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Along the Russian-Georgian border, war games or prelude to war?

Although both countries claim the military exercises are simply for practice, some wonder if the old dispute is again flaring.

By Correspondent / June 30, 2009



MOSCOW – Both Russia and Georgia claim to fear a fresh attack from the other. That's why, each insists, they're staging war games and building up military forces to levels unseen since last August's brief but brutal war over the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia.

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Some experts suggest the Russians may be testing President Barack Obama, who arrives in Moscow on Monday, the very day Russia's current military mobilization is scheduled to end. Together with its new allies South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow is this week holding its biggest post-Soviet army maneuvers amid the tense, mountainous borderlands where last summer's war raged. Georgia has denounced the Kavkaz-2009 games, which feature 8,500 troops and 200 tanks, as "pure provocation" and a possible prelude to renewed hostilities. Last month, Moscow slammed considerably smaller NATO-sponsored exercises in Georgia in nearly identical terms (read more Monitor coverage here).

"The Georgian government is very agitated around these Russian war games, and is at least suggesting that it is connected with the Obama visit to Moscow," says George Khutsishvili, director of the independent International Center for Conflict and Negotiation in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. "The fear here is that if Obama reveals some weakness in his talks in Moscow, that it could lead to a renewal of the war.... I don't take this seriously, but there is no doubt that these military exercises are a demonstration of force on the anniversary of the war. They show that Russia is ready."

Among other things, Russia is testing several new weapons – such as the T-90 tank – and fresh tactics adopted following harsh assessments of its Army's performance during the August war (read more here).

In Northern Ossetia, the Russian border region linked to South Ossetia, where the bulk of the war games are taking place, there is also deep unease over the dueling exercises.

"We are hearing about concentrations of Georgian troops near the border, and this is deeply alarming for us," says Olga Vyshlova, editor of the daily Severnaya Ossetiya newspaper in Vladikavkaz, the capital city of North Ossetia. "The Caucasus is not a calm region. If the Russian troops are building up their skills to protect us, what's wrong with that?"

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