Russia-Georgia dispute escalates
Last week, Georgia fired at an intruding Russian fighter, it claimed. The incident is the latest in a murky air war that both sides say is an intentional effort to spoil ties.
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Georgia alleged that one of the jets fired a Soviet-era KH-58 radar-seeking missile at a Georgian air-defense installation near the city of Gori, about 50 miles from the capital, Tbilisi. The missile struck an empty field and failed to explode.Skip to next paragraph
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Three teams of experts have since visited the site, examined the wreckage, reviewed radar records, and issued reports. Two of the groups, composed of independent experts from countries such as Poland, Estonia, Britain, and the US, have backed Georgia's claims.
"The aircraft came from and returned to Russian airspace," concluded the second group – made up of international experts invited by Georgia – in its report, published last week. "The missile was of Russian manufacture. Within the region, Russia is the only feasible nation capable of using the weapon correctly."
A 'deliberate provocation'
But a team of Russian experts, also reporting last week, said Georgian radar tracking showed only commercial aircraft crossing the border that day, while the missile parts displayed by the Georgians were inconclusive.
"Crucial evidence had been destroyed by the Georgian side," the Russian Air Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov, told a press conference. "Even the rocket serial number had been destroyed ... we had the impression someone did not want us to find the truth."
General Khvorov suggested that a Georgian Su-25 fighter plane – which has a similar radar signature to that of the Su-24 – may have dropped an old missile drawn from Soviet-era stockpiles in order to simulate an apparent Russian attack.
"The missile incident ... was was a deliberate provocation organized and carried out by those in Georgia who are interested in aggravating relations between Russia and Georgia," Russian UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said last week. "This is a case of flagrant distortion of the facts, aimed at triggering a political tsunami."
The alleged rocket attack occurred very near the border with separatist South Ossetia, which Georgia accuses Moscow of backing. Georgian experts say that Russian hard-liners may have staged the incident in order to thwart a process of peaceful reconciliation that's been under way in the region.
"There has been a pattern of Russian interference in the conflict zone," says Georgi Khutsishvili, chair of the independent Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi. "Moscow's aim is to undermine conflict resolution and intimidate any international groups that might take an interest in helping to defuse the situation. Russia has an interest in permanent instability."
Georgia eyes NATO help
Last week, Georgia said that, because of the Russian incursions, it will take steps to fully integrate its air-defense system with NATO's by year's end.
"Once NATO forces in Europe can see what's appearing on Georgian radar screens, it will enhance Georgia's credibility," says Mr. Khutsishvili.
"As things stand, many people believe the Russians when they say Georgia is making this stuff up. So the solution for Georgia is to invite more international involvement."