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Georgia and Abkhazia, 1992-1993: the War of Datchas
By Tom Cooper
Sep 29, 2003, 12:14

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The 13-month long bitter war between Georgia and Russian-supported Abkhazia saw a very limited deployment of air power as well, albeit in a disorganized fashion. This complex war, in which there was no "good" or "bad" side, officially ended by a ceasefire. Nevertheless, tensions remain high until today.




Independence - Georgian Style

Georgia is - due to its strategic position, some oil reserves, but foremost its communication routes - a strategically important country. The first Georgian Republic was established in 1918. Ruled by a form of social-democratic dictatorship of a single party, it lasted only until the country was invaded by the Soviet Red Army, in 1921. Abkhazia was originally incorporated into Russia, in 1810, but declared independent after the revolution in 1917, and entered the North Caucasian Republic in the following year. This state included also Daghestan, Chechn-Ingushia, Ossetia, Karachay-Balkaria, Kabarda, and Adyghea. In the period between 1919 and 1921 the Soviets conquered this area and declared Abkhazia an Autonomous Republic within the Soviet Republic of Georgia, in 1931, a status Abkhazia had until 1991. The population of Abkhazia numbered some 520.000 according to data from 1989, of whom only some 100.000 were autochthonous Abkhazians.

A pleasant climate in summer months resulted with a number of holyday resorts for privileged communists being built there along the Georgian coast of the Black Sea. Above all, however, by 1989 there were no less but 80 well-developed military bases and real properties of the Transcaucauss District of the Soviet Army, including a number of installations of strategic importance (such as early-warning, long-range radar stations, and ELINT/SIGINT-posts, covering the whole airspace over the Black Sea and a good part of Turkey, Syria and Iran), foremost concentrated in the areas around Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Vaziani, Akhalkalaki, and Kobuleti. Furthermore, a large State Aircraft Factory 31 (GAZ.31) was established in Tbilisi, manufacturing aircraft to MiG and Sukhoi design: it produced no less but 1.133 MiG-21UMs between 1970 and 1984, and ever since was manufacturing Su-25s.

Georgia declared its independence from the USSR already on 20 June 1990, when the Georgian Supreme Soviet passed a resolution which declared all documents adopted during Soviet times as null and void.

The first Georgian President, Sviyad Gamsakhurdia, governed as a dictator until ousted by a military-supported coup, in January 1992, when he was forced into exile following particularly bitter fighting in Tbilisi. In the weeks afterwards, some of the militant groups involved in overthrow of Gamsakhurdia entered Abkhazia, where they became invovled in raping and killing of local civilians. In response, Abkhazians invited a number of Russian Nazis, Cossacks and Armenians, but also Chechen Islamists under Basaev and Circassians to help them organize armed resistance.

Aside from this, after the former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was appointed a new president of Georgia, he faced strong opposition of local Soviet Army officers, many of whom accused him for the fall of the USSR and the pull-out of Eastern Europe - but also the spread of organized crime and massive corruption. It did not take long until the elements within the Russian military established contacts to Abkhazian leaders - mostly former communist dignitaries, not few with quite a doubtful background – and then to Gamsakhurdia in exile.

Abkhazia Splits

In accordance with the unilateral action of the Georgian Supreme Soviet from June 1990, on 25 August 1990 also the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet declared “The State Sovereignity of the Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic”. Initially, the Abkhazian leaders proposed a federal union with Georgia, but the Georgian leadership refused to solve the problem by peaceful means in the face of the fact that – supported by the Russian military presence – the Abkhazian leaders started creating their own armed forces, mainly equipped by weapons sold donated by the local Russian officers.

On 14 August 1992 the Georgian National Guard, supported by a number of para-military groups, moved in to prevent the Abkhazian independence, attacking the parliament in Sukhumi. In response, and in the light of the countless atrocities against the local population, the Abkhazian militia and foreign volunteers counterattacked, occupying the most important points in the city after a series of pitched battles. Especially Chechen volunteers under Basaev, but also Armenians, soon became known for their cruelty in dealing with Georgian irregulars. The locally based Russian troops officially attempted to position themselves between the two sides, but actually did their best in supporting the Abkhazians.

Map of Georgia showing all three regions that attempted to separate - Abkhasia, Ossetia and Ajaria, as well as the three most important airfields. The coast between Sochi (today in Russia) and Suchumi, the capital of Abkhasia, is full of sea-side resorts and beautifull long sand-strands - as well as datachas of former Soviet politicians and high military officers. Many of locally based Russian-generals disliked the idea of losing their possessions here, and this appears to have been one of main reasons for their support of Abkhasians in this conflict. This, in turn, is also the reason why the Abkhasian war against Georgia is sometimes called "The War of Datchas". (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003)


The Georgian Air Force

The Georgians were relatively swift to bring into being their own air force (GeAF), mainly equipped with six or seven Su-25s (including two two-seaters) and two MiG-21U/UM/US' found at the former GAZ.31 in Tbilisi (now called TAM), most of which had to be completed, and a number - reportedly up to 12 - Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters (two of these were Mi-8MTV-1 VIP-transport versions, coded "01" and "02") of the former Soviet Army unit based at Novo Alexeevka. Since the GAZ.31 works at Tbilisi have stopped manufacturing aircraft already at the time of the demise of USSR, in 1991, and a better part of the machinery and tooling for production of Su-25s was taken away to Russia, the Georgians had considerable problems in assembling their Sukhois, even if significant technical support for the new air force was still possible. For example, although they were able to eventually assemble at least nine Su-25s, these initially had to be left in bare metal overall, because thee was no suitable paint to camouflage them. At least eight Su-25UBs, Su-25Ks, and Su-25KMs were never assembled, but stored in "almost" finished condition at TAM. Instead, the TAM was claimed to have re-started production of air-to-air missiles: as GAZ.31 it is known to have manufactured no less but 30.000 R-60 (AA-8 Aphid) and 6.000 R-73 (AA-11 Archer) missiles.

Georgian Su-25s were originally reported as having been flown in "bare metal" overall during the war in Abkhazia, but it seems that at least some of them were actually found in camouflage and markings of the former Soviet Air Force at the GAZ.31 factory. Most likely they were also left in the same camo: only the Soviet Red Star was removed and replaced by GeAF roundel, which consists of a seven-pointed star in Dark Red on White field, outlined in Black. The serial "07" (seen were also "16" - see bellow - and a two-seater wearing the serial "21") was applied in Red and outlined in White. The "Bird of prey" - seen on the forward fuselage of this Sukhoi - was meanwhile applied on almost all Georgian Aircraft, including trainers, and is usually associated with the TAM Works, not with any of the GeAF units. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


Eventually, the GeAF was to boast a strenght of some 2.500 personnel (also an airborne brigade was formed, with 2.500 airborne assault troops), and include two flying units, one equipped with Su-25s, and other with helicopters. Its main bases became Kopitnari, Marneuli, and Telavi, of which the later was housing mainly helicopters. Marneuli was and remains the best equipped airfield in the country, formerly basing a full regiment of Su-15TM interceptors of the Soviet V-PVO. In fact, a number of wrecked Sukhois was left behind when the Russians departed, together with some Yak-18Ts, Yak-52, and L-29 training aircraft. At Tbilisi- Novo Alekseyevka airport the Georgians also put under their control a number of civilian aircraft, including some Yak-40s, An-26s, and Tu-134s.

This Mi-8 or Mi-17 of the Georgian Air Force was reported as in service at Tbilisi, in 1998. It was painted in a Dark Green colour on the upper side and the "Soviet Light Blue-Grey" on the underside. The serial "15" is applied in a light colour, possibly white, on both sides of the fuselage, and the title "Montana" was applied in Black, also on both sides of the fuselage. The GeAF operated a second Mi-8 as well, serialled "Blue 19": this wore a three-colour camouflage pattern. (artwork by Tom Cooper)


In addition to aircraft mentioned above, the newest reports indicate that in 1991 and 1992 the Georgian military also obtained no less but 350 tanks and APCs, over 3.000 vehicles, 400 artillery pieces and 50 mortars, more than 47.000 small arms, and 15 sets of “ground technology and equipment of the air defence system” (probably radars and SAM-sites) from the Russian Army. Aside from this Georgia nationalized the former Black Sea Fleet’s Batumi (in Ajaria) and Sukhumi (in Abkhazia) Naval Bases, acquiring a considerable military infra-structure. Eventually, some Russian sources complained that the that the total worth of weapons obtained by Georgia from the Soviet military “at no cost” was over $600 million.

Abkhazian Resistance

Despite being well-equipped, the ill-disciplined Georgian National Guard has had it not easy in Abkhazia, especially as its and the atrocities against the local population committed by various of Georgian para-military groups forced most non-Georgians to consolidate around the Abkhazian authorities. Well-armed and supported by the Russians, the Abkhazians were swift to start claiming first military successes, and already on 5 September 1992, they have shot down a Georgian helicopter near Carga Bzyb, by 14.5mm heavy machine-gun.

Such losses were nothing that would deter Shevardnadze from sending the National Guard into Abkhazia in an attempt to bring the area under control, in turn causing a spread of viollence. But, such actions resulted in an even more active involvement of the Russians. Under the pretext of supporting an evacuation of the Russian population from Abkhazia units of Russian Army drove out of their bases along the Black Sea coast and toop positions along most of the roads and neuralgic points in contested areas.

Additional sharp clashes occurred in October and November 1992, with Georgians being facing an increasing number of problems as their National Guards proved unable to tackle the local points of Abkhazian resistance – especially when these were defended by the Russian Army: in November 1992, in fact, the then Georgian Defence Minister Kitovani accused Russia for the first time in public for preparing a war against Georgia in Abkhazia. Apparently, this statement came in the light of several heavy strikes by Russian Air Force (RuAF) fighters against villages and towns in Abkhazia predominantly populated by Georgians. The indiscriminate strikes forced thousands of people to leave their homes, and further stressed the poor Georgian economy by forcing it to support a large number of refugees.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), deployed several emissaries into the area, attempting to start negotiations between the Georgians, Abkhazians and Russians, but there were no obvious results until 14 December 1992, when an armistice was agreed, mediated by the OSCE and the Russian Army general Segudkin. However, this was not observed by any of the involved sides.

Quite on the contrary, in mid-December 1992, in response to several Georgian air strikes against targets under Russian and Abkhazian control, the local Russian Army commanders openly threatened to open fire against GeAF aircraft and helicopters. The Georgians were not only publishing threats, but firing back: on 14 December 1992 they shot down a Russian Army Mi-8 helicopter by SA-14 MANPADs. The downed helicopter was - in the view of such a danger - escorted by two Su-25s and another Mi-8, but these did not prevent it from being shot down, with the loss of three crew-members and 58 passengers, mainly Russian refugees. In the light of this incident, on 16 December Shevardnadze requested from Russians to evacuate their nationals from Abkhazia via other routes, foremost the Black Sea, but also to limit the number of missions flown from Gudauta, the main Russian air base in the area.

Georgian Offensive

In the last weeks of 1992 a Georgian offensive resulted in a number of Abkhazian villages being taken, as well as a loss of a GeAF Mi-8 near Vladimirovka to a Russian or Abkhazian SA-7 or SA-14. This success was only temporary, then in the early 1993 the Rusians put Suchumi under artillery attacks. Kitovani immediately requested additional negotiations with Marshal Pavel Grachov, the then Russian Defence Minister, and later also with local Russian commanders: the Russians agreed not to fly their aircraft and helicopters over Georgia, but almost exactly opposite was to happen. Reinforced by significant number of tanks, APCs, and artillery from local Russian units, as well as supported by RuAF aircraft and helicopters, in mid-January 1993 the Abkhazian militia started an offensive that saw an almost complete destruction of Georgian para-military bands, and brought the Abkhazians into the suburbs of Suchumi. The Georgians counterattacked several times over the Gumista River, on Otchamtchira and against Tkvaritchely, but without success.

The fighting for Tkvaritchely wn was especially bitter, then this city, predominantly inhabited by the Russians, was put under a siege by the National Guard and a number of civilians reportedly starved to death. The Russians attempted to establish an air bridge but suffered a loss of a Su-25 that was escorting several helicopters, on 15 January, and on the same day also a Georgian Mi-8T was shot down in the area. Given that all three sides were meanwhile firing at anything that was flying, it is possible that the Russian Su-25 was actually shot down by the Abkhazians: surely enough, they claimed destruction of a Georgian Sukhoi on this day in this area as well.

Situation in Abkhasia as of autumn and winter 1992-1993. Pink-marked areas were then still held by Georgian troops. Main battlefields - one NW of Sukhumi and the other NW of Otchamtchira - are marked red. Note the "Abkhasian" bridgehead in the alter area, established after a full amphibious attack: how should this have been undertaken without Russian support - as claimed by Abkhasians and Russians - remains unclear. It was, however, this event that broke the back of Georgian troops in Abkhasia, then it cut off the main supply route between Georgia and Sukhumi. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003)


Fall of Suchumi

The third round of Russo-Georgian negotiations, on 5 February 1993, once again ended without any useful results, the rumours indicating that it was the ultra-nationalistic leader of the Georgian National Guard who was to blame this time, and the fighting – characterised by air strikes, ethnic cleansing, and takings of hostages – intensified. The increasing capabilities of Georgian military were worrying the Russian officers, and on 20 February they finally ordered an all-out attack on Suchumi. This was procedeed by a strike of six Su-25s against the city, which killed 20 and injured over 600 (including 200 Russians), Moscow later explaining this was in retaliation for a similar attack of GeAF fighters against an unknown Russian Army unit.

Actually, at the time the RuAF was already deeply involved in this conflict, flying almost permanent CAPs over the battlefield and disturbing a number of strike sorties flown by GeAF Sukhois. The situation worsened as the Russians and Abkhazians increased the pressure on Suchumi, and Shevardnadze publicly stated that the loss of this city would be equal to the loss of Georgian independence. Gratchov then increased the Russian involvement, stating the Russian Army is to remain in the country and “defend the strategic interests in the Black Sea area”. Suchumi remained under heavy artillery bombardment and in the early March was heavily hit by RuAF fighter-bombers again.

Heavy fighting was reported on the ground as well, with considerable loses on both sides: during only one day – on 16 March 1993 – the Abkhazians counted over 50 and Georgians at least 20 killed.

Under heavy pressure, Shevardnadze then requested from Russian President Yel’tsin to bring the situation under control and pull back the Russian Army units, ignoring the fact that meanwhile over 50% of the Abkhazian population - including some 250.000 Georgians - was ethnically cleansed and forced to left their homes. Indeed, Yel’tsin ordered per decree the supreme command of the Russian units to be moved from Tbilisi to Stavropol, but, he simultaneously permitted deployment of two airborne divisions and two motorized brigades to Georgia – or, more precisely, to Abkhazia. An additional airborne division, together with a full wing of attack and transport helicopters, was also brought closer to Caucasus, but not involved in fighting.

In the air the Russians monitored the increased activity of the GeAF Su-25s: on average the Russian radar stations in the country tracked 14 combat sorties flown by Georgian Sukhois a day. Eventually, Moscow ordered the RuAF to bring an end to such activities. At 1640hrs of 19 March 1993, a Russian Air Force Su-27S was scrambled from Gudauta AB to intercept two low-flying Su-25s approaching the Suchumi area from the south-east. Underway at a level of 2.500ft the Russian pilot, Maj. Schipko, an instructor from the Flying School in Krasnodar, attempted to approach his opponents when his aircraft was suddenly hit and blotted out of the skies by a singe SA-2 SAM. Maj. Schipko was killed. Who exactly fired that missile remains unknown: it is at least not confirmed if the Georgians have had any operational SA-2 systems in their hands at the time. The two GeAF Su-25s completed their mission as expected - without any disruption.

Most of the GeAF Su-25s haven't seen much of new paint since years, and show significant wear and weathering, so also this example, seen at Tbilisi-Marneuli AB, in 1999. The aircraft is also wearing the "Bird of Prey" on the nose. Note that the seven-pointed star of the Georgian roundel was applied in a different form on L-29s and Yak-52s - having much sharper points - and that the white field is often outlined in Blue, not in Black as here. Known serials of GeAF Su-25s are: "Red 06", "Red 07", "Red 16" (meanwhile left in white outline only), "Red 17", and "Red 18" (single-seaters), the sole Su-25KM Scorpion is wearing the registration "Blue 316", left from the Paris and Farnborough Air Shows, while the only known Su-25UB is "Red 21". (artwork by Tom Cooper)


It seems that this loss was quite a blow for the Russians, then in the following days they deployed additional assets in the battle zone: on 20 March even two ships of the Russian Navy appeared off of Suchumi and started shelling Georgian positions, while the number of air strikes was once again increased. With such support, the Abkhazian troops crossed the Gumista River in two places, but their advance was stopped in the face of bitter Georgian resistance, and the Abkhazians contained inside two small bridgeheads.

The fighting continued through the spring with no let up on either side. The outcome of the battle, however, was only a matter of time, then the Georgians lacked the resources, men, weapons, and ammunition to keep on fighting, and their air force could do nothing against the Russian air strikes. Time and again, of course, the units of the Georgian National Guard would report downing of some Russian helicopter, like a Mi-24 on 24 June, or a Mi-8 six days later (the wreckage of which was found full of weapons that were to be delivered to Abkhazians).

Finally, in July 1993, the Abkhazians launched a dreadful offensive with full Russian support, putting the enemy under heavy air and artillery bombardments, as well as massive armoured attacks. Initially, the Georgians held their positions and reported a number of successful defensive operations, including downing of a Russian Su-25 over Suchumi, on 3 July, as well as a Yak-52 reconnaissance aircraft and a Mi-8T (in the Tkwartichely area) on the following day. The GeAF remained active as well, losing also a Su-25 on 4 July, when this was shot down by several SA-14s over Nizhnaya Eshera: the pilot attempted to eject at a very low altitude but hit the water surface in the process. On the following day the Abkhazians reported to have shot down a Georgian Mi-24 over Suchumi, and the Georgians admitted to have lost another Su-25 – this time to their own anti-aircraft defences.

The situation of Georgian troops in the Suchumi area, however, was detoriating with each new enemy attack: the local road network was under almost permanent Russian air- and artillery strikes, and the Abkhazian troops were slowly advancing towards the south, eventually threatening to cut the city off. The GeAF flew dozens of supply sorties into Suchumi, while evacuating civilians out of the place. During one such mission a Mi-8 transporting refugees was shot down over Otchamchira on 7 July, killing 20. Eventually, when the Abkhazians capturing one of two roads leading to the south from Suchumi, effectively surrounding the city, panic spread between the defenders and they started leaving their positions.

Pressing a number of civilian transports and airliners into service the GeAF did everything possible to improve the supply situation inside Suchumi, but its aircraft were extremely vulnerable to Russian and Abkhazian air defences and several were shot down: Suchumi fell in late August 1993.

In the following weeks the Abkhazians continued their advance towards the south, in some places pursuing retreating Georgian units. The GeAF was now engaged in deploying reinforcements to neuralgic positions, mainly by helicopters, but these have also suffered numerous losses: on 30 September a Mi-8 should have been shot down near Racaka, and on 4 October another was lost while transporting 60 refugees from eastern Abkhazia to Svanetya. Eventually, Georgians were forced to pull out completely from Abchasia, and the fact that sometimes during the autumn a Russian Mercenary pilot Zhshitnikov - who flew for the GeAF - defected with his Su-25 from Georgia to Armenia, did not improve the situation the least. The GeAF also lost at least one additional helicopter – probably a Mi-24 – before the OSCE-negotiated cease-fire, in December 1993.

By the end of the fighting, the whole Georgian population of Abkhasia - over 250.000 - was ethnically cleansed, leaving the self-proclaimed "independent state" in hands of barely 50.000 Abkhazians and several thousands of Soviet troops.

There is very little pictorial evidence about the Abkhazian Air Force. On a parade in 2004 three L-39s were shown, including the "Red 62", depicted here. Sadly, the exact position of the national marking (shown in the left upper corner of this artwork) remains unconfirmed.


Ceasefire

On December 1, 1993 talks began in Geneva between the Georgian and Abkhazian sides under the aegis of the United Nations and with the Russian Federation as intermediary. The sides signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" which stipulated a formal ceasefire, exchange of prisoners and continuation of the negotiation process. On April 4, 1994 the sides signed in Moscow the "Declaration on Measures for a Political Settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict", which drew the lines of a future common state which would include Georgia and Abkhazia. According to this document, Abkhazia would have its own Constitution and legislation and appropriate state symbols, such as anthem, emblem and flag and would maintain its own internal sovereignty, but exercise a number of important government functions, including foreign affairs, taxation, border control, etc. by means of joint Georgian-Abkhazian governmental organs. The Declaration was signed in Moscow by the heads of Georgian and Abkhaz delegations, the United Nations Special Envoy Edouard Brunner, the First Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Boris Pastukhov, the representative of the OSCE, Manno, and in the presence of the Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev and the UN General Secretary Boutros Gali.

In June 1994 CIS peacekeeping forces (PKF) were deployed along the "border" - i.e. the cease-fire line - between Abkhazia and Georgia, mainly running along the Ingur river, to divide the Georgian and Abkhaz forces. The operation was conducted on the basis of the Georgian-Abkhazian Agreement of May 14, 1994 and under the approval of the UN Security Council and with the cooperation of UN Observers' Mission. Through 1994 the situation slowly stabilized as both sides respected the truce: in fact, even the Russians were on the end with their capability to support Abkhazians. Besides, increasing problems with Chechnya warned Moscow that supporting Abkhazian separatists might not be the best idea in the light of the fact that Russia was simultaneously about to start fighting against Chechen separatists.

Ever since, there were numerous assassination attempts against Shevardnadze: the struggle against his regime, which proved unable to establish a durable peace and initiate economical recovery, lasted until late 2003, when Shevardnadze was forced to accept the results of the presidential elections. Meanwhile, the Russians, interested in strategic cooperation with Georgia because of numerous reconnaissance installations they had to left there, were pushing the Abkhazians to enter negotiations with Tbilisi, while pulling out all the 240 fighter-bombers – manly Su-25s and Su-27s – from no less but 31 different airfields in Georgia. Moscow was not entirely satisfied with the results of the war in the end, especially as the Abkhazian government proved not as cooperative as expected. Therefore, on 19 September 1994 the Russians closed their border with Abkhazia, putting the country de-facto under a blockade and causing immense damage to the local economy. The official sea-blockade was established on 30 October 1995, since when Russia is effectively preventing ships and individuals from reaching Abkhazian ports, simultaneously declaring Abkhazian passports for invalid outside the CIS countries. In this way, the Abkhazian citizens were deprived of possibility to travel.

Forrest Brothers and Chechens

By 1996 only some 60.000 Georgians that fled Abkhazia in 1993 are said to have returned to their homes. Together with them, however, also members of an armed Georgian organization, called “Forrest Brothers”, lead by certain David Shengelia, returned as well, and these are time and again causing problems to Abkhazian security forces.

The Georgians had therefore to conclude that they have effectivelly lost not only the best part of their army during the fighting in 1993, but also control over Abkhazia: while this is not recognized internationally as anything like an independent country, it is meanwhile de-facto established as an independent territory – to a large degree due to deployment of Russian Army “peacekeepers”, who ever since control the “border” between Georgia and Abkhazia. To make matters worse, in the late 1990s the Russians improved their relations to Abkhazia, and Moscow meanwhile brought several new laws, enabling "other countries" to become members of the Russian Federation. This move was obviously undertaken as an offer to Abkhazia, and should be actually considered as quite sarcastic, given that simultaneously the Russians are undertaken whatever they can in order not to permit Chechenyan separatists to gain ground in their country.

So far, Tbilisi found no solution for the situation in Abkhazia, nor have the Georgians developed a capability to attack Abkhazian separatists. On the contrary, they are meanwhile losing control also of Ajaria and South Ossetia. During the following negotiations between Russia and Georgia, Georgian representatives stubbornly refused to accept any kind of Abkhazian independence: for them, this was no "peaceful" solution, and could certainly not lead to any kind of re-integration of the two countries.

South Ossetian troops as seen in 2004, driving on BMP-2 and BRDM-2. In general, their appearance is very similar to that of the Russian VDV troops from the early 1990s. (ACIG.org archives)


Georgia and Anti-Terror War

Even if the Russians calmed to a degree after a defence pact with Georgia was signed (according to which Moscow was given the right to use specific Georgian military installations) the relations between Russia and Georgia therefore remained under strain – especially since a UN resolution that concluded that the Russian “peacekeepers” did not fulfil their mission in the region. Clearly, with Russian troops out of Abkhazia, the road to Suchumi would be open for Georgians. Consequently the separatists in Suchumi have – in cooperation with Moscow – done their best in order to blame the government in Tbilisi for permitting Chechen separatists to hide in Abkhazia – as if the Georgian government separated that part of the country per own wish, or would be in control of it.

Nevertheless, under pressure from Washington, in October 2001 Georgia attempted to deploy 700 troops into Abkhazia to search for Chechen rebels – led by Ruslan Gelavev – hiding there. These, however, were stopped by the Russian “peacekeepers” while entering the territory in the Kodorsky gorge, Abkhazian President’s envoy in Moscow simultaneously “warning” that there is certainly going to be war if the Russian troops, then under command of Nikolay Sidorichev, would be removed.

At around this time the “Forrest Brothers” became especially active within Abkhazia, apparently supported by some Chechen fighters. Shengelia appeared in the public declaring that his fighters would now be, “…able to capture and hold Suchumi for a day or two…”. Obviously in response to his attacks and threats, on 9 October 2001 helicopters and aircraft without any recognizable markings flew a series of strikes against two Georgian villages in the Kodor canyon, killing 14 in Noa. Whether the aircraft in question were Russian or Georgian remains unclear, but it is known that on 17 October the Georgian authorities complained about a violation of its airspace by six Russian Su-25s several days before.

Since late 2001 the USA became active in Georgia, in the frame of their actions of the Anti-Terror War, Bush’s administration eventually deciding to even supply ten UH-1H helicopters to the GeAF. Certainly, the Georgian Air Force was in a bad need of such a reinforcement, then it was in a poor condition already since 1994, left with only between two and four Su-25s and four Mi-8s and Mi-24s in serviceable condition. Meanwhile, a limited-scale production of Su-25s was re-established in Tbilisi, so that not only was a number of these fighter-bombers manufactured for the Georgian Air Force to establish a single fighter squadron, but four also exported to Congo (former Zaire).

In late 2001 the US administration agreed - despite quite some protests from Moscow - to supply ten Bell UH-1H helicopters to Georgia. Eventually, only six ex-US Army UH-1Hs and two ex-Turkish Air Force UH-1Hs were supplied (the last two already in 2001: they are serialled 20 and 21, and recognizible by their three-colour camouflage). These have meanwhile entered service with the GeAF and are mainly used in cooperation with local special forces units. Except on this, serials on all other GeAF UH-1Hs are applied in Black. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)


By February 2002 up to 40 US special forces instructors were providing training for Georgian military, the reason being that Chechen fighters have established several bases in the area known as Pankisi Gorge. This lies within the Georgian territory but the authorities in Tbilisi proved too weak to put the local rugged terrain and well-organized bands under control. The Russians are known to have several times requested Georgians to act against the Chechens in the Pakisi Gorge, but Tbilisi refused to permit stationing of Russian troops on its soil.

Eventually, the USA supplied ten UH-1Hs to GeAF, of which six entered service while four are used as sources of spares. The helicopters were originally supported by one US Army trainer and six contractors, which trained the Georgian personnel in their use. Simultaneously, there were also reports about reconnaissance operations of the USAF in the area, with Americans apparently attempting to "test" the readiness of the Russian air defences here, but these were never confirmed: certainly, the Russians would bitterly complain if they would have detected any. When, for example, on 22 March 2003 an USAF U-2 was underway over Georgia, and approached to only some 20-30km from the Russian border, the RuAF immediatelly scrambed two fighters to intercept it, with pilots being ordered to prevent any violation of the Russian airspace. This was, reportedly, the third such flight by U-2s in the area: the two previous should have occured on 27 February 27 and 7 March of the same year.

The Russian position in Georgia is obviously weak: although strikes by RuAF Su-25s against targets in the Pankisi Gorge – and corresponding protests from Tbilisi against these – were reported several times in 2002, Moscow was interested in Georgian authorities to suppress Chechen fighters active in the country, and also the same to be done in Abkhazia, but could not intervene directly. Russian reaction to the appearance of the US mission in Georgia was thus a mix of fear that the USA would be establishing a foothold in the Caucasus, to satisfaction that Washington is acknowledging that some Chechen fighters connected to international terrorism are active in Georgia, which in turn was an argument for Russian actions in Chechnya.

Recent reports indicate that most of the Chechens have left the Pankisi Gorge and Georgia since the appearance of the US instructors and the first Georgian actions in the area. Ever since, the Georgian officials do not tire of expressing their loyal feelings towards the US and the NATO, simultaneously demonstrating a very negative attitude towards Moscow. In fact, the USA have announced a decision to spend $64 million for a project of developing and training Georgian anti-terror forces and deployment of their troops in the country.

Clearly, for the time being this money, training, weapons and forces are going to be used for anti-terror campaigns. But, the Georgian wish to punish Abkhazian separatists remains strong, and this temporary widening of the war in Chechnya clearly showed the possibility of Tbilisi using some opportunity to become directly active against Abkhazia. In turn, however, the US presence guarantees some kind of stability, then one of the main of Washington’s interests is also to secure Georgia as the route for a new oil-pipeline that is being built from the large oilfields on the Caspian Sea towards the Black Sea – thus leading around the Russian-held Chechnya.

The GeAF is meanwhile in barely operational condition. As of late 2004, it was left with only four L-29s at Marneuli AB, used for flight training, and three Mi-24Ps (one was still waiting for assembly), two Mi-14s, two Mi-8s and four UH-1Hs at Alekseevka AB. Out of a total of five Su-25Ks, one Su-25KM Scorpion, and one Su-25UB, only one or two were operational on average (four Su-25s participated at the Georgian Independence Day celebrations, on 26 May 2004), while the others were usually stored in open. Additionally, at the TAM Factory in Tbilisi there were seven or eight Su-25UBs, Su-25KMs and Su-25Ks in incomplete condition, together with two GeAF Su-25s and one MiG-21UM apparently in need of a complex overhaul.

The GeAF also operates three Mi-24Ps, all of which were overhauled in the Ukraine, during 2004. These helicopters are now stationed at Alekseevka AB. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)





Order of Battle, Camouflage, Colours, Serials and Markings of Armenian and Azerbaijani Air Force


More details about Georgian Air Force aircraft and helicopters appeared in the public only in the early 2005. Its order of battle - regardless how deminutive - remains largely unclear:

- 44763 Composite Air Unit, based at Tbilisi/Marneuli, equipped with between four and six Su-25K/UBs and two MiG-21UMs, four Yak-18Ts and Yak-52s, at least four L-29s, and six An-2s

- Unknown Helicopter Unit, based at Tbilisi/Telavi, equipped with an unknown number of Mi-8MTV-1s and Mi-8Ts, as well as a single Mi-14





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