MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Wednesday it had deployed high-precision air defense missiles in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, sending a defiant signal to Tbilisi and the West two years after a war with Georgia.
The S-300 missile system bolstered Moscow’s military presence in the disputed territory and drew an angry response from Georgia.
General Alexander Zelin, the commander of Russia’s air force, said that air defenses of other types had been deployed in Georgia’s other Russian-backed rebel region, South Ossetia.
His comments, two years after Russia routed Georgian forces in a five-day war that strained Moscow’s ties with the United States and Europe, were reported by Russian news agencies.
“The task of these air defenses is not only to cover the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but also to avert violations of their state borders in the air and destroy any vehicle illegally penetrating their air space, whatever the goal of its mission,” Zelin said.
Zelin said the air defense systems would also protect Russian bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“At the same time, the task of air defense of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be also implemented by frontline and army aviation carrying out combat duties there,” Zelin said.
Georgia reacted promptly, accusing Moscow of “strengthening its image and role as an occupying country.”
“It shows ... not only that Russia does not intend to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia but that it is actually strengthening its military control over these territories,” Eka Tkeshelashvili, Georgia’s National Security Council secretary, told Reuters.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that Russian press reports had indicated for some time that Moscow maintained S-300 missiles in Abkhazia.
“This is the first time any Russian official has indicated that this is the case. We have said many times that Russia must abide by its 2008 ceasefire commitments, and this is another instance in which the Russians have failed to adhere to those commitments,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in an email message.
The two rebel regions have been out of Georgia’s control since the early 1990s. In August 2008, Russia crushed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia, launched after days of clashes between Georgian and rebel forces.
Since then, Moscow has recognized the two territories as independent states, strengthened its control over them and signed deals with them to build permanent military bases.
Georgia remains a close U.S. ally and aspires to join NATO, but its unresolved territorial disputes and Russia’s growing presence in the rebel regions have made this goal more distant.
A U.S. defense official at the Pentagon said the United States could not yet confirm the deployment of new missiles and was seeking further information.
“The United States has (in the past) called upon Russia and Georgia to avoid actions that contribute to insecurity or instability in the Caucasus,” said the official, who declined to be named.
“We are seeking further information, but the absence of transparency and international monitoring in Abkhazia makes this difficult,” the official said.
Last month U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Tbilisi and voiced concern over Russian plans to build up military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, calling on Moscow to end its “occupation” of Georgian lands.
The S-300, code-named “Favorite” in Russia, is a mobile, long-range air defense able to detect, track and destroy cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and high- and low-flying aircraft.
By deploying the missiles, Russia wants to be able to intercept Georgian, or indeed U.S. and NATO, flights over the nearby Black Sea area, Georgia’s interior and the South Caucasus air corridor, the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S. thinktank, said in a research note.
“Russian interdiction capability can deter Georgia, the United States and its allies from using those flight paths in certain contingencies,” it said.
“Such contingencies may include another Russian invasion of Georgia complete with an air blockade; or U.S. air operations in the South Caucasus, in the context of possible hostilities with Iran; or demonstrating Russian air interdiction capability along the allied supply corridor to Central Asia and Afghanistan.”
The United States and Israel have repeatedly voiced concern over possible deliveries of S-300s to their foe Iran.
Russia had long insisted on its right to carry out a contract to sell the missiles to Iran. But Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in June that Moscow would freeze their delivery after Russia backed new U.N. sanctions against Iran.
Washington and Israel feared the missiles could give Tehran the means to rebuff potential air strikes on its nuclear sites. (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Alison Williams in London and Paul Simao in Washington)