acknowledged that the fulfillment of the ceasefire agreement will be raised at the E.U.-Russia negotiations in Khabarovsk. However, Ambassador Franco's most compelling remarks had to do with what Russia construes as its sphere of influence. In response to the question about what represents a fundamental problem in the E.U.-Russia relations, Franco stated:
"However, I think that the main difficulty, if we are talking about these relationships, is the difference in views between the E.U. and Russia. I would say that it is the evolution of the future development of what the Russian side calls the near abroad, and we call our common neighborhood. These are the free countries in the center of Europe - Moldova, Ukraine, Belorus. These are the countries of the Transcaucasus. And we have difficulties in determining a certain common approach to this question. Russia considers these countries its sphere of influence. We acknowledge, naturally, that Russia has interests in these countries. However, we think that these countries must have the opportunity to choose different relations with different countries naturally without reducing the intensity of their interactions with Russia." pressed Ambassador Franco to comment on whether the E.U. felt Russian resistance to the European outreach to Belarus and Moldova to which he responded:
"Well, what can I say? As we noted in the beginning of our conversation, when you asked about the main problems in the relationships between the E.U. and Russia, and I told you that they are in the relative roles in the common space of neighboring countries. Russia has an idea that it has spheres of influence. We consider them independent states that naturally have very close relationships with Russia. Nonetheless, Russia does not have the exclusive right in its relationships with these countries. The opportunities for developing other relations must be open. With all due respect to the existing relationships with Russia, it seems, Russia approaches this as some sort of a competition. We do not view it as a competition."
Georgian President Accuses Russia of Seeking a Pretext for Another War

In the interview with the journalist Natale Maria Serena from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on May 19, the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili noted that the abortive coup attempt at the Mukhrovani military base provided evidence that there were attempts to bribe the military leadership. Speaking of Russian militarization of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, President Saakashvili noted:
"They are expanding bases, sending soldiers in contravention of international agreements. Thousands of Georgians were expelled from Abkhazia, and in Ossetia there are already as many soldiers as there are residents. They want to impose on us the siege mentality and to erect the new Berlin Wall, which will divide us from Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. What will Europe do, close its eyes just as it did for the Sudetenland? Fortunately I do not see new Chamberlains. We all understand that there are certain inviolable principles."
Iraqi Government Rejects Kurdish Nabucco Deal

As this informative Reuters news report suggests, the search for gas placed Nabucco pipeline project into the midst of the political struggle between the Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. On Monday, May 18, a day after two of Nabucco participants, Austria's OMV AG and Hungary's Mol, joined with the United Arab Emirates' Crescent and Dana Gas to unveil the $8 billion plan to pump gas from Kurdistan, the Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani flatly stated, "We will not allow any side to export gas from the region without the approval of the central government and the Iraqi Oil Ministry." Meanwhile, the managing director of the Nabucco gas pipeline consortium Reinhard Mitschek hailed the fledgling deal with the K.R.G. as "an important and promising development for the acquisition of a huge volume of natural gas for Turkey and for Europe via Nabucco."

Russian Foreign Minister Reconfirms Conditionality between the Missile Defense Talks and Nuclear Arms Reduction

At the joint press conference following talks with his Egyptian counterpart on May 20, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov again reiterated Moscow's position that links the nuclear arms reduction with the debate over the U.S. plans to position missile defense system in Eastern Europe. According to the transcript of the press conference on the Russian Foreign Ministry website, Lavrov stated:
"The proposals being discussed will be analyzed by us from the viewpoint of fundamental criteria. The results of the negotiations must, of course, be a step forward compared to the existing regime of limitations and reductions. The overall principle of the agreement must be equal security for the sides and the preservation of parity in the field of strategic stability. Undoubtedly, this cannot be ensured without taking into account the situation in the sphere of missile defense, the placement of strike systems in outer space, plans to develop nonnuclear-tipped warheads and, among other things, the situation in the sphere of conventional arms with regard for many innovative approaches in this matter. I hope that the totality of all these factors will be fully taken into account while elaborating an agreement on the further reduction of strategic offensive arms."
Useful Reuters Q+A on U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction talks

Reuters put together a helpful factoid on the first official round of the U.S.-Russian talks on strategic nuclear arms reductions, which was scheduled for May 19-20 in Moscow.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fifth Round of Russian-Georgian Security Talks in Geneva Ends with Mixed Results

The fifth round of the security talks between Georgia, Russia and Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was off to a rocky start on Monday, May 18, when the Russian delegation, citing Abkhazia's refusal to participate, pulled out from the negotiations along with its other proxy, South Ossetia. Under the pretext of a bureaucratic technicality - the delay in the distribution of the U.N. Secretary-General's most recent report on the situation in Georgia - the separatist Foreign Minister of Abkhazia Sergei Shamba told Reuters on Saturday, May 16, that Abkhazia would not take part in talks.

As this detailed analysis of the U.N. report by explains, Abkhazia balked at the title of the report, which contained the accepted designation of "Abkhazia, Georgia" because it implied that Abkhazia is a part of Georgia. As a result, under the joint pressure from Abkhazia and Russia, the report's title was revised to drop any reference to the contentious issue of the status of the breakaway region. In addition, the reference to the separatist authorities in Abkhazia as "de facto Abkhaz authorities," which was used customarily in all previous reports, was for the first time truncated to just "Abkhaz authorities." Introduction of these last minute semantic changes undoubtedly represented a concession to Moscow because it is consistent with the Russian campaign to obtain the international community's acceptance of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Commenting on the revised version of the U.N. report, the Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze noted that it contained "points clearly indicating that they were introduced under pressure from Russia."

After the revised U.N. report finally arrived late on Monday and the U.S. State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly called the Russian walk-out "a coordinated effort to undermine the Geneva talks," the Russian side and its separatist allies decided to reengage the next day. The 3.5 hour closed-door talks on Tuesday were hailed as constructive by the E.U. co-chair of negotiations Pierre Morel. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry press release of May 20, the discussions mainly focused on the Russian proposals for the legally binding non-use of force agreements between Georgia and the breakaway regions, including "a commitment not to remilitarize Georgia." Moscow views such agreements as absolute preconditions for "a reliable security regime" in the conflict zone.

Co-chaired by the U.N., the E.U., the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (O.S.C.E.) and with participation of U.S. diplomats, and dubbed the "Geneva Discussions on Transcaucasia" by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the security talks in Geneva represent one of the few remaining diplomatic venues, where Russian and Georgian sides meet face to face. The most recent session, originally scheduled for two days (18-19 May), is the fifth one since the launch in September of last year and the next meeting is tentatively scheduled for July 1. Meanwhile the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (U.N.O.M.I.G.) with its 129 military observers and 16 police officers, who monitor the situation along the de facto border between Abkhazia and Georgia, is expiring on June 15 and its fate will be decided by a vote of the U.N. Security Council.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Conversation with Pavel Felgenhauer

The senior Jamestown analyst Pavel Felgenhauer agreed to give an exclusive interview to the Jamestown Foundation Blog on Friday, May 15. Here is the condensed summary of that interview.

Jamestown Foundation Blog (JFB): How would you assess the chances for the improvement of U.S.-Russian relations under the Obama administration? Do you think the renewal of the nuclear arms reduction talks will improve those chances?

Pavel Felgenhauer (PF): Well, there is a belief on both sides that the relations may improve. At least that is what the officials speak about repeatedly. A lot hinges on how successful the negotiations on the follow-up to the START will be. There is clearly a bilateral political agreement on this issue and there is an opportunity to quickly achieve the framework document on the reduction of the strategic nuclear forces. Though this does not mean that the treaty will be renewed before December, as planned. Again, the framework agreement can be signed but the legally binding treaty will most certainly take longer to work out. The figure of 1,500 nuclear warheads on each side has been cited frequently. Moscow’s interest in reviving the nuclear arms reduction talks with Washington stems from the fact that the Russian offensive strategic nuclear capabilities and the maintenance required to keep them are declining unilaterally regardless. So Moscow wants to achieve parity with Washington by agreeing on a legally binding treaty that will prevent the United States from fielding an additional number of warheads. In the course of negotiations both sides will inevitably stumble over the problems associated with the establishment of the new verification mechanisms for nuclear warheads, including issues related to on-site inspections. Other technical bones of contention that may drag out the negotiations will most likely include the Russian insistence on counting the delivery systems. Thus, the cumulative effect of the aforementioned factors may prevent Russia and United States from signing the new treaty by the end of this year, but this will not be a tragedy. The nuclear weapons are not as important now as they were during the Cold War and the hopes that the negotiations over the nuclear arms reduction may produce a détente appear to be overstated.

JFB: What are we to make of the controversy surrounding the pending sale of S-300 advanced air defense systems to Iran by Russia? What role did the UAV deal with Israel play in this context?

PF: What is known is that up until now they [S-300s] have not been delivered to Iran. This is at least partly due to the deal that Moscow struck with Tel Aviv on the delivery of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Israelis probably managed to persuade the Russians not to deliver the S-300s at this point. This means that Russia is potentially susceptible to similar deals. Moscow will act on the S-300 deal with Tehran not out of principle but depending on other factors and necessarily in a quid-pro-quo or tit-for-tat manner. I am not sure Moscow wants Israel to attack Iran. Of course, there are those, who lobby in favor of such an outcome. Then there are others who support the development of military-technical cooperation with Iran. The resulting policy reflects the influence of multiple interests groups, as everywhere else.

JFB: What do you think of the pace and content of the military reform undertaken by the Defense Minister Serdyukov in the Russian armed forces?

PF: The pace of reforms is rapid and the reforms are radical. In essence, what Serdyukov has in mind is a comprehensive Westernization of the Russian armed forces, which are still Soviet in nature, coupled with their thorough modernization. However, the reforms are implemented in a typically heavy-handed Russian style. They are carried out with great disregard for the officer corps. The officers, who are being dismissed from the military service, are offered different social welfare packages but they are often woefully inadequate. For instance, former officers are offered free flats, which actually represent worthless real estate because they are often located in the economically depressed areas, where jobs are hard to come by. Finding a gainful occupation in civilian life is extremely problematic for them especially under the current conditions of the economic downturn. As a result, a lot of social tension is rapidly accumulating in the Russian military and this reform can be u-turned and the whole idea of modernization can be discredited.

JFB: In your recent analytical work you predict a possible resumption of hostilities in Georgia. In your view, what would be a sufficient deterrent that would effectively prevent Russia from entertaining another military invasion of Georgia in the near future?

PF: The Russian military will abandon this idea only if they see that such a military campaign will entail unforeseen risks. At present there is nothing that can act as an effective deterrent. Moreover, there is a belief among the Russian military that the Georgian armed forces have been significantly weakened since last August. The recent mutiny at the Mukhrovani base only contributed to this belief. The Russian armed forces are also much better positioned now than they were a year ago. The Russian military formations are forward-deployed in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Of course, if, hypothetically speaking, there are several American brigades deployed, say, near South Ossetia or Abkhazia, as they are deployed in South Korea, for instance, that alone would serve as a sufficient deterrent. Moscow will understand then that if it commits troops there will be a high price to pay. However, since the aforementioned scenario is not only impossible but also implausible, the Russian military feels it can “finish the business” in Georgia. Their belief is strengthened by the fact that there has been no real rearming of the Georgian military since August of last year. There has been a lot of talk of rearming, but no real rearming. The West can only offer political discouragement to Moscow. At the same time Europeans can have a positive impact if they actively reengage in shuttle diplomacy and focus on the conflict prevention. There is much talk of conflict prevention and now is the perfect opportunity for action. But that would require political will and joint action and unfortunately the West simply lacks the political understanding of the gravity of the present situation. The prevailing mode of thinking is to hope that nothing is going to happen while some in the Pentagon appear to naively believe that the restart of negotiations with Russians will be sufficient to prevent any potential deterioration in security situation in the Caucasus.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Iran Signals Possible Shift of Procurement of Advanced Air Defense Systems from Russia to China and Belarus

According to a report in the Iranian news agency Press TV, Tehran is now contemplating to buy the HongQi-9 (HQ-9) long-range surface-to-air missile systems recently offered by China for export under the name of FD-2000. As the Press TV report suggests, Tehran's shift of procurement efforts from Russia to China can be explained by Iran's frustration over Moscow's continued refusal to honor the $800 million deal signed in 2007 to deliver the S-300 strategic air defense systems, which was discussed on this blog in April. Designed by the China Academy of Defense Technology and manufactured by the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC), the HQ-9/FD-2000 is a reverse engineered hybrid of U.S. Patriot and Russian S-300 air defense systems. Although, judging by some of its technical characteristics, HQ-9/FD-2000 is inferior to the advanced versions of the S-300 family of air defense systems, including the S-300 PMU1 and S-300 PMU2, it can nonetheless considerably improve Iranian air defense capabilities around the nuclear facilities and critical infrastructure assets. Equipped with the phased array guidance radar capable of tracking 100 targets, the HQ-9/FD-2000 air defense system can engage up to 48 airborne assets (including aircraft, cruise missiles, air-to-surface missiles and even tactical ballistic missiles) simultaneously at the range of 7-125 km and firing altitude of 0.025-27 km.

In a parallel development, in January the British defense publication Jane's reported that, based on the information provided by the undisclosed "defense industrial sources in Belarus," Iran was finalizing the $140 million deal with Belarus for the delivery of two surplus S-300 PT air defense systems. It should be noted that the S-300 PT is an older version of the S-300 air defense system, which was first deployed by the Soviet Union in 1978. Nonetheless, according to the Jane's report, the S-300 PT air defense systems allegedly proposed for sale to Tehran by Minsk are equipped with the 5V55K and 5V55R missiles with the range of 47 km and 75 km respectively. Considering that in accordance with the provisions of the agreement on the joint air defense and creation of an integrated air defense network signed by Russia and Belarus in February, Moscow is obligated to supply the advanced S-400 air defense systems as part of the planned upgrade of air defense system in Belarus, it is no wonder that Minsk is now in the possession of the surplus outdated S-300 PT platforms. The First Deputy Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Vadim Volkovitsky recently confirmed to the RIA Novosti that Russia and Belarus were negotiating the details of the S-400 transfer without specifying the delivery schedule.

The Jane's report provides astonishing details regarding the manner in which the S-300 PT air defense systems may be delivered to Iran from Belarus. According to Jane's, the partially disassembled air defense systems and spare parts will be transferred to Iran aboard cargo civilian and military aircraft as part of the regular flights between Minsk and Tehran. Moreover, the investigative reporter Edwin Black wrote in July of last year quoting "informed sources" that some of the components of the S-300 air defense system had already arrived in Iran but remained disassembled in boxes. Black described Belarus as "a common portal for controversial Russian arms shipments" and claimed that the Israeli Ministry of Defense believed that the S-300s would be delivered to Iran via Belarus. Meanwhile, on May 8, the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko summarily dismissed foreign media reports concerning illicit transfers to Iran. President Lukashenko stated, "As far as S-300 and Iskander [missiles] are concerned, these complexes cannot be exported without my approval. There is not a single contract or project related to these systems that I have been asked to approve. This is utter nonsense."

Regardless of the speculations in media and official denials, the "background noise" created by the aforementioned news reports prompts one to surmise that the United States and its allies will not be able to prevent the illicit transfers of S-300 air defense systems to Iran if they were to occur within the hypothetical logistical Russia-Belarus-Syria-Iran (with a plausible modification of Russia-Belarus-Armenia-Iran) network. The high level of secrecy and impeccably falsified consignment documentation will most likely ensure that the shipments will be carried out undetected. Thus, in the absence of specific intelligence, the U.S. and its allies will have to continue to rely on satellite imagery in the hope of identifying preparations indicative of the possible deployment of S-300 air defense systems in Iran.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Is Putin Linking the U.S. Plans for Missile Defense in Europe with the Renewal of the START Treaty?

On May 7, in an interview with the Japanese news agency Kyodo Tsushin, NHK television channel and the newspaper Nihon Keizai (Nikkei) on the eve of his trip to Japan, the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin explicitly linked the progress in the negotiations over the renewal of the strategic offensive arms reduction treaty (START) to the agreement on the issue of the missile defense in Europe. When asked specifically about whether Russia intends to link the START renewal with the U.S.-Russian dispute over American plans to deploy missile defense system in Europe, Putin responded:
As far as we understand, the new U.S. administration has not defined its position with regard to the future of the missile defense system at least as it relates to its deployment in Europe. But it is evident that the offensive and defensive parts of strategic forces are closely and indissolubly intertwined with one another. This was always the case and we always proceeded from this assumption. And this is precisely why the anti-ballistic missile treaty was signed in the first place.

When the United States unilaterally abandoned that Treaty and "buried" it, the threat of disparity emerged naturally with regard to the offensive and defensive strategic systems. I think one does not have to be an expert to understand the following: if one side wants to have or intends to have an "umbrella" from all kinds of threats, then it may have an illusion that it can do anything it pleases and then the aggressiveness of its actions will considerably increase while the threat of global confrontation will reach a very dangerous level.

Russia will, of course, link the questions of missile defense and everything that is related to that subject to the issue of strategic offensive arms.
If Putin's assertion is taken at face value it means that the chances for U.S.-Russian rapprochement appear to be rather slim. This issue goes beyond the mere management of expectations on both sides since at the core of the problem are the conflicting conditionalities that Washington and Moscow attach to their respective negotiating positions. Thus, in exchange for abandoning plans to position the elements of the missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic, Washington wants Moscow to assist with bringing more pressure on Iran to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, while the Kremlin wants Washington to scrap the missile defense plans in exchange for Russian cooperation on the renewal of the START treaty, which expires in December. Thus far the Obama administration skillfully employed the excuse of conducting the comprehensive review of the missile defense policy, which supposedly includes Russian proposals on the use of the radar stations in Russia and Azerbaijan, as a delaying tactic. However, time is running out and considering that the resumption of U.S.-Russian negotiations on START renewal, which are due to begin in Moscow on May 19, is considered to be the centerpiece of Obama administration's "reset" policy vis-à-vis Russia, Putin's statement may herald the early demise of the talks. After all, President Dmitry Medvedev already rejected Washington's quid-pro-quo back in March.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Shorts

Kazakh President Approves the Construction of a New Gas Pipeline to Russia

On May 15, in a snub to the Nabucco pipeline project, the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev signed into law the trilateral Russian-Kazakh-Turkmen agreement on the construction of the 1,600 km-long pipeline along the eastern coastline of the Caspian Sea. As the online Russian news channel explains, the agreement was signed by the governments of Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in December 2007. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed it into law in December 2008. As envisioned, on an annual basis the planned pipeline will carry up to 40 billion cubic meters (10 from Kazakhstan and 30 from Turkmenistan) of natural gas to Russia. However, as points out, the Turkmen side has not committed to this pipeline project yet.

Russia Rejects Greek Proposal to Save OSCE Mission in Georgia

Greece, as a current chairman of the 56-nation OSCE, submitted a carefully worded proposal for keeping the OSCE monitors in Georgia. The proposal purposefully omits any mention of Georgia or South Ossetia and grants OSCE monitors the right of free movement across the de facto border between the breakaway region and Georgia proper. In accordance with the details of the proposal, 22 OSCE monitors are to be stationed in the village of Karaleti on the Georgian side and 8 in Tskhinvali, the capital of the secessionist province. However, the Russian delegation at the OSCE led by Ambassador Anvar Azimov vetoed the Greek proposal on the grounds that it did not make the movement of OSCE monitors subject to the authorization by the South Ossetian authorities. It should be recalled here that in December Russia voted against the extension of the mandate of the OSCE Mission in Georgia on the basis of the demand to establish a separate mission in South Ossetia. Meanwhile, as Reuters reports, the June 30 deadline is rapidly approaching for the remaining 20 unarmed OSCE monitors located along the de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia.

Russian Security Council Releases National Security Strategy Document

On May 12, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the decree approving the Strategy of the National Security of the Russian Federation until 2020. Produced by the Security Council of the Russian Federation, which is chaired by President Medvedev and includes all key government members, this programmatic document contains a gloomy set of forecasts, including the risk of expansion of nuclear-weapon states. Another interesting caveat states, "Under the conditions of competitive struggle for resources the resolution of emerging problems with the use of the military force cannot be ruled out - thus, the existing balance of power along the borders of the Russian Federation and its allies maybe disturbed." The same section of the document points out that "the opportunities for maintaining global and regional stability will become significantly narrower in case of the deployment of the elements of the global missile defense system of the United States of America in Europe." Finally, the document warns that "the consequences of global financial-economic crises by their cumulative impact may become comparable with the large-scale use of military force."

IOC Officials Visit Sochi and Warn Against Delays

On Wednesday, May 13, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) panel overseeing the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics visited the venues around the city of Sochi for the second evaluation of progress. The Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for whom the 2014 Winter Olympics is a personal pet project was in Sochi to greet the IOC inspectors. Putin assured them that the construction works were on schedule. However, Jean-Claude Killy, who heads the IOC panel, told the Russian organizers, "Time is not a luxury that we have to play with on this project. The Sochi team must therefore ensure that it makes its decisions in a timely manner, so as to maintain its ambitious schedule." In a surprising acknowledgment of obvious event planning failures Putin admitted that there was no need to keep five ice arenas in the seaside resort city after the conclusion of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak has been handpicked by Putin to manage the estimated $13 billion budget of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. As this Moscow Times vignette suggests the IOC inspectors have plenty of reasons to be worried.

Putin to Visit Abkhazia this Summer?

A day after the IOC visit, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hosted the de facto leader of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh. The two sides agreed that Russia will offer the secessionist province the loan of 1-1.5 billion rubles ($31-$47 million) for the development of banking system, railroad network and small and medium businesses. Bagapsh underscored that this money was also needed for transporting construction materials to the olympic venues in Sochi. More importantly, Bagapsh stated that in one or two weeks Russia and Abkhazia would sign an agreement on the deployment of a Russian military base in the breakaway region for 49 years. According to Bagapsh, by June slightly more than 800 Russian border guards will begin joint patrols of the de facto border with Georgia proper with their Abkhaz counterparts. Finally, Bagapsh announced that Putin accepted his invitation to visit Abkhazia this summer.

Important Event at the American Enterprise Institute

On Wednesday, May 13, the American Enterprise Institute held a very interesting briefing "Beyond the 'Grand Bargain': U.S.-Russian Cooperation on Iran." The panel of experts included the former U.S. negotiator at the UN, John R. Bolton, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Eric Edelman, the Jamestown Foundation senior analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, Military Legislative Assistant at the Office of U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, Timothy Morrison, and former Assistant Secretary of State, Stephen Rademaker. The lively and richly detailed discussion was moderated by AEI's Leon Aron. The briefing can be streamed in its entirety on the AEI website.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Georgian Coup Plotter Accused of Ties to Exiled State Security Minister

On May 11, Gaga Kirkitadze, the investigator for the Military Police of the Georgian Ministry of Defense announced the arrests of Majors Kakha Kobaidze and Davit Sulkhanishvili, the commanders of the 3rd and 1st infantry brigades of the Georgian armed forces respectively. Their arrest is connected to the mutiny of a tank brigade at the Mukhrovani military base on May 5. According to Kirkitadze, the two were well aware of the planned mutiny and they willfully concealed this information from the military command and law enforcement authorities. Consequently Kobaidze and Sulkhanishvili, who were immediately relieved of their military duties, face criminal charges in accordance with the Article 376 of the Criminal Code of Georgia (Failure to Report a Grave Crime), which provides punishment up to five years of imprisonment.

In a parallel development, the prominent Russian investigative journalist Yulia Latynina revealed more details about the Mukhrovani mutiny in the weekly radio program Kod Dostupa (Access Code) broadcast by the opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy on Saturday, May 9. In particular, Latynina points out that one of the principal organizers of the abortive coup attempt, Gia Gvaladze, the former commander of the Special Operations Brigade Delta, is a close friend and associate of the fugitive Georgian former State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze. Convicted by the Georgian authorities in absentia for organizing a failed assassination attempt on the then President of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995 and wanted by Interpol, Giorgadze has been living in Moscow under the putative protection of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) ever since he fled Georgia in the aftermath of the aforementioned assassination attempt in 1995. In 2006, despite Tbilisi's numerous extradition requests and protests, Moscow granted Giorgadze political asylum.

From Moscow Giorgadze continued his involvement in the Georgian domestic political scene. The peak of his activities occurred in 2006 when he remotely administered the disparate group of marginal opposition parties and political movements, including the Justice Party, the Anti-Soros Movement and the Igor Giorgadze Foundation. The Justice Party was run on Giorgadze's behalf by his niece Maia Topuria. In September 2006 Topuria and twelve others were arrested for plotting to overthrow Saakashvili's government. Since then, in a display of his connections and financial prowess, Giorgadze spared no expense to hire high-profile American lawyers - Lawrence Barcella (with Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP) and Melinda Sarafa - to represent Topuria in the Tbilisi City Court. However, it appears that their efforts were in vain, as Topuria was sentenced in August 2007 to eight and a half years in prison. As it turns out, the lawyers hired by Giorgadze submitted Topuria's case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg sometime in late 2008. This lifted the self-imposed gag order on Giorgadze, who in a rare but extensive interview with the Russian magazine Profil in December 2008, boasted of having hired not only American lawyers but also "the lobbyist structures that work with the U.S. State Department."

Meanwhile, in the interview with the Ekho Moskvy on May 11, President Mikheil Saakashvili publicly disavowed ever making statements indicating the existence of the incontrovertible evidence suggesting the Russian connection to the Mukhrovani mutiny. At the same time President Saakashvili pointed out that the video recording of Gvaladze's discussion of coup details included reference to anticipated Russian military assistance. He further clarified that the coup plotters were mostly former military officials, who were in contact with other former military officials, who had long left Georgia and who were trying to destabilize the situation from abroad. In this regard it is worth recalling the conversation between President Saakashvili and the Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili at the Mukhrovani base on the day of the mutiny in which the former alluded to the "Kitovani's gang" in connection with the thwarted revolt. Similar to Giorgadze, Tengiz Kitovani, a disgraced former Georgian National Guard Commander and Defense Minister, who is thought to be personally responsible for provoking the Georgian-Abkhaz war in the early 1990s, has been living in Moscow since the early 2000s.

The cast of possible FSB protégés interested in fomenting unrest in Georgia would be incomplete without the mention of General Roman Dumbadze, who, as we are recently reminded by the Jamestown analyst and leading Russian military and security expert Pavel Felgenhauer, was released from custody in exchange for 12 Georgian soldiers captured by the Russian troops in Poti one week after the ceasefire agreement in August of last year. It should be recalled here that General Dumbadze was in charge of the Georgian army brigade in Batumi, the capital of the autonomous region of Ajara, in 2004, when the strongman ruler of Ajara, Aslan Abashidze came into confrontation with President Saakashvili over the non-payment of taxes to the state budget and other issues that plagued relations between Tbilisi and Batumi. Fiercely loyal to Abashidze, Dumbadze participated in blowing up bridges connecting Ajara to Georgia proper in the final stages of that confrontation. After Tbilisi restored control over Batumi and Abashidze fled to Moscow, Dumbadze was caught and sentenced to 17 years in prison for treason in 2006.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

EU's Southern Corridor Summit Endorses Nabucco Project

Following the formal launch of the Eastern Partnership Initiative on Thursday, May 7, the Czech government, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, hosted another high-profile event - the Southern Corridor-New Silk Road Summit - on Friday, May 8. Attended by the heads of states of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, this summit registered a significant headway towards the formalization of the Southern Corridor concept, which envisions the creation of multiple pipelines supplying natural gas from the Caspian Sea and the Middle East to the European markets. In particular, in a sign of the EU's increased aspiration to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, the energy summit in Prague marked considerable advancement in the direction of the realization of the Nabucco pipeline project, which is depicted in the map below.
As initially envisioned, the Nabucco pipeline will annually bring up to 31 billion cubic meters of natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe following the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey-Bulgaria-Romania-Hungary-Austria route. The declaration adopted at the summit formalizes the commitments of the consumer (EU), transit (Turkey, Georgia) and producer (Azerbaijan, Egypt) countries to the Nabucco project. Even though the representatives of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - the Central Asian producer states - refused to sign the summit declaration at this juncture, as the managing director of Nabucco gas pipeline consortium* Reinhard Mitschek explains, the consortium members still have time to sign respective gas supply agreements by the end of this year. In this regard the agreement concluded between the German energy company RWE AG and Turkmenistan in April is a major achievement because it paves the way for resolving the problem of filling the Nabucco pipeline with enough gas (currently only fifth of the gas needed has been secured from Azerbaijan), which is a vital consideration for the commercial viability of the entire venture. Furthermore, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry delegation is to pay an official visit to Brussels in early June and the energy issues are expected to top the agenda of the meetings.

Slated to be completed by 2013, the Nabucco pipeline will become operational only in 2015, according to the most recent update provided by the EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in January. Even when operating at its full capacity, however, it will be able to supply about 5% of EU's gas needs. Similarly, if two other pipelines envisioned under the Southern Corridor concept - the White Stream (connecting Georgia and Romania via the Black Sea) and the Iterconnector between Turkey, Greece and Italy (ITGY) - also become operational, the combined supply of three pipelines will satisfy only 10% of EU's total gas needs by 2020.

Thus, considering that Russia currently provides about a quarter of EU's natural gas, Moscow's importance as Europe's primary energy partner does not appear to be in jeopardy anytime soon. Nonetheless, the signature of the Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Sameh Fahmy on the summit declaration indicates the EU's willingness to explore the possibility of extending the Southern Corridor to encompass the vast natural gas reserves in the Middle East. The declaration makes mention of the urgency of signing a memorandum of understanding on energy with Iraq (conspicuously Baghdad failed to send a representative to the summit in Prague). If such overtures are successful and they are coupled with corresponding pipeline capacity upgrades, then the Southern Corridor may one day be on a par with Russian gas deliveries. Meanwhile, the preparatory engineering work for the construction of the Nabucco pipeline commenced in April. The European Investment Bank is providing €200 million ($240 million) for this purpose, as part of the EU Recovery Plan.

* NOTE: Founded in 2004 and based in Vienna, Austria, the Nabucco gas pipeline consortium consists of the following energy companies: OMV AG (Austria), Mol (Hungary), RWE AG (Germany), Bulgargaz EAD (Bulgaria), Transgaz SA (Romania) and Botas (Turkey).

Monday, May 11, 2009

EU and Six Former Soviet Republics Launch Eastern Partnership Initiative in Prague

On Thursday, May 7, the Czech Republic, the current EU president, hosted a half day summit of the Eastern Partnership Initiative, which was originally conceived by Poland and Sweden and which is aimed at deepening ties between the EU and six former Soviet Republics - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. According to the final document of the summit - the Joint Declaration - the EU plans to engage the "Eastern European Partners" in the four areas of cooperation, including the following: democracy, good governance and stability; economic integration and convergence with EU sectoral policies; energy security; and contacts between people. In exchange for the non-binding pledge by the six post-Soviet states to commit to the "fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as to, market economy, sustainable development and good governance," the 27-nation bloc will offer the €600 million ($804 million) package of targeted assistance programs until 2013.

As this primer explains, the Eastern Partnership is a comprehensive outreach effort through which EU intends to align the six countries with European aqui communitaire and therefore make them membership-ready. Due to the current enlargement fatigue, the major European powers, which are sometimes referred to as the "Old Europe," appear to be less enthusiastic about the Eastern Partnership than the newly admitted EU members. This was reflected in the noticeable absence of British, French, Italian and Spanish leaders at the Prague summit. In this regard German Chancellor Angela Merkel proved to be a surprising exception.

Notwithstanding the differences of opinion between the European capitals regarding the scope and purpose of the Eastern Partnership, the EU tried its best to present the initiative in a "win-win" light to the weary Russians. Chancellor Merkel explicitly stated in Prague, "This Eastern Partnership is not against anyone, not against Russia." The same sentiment was echoed in the remarks delivered by the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, who declared that Russia would only benefit from the eastward expansion of European values because "when we increase prosperity, when we increase stability, we are increasing it not only for us but all the others as well." However, the Czech hosts were less circumspect in their comments as they acknowledged that the Eastern Partnership is also aimed at drawing the six former Soviet Republics out of Russia's orbit. The Czech Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra pointed out, "Foreign policy is always about the projection of interests. You can project your interests, but you must give the respective countries the freedom to make choices." A senior Czech official speaking on the condition of anonymity admitted, "We're not living in a vacuum. Russia might be hostile to the eastern partnership, but that's their problem. They see the world through zero sum game lenses."

Regardless of how often the EU officials will try to reassure Moscow that the Eastern Partnership is not aimed at curbing Russia's influence in the post-Soviet space, as the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Ahto Lobjakas explains, perceptions matter. Aptly calling EU's Eastern Partnership an "accidental sphere of influence," Lobjakas reminds us of what the Russian analyst Sergei Karaganov recently told a conference in Germany. Karaganov noted that the "core of all differences between the West and Russia is the question of whose sphere of influence the Soviet successor states fall into." Mikhail Margelov, an influential Russian politician, who is the Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of Russia's bicameral legislature - the Federal Assembly) interpreted the fact that a day after the Eastern Partnership event the Czechs hosted the EU South Corridor summit dedicated to the Nabucco gas pipeline project as a geopolitical ploy intended to increase Western influence over Russia's former Soviet satellites. Margelov stated, "The juxtaposition on the agenda of the Prague summit of issues of organization of the partnership and of the Nabucco pipeline project — whose route, as you know, bypasses Russia — reveals the true intentions of the organizers of the Eastern Partnership."

As critics suggest, the Joint Declaration of the Prague Eastern Partnership Summit falls short of making membership promises to the six states. Nor does it specify any concrete steps envisioned to relax the visa regime to ease the travel restrictions. And, as it turns out, only €350 million ($475 million) of the pledged assistance package represents new money. Equally important is the fact that only two out of the six recipient states - Georgia and Ukraine - even remotely satisfy some of the aqui communitaire requirements while two - Azerbaijan and Belarus - are openly autocratic and four - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova - are beset by territorial conflicts. But the most important aspect of the Eastern Partnership that will determine its short-term viability is what the EU is prepared to do to defend this important outreach initiative in the face of Russia's resistance.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday Shorts

Russian Defense Minister on Israeli UAV Deal

The Russian mainstream newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta published an interview with the Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in which he makes comments regarding the $50 million Russia-Israel UAV deal. According to Serdyukov, the first batch of Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be delivered to Russia soon. Serdyukov noted, "The deal is being formalized. The contract is there, we have made an advance payment and we are soon to get the first small batch."

Russian Foreign Minister Makes His First Visit with the Obama Administration

Barely advertised in advance Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's first official visit to Washington under the Obama administration consisted of two important meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama on Thursday, May 7. In their respective remarks at the joint press conference Secretary Clinton and Minister Lavrov affirmed that both sides view negotiations on strategic nuclear arms reductions (which are due to begin on May 19 in Moscow) independently from their disagreements over Georgia. Lavrov defended the pending sale of S-300 advanced air defense systems to Iran in an oblique reference made at the event organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Lavrov noted, "Whatever we sell to Iran in particular is only of a defensive nature." Here you can watch and listen to Minister Lavrov's comments during the Q&A session at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[Video Credit: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov delivering remarks during the questions-and-answers session. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC. May 7, 2009. Video courtesy of Russia Today TV/Autonomous Nonprofit Organization "TV-Novosti" 2005-2009.]

NATO-Russia Row over Estonian Spy Continues with the Expulsion of Canadians

In response to the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from Brussels, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared two Canadian diplomats working for the NATO Information Office in Moscow persona non grata. Interestingly, as of Thursday, May 7, the Russian diplomats remained in Brussels while their Canadian colleagues — Isabelle François, director of NATO Information Office in Moscow, and her deputy, Mark Opgenorth — were still in Moscow, according to the alliance spokesperson James Appathurai.

Russia is Asking the World Bank for a Couple of Billion Dollars

It appears that one of the topics discussed by the Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin in Washington, DC in late April was the request for the loan from the World Bank in the amount of several billion dollars in the next two years, according to the Facing first deficit in a decade, Russia may have a wider budget gap than the official estimate of 7.4% of GDP, according to Kudrin. Russian Deputy Economy Minister Andrei Klepach stated that the Russian economy contracted 9.5% in the first quarter of 2009. It should be noted here that the World Bank's last loan to Russia was in 1998 in the amount of $1.5 billion.

Sensational Announcement of Putin's Possible Visit to Poland

In a sign of growing rapprochement between Poland and Russia, Moscow tentatively confirmed that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will attend the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the World War Two in Gdansk scheduled for September 1. This announcement follows a productive two-day visit to Moscow by the Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who led a large delegation of dozen cabinet ministers and co-chaired with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the Polish-Russian Cooperation Strategy Committee, which has not convened since December 2004. According to Gazeta Wyborcza, after participating in the official ceremonies Putin may even attend the first Polish-Russian prime minister-level intergovernmental consultations since 1989. It should be noted that the last time Putin visited Poland was in 2005, when he attended the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

Second Trilateral Meeting on South Ossetia Collapses

The Russian, South Ossetian and Georgian sides did not meet for the second planned meeting within the framework of the incident prevention and response mechanism in the Georgian village of Ergneti, which is located close to the de facto border between the breakaway region and Georgia proper. The disagreements between the Georgian and South Ossetian sides over the location of the second meeting were cited as the main reason. The first meeting, which took place on April 23, was covered by this blog.

Reuters Fact Box on the NATO Exercises in Georgia

Reuters put together a very useful fact box on the Cooperative Longbow 2009/Cooperative Lancer 2009 exercises, which are under way in Georgia.

DOD Spokesperson Reveals the Number of Pentagon Personnel in Georgia

Commenting on the abortive attempt at a military coup in Georgia this week, Pentagon spokesperson Bryan Whitman stated that the U.S. Department of Defense now has fewer than two dozen personnel in the country.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Thwarted Military Coup in Georgia was Aimed to Derail NATO Exercises

[Photo Credit: Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili speaking to surrendered mutineer soldiers at the Mukhrovani military base. Mukhrovani, Georgia, May 5, 2009. Photo courtesy of Times Online.]

On May 5, on the eve of the crisis response exercises, which commenced today and which are held under the auspices of NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in Georgia, a 500-strong tank battalion under the command of Colonel Mamuka Gorgiashvili rebelled against the authorities at the Mukhrovani military base, 30 km (20 miles) east of Tbilisi. Prior to that, in the comments carried by the Interfax news agency Gorgiashvili blamed Saakashvili's government for the ongoing political confrontation with the opposition. The Georgian government reacted promptly by dispatching the troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) to encircle the Mukhrovani base and contain the mutineers. In an ensuing standoff, which included direct phone conversations between President Saakashvili and one of the rebel leaders, the mutineers were asked to lay down their weapons and surrender without conditions under the threat of force. By the second half of the day the rebellion was over, as President Saakashvili flanked by his bodyguards and accompanied by the Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili and his retinue arrived at the Mukhrovani base to personally tour the facility and meet with the mutineers.

Throughout the day the MIA issued contradictory statements regarding the attempted mutiny at the Mukhrovani base. Initially the ministry media liaison Shota Utiashvili spoke of a large-scale military coup with the maximum objective of fomenting the nationwide insurrection and the minimum objective of foiling the planned NATO exercises, which was uncovered as a result of the two-month-long investigation. During the press briefing Utiashvili showed the undercover video footage of Gia Gvaladze, who was described as one of the suspected coup organizers, in which Gvaladze discusses the details of the planned mutiny. In particular, Gvaladze reveals the hit list of the senior government officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria, MIA Minister Vano Merabishvili, Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava and Senior MP Givi Targamadze, who were to be physically eliminated. In the secretly obtained footage Gvaladze claims that a 5,000-strong Russian military unit was to assist the rebels once they reached Tbilisi. Gvaladze also identifies former senior military and security officials - former Defense Ministers Davit Tevzadze and Gia Karkarashvili, former State Security Minister Jemal Gakhokidze, and former Commander of National Guard Koba Kobaladze - as people, who would support the coup. More importantly, Utiashvili claimed that there was a strong link between the Russian special services and the coup organizers. Utiashvili stated, "We have information that the rebels were in direct contact with the Russians, that they were receiving orders from them, that they were receiving money from them."

According to the MIA press release, Gvaladze was arrested on the evening of May 4, hours before the mutiny at the Mukhrovani base. As Utiashvili explained, Gvaladze is thought to have received orders from Koba Otanadze, who once participated in the military uprising at the Mukhrovani base in 2001. The Georgian law enforcement authorities are currently trying to identify Otanadze's whereabouts. It appears that Otanadze and a couple of his civilian accomplices fled during the one-hour ultimatum that the government gave to the Mukhrovani mutineers. Another person, who is being investigated in connection with the military coup, is Zaza Mushkudiani, the commander of the ranger battalion located in Ortachala, on the outskirts of Tbilisi. All in all, the Georgian broadcasting company Rustavi 2 reported today that police arrested 13 civilians and 10 military servicemen in connection with the coup investigation while 50 others are being investigated on related charges. The MIA published the list of 11 detainees and announced a 50,000 GEL ($30,000) bounty for information leading to capture of Koba Otanadze, Levan Ameridze and Giorgi Krialashvili.

In his nationwide televised address later that afternoon President Saakashvili described the Mukhrovani incident as a "serious threat" and warned Russia "to refrain from any types of provocations because such provocations will not work in Georgia." However, in the subsequent MIA press releases and government statements (both on and off the record) there has been a noticeable effort to de-emphasize or intentionally omit any mention of Russian involvement. For instance, when the Voice of America pressed Utiashvili to produce specific evidence suggesting the Russian connection, he said that he was not 100 percent certain and thus could not provide official confirmation of Moscow's involvement. Instead now the Mukhrovani mutiny has been described as primarily aimed at derailing the NATO exercises. Similarly, an official from President's Office, told the Associated Press that the mutiny was planned by a few disgruntled officers, who organized a similar revolt at the same base in 2001. At the same time the official scaled down the objective of the mutiny by dropping any reference to a coup or Russian involvement.

The Russian reaction to the events in Georgia was predictably dismissive. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin blamed the Georgian leadership for "trying to accuse Russia of totally insane things." Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin's remarks, on the other hand, suggested that the Mukhrovani revolt provided Moscow with more ammunition to mock the NATO exercises in Georgia. As Al Jazeera English reports, Rogozin noted that NATO would be better off holding its exercises "in a madhouse" since "Georgia's military cannot properly receive their colleagues because they are rioting against their own president." More importantly, citing the NATO exercises in Georgia and the recent expulsion of Russian diplomats from Brussels, Rogozin announced that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will not be attending the ministerial-level meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) planned for May 19. Against the backdrop of bilateral attempts to revive dialogue between Russia and NATO, Moscow's decision to pull out from the NRC meeting is potentially damaging considering that it was supposed to be the first meeting on such high level since the Russia-Georgia war of last year.

Meanwhile, as expected, Armenia used the Mukhrovani incident to pull out from the NATO exercises in Georgia at the very last moment. The statement issued by the Armenian Ministry of Defense obliquely refers to the "current situation" as the justification for Yerevan's decision.

NATO reacted to the Mukhrovani revolt with understandable consternation. Bristling at President Saakashvili's shorthand reference to the NATO exercises, Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's spokeswoman, Carmen Romero offered the following correction: "It is not a NATO exercise, but an exercise of NATO with its partners which Georgia is hosting." Romero added that the exercises should not be "misinterpreted or misused by anybody for internal political purposes." This probably had a desired impact on the Georgian government as the statement issued today by the Office of the President emphasized that the Mukhrovani mutiny was an isolated incident that "must not be used for political or other purposes."

As the investigation unfolds more details will become public soon, but it is worthwhile to make some preliminary observations in conclusion. First, notwithstanding the gravity or lack thereof of the allegations leveled by the Georgian government with regard to possible Russian involvement, the participation of so many former and active senior defense and security officials is indicative of the necessity to carry out a comprehensive vetting of the officer corps at the Ministry of Defense. Second, in the absence of diplomatic relations with Russia, which, in turn, implies absence of diplomats on the ground, any reference to the Russian involvement means that the pool of former and active defense and security professionals in Georgia has been thoroughly penetrated by the Russian intelligence to the degree that the connections forged in the 1990s can be reactivated. Third, more broadly speaking, the tense "no-war-no-peace" situation has put Georgia into the "pressure cooker" that makes it easier for the external forces to find and manipulate the renegade elements within. In this regard today's arrest of Vakhtang Maisaia, who served as the counselor at the Georgian mission in NATO in 2004-2008, on charges of spying for Russia, represents a very vivid example. In a particularly egregious treachery, Maisaia frequently passed sensitive information to Russia at the height of the Russia-Georgia war in August of last year.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Russia Signs Border Defense Pacts with Georgia's Breakaway Regions

[Photo Credit: The separatist leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity (left and right respectively) with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center). The Kremlin, Moscow, April 30, 2009. Photo courtesy of the Presidential Press and Information Office/President of Russia Official Web Portal.]

On Thursday, April 30, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and separatist leaders of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity - signed bilateral agreements that, in effect, make the Russian border guard troops, which are under the jurisdiction of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), responsible for protecting the de facto borders of secessionist regions with Georgia proper. According to the Kremlin press release, Russia will assist the separatist authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with personnel training and establishment of national border guard services. In addition, the agreements on cooperation and collaboration between FSB and Abkhazia's State Security Service and South Ossetia's State Security Committee were signed thereby confirming the status of Moscow's newly acquired satrapies as intelligence-gathering bridgeheads in the Transcaucasus. President Medvedev used the ceremony marking the signing of the security pacts in the Kremlin to attack the planned NATO exercises in Georgia calling them "a blatant provocation."

Russia's signing of border defense pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia drew rebukes of varying degrees of severity from the EU, US and NATO. EU Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg accused Russia of violating last year's Sarkozy-Medvedev six-point ceasefire agreement and stated that Moscow's move destroyed any hope of trust. The US State Department statement expressed "serious concern" and charged Russia with violating Georgia's territorial integrity. NATO spokesperson James Appathurai echoed Schwarzenberg's comments when he characterized the signed border defense pacts as a "clear contravention" of the Medvedev-Sarkozy ceasefire agreements of August 12th and September 8th.

Meanwhile, unperturbed by the international outcry the Russian border guards assumed control over the de facto border between Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Head of the FSB's Department of Border Guards in the Southern Federal District, Colonel General Nikolai Lisinsky confirmed that Russian border guard units began patrolling the de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia. Lisinsky revealed the plans to build 20 military compounds along the border perimeter, which will be monitored with modern equipment, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (an obvious exaggeration considering that currently Russian UAV capabilities are still in their infancy; see the related past story here).

By deploying its border guards to protect the de facto borders of Georgia's separatist territories Russia is significantly upping the ante ahead of the NATO exercises planned for May 6-June 1. The Kremlin's belligerent rhetoric already scared Kazakhstan, Moldova and Serbia out of participating in the aforementioned exercises. Taking into account the volatile situation in the areas along the de facto border between the breakaway regions and Georgia proper, Tbilisi is now bracing for possible provocations timed to coincide with the NATO exercises. More specifically, the possibility of orchestrated harassment of the Georgian population in the Gali District of Abkhazia looms as particularly ominous contingency because it will force the Georgian government to react. Although the Georgian population of the Gali District fluctuates considerably it is estimated to be in the 30,000-40,000 range.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

NATO Expels Two Russian Diplomats

On Wednesday, April 29, on the same day that NATO and Russia formally resumed contacts since they were broken off eight months ago in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia war, the accreditation of two diplomats from Russia's 50-member strong Permanent Mission to NATO was revoked and they were ordered to leave Brussels. The expulsion of Russian diplomats - senior adviser and political desk chief Viktor N. Kochukov and attaché and executive secretary Vasily V. Chizhov - was in retaliation for the spy scandal involving a high-ranking Estonian defense and intelligence official Herman Simm. Mr. Simm, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in February, was arrested last year for passing 2,000 pages of classified information to Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

It appears that Russia's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin was personally informed about the expulsion of two Russian diplomats by the NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer after the ambassador-level meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) on Wednesday. According to Rogozin, Scheffer told him that NATO was outraged over Russia's spying activities against the alliance and its member states. According to NATO sources, even though the two Russian diplomats were not directly involved in the Simm affair, NATO had to respond in kind. The expulsion of Russian diplomats carries special significance considering that one of them is the son of Russia's Ambassador to EU, Vladimir A. Chizhov.

Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to the expulsion of Russian diplomats calling it a "crude provocation" and Rogozin vowed as yet unspecified but "harsh and decisive" response. The timing of the incident is rather peculiar as both NATO and Russia are trying to revive ties badly strained after last year's conflict in Georgia. Thus far there have been no indications by the Russian side that the NRC meeting at the ministerial level scheduled for May 19 would be called off due to the spat over the expulsion of the Russian diplomats from Brussels.

In an exclusive commentary for the Jamestown Foundation Blog an Estonian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, characterized the expulsion of Russian diplomats as a significant precedent. First, by making the expulsion public at the time of the NRC ambassadorial meeting, which was supposed to restart the official relations, NATO sent an unusually strong message to Moscow. According to Estonian official, the assertion of some analysts, who think that the announcement was not intentional and that the NATO security team simply did not consider the diplomatic implications of the timing of the expulsion, seems highly improbable. It is more logical that NATO indeed decided to tell the Russians that it takes its own security seriously.

Second, Moscow's reaction to the expulsion of Russian diplomats will be interesting to observe. In a traditional diplomatic tit-for-tat, the Russians usually respond by expelling the same number of diplomats of the "relevant" country. In this case, however, it is unclear, who the Russians should expel. There is only one NATO official in Moscow. The nominal country that expelled the Russians was Belgium and the case was investigated by the Estonians. Moscow's reaction will be a new and interesting precedent in intelligence affairs. The Kremlin is facing a conundrum. By expelling Estonians the Russians would tacitly admit the guilt in the Simm case. By expelling officials of a bigger NATO country, they would send a Cold War-type message that implies that any attempt to restore good relations with NATO is doomed to be stillborn from the outset.

The Simm affair and NATO’s subsequent retaliatory expulsion of Russian diplomats follow the latest trend of intensified Russian espionage activities in the U.S. and allied countries. Sources have informed The Jamestown Foundation that the level of Russian espionage activities in the U.S. has significantly escalated and now even surpassed the threshold established during the Cold War. One of the recent demonstrations of this was a little reported row over the appointment of Russian defense attaché in Washington, DC. In mid 2008, the Russian military attaché in Canada, First Degree Captain Viktor Nikitin was declared persona non grata for engaging in espionage activities incompatible with his status as a foreign diplomat and was ordered to leave Ottawa by the Canadian authorities. The Russian government then tried to transfer Nikitin to the U.S., but Washington refused due to the NATO-wide ban on foreign diplomats accused of espionage in allied countries. In response, in January of this year the Russian government asked the senior American defense attaché Brigadier General Henry J. Nowak to leave Moscow. Nowak has been reassigned since then and now serves as the Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Issues at the Office for Strategic Plans and Policy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It appears that the Russia and U.S. decided to let bygones be bygones and resolved the dispute by a mutual appointment of new defense attachés.