UNMANNED AIRCRAFT AT CENTER OF GEORGIAN-ABKHAZ INFORMATION WAR
The Abkhaz air defense claimed on May 12 to have shot down two additional Georgian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), both over Ochamchira in southern Abkhazia. This constitutes the sixth and seventh Abkhaz claims of downed Georgian UAVs in recent months since the first such incident was reported on March 18. Subsequently, Abkhazia reported one downed UAV on April 20, two on May 4, one on May 8 and now two more on May 12.
In several of these instances, Abkhaz forces have displayed recovered wreckage to invited journalists; however its authenticity has not been verified. The only incident thus far confirmed by Tbilisi is the one that took place on April 20. In this case, footage from the UAV taken seconds before it was shot down disclosed what appears to be a Russian MIG-29, a fighter plane possessed neither by the Abkhaz nor Georgian air forces, firing a missile at the UAV. Radar recordings presented by the Georgian air force purportedly show the Russian fighter jet operated out of the Gudauta airbase in Abkhazia, and flew back into Russian airspace directly after the mission. Moscow strongly denounced allegations of its involvement, stating the evidence presented by the Georgia was forged and instead supporting Abkhaz claims that its air force had intercepted the UAV. As Abkhazia does not possess aircraft capable of operating air-to-air weapons systems, the claim was later modified; both Russia and Abkhazia now claim the Georgian UAVs were shot down by an advanced surface-to-air system. According to Tbilisi, Russia has transferred such equipment to the Abkhaz armed forces over the last year, while the Abkhaz side maintains it is a leftover from the 1992-1994 conflict.
These incidents are playing a significant role in the escalating tension between Georgia, Abkhazia and Russia. Moscow’s unilateral moves on April 16 to formalize its ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, reinforcements of its military presence in Abkhazia under the pretext of “protecting Russian citizens” in the region, and suggestions by the Abkhaz side to allow Russian military control of the region in exchange for security are all viewed by Tbilisi as Russian steps toward annexation of Georgian territory.
Claims and counter-claims on downed UAVs are intensely utilized in the information campaigns wielded on the one hand by Abkhazia and Russia, and on the other by Georgia.
Abkhazia and Russia are eager to portray the Georgian reconnaissance flights as preparations for a Georgian attack on Abkhazia, and claim that Georgia’s maneuvers over the security zone is in breach of the separation of forces provided for by the Georgian-Abkhaz cease-fire agreement of 1994. To underline the potential dangers of these flights, Russians and Abkhaz have stressed the abilities of the UAV system in question (the Israeli-made Hermes 450) for artillery target acquisition and to carry missiles. This has been accompanied by allegations of Georgian troop reinforcements in the Kodori Gorge and along the cease-fire line, which have not been independently confirmed. The UAV flights are thus depicted as irresponsible and aggressive Georgian behavior, a line of reasoning aimed at discrediting Georgia and its declared intentions to resolve its conflicts in a peaceful manner, and legitimizing Russian reinforcements of its peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia. In addition, although many observers question Abkhazia’s ability of downing UAVs, claims of successfully doing so serve to boost the perception of Abkhazia’s defense capabilities, in turn providing a cover for potential Russian military activities on Abkhazia’s behalf.
Tbilisi is conversely utilizing the UAV dispute as a means for drawing attention to Russia’s increasingly open support for Abkhazia. While all allegations of reconnaissance flights over Abkhazia were initially denied, this position changed after the incident on April 20. As this provided an opportunity to expose Russia’s military activities in the conflict zone, Tbilisi decided to put forward the recorded evidence, thus confirming regular UAV flights over Abkhazia. Since, Tbilisi has instead asserted it has a right to conduct flights over Abkhazia, which according to international law still constitutes Georgian territory. Tbilisi has maintained that the UAVs operate under the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs (and not the Georgian air force), are unarmed, and that they “were flying, are flying and will continue flying over sovereign Georgian airspace to gather full information about the Russian military intervention”. Accordingly, UAV footage of Russian troop movements and reinforcements in Abkhazia has been made public. Tbilisi has simultaneously staunchly denounced Abkhaz claims of downing additional UAVs, as well as of any increased Georgian military presence in either the Kodori Gorge or the security zone. These denials are corroborated through reports by UNOMIG observers stationed in Abkhazia, stating that no military build-up by either side has so far been noted.
As Georgia’s conflict with Abkhazia and Russia escalates and the limited level of trust between the sides has evidently evaporated, urgency is added to the question of internationalized peacekeeping and negotiation processes in Abkhazia. Tbilisi has long requested such involvement by the EU, suggestions which have received lukewarm reactions. However, as the existing arrangements are now void of all credibility, this issue is actualized more than ever.