TBILISI (Reuters) – A roll of explosions at a Russian-occupied military base this week sent a clear Kremlin message to Georgia about the frailty of its infant military and its prospects for NATO membership.
The Russian army destroyed a hoard of Georgian arms and ammunition captured in a brief war that saw Georgian forces scattered, their bases seized and equipment carried off.
“Of course, there was a great symbolism to them doing this at the Senaki base,” said Professor Tornike Sharashenidze of the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs.
“In their eyes Senaki was a bit of NATO that they just don’t want to see in Georgia.”
Senaki, in western Georgia, was a ‘showpiece’ base built to NATO specifications under a military buildup launched by President Mikheil Saakashvili after his 2003 “Rose Revolution”.
Barracks were of a level of comfort unfamiliar to Russian soldiers, facilities and equipment were NATO-style, many of its soldiers trained in alliance countries.
“It’s all wrecked now,” Deputy Defence Minister Batu Kutelia told Reuters. “The buildings, the arms, all gone. If you consider that this is one of the few such modern bases we have, this was very important for us.”
Witnesses saw Russian troops, who had earlier parried a Georgian attack on the pro-Russia rebel region of South Ossetia and thrust into Georgia’s heartland, remove crates of equipment at other bases, airports and ports throughout the country.
Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of Russia’s General Staff, employed a military directness.
“We will not leave a single barrel, a single cartridge for Georgia, which initiated this bloodshed and shot at our peacekeepers and…civilians in South Ossetia,” he told Interfax agency. What was not destroyed would be taken as war trophies.
Georgia, which as a Soviet republic formed Moscow’s frontline defence against NATO, now wants to join that alliance — something Moscow deeply begrudges a country it still considers within its rightful, historical sphere of influence.
Western analysts believe Russia’s decision — after fighting over the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali — to move against the Georgian military in the country’s heartland was in part giving vent to Kremlin anger over Georgian NATO ambitions.
Georgia’s army, now some 28,000 strong, was built up from scratch after the 1991 collapse and division of the Soviet Union. While rump armies fell ‘ready-made’ to larger former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Russia, Georgia was left with virtually nothing.
Former President Eduard Shevardnadze began restoring the army after a civil war in the early 1990s dominated by irregular militias; but it was with the accession of Saakashvili that the spending soared and the real buildup began.
Saakashvili set his eyes from the start on NATO, as well as another goal that could keep that very door closed to him — reconquest of the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia lost in 1992. His one-time defence minister once famously said he would spend the new year in Tskhinvali or resign.
The break with the Soviet past has a particular charm for the West and for many Georgians. It means Georgia has virtually no remnants in its ranks of the old Soviet Army — no Soviet generals or Soviet-style hierarchies that would grate with NATO.
Its arms, however, are not NATO-compliant. Most of them are Russian-style weapons and armor, tanks and artillery, bought secondhand from former Warsaw Pact countries acquiring modern Western materiel after joining NATO.
A military source in Moscow said Russian troops using similar weapons to the Georgians “surpassed them in every possible way”. Georgians might argue that the scale of Russia’s onslaught, after the failed Georgian attempt to take back South Ossetia, skewed any comparison.
Oksana Antonenko of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said Georgian troops, mostly U.S.-trained, had proved capable in multinational missions in the Balkans and Iraq. A group was rushed back from Iraq to Georgia when the Russian conflict erupted.
“The conflict indicated they’re far from being able to sustain a serious conflict … They more or less disintegrated,” she said. “Saakashvili set too ambitious a goal.”
A lack of air defenses and aircraft cost Georgia dearly.
It is hard for the moment to gauge the full scale of the destruction visited on the Georgian army or how quickly it could recover. Russia, which says Georgia killed 1,600 in its initial attack in South Ossetia, clearly plans to make it hard.
“We will take everything we need. It’s our trophy,” the Russian military source said. “We must also make sure that no military threat comes from bordering areas.”
Greater perhaps than the military blow, which can be alleviated with U.S. help, is the blunt question Russia raised over the NATO membership ambitions not only of Georgia but also of Ukraine, said Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
In principle, eventual membership is open to Tbilisi. But the Russian action exposed for NATO the harsh reality of a resurgent Russia visible until now only on the economic and diplomatic levels.
NATO would now scarcely take in a country in conflict with Russia, with territorial disputes that at any moment could draw it, and its allies, into a war.
Moscow has seen NATO’s boundaries advance eastwards, embracing former Soviet Baltic states and ex-Warsaw Pact members in central and eastern Europe. It is looking for a halt.
“Russia has sent a strong message to the West…(that) it is seeking recognition of its interest in the former Soviet Union,” said Lipman. “There needs to be a lot of reconsideration, including on the American side, about what went wrong.”