Moscow continues to deny involvement in the Georgian UAV that was shot down on April 20th, proclaiming that the jet was actually an Abkhazi L-39. Tbilisi stands firm in arguing that the jet is a Russian MiG-29.
There are several reasons why it is conceivable that Russia shot down the drone to signal to NATO that Georgian membership is a bad idea.
The incident occurred over the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia in Georgia. Abkhazia is one of three unrecognized regions in Georgia that has recently experienced an increased push towards independence since Kosovo's independence declaration. Because a majority of the population living in Abkhazia is ethnically Russian, there is somewhat of a push for Russia to recognize its independence. This push, however, is countered by Moscow's fear that recognition would rile up Chechnya's separatist movement. The Russian Duma addressed the status of these three regions just last month and decided to postpone the issue. Duma deputy Sergei Markov commented on the issue saying that it would be addressed "only when that issue is really pressing. It is not out of the question that it could be provoked by other events. It is the opinion of many Russian politicians, for example, that if Georgia wants to join NATO, then they can do so without Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many support this position."
Now, fast-forward to the NATO Summit meeting earlier this month when Bush's firm support for starting a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia was met with disdain from France, Germany, Italy, Benlux, and especially Russia. Bush was unwavering in his support for the MAP, arguing that "it would send a signal throughout the region that these two nations are, and will remain, sovereign and independent states.”
It seems that Russia--maddened by Bush's vigor--may have sent a signal of its own....
It is evident in Markov's comment above that Russia wanted to do something to protest Georgian membership into NATO, but it knows that it must avoid opening a pandora's box with the Chechnya situation. It is possible that instead, the Russians decided to shoot down the Georgian UAV with the intention of reminding NATO members how risky Georgian NATO membership would be. The Russians could have reasoned that NATO would perceive the action one of two ways: 1. Abkhazi separatists are responsible for the missile firings, that is, Georgia is a largely unstable country or 2. Russia is responsible, that is, Georgia is involved in a conflict with Russia. Either of these perceptions would lead NATO to conclude that Georgia is an unattractive NATO candidate. If this is true, this unprecedented aggression towards Georgia is a pretty bold move.