But Colonel Valery Yakhnovets, the Russian officer who was named late last month as South Ossetia's new defense minister, told the Russian daily "Kommersant" on August 4 that he considers any further reductions in the republic's armed forces inexpedient, given the possibility of a new Georgian attack.
Since the spring of this year, some 1,000 South Ossetian military personnel have been demobilized in line with what Yakhnovets termed a "political decision" on the part of de facto President Eduard Kokoity. Echoing concerns voiced by observers in Tskhinvali, Yakhnovets said further downsizing could lead to "social tensions."
In an apparent bid to mollify servicemen forced into early retirement, the South Ossetian authorities recently announced a program to provide them with loans to open their own businesses.
Moscow Calling The Shots
Yakhnovets previously headed the Military Reconnaissance Division of the Russian Airborne Forces. In that capacity, he participated in the operation, led by Airborne Forces commander Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, in August 2008 to dislodge the Georgian forces that had occupied the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge two years earlier.
According to a chronology compiled by "Kommersant," Yakhnovets is the eighth man to serve as defense minister since Kokoity was first elected South Ossetian president in 2001. He is also the fifth consecutive career Russian military officer to be named to that post.
That substantiates the widely held view that despite formally recognizing South Ossetia as an independent state in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war two years ago, Moscow still treats the republic almost as a Russian Federation subject, imposing its own candidates in key positions in return for (and to monitor the use of) the financial subsidies it provides. In addition, it seems clear that Moscow does not trust Kokoity.
One year ago, Russian businessman Vadim Brovtsev was named South Ossetia's prime minister, apparently to keep track of how funds Moscow provided for post-conflict reconstruction were spent. In April, South Ossetian official media launched an intensive campaign of vilification, accusing Brovtsev and government personnel he brought with him of inefficiency and embezzlement of budget funds.
Those accusations stopped abruptly after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin summoned both men to Moscow in late May and reportedly warned Kokoity to abandon his campaign to discredit Brovtsev.
Yakhnovets told "Kommersant" that Kokoity personally had selected him for his new post one month ago, and he accepted that offer. Asked whether there is "mutual understanding" between them, Yakhnovets hedged, saying, "we have met several times...mutual understanding can arise only after we have worked together."
Yakhnovets also denied having criticized Kokoity's edict on downsizing the armed forces. He said that at the time of his appointment, manpower stood at 1,250 men, and that further cuts were inadvisable. Yakhnovets further suggested that the up to 1,000 military personnel who have already been demobilized could either enlist at the Russian military base in South Ossetia, or find employment in the construction sector.
Fighting The Last War?
Yakhnovets praised the courage and experience of the South Ossetian armed forces, as reflected in their resistance to the Georgian invasion in August 2008. But he conceded at the same time that if the Russian reinforcements had arrived a few days later, the South Ossetian forces could not have held out against the Georgian onslaught.
Yakhnovets argued that the South Ossetian army should be small, mobile, well-trained, and adequately armed and equipped to deter any new aggression on the part of "hotheads" in Tbilisi who, he said, are engaged in a massive arms-buying spree.
In January 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev imposed a two-year embargo on sales of Russian armaments to Georgia. In an interview given to ITAR-TASS to mark the second anniversary of the August 2008 war, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin called for an international ban on arms sales to Georgia. Such a ban, Karasin said, would "significantly reduce the risk" of a new Georgian offensive.
Yakhnovets's remarks about the threat posed to South Ossetia by "hotheads" in Tbilisi is at odds with comments by Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of staff of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion in Tskhinvali on August 4, Nogovitsyn opined that following its humiliating defeat in the August 2008 war, the Georgian leadership has come to the conclusion that in current conditions it is impossible to restore its hegemony over the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by military force. Instead, according to Nogovitsyn, the Georgian leadership is intensively preparing for defensive operations.