Just as relations between Russia and the post-Soviet nation of Georgia were improving from their nadir last year, a bizarre phantom air war this month has unleashed mutually hostile rhetoric and escalated tensions.
For almost a month, Georgia has complained that Russian fighter jets have made incursions into its airspace. Most recently, it said that its forces fired on an intruding Russian plane near the breakaway republic of Abkhazia last week. The republic, a Russian protectorate claimed by Georgia under international law, is a point of contention between the two countries.
But a top Russian general scoffed that his Georgian colleagues must be "hallucinating" since, he insisted, no Russian warplanes have flown anywhere near Georgia. Kremlin officials have repeatedly suggested that Georgian hard-liners, seeking a pretext for military action against Abkhazia and another rebel statelet, South Ossetia, may be "fabricating" the incidents.
Russia and Georgia have been at odds for years over Moscow's aid to both Abkhazia and another breakaway republic, South Ossetia, but relations turned toxic after President Mikhael Saakashvili came to power in 2004's "Rose Revolution," vowing to reunite his fractured country and bring it into NATO before his term of office ends in 2009.
Now, officials on both sides charge the other of intentional provocation designed to exacerbate tensions.
"Both sides are making claims that cannot be reconciled, yet the evidence on the ground remains puzzling," says Alexander Golts, a military expert with the Moscow-based online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "It's hard to say, at this point, who is to blame. But there's no doubt that all this shouting is making things much worse."
The current crisis and its roots
Last week, Georgia said that its forces fired upon a Russian "military jet" and may have shot it down. Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kuteliya told journalists it was the ninth such Russian incursion in the past three months – a claim the Kremlin denied.
But on Saturday, Anatoly Zaitsev, military chief of the pro-Russian Abkhazia army, offered a bizarre confirmation that something odd had indeed occurred.
He told journalists that Abkhazian soldiers on Wednesday saw an unidentified aircraft flying "from the direction of Turkey," trailing smoke, which subsequently crashed in a remote mountain gorge. Abkhazia has complained that Georgian military aircraft violated its airspace at least twice last week.
"It was most likely a bomber or reconnaissance aircraft that was damaged for reasons that are so far unclear," he said. He added that it was not a Russian or Georgian plane, but one that might have come from "a NATO country."
The current crisis began on Aug. 6, when Georgia claims two Russian Su-24 fighter-bombers penetrated deep into Georgian territory.
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.
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."