assessments

Russia: Moscow's Military Position in the Caucasus

4 MINS READAug 11, 2010 | 20:22 GMT
ALEXEY SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Russia has emplaced an S-300 strategic air defense battery in the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia, the head of the Russian air force announced Aug. 11. According to a STRATFOR source, not only is this announcement true, but the S-300 system has been in place since February and should be operational soon. This deployment carries considerable military significance for Abkhazia as well as Georgia and the wider Caucasus.
Russian air force chief Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin announced Aug. 11 that a Russian S-300 (SA-10 "Grumble") strategic air defense battery has been emplaced in the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia. Although the system's official purpose is to provide air defenses for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the air defense battery's range entails broader significance for Georgia and for Russia's efforts to consolidate its military position in the Caucasus. A STRATFOR source close to the Kremlin has confirmed that an S-300 battery is indeed in Abkhazia — an S-300PM (SA-10B) battery equipped with missiles capable of reaching out to 150 kilometers (93 miles), probably the standard 48N6 missile also associated with the later PMU-1 variants. According to the source, the S-300PM battery actually arrived back in February, soon after the Kremlin and the Abkhaz government inked an agreement on military forces. Russian troop training is under way and is expected to be completed in the next month or so (the source suggested that a formal announcement about the S-300s was not planned yet, so Zelin's announcement was likely politically motivated and directed by the Kremlin). (click here to enlarge image) In addition, the Russian deployment reportedly includes short-range 2S6 Tunguska (SA-19 "Grison") air defense vehicles, armed with both 30 mm cannons and short-range surface-to-air missiles. These could be used to provide an additional layer of protection for the battery itself against suppression and attack. Combined with the S-300PM battery, this represents a significant and capable air defense position. But the air threat to Russian, Abkhaz and South Ossetian forces in the immediate region is minimal. The Georgian air force consists of a handful of Su-25 “Frogfoot” close air support fighters, which are not particularly sophisticated platforms for the suppression of enemy air defenses and which were battered in the August 2008 war with Russia. In addition, Moscow already has air superiority fighters stationed to Georgia's north in the Russian Caucasus and in Armenia. In short, the placement of the S-300s in Georgia is about far more than the regional threat environment; it has to do with Russia consolidating its dominance over Tbilisi. Because the 48N6 missile allows the battery to cover the entire Georgian coastline, the Russian S-300s in Abkhazia are in a position to threaten access to the Georgian interior from the Black Sea. The two Russian S-300V (SA-12 "Gladiator") batteries (armed with the 9M82 missile) based at the Russian 102nd military base in Armenia, which can be moved closer to Georgia, allow Russia to threaten air access to the Georgian interior — and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in particular — from Turkish airspace as well. In other words, the Kremlin has made outside intervention in Georgia, specifically by the United States or other NATO allies, far more difficult than it was in 2008. Overall, this is one component of a multipronged Russian effort to consolidate its military control over the Caucasus. The July 30 extension of the Russian lease for the 102nd military base and Moscow's work to modernize the Armenian military and further integrate it with Russia's are only the most recent and public moves. But a STRATFOR source has also suggested that Iskander (SS-26 "Stone") short-range ballistic missiles, Russia's most modern and accurate missiles, have now been positioned in the Russian region of Astrakhan and are operational. If they were moved only a short distance, these missiles would be able to range all of Georgia — as well as most of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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