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.

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.

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?"

A fierce dispute still rages over who started last summer's war, which broke out barely a week after Russia had completed its then largest-ever regional war games, Kavkaz-2008. The consensus of experts, a year on, is that Russia may have been looking for reasons to attack Western-leaning Georgia, but Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili gave Moscow an ideal pretext by launching a surprise military assault to retake the Russian-protected breakaway statelet of South Ossetia on the night of August 7 (read more Monitor coverage here).

The Kremlin's point of view is that Mr. Saakashvili has still not relinquished his dream of recovering separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force, even though both have since been recognized as independent states by Moscow. Hence, this week's massive Russian war games are presented as a defensive gambit.

"The purpose is to cool down any possible fantasies in Saakashvili's circle, to show that Russia is ready to defend Abkhazia and Ossetia," says Valentin Rudenko, director of the independent Interfax-Military news agency. "Russia has no intention of upsetting the present status quo. Its aims are defensive."

But some experts maintain that Russia has unfinished business with Georgia, and that a new war may be in the cards as early as mid-July. Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert with the Russian opposition weekly newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, argues that Moscow needs a fresh conflict to consolidate its hold on South Ossetia, control the oil and gas resources of the Caspian region, and rid itself of the all-too-resilient Saakashvili.

"These Russian military exercises have grown in scope each year, and last year, they were a direct preparation for war with Georgia," Mr. Felgenhauer says. "It could be the same this year."

He argues that South Ossetia, a tiny enclave that existed in a kind of no-man's land between Russia and Georgia until last summer's war joined it forcibly with Russia, has become economically unviable since Russian troops sealed its border with Georgia.

"The people in South Ossetia nearly starved last winter," Felgenhauer says. "Basically, South Ossetia cannot survive unless it has an open border with Georgia," as it did in the past.

Since Russia refuses to negotiate the status of South Ossetia with Saakashvili, "that suggests they are planning to deal with him through regime change," Felgenhauer adds.

Russia and NATO last week put aside their differences over last summer's Caucasus war and renewed their military cooperation, but serious tensions remain over US support for Georgia's eventual membership in the Western military alliance.

Both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, have argued that Saakashvili is an illegitimate leader and an unstable personality with whom Moscow can never do business.

But nearly three months of rolling demonstrations by Georgia's opposition have failed to unseat Saakashvili and left the Kremlin with few options to manage the deteriorating relationship with its wayward neighbor.

"Saakashvili and the opposition are locked in a stalemate, at a very low level," says Mr. Khutsishvili. "It's all subsided, but nothing is solved. Most people don't want either side to win, but want the country to move forward."

As for the rumors of war, he says: "The mood here is very tense. But few people think an attack from Russia is imminent."

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