Georgia appeals to West over Russian bases

TBILISI Tue Mar 3, 2009 11:14am GMT

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia's defense minister appealed to the West to halt what he said was a continuing Russian military buildup in two breakaway Georgian regions, adding that a fresh Russian attack "cannot be ruled out."

The Kremlin recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in the wake of last year's five-day war between Russia and Georgia, when Moscow smashed a Georgian assault on South Ossetia.

Defense Minister David Sikharulidze told Reuters in an interview late on Monday that Russia's war aim had been "regime change," but it had failed. Moscow's continued military buildup in the absence of international monitoring meant the situation "remains fragile," he said.

The minister said Tbilisi had observed activity at the site of a proposed Russian naval base in the breakaway Black Sea territory of Abkhazia and understood that a Soviet-era military base near the Abkhaz resort town of Gudauta was "fully operational" and under Russian control.

Moscow is keen to re-establish its military influence in strategic former Soviet territories but the EU and the U.S. have said any new Russian bases in the breakaway regions would violate a ceasefire accord which ended last year's war.

"Both the European Union and United States made their position very clear with regard to these activities. If this political pressure continues, it would play an important role in ... stopping the Russians doing what they are doing," Sikharulidze told Reuters.

"The security environment is a concern. This represents a danger not only for Georgia but for the entire region."

Asked later if new conflict was possible, he replied:

"Our mission is to be ready to resist if the Russians decide to attack Georgia, major cities, vital links of communications again. Our understanding is that this cannot be ruled out."

Abkhazia's separatist authorities say they plan to sign a military treaty with Russia within months, allowing Moscow to establish a naval base at Ochamchire -- near the de facto border with Georgia -- and an air base in Gudauta.

NATO STILL NO. 1 PRIORITY

"We saw certain activities around the naval base in Ochamchire," Sikharulidze said, without specifying what activities. Georgian television carried unconfirmed reports at the weekend that Russian navy ships had docked off Ochamchire.

Some Abkhaz officials have touted Ochamchire as a possible alternative to Ukraine's Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet's lease expires in 2017.

Sikharulidze disputed Russian figures of 7,600 Russian troops stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "It is a rough figure of about 10,000 troops," he said.

Russia said it had to go to war to halt civilian deaths in Tbilisi's assault on South Ossetia after months of skirmishes. Both rebel regions threw off Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s.

The West said Russia's response was disproportionate. Moscow's troops pushed to within 40 km (30 miles) of the Georgian capital, routing the Georgian army within five days.

A leaked Pentagon assessment after the war said the Georgian military suffered from widespread mismanagement and unqualified leadership. The 31,000-strong military is highly politicized and centralized, and prone to impulsive decision-making, it said.

Sikharulidze, previously Georgia's envoy to the United States, said reforms in 2009 would include "proper organization, proper management."

He estimated damage to the military at up to $200 million. Training would focus more on defense than on peacekeeping, he added, but confirmed Georgia would send 160 soldiers to fight with NATO-led forces in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of 2,000 troops from Iraq late last year.

The commitment underscores Tbilisi's NATO membership ambitions despite Russian opposition. "NATO accession is still the No. 1 priority for us," Sikharulidze said.

(Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Tim Pearce)

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