Russian and NATO efforts to rebuild relations in the aftermath of last year's Russia-Georgia war have received a fresh blow ahead of a three-week NATO-led military training exercise due to start in Georgia on May 6.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week called on NATO to cancel the military training exercise in Georgia, saying "such actions are obviously aimed at muscle-flexing and at building up the military component at a time when the situation in the Caucasus is quite tense."
Medvedev called the trans-Atlantic alliance's decision "short-sighted and unpartner-like in the context of Russia-NATO relations."
But NATO denies that the NATO exercise is meant to intimidate and says it not involve heavy weaponry.
"It's not an exercise that is going to involve any heavy artillery -- no tanks and so on," NATO spokesman Robert Pszczel countered. "There will be, of course, some military equipment to do, for instance, with military evacuation, as part of a scenario, or some counterterrorism. There is also an element dealing with what we call CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) protection against the possible use of weapons of mass destruction -- the types of scenarios that again need to be practiced during real-life operations."
Pszczel also stressed that the exercise in Georgia -- part of NATO's Partnership For Peace program -- had been planned long before the Russia-Georgia conflict, which saw Russian tanks roll through the breakaway republics of North Ossetia and Abkhazia but also well outside any disputed territory.
"Georgia has the same rights and responsibilities as a participant in the Partnership For Peace program," Pszczel said. "So they had made an offer a long time ago and that offer was accepted, and that's why those countries that decided to participate will, I am sure, be happy to take part. And, of course, in the future we will hold these exercises, this type of exercises, in many other places, perhaps in Russia."
Georgia has been keen to join the NATO alliance, a goal that has long contributed to sour ties with Moscow, which is strongly opposed to seeing any more of the former Soviet republics enter the alliance.
Even before the August fighting, NATO-Russia relations were already bruised by Georgia's membership bid.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer rejected Russia's decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, saying the move directly violated numerous UN Security Council resolutions on Georgia's territorial integrity.
In the wake of the war, the alliance suspended activity of the NATO-Russia Council, saying Russia's actions in the conflict had called into question Moscow's commitment to peace and security in the Caucasus.
Those ties were restored only last month. But Medvedev now says conducting the exercise in Georgia next month threatens moves by both sides to resume diplomacy through the NATO-Russia Council.
"Such decisions are disappointing and are not helping the resumption of full contacts between the Russian Federation and NATO," Medvedev said. "We will follow what happens there closely and take decisions accordingly."
Indeed, Russian media reported this week that Moscow had decided to postpone a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council chiefs of staff scheduled for May 7. The RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed aide to Russia's NATO representative as saying that the decision was connected to the exercise in Georgia.
Christopher Langton, head of defense analysis for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that the exercise had been planned in Georgia since the beginning of 2008 and, therefore, could not be construed as a deliberate attempt by NATO to provoke Moscow over August's conflict.
Langton said NATO shouldn't cancel the exercise as a result of Moscow's protests. But he said the alliance could have given some thought to conducting the exercise in a way that would be more accommodating of Russia's point of view.
"These are exercises on interoperability for all nations in the Partnership For Peace program who wish to take part, and there have been plenty of examples of other exercises taking place in other countries which may find themselves in conflict situations as well -- and Russia has never objected to those," Langton said. "But given the sensitivity at the moment in Georgia -- indeed, the political sensitivities as much as the dire state of Russian-Georgian relations -- perhaps a compromise solution could have been examined. Nevertheless, those exercises aren't set in any kind of offensive scenario, and I think Russia has to understand that whatever they think, Georgia is an independent country capable of making its own decisions -- and has the right to do so."
A total of 19 countries originally said they would participate in the Georgia exercise. They include Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Greece, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Serbia, Spain, Macedonia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, and the United States.
But the Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency, quoting sources in Kazakhstan's Defense Ministry, reported on April 20 that Kazakh forces would not take part. It did not specify a reason for the decision.
Russian officials reportedly have claimed that Latvia and Estonia also have pulled out of the exercise in recent days. Such a move would have been surprising, given the Baltic states' traditional support for Georgia. But Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Giorgi Muchaidze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on April 21 that none of the Baltic states had ever planned to take part.
"Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia did not plan to participate in this exercise, therefore none of these countries could have canceled its participation," Muchaidze said. "A total of 19 countries are planning to take part in this exercise, and it will take place according to plan. There are no complications in preparations for this exercise so far."
Responding In Kind
Meanwhile, the breakaway region of Abkhazia has announced that it also will conduct military exercises during the NATO operation.
Reports in Georgian media say Russian troops have begun to deploy along Abkhazia's border with the Georgian region of Samegrelo.
In an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service last week, Abkhazia's de facto foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, confirmed that Russian troops are deploying in Abkhazia. But Shamba said that decision was made long before the row over the NATO-led exercise in Georgia.
"The number of Russian troops to be stationed at the 7th base in Abkhazia has been made public and is no secret to anybody, and the number [of Russian troops] here does not yet exceed the stated number," Shamba said. "I don't know what kind of information has emerged -- I don't rule out the possibility that their number has increased -- but there is a number that was determined from the very beginning and Russia is not going to exceed it."
Langton said he sees the buildup of Russian forces as "saber rattling" but added that he did not think the situation would deteriorate into cross-border hostilities in the weeks ahead.
"There have been reports, from the Georgian side, of a Russian buildup in South Ossetia and Abkhazia that predate the argument over the Partnership For Peace exercise, and in a sense, what we are seeing is the sort of saber rattling that we've been used to over many decades," Langton said. "When one side holds an exercise, the other one holds an exercise. It's all very disappointing. However, that's where we are. Personally, I think it will be managed."
Langton concluded that Moscow's reported decision not to participate in the NATO-Russia Council meeting on May 7 is a way for the Kremlin to test the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which has vowed to "reset" Washington's ties with Moscow after years of tensions.
Langton called it a "backward step."
"It must be seen in the context of this argument over the exercise in Georgia. Whether it will go further than that, of course, one doesn't really know," Langton said. "And, of course, I think the other thing here is how much of this posturing is to do with not so much NATO-Russia, but U.S.-Russia relations -- and Russia is, in a sense, testing the new administration in Washington."
RFE/RL's Georgian and North Caucasus services contributed to this report