19 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In the late 1990s, faced with budget constraints and acting on the advice of expert Western advisers, the Georgian leadership resolved to slash the size of the armed forces to create a small, mobile army that would meet NATO standards (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 19 February 2001). Since then, the armed forces have indeed been downsized from approximately 38,000 men to some 20,000 in early 2004, primarily by reducing ancillary, noncombat personnel.
On his appointment as defense minister in early 2004, former Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said the armed forces would be reduced further in size, to around 15,000 men, Caucasus Press reported on 20 February 2004. But Irakli Okruashvili, who took over in December from Bezhuashvili's successor Giorgi Baramidze, said while visiting Washington last month that he thinks it may be necessary to increase the number of active duty personnel, possibly by adding one more brigade to the existing four, according to "Jane's Defence Weekly" on 29 June.
Even if Georgia does not resort to military force to bring its breakaway republics back under the control of the central authorities, its ongoing vigorous militarization program could serve to undermine the precarious balance of power in the South Caucasus.
In its report for 2005, the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), established in 1998 at the request of the Georgian government to advise on security and military issues, noted that earlier reviews had identified an optimum total strength of 13,000-15,000 active-duty personnel for the Georgian armed forces. The ISAB report further noted that plans for a four-brigade structure plus an increased reserve force would "represent an increase of 25-30 percent on earlier planning figures" in the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) agreed with NATO last year, and thus "raises questions of affordability." (The IPAP was originally submitted to NATO in April 2004 but underwent several revisions before its final endorsement in late October -- see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 November 2004). The ISAB report called for a "rigorous analysis" of force structures and numbers based on an agreed threat analysis and "realistic long-term budget assessments."
In a bid to render the Georgian armed forces more effective, the United States in early 2002 launched a two-year, $64 million program, "Train and Equip," to create three battalions and one motorized company that would conform to NATO standards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February and 3 May 2002). After that program was successfully concluded last year, a follow-up program was launched with comparable funding to train a further 4,000 Georgian servicemen. At the same time, Georgia launched an ambitious program last fall for training 15,000-20,000 reservists. In late October, Caucasus Press reported that three battalions of reservists had already been established and 15 more would be trained by the end of 2005. Georgian parliamentary deputies and local governors, including Gigi Ugulava, then governor of Mingrelia and Upper Svaneti, vied with each other to enroll in these battalions, which underwent intensive basic training over a period of several weeks. Okruashvili frequently checked personally on the progress made by the trainees, mobilizing them on one occasion in February for a 9-kilometer nighttime run.
Some observers, however, have questioned whether the reservists' training program serves any useful purpose. Military lawyer Shalva Tadumadze of the NGO Law and Freedom told Caucasus Press in February that the training program as presently constituted is of no practical benefit, and is simply a waste of money.Reversing The Downsizing
Okruashvili's stated rationale for reversing the downsizing of recent years is that Georgia currently has some 1,000 troops deployed as part of the international peacekeeping force in Iraq. But there are grounds for suspecting that his ultimate objective is to launch a new military offensive to bring the unrecognized breakaway Republic of South Ossetia -- where he was born -- back under the control of the Georgian government. "Jane's Defence Weekly" quoted Okruashvili as saying while in Washington last month that one of his top priorities is to enlist Washington's help in "resolving" the South Ossetian conflict. Addressing reservists on New Year's Eve 2004, Okruashvili vowed that Tbilisi would restore its hegemony over one of its two breakaway lost territories in 2005 "with your help," Caucasus Press reported on 3 January. Days later, he said that Georgia will deploy its armed forces "as it sees fit" to resolve internal conflicts.
In addition to upping manpower, Georgia has greatly increased its defense spending, from 79 million laris ($43 million) in 2004 to 317 million laris in 2005, according to a Eurasia View analysis of 7 April. True, that increase could be explained away by the requirement that countries aspiring to NATO membership, as Georgia does, spend no less than 2 percent of GDP on defense. But Eurasia View also quoted unnamed Western observers as saying that Okruashvili is spending without any advance planning or conducting any feasibility studies: "There is no acquisition or procurement process." In a parliamentary debate in mid-May on the optimum use of additional budget funds, opposition Deputy Koka Guntsadze alleged that Okruashvili is accountable to no one for the money he spends, an accusation that Giga Bokeria of the pro-government Majority rejected, according to the daily "Rezonansi" on 13 May.Weapons Procurement
The weaponry that Okruashvili has purchased reportedly includes armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, helicopters, and T-72 tanks, according to Eurasia View. The latter three items in particular call into question earlier statements by President Mikheil Saakashvili (in September 2004) and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania (in February 2004) that Georgia has no aggressive intentions and plans to strengthen its armed forces exclusively for defensive purposes, to repel any external invasion. On 6 November, Caucasus Press quoted Saakashvili as saying Georgia's defensive capacity was not being augmented in anticipation of an attack by Russia. Saakashvili did not, however, specify which of Georgia's other neighbors is perceived as a potential threat. The daily "24 saati" on 5 July quoted Estonian defense expert Harri Tiido as questioning why Georgia is purchasing such huge quantities of weaponry.
Not only is an invasion of Georgian territory a remote possibility, but the weapons Okruashvili is reportedly acquiring are ideally suited for an offensive against the Ossetians. Moreover, between mid-June and mid-July, some 800 Georgian troops conducted large-scale tank exercises using some 170 battle tanks, Caucasus Press reported. (One year ago, Georgia had only 76 T-55 and T-72 tanks.) The objective of the one-month exercise, according to Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Colonel General Levan Nikoleishvili, was to give troops "greater experience" in handling such weapons, according to rustavi2.com on 18 July. In the course of the maneuvers, Okruashvili and Nikoleishvili personally engaged in an impromptu tank race that Okruashvili won, Caucasus Press reported on 5 July.
The recent tank exercises might reflect nothing more sinister than Georgian national pride in having succeeded, with generous assistance from the United States, Turkey, and other allies, in transforming the rag-tag paramilitary National Guard that emerged in the wake of the collapse of the USSR into a well-trained, -disciplined, and -equipped fighting force that will help Georgia qualify for NATO membership. If, however, Tbilisi does launch an offensive against South Ossetia, it risks provoking a counterstrike by Russia to "protect" the local Ossetian population, almost all of whom are by now technically Russian citizens. And if Tbilisi deploys graduates of the Train and Equip program during that offensive in blatant violation of assurances given to Washington that those troops will not be mobilized in any attempt to restore Georgia's territorial integrity, it could risk a temporary cooling of relations with the United States. But even if Georgia does not resort to military force to bring its breakaway republics back under the control of the central authorities, its ongoing vigorous militarization program could serve to undermine the precarious balance of power in the South Caucasus.