South Ossetia: Following Abkhazia Towards Russia?

As part of the fracture points series, I submitted articles over the past year on several strategic points of contention between a resurgent Russia and the West (the United States, its allies, and the European community). The article below was posted at Sofrep.com. (You can find the original article at Sofrep.com, here, posted December 30, 2014)

As the situation in the Caucasus has intensified and Russia has moved to codify cooperation with breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia of Georgia, strategic implications for policy both in the United States and Europe have resulted in a number of geopolitical consequences. I will be writing about the changing dynamic throughout Eurasia in the coming weeks here at Foreign Intrigue. Below is an article on South Ossetia.

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue

With the recent codification of the joint forces agreement binding Georgian breakaway region Abkhazia and Russia, observers of the South Caucasus have anxiously anticipated a similar change in Moscow’s relations with South Ossetia. You can find background on the issues involving Russian involvement in Georgia in my previous articles on Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Georgia:

On August 10th, my first article on South Ossetia outlined the region’s recent history, mostly since the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008, and explained why certain events were conspiring to ensure that South Ossetia’s geostrategic importance for both the West and Russia would grow in exponential terms in the subsequent months. South Ossetia is one of two important breakaway regions in Georgia with significant separatist movements. Abkhazia, the breakaway region to South Ossetia’s west with a coastline on the Black Sea, has recently entered a joint forces agreement with its patron, Russia. That agreement effectively integrates both the foreign policy and the military command structure with Moscow. This alignment of policy and command represents a foreboding and potentially destabilizing change in relations between Russia and the European Union as relates to the EU’s prospective member states. In South Ossetia, negotiations for integration of the breakaway Georgian region into the Russian Federation, whether outright annexation or an alignment of policy with increased Russian support and investment, has echoed through the halls of power structures from the European Union to Washington DC. The Messenger Online, a noted Georgian policy site, notes:

Break-away South Ossetia is going to sign the Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership with Russia, the only state to recognize the region’s independence.

De-facto president of the region Leonid Talibov said the parties are working actively on the draft of the treaty. Moreover, Talibov believes the region should not stop with signing the treaty, but it should join the Russian Federation directly. (Ana Robakidze, The Messenger Online, December 12)

South Ossetia, a Georgian separatist region to the east of Abkhazia and north of the country’s capital Tbilisi, represents significantly valuable geopolitical terrain. Consequently, that value entices regional powers, most importantly Russia, to remain engaged in order to ensure at least a modicum of influence in both the domestic and foreign policies of the Georgian government. South Ossetia officially remains a part of Georgia and is recognized as an independent state by only five countries, Russia among them. The recent agreement signed by both Russia and Abkhazia is foreboding prologue for what is likely to happen soon in South Ossetia.

Abkhazia’s agreement outlined several key areas in which the breakaway region would be brought under significantly increased influence from Russia. Among the more important aspects of the agreement is that it effectively binds Abkhazia to Russia financially. Moscow has guaranteed to provide the Abkhazian government 5 billion rubles in the form of a grant (roughly equal to $111.4 million):

Under the terms of Monday’s accord, Putin said Russia would grant 5 billion rubles ($111.4 million) to Abkhazia, whose population of 240,000 comprises a mix of ethnic groups.

The agreement, posted on the Kremlin website, envisages a “joint defense and security space” and stipulates Russian “protection of the state border of the Republic of Abkhazia with Georgia.”

It obliges Russia to facilitate “in every possible way” growing Abkhazia’s international ties and promoting its global recognition.

Moscow would also ease requirements for Abkhazia residents to obtain Russian citizenship, but it has not voiced plans to annex the territory. (Reuters, November 24)

The grant is an especially important incentive intended to ensure the compliance of Abkhazia’s government to Russian demands. This grant ostensibly compels Abkhazian government in Sukhumi to continue aligning its policies with Russia on a range of issues, not the least of which is the continued use of its territory for Moscow’s continued use of Abkhazia’s territory for staging the ubiquitous ‘humanitarian convoys’ that have carried unknown amounts of supplies to the rebels battling the Ukrainian government. While speculation has persisted that the convoys have been carrying war materiel to include military supplies such as weaponry, ammunition, and logistical support materials, the convoys have continued to travel unimpeded over the border into Ukraine. Convoys were reported arriving in Donetsk from Abkhazia just three days after the agreement was signed. On December 27, exactly one month after the previous convoy was reported to have left Abkhazia for Donbass, another convoy reportedly arrived in Donetsk. Russian state news reported the arrival:

A convoy from Abkhazia delivered 500 tonnes of humanitarian cargoes to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the Donetsk news agency said on Saturday. (TASS, December 27)

The signing of the treaty between Abkhazia and Russia has far-reaching ramifications for the security and stability of the Georgian state and, consequently, for the interests of Europe. Instability in the geostrategically important Transcaucasus region can hamper the transport of important energy supplies from the Caspian Sea, affecting markets and energy prices around the world.

Apprehension in Georgia over the apparent inevitability of a similar agreement in South Ossetia is growing. Reports that purportedly detail the plans of Russian and South Ossetian leaders to bind the the breakaway region with Russia have rattled Georgian government officials. Intensifying instability inside the Georgian government has exacerbated the concern over South Ossetia’s assertive move towards renewed independence efforts have exacerbated ties between Georgia, South Ossetia, and Russia:

New agreement on Russia’s alliance with South Ossetia will lead to the unification of some structures. In particular, Moscow will undertake an obligation to ensure the safety of South Ossetia. It also includes the implementation of the laws and provision of social security within the country. Power structures and army of unrecognized South Ossetia will be part of similar structures in Russia. (APA, December 25)

Max Hess, writing for Registan.com, highlighted the geopolitical significance of the Abkhazian-Russian treaty, noting the importance of Georgian fears of escalating tension after Russian efforts to legitimize Abkhazia’s claim to statehood:

The Kremlin views the conflict in Abkhazia not as a frozen conflict – the term most frequently applied to Georgia’s breakaway regions – nor as one between two sovereign nations, but rather as a active means of counteracting Georgia’s pro-Western path. Moscow has escalated its efforts to disrupt this path through the new Russian-Abkhaz treaty, while the limited nature of the steps taken by the EU and NATO may increase the likelihood of further provocations. Although an adequate Western response does not appear to be forthcoming, without one Georgia’s foreign policy will remain on a direct collision course with Russia’s, an eventuality that has proven all too disastrous for Georgia in the recent past. (Max Hess, Registan.com, December 13)

In neighboring South Ossetia, signs reflecting a pending integration with Russia are emerging and a similar agreement appears likely. The reopening of a key highway linking South Ossetia with Russia, negotiations for a Russian treaty with the breakaway region, and the assessed consequences for any attempt to legitimize South Ossetia’s annexation to Russia or its outright statehood have shaken Georgian policymakers. The staff of The Messenger Online has repeatedly expressed concern over the lack of attention paid to the Abkhaz-Russian treaty and the consequences that it has for similar efforts in South Ossetia:

Tbilisi officials state that any form of cooperation between the de-facto regions and Russia is an aggressive attempt to annex Georgian territory.

President Giorgi Margvelashvili states that after signing the treaty between Russia and Abkhazia, the international community was informed concerning the possible signing of the same type of a document with the Tskhinvali region.

“The memorandums are completely unacceptable for the international community,” Margvelashvili said, adding that conflicts should be solved through dialogue and the use of peaceful measures. (The Messenger Online, December 25)

In context of the recent moves to integrate Abkhazia within the Russian policymaking structure, the alignment of Abkhazia’s foreign policy with that of the Kremlin, and the ineffective response of international government entities in preventing further violations of Georgia’s territorial integrity have seemingly emboldened Russian strategists to pursue similar plans in South Ossetia. South Ossetia may in fact be an easier issue with which to pursue integration similar to that in Abkhazia. Hess again remarks:

Although further integration and a similar treaty with South Ossetia are likely to follow, the Russian-Abkhaz treaty presents a clear and immediate challenge to Georgia’s aspirations. (Max Hess, Registan.com, December 13)

In November, Russia re-opened the strategic Roki Tunnel, an important highway linking South Ossetia with North Ossetia in the Russian Federation. During the war fought between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, the Roki Tunnel proved to be an essential line of communication for the movement of Russian war materiel into Georgia via South Ossetia. The tunnel was damaged during the war campaign and required $400 million, invested by Russia, to repair the road. This past November, that road was reopened, heightening the tension between Tbilisi and Moscow and reigniting fears among many Georgians that Russia was prepared to permanently link South Ossetia with its northern neighbor. The re-establishment of this important line of communication effectively provides for the facilitation of prospective Russian military movements into South Ossetia. The Roki tunnel’s significance for many Georgians is its centralization in Russia’s invasion effort in 2008:

Late on August 7, 2008, Mikheil Saakashvili, then the Georgian president, ordered his troops to retake control of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, including shelling the regional capital, Tskhinvali. Within hours, Russian troops – who had been conducting exercises on South Ossetia’s border – were pouring through the Roki tunnel beneath the Caucasus Mountains, launching Russia’s five-day war with Georgia. (Neil Buckley, The Financial Times, August 6)

The reopening of the tunnel inspired apprehension and anxiety in many Georgians, reinforcing fears that Russia remains fixated on absorbing large pieces of Georgian territory. Many Georgian officials anticipated that Russia was simply following a well-used playbook, following specific steps to ensure that, should annexation of the breakaway South Ossetia become Russian policy, Russian military support could be easily transported in great numbers to the region, effectively off-setting any Georgian military efforts to re-assert control over the breakaway. More importantly, the recent bilateral negotiations between the leadership in South Ossetia and officials in Moscow carries with it a foreboding sense of reigniting the tension that existed in the year prior to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008:

An agreement for South Ossetia to join Russia would be vehemently condemned by the United States and the European Union, which support Georgia’s territorial integrity and have imposed sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March. (RFE/RL, ITASS, and Interfax, December 11)

Conflict in the breakaway regions theoretically inhibits Georgian accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), impedes progress on the European Union Association Agreement (ratified by the EU parliament, pending ratification in the 28 member state parliaments), and increases insecurity for the former Soviet republic. Continued instability in Georgia would almost certainly derail any plans to achieve membership in NATO over the next decade. Many observers assess that this is among the more likely reasons that Russia would continue to sow discontent among the separatists in South Ossetia; border conflicts and Tbilisi’s failure to project its authority over the entirety of its territory would be a main disqualifier of Georgian government aspirations for NATO membership. It is fairly easy to understand why, in the context of Abkhazia’s joint agreement  with Russia this past November, that observers are wondering when the proverbial other shoe will drop in South Ossetia.

(Featured photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.