NATO games in Georgia draw fire from Russia
By Matt Robinson Matt Robinson
May 3, 2009
TBILISI (Reuters) – NATO begins military exercises in Georgia on Wednesday in a gesture of solidarity condemned by Russia as "muscle-flexing" coming nine months after war between the former Soviet neighbors.
Around 1,000 soldiers from over a dozen NATO member states and partners will practice "crisis response" at a Georgian army base east of Tbilisi, around 70 kilometers (44 miles) from the nearest Russian troop positions in breakaway South Ossetia.
Russia has reacted angrily.
Last year's five-day war, when Moscow crushed a Georgian assault on pro-Russia South Ossetia, slammed the brakes on Georgia's bid for membership of NATO, which the Kremlin fiercely opposes as an encroachment on its ex-Soviet backyard.
The month-long exercises at a former Russian air force base in Vaziani are seen as a signal from the 28-member alliance that, despite doubts over the promise of eventual membership, Georgia has not been forgotten.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev accused NATO of "muscle-flexing" and said the decision to go ahead with the exercises was wrong and dangerous.
Relations had been on the mend. NATO and Russia last week resumed formal contacts suspended over the war, when the West accused Moscow of a "disproportionate" response to Georgia's assault on separatists in South Ossetia.
But the exercises, coupled with the expulsion last week of two Russian diplomats from NATO over a spying scandal and a Russian decision to take control of South Ossetia's borders, have put the relationship under renewed pressure.
"Anything involving NATO and Georgia is very sensitive for Moscow," said Maria Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "The idea of NATO exercises in Georgia of all places was sure to provoke angry statements from the Russian establishment."
Georgia -- its military routed by Russia's devastating counter-strike -- has told Moscow to mind its own business.
"Cooperative Longbow" -- based on a fictitious crisis response operation -- and the "Cooperative Lancer" field training exercise provide a boost for President Mikheil Saakashvili, the target of weeks of opposition protests in Tbilisi over his record on democracy and the war with Russia.
NATO is sending a message that despite placing Georgian membership on the back-burner, "that doesn't mean they will be abandoning the Georgians to Russia's sphere of influence or that Russia's going to be able to dictate what the Georgians can and can't do," said Jeffrey Mankoff of the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations.
The exercises are testing allegiances.
Former Soviet Kazakhstan pulled out following Russia's objections. But Armenia, Russia's strategic ally in the South Caucasus, will take part.
In responding so angrily, Russia is testing U.S. President Barack Obama's pledge to "reset" relations with Moscow that hit a post-Cold War low under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
But neither side is likely to let the dispute endanger the mutual benefits of improved ties, analysts say.
"The Russians are trying to use Obama's interest in getting relations on a more positive track to get their own way on the question of NATO's relationship with Georgia," said Mankoff.
"The exercises are one part of this. But at the same time I don't think the leadership in Moscow is ready to risk the more broad benefits of an improved relationship with the West over what is a relatively small scale issue."