Officials in Georgia are aiming to use the alleged downing of a Georgian reconnaissance drone by a Russian military jet to foster international support for a reduction in the Kremlin's peacekeeping role in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In an April 21 statement, Georgia's Foreign Ministry asserted that a Russian fighter MIG-29 shot down an unmanned Georgian Interior Ministry reconnaissance drone off the Black Sea coastline of Abkhazia at 09:53 on April 20. Video footage allegedly recorded by the drone before it was struck shows a twin-tailed dark grey fighter jet sinking below the drone before an air-to-air missile is presumably released in a trail of smoke. The screen then goes to static. No markings on the jet can be identified in the tape.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has described the video footage as "clear proof" of a Russian violation of Georgian airspace. The United Nations Security Council is expected to discuss the incident at its April 23 session. Georgian Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze will attend the meeting to present Georgia's claims about the attack.
Meanwhile, Georgia's United Nations Ambassador Irakli Alasania, a former head of the Abkhaz government-in-exile, has asked the UN to expand its monitoring activities in Abkhazia "with emphasis on detection of any military activities on [the] Abkhazian segment of [the] Georgian Russian border," according to a statement posted on the Georgian Foreign Ministry website.
Tbilisi, which has long called for an end to the Russian-supervised peacekeeping format in Abkhazia, argues that the downing provides additional proof that Russia is providing support for de-facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and thus cannot be recognized as a neutral party in conflict resolution efforts for both regions.
An April 16 decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to strengthen Russian cooperation with the two regions has led to heightened concerns among Georgian officials on that score. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The latest accusations against Russia, though, are not new. In 2007, Georgia accused Russia of twice violating its air space once, in March, in the Upper Kodori Gorge, a strip of Abkhaz territory controlled by Georgian forces; a second time, in August, near the South Ossetian conflict zone. International investigations of both incidents were inconclusive. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Within Tbilisi, however, some observers believe that the downed drone will help Georgia finally score points in the court of international public opinion. The South Caucasus state's ambitions to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, however, also come into the mix. "From what we have observed recently, Georgia responds to, but does not initiate the incidents in the conflict zones," said military expert Zviad Chkhaidze, a former deputy head of Georgian military intelligence.
"It is a good possibility for Georgia to show the international community -- and first and foremost those allies who hesitated to give a Membership Action Plan to Georgia at the [April 2-4] Bucharest summit -- what kind of policy Russia carries out and how important is Georgia's integration into NATO," Chkhaidze said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In response to Tbilisi's spy plane allegations, Russia has denied that Russian pilots were involved in the attack, and has accused Georgia of attempting to escalate tensions in Abkhazia. The Kremlin's website states that in an April 21 phone call with President Saakashvili outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed that Georgia's flights in the area violate " the spirit and meaning" of the 1994 ceasefire agreements with the Abkhaz separatists. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement issued April 22 said Georgia's use of "spy planes" violated UN Security Council resolutions concerning Abkhazia. The Foreign Ministry statement said the downed drone craft was a Hermes 450 type unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), manufactured by Elbit Systems of Israel.
Abkhaz leaders also have challenged Georgia's versions of events, alleging that a single-engine Abkhaz L-39 jet, formerly used as trainer during the Soviet era, shot down the Georgian drone. Observers in Tbilisi roundly dismiss the Abkhaz claims that a local plane was involved. "It is seen very clearly in the footage that it was a MiG-29, not the L-39, which has a smaller construction and a single tail," said Chkhaidze, the military analyst.
"The established fact that neither the Abkhaz side nor Georgia possesses the specific type of aircraft that was used MiG29 in this instance made it clear that there was direct Russian involvement in the incident," stressed Bakur Kvashilava, dean of the Georgian Institute of Public Administration's School of Law and Politics.
The radar data released by the Georgian side indicates that the aircraft took off from Gudauta, an Abkhaz town where a Soviet air force base was formerly located. Russia has repeatedly claimed that the base is closed, in keeping with a 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreement, and has blocked inspections. Georgia has routinely countered that the base is still used by Russian military forces to assist Abkhaz separatists.
President Putin's April 16 order for direct cooperation between Russia and the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has done nothing to assuage those longstanding worries. The Georgian government has demanded that the order be rescinded. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In an email interview, Bakur Kvashilava, an expert affiliated with the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, contended that the attack was intended by Russia as signal that it would not be deterred from increasing its influence in the breakaway regions. "Russia wants to secure and strengthen its hold on the breakaway republics," Kvashilava wrote.
Nina Akhmeteli is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.