Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Georgia Feeling Violated

Georgia has reported two incidents in the past few weeks involving Russian planes violating their airspace. The original August 6th incident involved a plane or planes crossing several times into Georgian airspace, for increasingly longer periods of time, with ultimately one of the planes reportedly dropping a KH-58 missile. The missile was in the proximity of Georgia's new 36D6-M radar station in Gori ... a radar station that has been somewhat contentious between Georgia and Russia (as almost all things are these days) due to its placement within the conflict zone. Both Russia and South Ossetia have repeatedly complained in the joint control commission about this facility.

The KH-58 is a missile designed to take out radar installations by tracking the radar signal to the source. As such, it would be extremely effective at destroying an installation like the Gori radar station. But apparently the missile wasn't fired, wasn't armed, and didn't self-destruct (I have some questions as to whether these missiles are intended to self-destruct, but more on that later.) It simply was dropped and broke up upon landing. Recent reports suggest the parts to the missile don't even fit together and that all evidence of the missile have been destroyed by Georgia.

One of the more troubling aspects of the story is the complete and utter difference in the news that is being reported by English language news sources versus Russian language news sources. You can identify this as a result of Kremlin influence over the Russian news media, the willingness of the west to back Georgia (for various political and financial reasons) or simply the history and recent conflicts between Georgia and Russia.

Two examples of the differences in news reporting on both sides of the issue appeared last week in Johnson's Russia List. First, from Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation, Eurasia Daily Monitor we have this August 16 report:

On August 12-14 in Georgia, an international group of experts investigated the circumstances of the August 6 Russian air incursion and missile drop on that country. Following the incident, Georgia called for an independent international investigation -- independent meaning that the experts would volunteer their services and that the group would work outside the framework of organizations that are constrained by Russia’s veto, such as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The group of experts on military aviation and air space control consisted of three Americans, two Lithuanians, two Swedes, and a Latvian. The Georgian government had requested some other countries -- including Britain, France, Germany, and Finland, as well as European Union authorities -- to participate in the group, but those countries and authorities apparently declined. Indeed French and German diplomats had recommended an investigation by the OSCE, well realizing that the organization is subject to Russia’s veto power. The lack of reception in London, Paris, and Berlin confirms that the erstwhile Group of Georgia’s Friends (the United States, Britain, France, Germany) has lost its meaning since admitting Russia as a full member and renaming itself as the UN Secretary-General’s Friends of Georgia.

The expert group released a short, apparently final report on August 14 after three days of work in Tbilisi, in the area of Gori (where the Russian missile was dropped), and at Georgia’s air force base. Based on radar information and witness testimonies, the report concludes that Georgia’s air space was violated on August 6 when “unidentified aircraft flew from Russian air space into Georgian air space and back again into Russian air space, three times,” totaling 23 minutes in Georgian air space. Each pass was conducted by a single plane, and on the third pass the intruding plane dropped the missile near Gori. Thus the report leaves open the possibility that more than one plane may have been involved in the three intrusions.

The report identifies the projectile as the Russian anti-radar missile Kh-58, but says that the investigative group was “unable to identify the aircraft type or origin.” It merely notes that Georgia’s air force does not operate aircraft able to fly the profile flown by the “unidentified” plane and does not possess aircraft equipped with or able to launch Kh-58 missiles.

The expert group “has not been able to verify statements concerning a man-portable missile [MANPAD] being fired at the unidentified aircraft.” This point alludes to Russian “peacekeeping” commander Major-General Marat Kulakhmetov’s August 7 public statement that South Ossetian forces had fired such a missile at the plane, believing it to be Georgian.

Following the August 6 incident, Georgia had identified the intruding aircraft as Su-24 or Su-25, ultimately concluding that it was a Su-24. Indeed, this type of Russian plane is known to be equipped for launching that type of anti-radar missile. It remains unclear for the moment why the report does not endorse that identification.

On the whole, the report seems to follow a minimalist approach (consistent perhaps with the group’s minimal size and the investigation’s quick completion). It stops short of pulling some important and seemingly obvious threads together.
It could have noted, for example, the coincidence of the anti-radar missile being dropped near Gori, site of Georgia’s newly installed radar. Or, the coincidence of the intruding aircraft flying from North Ossetia, site of Russia’s Mozdok base, where Su-24s and Su-25s are based. It could also have noted that anti-aircraft
missiles were previously spotted in the possession of South Ossetian forces, frustrating OSCE efforts to remove such weapons from circulation.

Thus, the report in its form released on August 14 misses the opportunity to raise those issues for international attention. If the expert group aimed for an immediate, tangible result of its work, a more developed version of the report could add the necessary background and context.

Apparently, Georgia’s radar information was deemed by the expert group as insufficient for identifying the violator aircraft’s “type and origin.” In that case, Georgia is entitled under international law to have the radar capability to identify intruding planes; particularly when these are getting into the habit of launching projectiles (this is the second case this year, after Kodori in March). Absent adequate radars in Georgia, Russia will continue enjoying a large margin of deniability, for further air incursions.

The expert group’s report confirms Georgia’s information that its air space was violated “from Russian air space.” To that extent, this report has a limited degree of usefulness to the goal, shared by Georgia and its allies, of discouraging the recurrence of such incidents. But the “air space” cannot be held accountable for repeated, egregious violations of international law.

For comparison, we have a discussion of 10 unanswered questions in the Georgian government version of events rom an August 16th article by Alexander Iashvili and Yuri Politov of Izvestia (translation by Elena Leonova) :
An international commission made up of experts from the United States, Sweden, Latvia, and Lithuania has started investigating the evidence for an alleged violation of Georgian airspace. Russia has stated repeatedly that it is willing to participate in the independent commission investigating this incident; but no official invitations have been received from Tbilisi or the other countries.

Moscow has no intention of presenting any evidence that it was not involved in the incident. It would be strange to present justifications for something Moscow didn't do - especially since this isn't the first time Tbilisi has been responsible for various acts of provocation. Suffice it to recall the arrest of several
Russian officers in autumn 2006.

Oddly enough, as if by command, the Tbilisi media have stopped writing about the missile strike on the village of Tsitelubani. All their attention has been transferred to the war of words between Russian and Georgian politicians.

Here are a few basic questions for Georgia's official version of events.

1. The number of aircraft involved in the incident still remains unknown. The Georgian government says there were two planes. Witnesses say there was one.

2. Exactly what kind of planes are we talking about here? First they mentioned Su-27 aircraft, then Su-25. Eventually they settled on Su-24M. Nika Rurua, deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament's defense and security committee, actually explained that Georgia's air defense forces had taken no action because they believed that the trespasser was a civilian aircraft. The hint at the South Korean Boeing incident is all too transparent. But then it becomes unclear how the type of plane was identified. Based on the eyewitness accounts of simple villagers?

3. Why didn't the Georgian air defense forces shoot down at least one of the two planes, if they were "tracking the aircraft from the moment they took off from the Mozdok airfield"? Besides, Georgia's civilian air traffic controllers weren't the only ones tracking the flight path; it was also recorded by the Georgian air defense forces at radar station 36D6. Tbilisi claims that this radar was the target of the attack. A mobile surface-to-air system, recently purchased for the Georgian Army, is deployed near the radar.

This point in particular led the leaders of three Georgian opposition parties to accuse Saakashvili's team of "staging a comedy." This statement was made by Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, former foreign affairs minister Salome Zurabshvili, and Imedi Party leader Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia.

4. Why isn't Tbilisi releasing any official data about Georgian Air Force flights on August 6?

5. Did South Ossetian units fire on the plane, flying at an altitude of 2,000 meters, using a 9K38 Igla portable air defense system or a Strela-1 system?

6. Why did the Kh-58U anti-radar missile miss the $3.5 million radar station? And if it missed, why didn't it explode? And if it was released accidentally, why did its self-destruct mechanism fail? Where are the remnants of a second missile that landed near the village of Didi Gromi, controlled by the South Ossetian government?

7. A short-range missile strike on the Georgian radar doesn't really make sense. Judging by the Kh-58U missile's technical specifications, it is capable of hitting a target at a range of 120 kilometers, when launched from an altitude of 10,000 meters. It can hit a target at a range of 70 kilometers when launched from an altitude of 200 meters. It is accurate to within 20 meters.

8. Why was the missile destroyed as soon as it had been shown to President Mikhail Saakashvili and foreign diplomats? Tbilisi maintains that only the payload was destroyed; the missile fragments - with inscriptions, a serial number, date and place of manufacture - still exist. But if that is the case, how can anyone prove that the warhead and the remaining "spare parts" came from the same missile?

9. Only Georgia's civilian politicians are commenting on this incident - not military leaders. Moreover, the Georgian government's accusations against Russia rely on a routine report from the OSCE Monitoring Group. Such reports are written after any incidents in conflict zones. They are based on eyewitness testimony and information from peacekeeper checkpoints; they are not conclusive reports.

10. Although Georgia is absolutely certain that it's right, it's refusing to participate in the investigation organized by the Peacekeeping Forces Monitoring Group. That's strange; especially since the peacekeepers have found some witnesses who claim that the planes flew in from the south.

If these questions remain unanswered, Georgia's official version of events simply collapses. That means Russian Senior Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov was right: what we're dealing with here is a "theatrical performance."
Several of these questions seem a bit scurrilous and others seem to be resorting to a "straw man" tactic of attacking information or evidence that was not reported. But the overall tone is clear - Georgia isn't to be believed in any of this.

And the truth be told, whether these incursions by Russia are factual or not, Georgia is beginning to appear as the boy who cried "wolf" one too many times.

UPDATE: Vilhelm Konnander's Weblog has the story of Georgia reporting to have shot down a Russian jet that intruded into its territory in the Kodori gorge region. Coincidentally, Russia has reportedly grounded its Su-24 planes due to a training mission crash.

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