/ 22 April 2008

Hi-tech battle in Georgia skies heralds wider danger

The alleged downing by a Russian MiG-29 of a Georgian reconnaissance drone could be a foretaste of battles to come as Georgia seeks Nato membership and protection from the West, analysts say.

The dramatic confrontation in the skies over Abkhazia, a rebel province of Georgia on the Black Sea, pitted one of the most modern Russian fighter planes against the unmanned aircraft said to have been made in Israel.

The weekend incident underlined how the stakes and the players in this mountainous corner of the ex-Soviet Union are rapidly changing as Georgia courts Nato and as Russia seeks to dominate its back yard.

Nato troops are unlikely to clash directly with Russian forces, but analysts say close links between the armies of Georgia and the United States — and the Russian military and Abkhazia’s rebel forces — mean it is impossible to rule out the scenario.

“The closer Georgia gets to Nato, the worse things get with Russia and Abkhazia,” said Tornike Sharashenidze, a Georgian expert on international affairs.

“Of course, it’s crucial that Georgia is not provoked into a conflict with Abkhazia. If a war begins in Abkhazia, it will be the Russians we will be fighting against.”

The conflict over Abkhazia has changed substantially since the original war in the early 1990s, when ramshackle units run by local Abkhaz and Georgian warlords clashed in an obscure struggle for control over the lush territory.

Georgia’s army has since been rebuilt by the United States, while the Abkhaz rebels are backed almost openly by Russia’s military.

“Our army used to be in shambles, but under President [Mikheil] Saakashvili there have been significant reforms and significant improvements,” Georgian political analyst Alexander Rondeli said.

The Georgian army’s transformation was displayed during Sunday’s incident, in which Tbilisi alleges a Russian MiG-29 took off from a Russian-controlled military base in Abkhazia, destroyed the reconnaissance drone with an air-to-air missile, then retreated to Russian airspace.

Moscow denies involvement, but Georgia claims that its Nato-integrated radar recorded the entire sequence of events.

“Georgia, which is so far only dreaming of joining Nato, has already used the alliance’s resources to make an accusation against Russia,” the Moscow daily newspaper, Vremya Novostei, noted on Tuesday.

Rebel officials in Abkhazia, who themselves claim to have shot down the drone, say the debris indicates it is a medium-sized unmanned aerial vehicle produced by an Israeli company, Elbit Systems, in 2006.

Elbit Systems has supplied similar drones to the Israeli military, and last year one of its subsidiaries won a US government contract to help monitor the US-Mexico border.

In their US-issue uniforms, the Georgian troops can even look like their US counterparts, in contrast to the Abkhaz, who wear Russian gear.

Georgia has also contributed 2 000 troops to the US-led operation in Iraq and is planning to send 500 to the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Georgia’s dream of Nato membership is still on hold, largely thanks to Moscow’s opposition and the fact that Nato has little stomach for inheriting Georgia’s conflicts.

“So far Russia has been quite successful in its efforts to prevent Georgia’s Nato accession so they are becoming braver,” Rondeli said.

“As long as there is no international protest over Russia’s actions they will continue to annex these territories.”

But Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, said Russia was also weighing the risks of getting into a dispute where Georgia was backed by the West.

“It will have a very bad effect on our relations with our Western partners. Russia’s clearly lying about not shooting it down. Relations will get even worse if war starts between Georgia and Russia.”

“Russia would be seen as the aggressor and that would speed up Georgia’s entry into Nato.” — AFP