Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Russia Deploys S-300 Missiles in Abkhazia

Russia announced Aug. 11 it had deployed a missile battery in Georgia's pro-Moscow rebel region of Abkhazia, infuriating its arch foes in Tbilisi some two years since they fought a brief war.

"We have deployed the S-300 system on the territory of Abkhazia," air force commander-in-chief Gen. Alexander Zelin said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies.

"Its role will be anti-aircraft defense of the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in cooperation with the air defense systems of the army."

Georgia insists that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are an integral part of its territory but Russia in 2008 recognized the two regions as independent after its war with Tbilisi.

"The task of these air defense systems is not only to cover the territory of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but to avert violations of state borders in the air," Zelin said.

They were also aimed at the "destruction of any flying object penetrating into the covered territories, whatever aim they were flying with," he added.

Tbilisi rapidly warned that Russia's deployment was of concern not only to Georgia but should also worry NATO. Georgia's ambition to join NATO has long flustered Russia.

"This should be of concern not only for Georgia but also for other regional actors, including NATO," Deputy Prime Minister and Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili told AFP.

He said the move by Moscow could be linked to its anger over U.S. plans to install missile defence facilities in former Communist bloc East European countries who have become members of NATO.

"This is changing the balance of power in the region," he said.

"It is also a kind of asymmetric answer to the American missile defense deployment in Eastern Europe. .... The Russian government is saying 'if you can do it, we can do it.'" Abkhazia is less than 200 kilometers (125 miles) across the Black Sea from NATO member Turkey.

Russia at the weekend marked the second anniversary of the outbreak of the war with Georgia, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev making a surprise visit to Abkhazia on Aug. 8, his first trip since the conflict.

In an embarrassment for Moscow, only Venezuela, Nicaragua and the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru have followed its move to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The S-300 is one of Russia's most prized missile assets and has been the subject of a long-running controversy over the fulfillment of a contract to deliver the weapons to Iran.

Russia signed a contract to sell the systems to Iran several years ago, but has failed to deliver the weapons amid pressure from the West which fears they would be used against any aerial attack on the Islamic republic.

First manufactured by the Soviet Union in 1978, the S-300 is a surface-to-air missile system capable of tracking and destroying ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and low-flying aircraft at a range of up to 100-200 kilometers (62-124 miles).

The 2008 war saw Russian forces pour into Georgia after fighting broke out over South Ossetia, prompting the worst post-Cold War crisis between Russia and the West. An EU-brokered ceasefire has held, despite tensions

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