The first of two successive NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) exercises began yesterday at the Vaziani Georgian Armed Forces Base, 30 kilometers east of Tbilisi.  The objective of Exercises Longbow and Lancer is to improve the abilities of the 14 participating nations to respond cooperatively to crises.

  “When the situation demands,” Georgian Defense Minister Vasil Sikharulidze told yesterday’s opening ceremony, “we are expected to react quickly and perform effectively.”  Despite this matter-of-fact approach, the twin exercises get underway amidst fulminations from Moscow.

Launched in 1994, NATO PfP is a loose program of 22 countries that want to develop common procedures and compatible equipment—interoperability in NATO parlance—with NATO countries and with each other.  Each country chooses its priorities, its degree of participation and in which activities to take part.  “In our globalized world,” Sikharulidze said, “international cooperative effort is certainly the most efficient way to deliver” the expected reactions.

 Some PfP countries—like Georgia—aspire to NATO membership.  Other PfP countries wish only to improve their capabilities for joint action.  Cooperation in the PfP framework implies no political commitments on the part of participating countries or on the part of NATO.

This is the fourth year in which NATO and PfP countries have come together for Longbow and Lancer—past exercises in this series were hosted by Moldova, Albania and Armenia.  Longbow aims at improving command and staff procedures.  Lancer, which begins May 21, is designed to improve interoperability of light infantry forces for UN-mandated, NATO-led peace support operations.  Appropriately, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will participate in these exercises.

The Longbow-Lancer exercise series has been on NATO’s planning calendar for years and specific preparation for 2009 began in April 2008.  Russia, as a PfP member since 1994, was privy to this information.  Perhaps Moscow overlooked the Longbow-Lancer­ planning meetings because by April 2008, the Kremlin, Belii Dom and the Russian General Staff were busy planning Russia’s August attack on Georgia.

Despite this distraction, NATO’s routine April 15 press advisory about the upcoming exercises should not have shocked Moscow as much as Russians pretend.

Nonetheless, within 48 hours, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev intoned, “Such decisions are disappointing and do not facilitate the resumption of full-scale contacts between the Russian Federation and NATO.  We will follow what happens there in the most thorough manner and take one or another decision if there is need for that.” A few days later, he added, “The NATO exercises in Georgia—no matter how they try to convince us to the contrary—are an open provocation…Those who took a decision to conduct them will bear responsibility for their negative consequences.” And on the eve of the exercise, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, “We would like to give a new positive impetus to Russian-US relations…Regarding the NATO military exercises in Georgia, these signal a different direction.”

Is Moscow really so rattled by 400 troops from 14 disparate countries joining what is, essentially, a Georgian battalion to exercise command post and light infantry skills?   No.  Russia is adding the exercises in Georgia to a list of bellyaches that begins with American missile defense, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and Kosovan independence. Such disputes, writes Economist journalist Edward Lucas in his recent book The New Cold War, “give the Kremlin a pretext to sound cross, to behave badly, and to divide Europe from America.”

To some extent, it works.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Sunday told Deutschlandfunk radio, “In the current phase of domestic political tensions in Georgia one should have, of course, carefully considered whether this is the right time to let the exercises take place there.  It will definitely not contribute to calm.” However, he continued, “NATO maneuvers like this are not something that you plan a week in advance. The whole thing, I suspect, was prepared over the space of three, four months or more.”

At NATO Headquarters, officials were at pains to emphasize just that—these exercises were planned before the NATO-Russia rift precipitated by the latter’s attack on Georgia.  Moreover, bending over backwards to be even-handed, NATO officials said that neither Georgia nor Russia should use the exercises for political purposes, although only Russia has done so.  The alliance even repeated that Russia was welcome to send observers to the Vaziani exercises.

Despite the shivers that Moscow has managed to send down some western spines, the exercises are going ahead—and Russia is not assuaged.  The reason is that Russia is uninterested in planning schedules, even-handedness or transparency into what the 14 countries are doing in Georgia—it wants the west, particularly NATO, out of Georgia.

That is why Moscow has been making such a big fuss over the little NATO Partnership for Peace exercises in Georgia.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.  This column appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.