US-Russian relations, hit by differences over the Iraq war, are fraying over the use of American U2 spy planes in Georgia. Russian defense officials are dismissive of the US explanation that the flights are gathering reconnaissance for the ongoing fight against terrorism in the Caucasus.
At least three U2 flights have been carried out during the past month. According to Russian media, the flights have remained within Georgian airspace, traveling the length of the border separating Georgia and Russia, including over the Pankisi Gorge region and close to embattled Chechnya. During perhaps the most recent flight March 22, Russia scrambled two fighter jets to shadow the U2, which flew about 15-25 miles from the Russian frontier, according to the Interfax news agency.
Both the US State Department and Defense Department have remained tight-lipped about the flights. The Georgian Ministry of Defense and the US Embassy in Tbilisi have similarly kept comments about the flights to a minimum. Georgian National Security Secretary Tedo Japaridze, who flew to Moscow on March 25 for talks with Russian security officials, said only that US and Georgian officials have coordinated the U2 flights. He added that at no time did the spy planes violate Russian air space.
Officially, Washington maintains that the U2s are gathering data that would assist US forces, as well as other members of the anti-terrorism coalition, in rooting out terrorists in the region. Both US and Russian officials have raised particular concern in the past about the possibility of terrorists using Georgia's Pankisi Gorge as a safe haven.
The flights have provoked a fierce response in Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry has characterized the U2s over Georgia as a "return to Cold War practices."
Georgian and US officials insist that Russia received advance warning of the flights. Russia does not dispute this. However, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov claimed the route of the U2 flights indicates that their main objective is to gather information about locations and objectives within Russia.
"It is not possible to fight terrorism with the help of a U2 plane," an Interfax report March 26 quoted Ivanov as saying. "This plane flies at an altitude of 18-20 kilometers [roughly 13 miles] and terrorists are not always visible in forests and mountains from a helicopter flying at an altitude of 100 meters, let alone 20 kilometers."
Ivanov maintained that the flights were better suited to obtaining "a very good view of large factories, plants, missile launch sites, air defense systems and other military facilities, located in a very large radius."
Russian officials contend that a U2's effective range for gathering intelligence covers a radius of roughly 370 miles (600 kilometers). The U2 is a single engine jet with a maximum speed of roughly 500 mph. The United States has long maintained that Russia is in violation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, in particular a so-called flank agreement that covers troop and equipment levels in the Caucasus. Russia says that it is unable to comply with the treaty limits due to the ongoing separatist conflict in Chechnya.
Defense Minister Ivanov's comments on the U2 flights came several days after Washington and Moscow exchanged sharp words after US officials accused Russian companies of selling sensitive military hardware, including radar jamming equipment, to Iraq. Russian officials vociferously denied the claim. Russia has steadfastly opposed the Bush administration's use of force against Iraq.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration is a firm backer of US military operations in Iraq. Shevardnadze is facing mounting domestic discontent over Georgia's stagnant economy and lack of security. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Local experts say the president's support for Bush administration policy is designed to secure increased levels of US economic and political support for Georgia. Georgian officials also are hoping the United States will use its influence within NATO to increase the Atlantic Alliance's pressure on Russia to complete its military withdrawal from bases in Georgia.
Giorgi Kandelaki is a senior at the Department of Political Science at Tbilisi State University. He is a member of the Youth Atlantic Council of Georgia.