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Russian General Says Kremlin Deploys Air-Defense Missiles In Abkhazia

  • RFE/RL

Soldiers near an S-300 surface-to-air missile complex during joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in September 2009

Soldiers near an S-300 surface-to-air missile complex during joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in September 2009

Russia says it has deployed S-300 air-defense missiles in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

The move -- announced in Moscow by General Aleksandr Zelin -- has been met with alarm from Tbilisi.

Zelin told Russian news agencies the missiles would provide antiaircraft defense for the territories of Abkhazia and another rebel Georgian region, South Ossetia.

Moscow recognized the two as independent states after Russia's brief war with Georgia in 2008.

"The task of this air-defense system is not only to cover the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Zelin said, "but also to avert violations of their state borders in the air and destroy any vehicle illegally penetrating their air space, whatever the goal of its mission.”

The Georgian government, in a swift reaction, accused Moscow of "strengthening its image and role as an occupying country."

Georgian Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that Russia's deployment of the missile system should be of concern to NATO and that it violates the terms of the 2008 cease-fire, brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Our information is based on statements by high-ranking Russian officials. There is no doubt that [deployment] clearly violates the Sarkozy cease-fire agreement in the first place," Iakobashvili said. "And secondly, it changes the military balance in the region. Deployment of such a system is not directed solely against Georgia and is yet another manifestation of Russia's destructive actions."

Speaking in Tbilisi, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister David Djalagonia appealed to the international community "to pay attention to this very dangerous and very provocative step."

"It is completely unacceptable, and we would like to ask our partner countries, international society, to push, to force the Russian side to start demilitarization and de-occupation instead of increased militarization of occupied territories," Djalagonia said.

At the State Department, spokesman Philip Crowley said it was Washington's "understanding that Russia has had S-300 missiles in Abkhazia for the past two years." In response to a question about whether the White House considered that "a good thing," Crowley said "no."

But he also added: "I don't know that that report is necessarily true. There have been systems in Abkhazia for two years. We can't confirm whether they have added to those systems or not. "

'Shooting Sparrows With A Cannon'

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Moscow-based military expert Aleksandr Goltz says that from a military angle, Russia’s decision looks strange.

"The most long-range set of missiles that we have is the S-300, which tracks more than 10 targets and has a range of 800 to 900 kilometers. This is a classic illustration of shooting sparrows with a cannon," Goltz says. "And you know, I’m really not sure that Georgia has 10 planes [in its air force]."

The S-300 is one of Russia's most prized missile assets. Known by NATO as the SA-20 Gargoyle, it is a sophisticated and mobile air-defense missile capable of destroying cruise missiles and fighter planes.

It was first deployed by the Soviet Union in 1979 and is still considered one of the most powerful antiaircraft missiles on the market for its ability to simultaneously track up to 100 targets and engage 12.

Today's announcement comes just days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Abkhazia on the second anniversary of the conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia.

The brief August 2008 war followed days of sporadic exchanges of fire between pro-Kremlin separatists and Georgian troops in the region.

Moscow sent in troops to repel an attempt by Tbilisi to retake South Ossetia, within days pushing the Georgian Army into uncontested Georgian territory.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced during the war.

Thousands of Russian troops remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in violation of the cease-fire ending the conflict.

Only three other countries, along with the Russian government, have officially recognized the regions as sovereign.

written by Ashley Cleek, with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian and Georgian services and agency reports

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