As Russian troops begin a slow withdrawal from Georgia, Moscow may have created an inadvertent opening, allowing NATO to send more military aid to Tblisi.
Defense officials tell Fox News that Russia has deployed short-range SS-21 missiles in South Ossetia--the breakaway region that sparked the recent conflict with Georgia. Despite their limited reach (120km), the SS-21s can threaten most Georgian cities and military bases. Moreover, the SS-21 is extremely accurate--far more capable of precision attacks than the FROG-7s they replaced.
The mobile missiles pose an obvious menace to Georgia's population centers, and airfields supporting humanitarian operations. But Moscow's military move has actually created an opportunity for NATO--allowing the alliance to show support for Tblisi, and provide a needed measure of military support.
We're referring to Patriot missile batteries, which could--and should--be deployed to Georgia. The Patriot is more than capable of engaging an SS-21, diminishing the potential threat to civilian and military targets. Moreover, the presence of those mobile missiles in South Ossetia provides a perfect justification for Patriot deployments to Georgia.
And, if NATO is genuinely serious about such a move, the Patriots should come from several member countries, say, the U.S., the Netherlands and Germany. NATO Patriot units are fully interoperable, so there would be no loss of capabilities with a multi-nation deployment.
The SAM presence should be accompanied by the deployment of air superiority fighters and battle management assets, aimed at establishing a no-fly zone over Georgia. That would send a powerful, deterrent message to the Kremlin and its puppet master. Unfortunately, NATO seems to have no appetite for that sort of mission, so the SS-21s will probably remain in South Ossetia, with little challenge from NATO.
ADDENDUM: Another option would be a NATO-financed purchase of advanced SAMs, probably from Ukraine.
Unfortunately there's also evidence that Russia has been employing SS-26 missiles in Georgia. I don't think there's any justification for using SS-26 there, except possibly as a hardware demonstration to a third country looking to buy the Iskander-E. But the SS-26 could be trickier for Patriot to intercept. If that's the case, then NATO would be giving Rosoberonexport free publicity.
Should NATO deploy PAC-3 to stop SS-21s anyway? It would be nice... but it could also start a proxy war that I don't think we want any part of.
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