Why Ukraine and Georgia Are Fighting Over Soviet-Built Air Defence Systems: Kiev Wants BuK Missiles For Free

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The Central Asian Soviet successor state of Georgia has come under growing pressure from Ukraine to supply BuK surface to air missile systems and other equipment free of charge, with Ukrainian officials claiming that BuK systems were supplied in the late 2000s as aid and ought to be returned. Although both Georgia and Ukraine were formerly parts of the Soviet Union, the latter was on the frontier with NATO which led it to be prioritised for hosting some of the superpower’s most advanced equipment, inheriting quantities which far surpassed all other successor states with the exception of Russia. The BuK system and other mobile short and medium ranged air defence assets played a key role in allowing Georgia to hold its own against the Russian Military in 2008 for close to two weeks, with the Russian Air Force having struggled profusely to neutralise them due to a total neglect for air defence suppression capabilities after the USSR’s disintegration and retirement of the Soviet fleet of dedicated air suppression aircraft. Russia eventually succeeded in tackling Georgia’s air defences primarily through the successes of its ground offensives, which allowed it to neutralise such assets without relying on air support. 

The BuK system is currently by far the most capable air defence asset in the Georgian armed forces, with the country’s defence ministry slamming “the incorrect information spread by experts or individual media outlets” from Ukraine claiming that the system was gifted rather than purchased. “It seems that Ukraine handed over Buk air defence systems to Georgia for free, which is not true,” it said, adding that Georgia “had received the Buk systems in 2007 through a multi-million-dollar purchase. This was done under a secret agreement, which is why we cannot provide more specifics.” The ministry elaborated that although providing humanitarian assistance, Georgia “has repeatedly stated its clear position” on supplies of weapons and dual use goods to Ukraine. It further defended its decision not to deplete its own stocks of U.S.-supplied Javelin anti tank missiles to equip Ukraine despite pressure from Kiev and some of its Western supporters to do so. Although the Georgian state has been conservative in its support for Ukraine’s war effort, Georgian nationals have played a leading role in the conflict with the Georgian Legion being among the most prominent of foreign units and one of the very first formed to fight both Russian forces and militias from Ukraine’s Russian ethnic minority.

Ukraine’s air defence network has become increasingly depleted in its ongoing conflict with Russia, with multiple Ukrainian sources as well as Western media outlets highlighting that this was increasingly limiting the country’s ability to respond to air and missile strikes. Although the country has received Soviet designed air defence systems from former Warsaw Pact states such as Poland and Slovakia, supplies of these have been limited while other NATO members have provided systems which are extremely short ranged and in many cases near obsolete such as the MIM-23 Hawk. Although the United States has pledged to provide a single unit of Patriot missiles, system’s questionable combat record, very small numbers, and lack of American supporting personnel mean its impact will likely be very limited. The first Patriots are only expected to become operational in Ukraine in early 2024. Pressing Georgia to provide BuK systems may well be a sign of desperation as Ukraine’s own much larger network built on BuK and complementary longer ranged S-300 systems approaches breaking point, with other potential suppliers of Soviet compatible air defences outside Europe being few and far between. 

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