Georgia Revamps Military Amid Russia Tensions

TBILISI (AFP)–Georgia is revamping its military to boost defense capabilities amid increasing tensions with Russia over two Moscow-backed breakaway regions, its defense minister said Friday.

Defense Minister David Sikharulidze told AFP in an interview that the presence of thousands of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia posed a "serious" risk to Georgian security.

"We have to be prepared to defend our homeland from invasion," he said. "These occupied territories and Russia’s increased military presence on Georgian soil… raises concern and heavily affects the Georgian security environment."

Georgia’s military in August sent troops into South Ossetia in a bid to retake the region, which had received extensive backing from Moscow for years.

In response, Russia’sent troops and tanks deep inside Georgia and carried out a string of air attacks, provoking the worst crisis in ties between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

Sikharulidze said Georgia "will be putting more and more emphasis on defensive operations" as part of a government-wide rethink of security policies.

Efforts will focus on training and education to improve the military’s ability to respond to threats, he said, adding that anti-aircraft and anti-armour defenses will be the two "most important capabilities we will be focusing on in the close future."

He said it was too soon to discuss what new military hardware Georgia might be seeking under the reforms.

"It’s a complex issue, it’s not only equipment but first of all education and training, then acquisitions," he said.

Georgia’s military has been accused both at home and by foreign allies of mishandling the conflict.

A Pentagon assessment after the war said the Georgian armed forces suffered from widespread mismanagement, unqualified leadership and substandard practices, The New York Times has reported.

Sikharulidze said Georgia was counting on continued Western support to rebuild and reform its military.

"International cooperation, both bilateral and multilateral, is very important for the success of our reforms," he said.

Washington has provided hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance, including substantial military aid, to its ally Georgia in recent years, straining relations with Russia.

Speaking in Brussels Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said plans for a new engagement with Moscow "in no way undermines" Washington’s support for Georgia and the Baltic and Balkan nations.

Sikharulidze said Georgia would continue to participate in international missions despite a shift in focus away from peacekeeping towards national defense.

He confirmed that Georgia is planning to send 160 soldiers to serve with NATO-led forces in Afghanistan. Georgia recalled a 2,000-strong force serving with US-led forces in Iraq in August.

The minister said Georgia was looking to contribute to international security and that its efforts to join NATO remained a top priority.

"We have to continue this process and our way towards integration, it’s important to keep Georgia on track," he said.

The minister’s remarks came as Abkhaz separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh told the Interfax news agency that Russia and Abkhazia will soon sign an agreement allowing Russia to station a base there for 49 years.

Russia’s plans to keep thousands of troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have angered Tbilisi and its Western allies, which say it violates the ceasefire that ended the Russia-Georgia war.

After the war, Russian forces mostly withdrew to within South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow has recognized as independent states.

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