By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Meeting earlier this week with the co-chairmen of the ongoing Geneva talks on the security and human rights repercussions of the August 2008 war, two senior South Ossetian politicians accused Georgia of engaging in a new military buildup that they fear presages a new attack on their breakaway region.
The European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) released a statement three days later saying it “has not observed any evidence to support those claims.” At the same time, the EUMM said it had registered, and conveyed to the Russian authorities its concern about, a concentration of Russian forces along the “administrative boundary line” separating South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia.
Also on September 21, the Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing concern at the deployment “in recent weeks” of Russian troops and armor along the administrative boundary line. It called on international organizations and Georgia’s foreign partners to convey to the Russian leadership that such an “aggressive posture” is unacceptable.
Ambassador Philippe Lefort, who is the European Union’s special representative for Georgia, met on September 18 in Tskhinvali with South Ossetia’s de facto president, Leonid Tibilov. Tibilov said he had “very serious information about Georgia’s current intentions. Specifically, the Georgian Defense Ministry is building fortifications on the territory that borders on [South Ossetia’s] Leningori raion. Stores for firearms are being created in all Georgian border villages.” Tibilov construed those preparations as heralding a new Georgian attack.
Murat Dzhioyev, who is Tibilov’s special representative for conflict resolution, similarly told the co-chairs that South Ossetia’s law enforcement agencies had registered Georgian troop movements along the boundary line.
The South Ossetian news agency Res for its part quoted an unnamed intelligence operative as saying that Georgian intelligence had intensified its activities over the previous week. He noted specifically that special forces personnel (spetsnaz) had replaced Interior Ministry personnel at border posts.
A resident of the Georgian village of Ergneti close to the administrative boundary line told the news agency Kavkaz-Uzel, however, that “we haven’t seen any additional forces, either police or army.”
Under an agreement signed in April 2010, Russia maintains some 2,000 servicemen at its military base in South Ossetia. Among the weaponry at their disposal are Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems with a range of 70-90 kilometers, meaning they could target Tbilisi.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry statement linked the Russian deployment in South Ossetia with the Kavkaz-2012 war games that began earlier this week at four locations in the steppes of southern Russia, several hundred kilometers to the north of the Georgian border. Chief of General Staff General Nikolai Makarov explained last month that these were simulation-based command-and-control exercises involving the deployment of forces on low-lying flat ground. Some 8,000 troops backed by 200 units of military hardware and vehicles and about 100 units of ordnance are participating.
Russian officials have repeatedly rejected claims by Georgian officials, including President Mikheil Saakashvili, that the Kavkaz-2012 maneuvers were timed specifically to destabilize the situation in Georgia in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 1. Russian armed forces Deputy Chief of General Staff Colonel General Aleksandr Postnikov made clear on August 7 that “in order to preclude additional tensions in relations with some of our neighbors,” no units from the Russian military bases in Armenia, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia would participate in the maneuvers.
If Russia were indeed planning a new offensive against Georgia, it seems unlikely it would advertise its intention by deploying troops in advance and thus forfeiting the advantage of a surprise attack. A more plausible explanation for sending Russian forces to the administrative boundary line is simply to compound the psychological pressure on the Georgian leadership, which is engaged in a massive damage-control exercise in the wake of the screening of video footage of physical abuse of prisoners in a Tbilisi jail. Western governments and human rights organizations have unequivocally condemned that abuse.