27th Jan 2021

Russian missile diplomacy surprises EU

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov neglected to mention to his EU counterpart Catherine Ashton on the phone on Wednesday (11 August) that Moscow was about to make a major security announcement on Georgia.

The pair in a well-publicised exchange spoke at length on Wednesday afternoon on the subject of Russian wildfires, with Ms Ashton voicing condolences for victims, while Mr Lavrov thanked the EU for member states' support.

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  • S-300 ground-to-air missiles on show during a Moscow Victory Parade (Photo: Kremlin)

But the union was surprised to learn shortly after in a statement by Russian colonel general Alexander Zelin to the Itar-Tass, Interfax and RIA Novosti news agencies that Moscow has stationed S-300 ground-to-air missiles in Georgia's disputed Abkhazia region.

"He [Mr Lavrov] said nothing on the subject. Within an hour or so later, we got the news," a source in the EU institutions told EUobserver.

The US State Department on Wednesday noted that Russia has had S-300s in Abkhazia for two years but could not confirm if they are being upgraded.

The EU's monitoring mission in Georgia told this website that it is also unable to confirm the Russian media reports because its officers are denied entry into Abkhazia.

"The situation is calm at the moment but it is unpredictable. Certainly, events like this give input to further tensions," a contact in the mission said. "I was told by military experts they are simply air defence systems, they are not tactical missiles, which means they can only be used to target aircraft."

Despite the on-the-ground calm, EU diplomats are considering whether or not to make a formal complaint.

"It is indeed a serious issue. It is yet another demonstration of the fact that the Russian side is not in compliance with the six-point agreement," one Georgia-based diplomat said, referring to the 2008 EU-brokered Russia-Georgia peace treaty, which stipulates that Russia should withdraw its forces to pre-war positions.

The Georgian government has not been so reticent.

"It is absolutely beyond understanding what aims this extremely dangerous, provocative step may serve, which poses a threat not only to the Black Sea region but to the security of Europe as a whole," the Georgian foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

The S-300 affair comes amid a Russian-German initiative to create a new high-level EU-Russia security committee to tackle frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet region.

"It tells us that although EU-Russia relations have normalised considerably since the 2008 war, there's a gap between words and deeds. The announcement of this [new] commission - nothing has come out of it so far," said the International Crisis Group's Tbilisi-based analyst, Lawrence Sheets.

"It's one thing to say something that one believes one's counterpart wants to hear and quite another thing for Russia to abandon its geopolitical agenda, and that includes a heavy military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia [a second disputed region in Georgia]."

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