MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia launched large-scale military exercises involving thousands of troops across parts of its southern regions on Monday which Georgia said would violate its territory.
The Defence Ministry said the sweep of the week-long “Caucasus 2009” manoeuvres would include the volatile, mainly-Muslim regions of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia - continuing focus of rebel groups seeking to prize the area from Moscow’s control.
Moscow sees the Caucasus mountains area as a strategically vital zone, the approach to prime agricultural and industrial regions and an important energy transit route. The Kremlin views any challenge here as a threat to the overall security and unity of a vast country stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific.
A senior Russian general said the manoeuvres would involve Russian troops stationed in the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, though the extent of their participation was not clear.
Similar Russian exercises in the same region last August allowed Moscow to send troops and tanks into Georgia quickly to repel government troops who tried to retake South Ossetia. The brief war raised fears in the West over security of gas transit routes from the Caspian Sea to western Europe.
The manoeuvres will involve 8,500 military personnel, 200 tanks, 450 armoured vehicles and 250 pieces of artillery.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev criticised NATO for holding exercises close to the war zone in Georgia in May, saying they fuelled tension in the region. An annual event, the Russian exercises were planned before the NATO war games.
“We are holding these exercises to boost the country’s defence where it is being threatened,” Dmitry Rogozin, Russian envoy to NATO, said in a video link with Moscow journalists.
“We will hold such exercises irrespective of NATO schedules. If we consider it important to strengthen our combat readiness on our sovereign territory, we will continue doing so.”
The exercises will include “drills by troops simulating a tense situation gradually escalating from a crisis into an armed conflict,” the Defence Ministry said.
Alexander Nalbandov, a Georgian deputy foreign minister, described the exercises as a “a pure provocation from Russia.”
“The fact that the exercises are held not just on Russian territory, but on Georgia’s occupied territory, with the participation of thousands of soldiers and the involvement of so much military hardware, makes this situation even worse,” he told Reuters.
The Russian exercises — which will include anti-terrorism drills — were launched two days after NATO and Russia resumed formal cooperation for the first time since last August’s war.
Russian forces have largely quelled a rebellion in the region of Chechnya after two wars, but rebels launch sporadic attacks there and in the neighbouring areas of Ingushetia and Dagestan. Last week the Kremlin-appointed president of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, was severely wounded in an assassination attempt claimed by a Chechen group.
The exercises are due to end on July 6 when U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Moscow for summit talks with Medvedev.
General Vladimir Boldyrev, commander of Russia’s Ground Forces, was quoted by Izvestia newspaper as saying the exercises would involve military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia has now recognized as independent of Georgia.
He did not say what part they would play.
Rogozin said he knew that a number of countries continued to supply Georgia with weapons, including offensive ones. Russia had earlier accused Ukraine and the United States of arming Georgia, allowing its army to reach its pre-war strength.
“We hope that despite a lack of proper security guarantees for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia’s leadership will drop its military adventurism towards these republics,” Rogozin said.
“Because after each such military escapade Georgia’s territory risks to get smaller and smaller.”
(Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi)
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Ralph Boulton