Georgia: Another War on the Horizon?

On February 3, I wrote an article that addressed several recent issues and events related to Georgia. Specifically, I outlined Russia’s ongoing effort to exacerbate the rift between the Georgian government in Tbilisi and Georgia’s breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The article, posted at Sofrep.com, is below.

In the context of the escalating war in Ukraine and the breakdown of peace talks in Minsk, I assessed the likelihood that war could spread beyond Donbass. In a related article, titled Ukraine: Peace Talks Collapse While Conflict Intensifies, I laid out the case that the conflict could spread to both Ukraine and Moldova. In the case of Georgia, the lingering effects of the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 continue to underline a tenuous relationship between the governments of Tbilisi and Moscow. As Russia has pursued bi-lateral treaties with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the rift that has inhibited trade and other cooperative endeavors between Georgia and Russia has been further aggravated, leaving relations between the two countries at an impasse which continues to threaten stability in the Caucasus.

With far-reaching consequences for energy transport and the wider security landscape of Eurasia, the conflict brewing between Georgia and Russia is underlined and highlighted by the recent announcement of both the ratification and signing of the joint forces treaty binding Abkhazia and Russia as well as the pending signing of a similar treaty between South Ossetia and Russia. With the recent visit of Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Tamar Beruchashvili to Washington DC to meet with United States Vice President Joe Biden, the announcement of an aid package to Tbilisi, and the stated purpose of NATO in establishing a training center in Georgia over the next 12 months, it is becoming fairly obvious that the tension riving Georgia and Russia is likely to increase in the next year. What arises next will be a byproduct of that tension and the ongoing battle between Europe and the United States with Russia for the future of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and possibly beyond.

Below is the aforementioned article. You can find the original at Sofrep.com here.

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue

The consequences for a resurgent Russia’s policies undermining territorial integrity of several states in eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia have become more apparent since the annexation of Crimea last March and during the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Eurasia has quickly become a battleground in the conflict brewing between, on one side, the European community, the United States, and assorted allies, and on the other side, Russia. I’ve identified several regions that I’ve referred to as fracture points. Generally, fracture points are areas of geostrategically valuable territory. The areas are contested by the West and Russia. They are locations of significantly increased tension where heightened risk for war exists in eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia

On November 24, Russia signed an agreement strengthening military and economic relations with Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian territory. On January 23, the Russian parliament approved the treaty. The treaty had previously been approved by Abkhazia’s legislature, the People’s Assembly:

The Russian parliament Friday approved an agreement that will deepen Russia’s military and economy ties with Abkhazia, a region that was considered part of Georgia until Russia recognized it as independent in 2008. Critics of the treaty, signed in November by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abkhazian leaders, decried the agreement as tantamount to annexation.

Russia’s agreement with Abkhazia places military forces in the region under joint command, theAssociated Press reports. The two nations will also mutually guard their common border. Russia has had soldiers stationed in Abkhazia since its 2008 war with neighboring Georgia concluded. (Thomas Barrabi, The International Business Times, January 23)

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway territories of Georgia. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations)

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway territories of Georgia. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations)

The agreement between Abkhazia and Russia has exacerbated tensions between the Georgian government and Moscow in a time of upheaval within Tbilisi. This tightening of conflict in the South Caucasus is likely to continue over the next few months as Russia is now officially slated to sign a similar treaty with South Ossetia in three weeks. South Ossetia, another breakaway region of Georgia, was a location of much of the heavy fighting in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. On Saturday, TASS Russian News Agency, a state media outlet, reported that the agreement between Russia and South Ossetia will be officially codified and signed on February 18th:

“In accordance with the reached agreement, South Ossetian Foreign Minister Dmitry Sanakoev will visit Moscow on February 18 at the invitation of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov,” the ministry said.

The two ministers “will discuss prospects of further strengthening friendly relations between the two countries and exchange views on the current situation in South Caucasus and ways to consolidate peace and stability in the region,” it said, adding that the ministers also planned to consider measures to boost foreign policy cooperation, particularly as part of the Geneva discussions on security and stability in South Caucasus.

“There are plans to sign a bilateral treaty on state border agreed earlier,” the ministry said. (ITASS, January 30)

Over the past two months, the Georgian government has been in a state of near-constant turmoil. Several officials have been arrested while others have resigned. The instability ringing throughout the national government in Tbilisi was well-outlined by Cory Welt in his article Trouble in Tbilisi, published this past November in Foreign Policy Magazine. Even former Georgian officials have had an impact on the current government. Former President Mikheil Saakashvili (now living in Brooklyn) was indicted this past July by Georgian authorities on charges that he authorized the use of excessive force in dispersing anti-government demonstrations in November, 2007.

While many observers assert that the charges are, at the very least, trumped up in order to ensure that Saakhashvili remains marginalized from what others have assessed as a potential return to Georgian politics, Saakashvili has sustained influence in Georgian politics, even if at a distance and as an external influencer. Recently, he accused the Georgian government of standing by while “hundreds” of Georgians fought with ISIS in Syria:

In remarks on January 13 that have been extensively reported in Russian state and pro-Kremlin media, Saakashvili told Georgia’s private Rustavi 2 TV channel that the Tbilisi government was turning a blind eye to the fact that its citizens are fighting in Syria.

“Several hundred Georgian citizens have been sent to Syria. The Georgian government, which pulls a face about the fact that Georgians are voluntarily fighting in Ukraine, calling them provocateurs, mercenaries and agents of the National Movement [Saakashvili’s reformist political party, which favors closer ties with NATO and the EU], does not say a word about the fact that Georgians, with the help of a variety of tricks, are being dragged to fight in Syria. Naturally, this is not in Georgia’s interests,” Saakashvili told the TV channel from his home in the United States, where he lives in exile. (Joanna Paraszczuk, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 13)

Georgian foreign minister meets U.S. VP Biden

On Friday, the Obama administration reinforced their previous statements regarding support for Georgia’s sovereignty. Vice President Joe Biden met with Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili in Washington D.C., and the two leaders discussed several important issues involving Georgian territorial integrity and accession to the European Union (EU). Beruchashvili stated that Biden reaffirmed the administration’s position on the breakaway regions:

The main topics of the discussion were the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, relations with Russia and the situation in Georgia, following Russia’s recent destructive actions involving Georgia’s occupied territories.

“The United States once again reaffirmed its support towards Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Strengthening the United States’ involvement in the security and development of the region was also emphasized,” Minister Beruchashvili said after the meeting.

“In addition, it was important that the United States and the European Union (EU) once again confirmed their common position on all the issues related to Russia and stressed the importance of continuing imposing sanctions on Russia until a certain result is achieved,” she said. (Agenda.ge, January 30)

Biden also addressed issues of regional energy security, specifically with regard to Georgia’s prospective EU membership. Georgia’s Association Agreement, a treaty which assigns stipulations and benchmarks for a prospective member state to achieve in order to successfully navigate the path to EU membership, was signed on June 27. Ukraine and Moldova also signed association agreements the same day. Association agreements essentially lay out a path for a state to achieve membership in the EU. By cooperating with EU requirements and instituting reforms, each state that signs an association agreement can facilitate the path to membership  and achieve what is theoretically a sustainable level of economic stability, security, political transparency and good governance, and development:

Main areas of cooperation:

Core reforms: reforms are foreseen in a number of key areas, including public governance, justice, law enforcement, economic recovery and growth, consumer protection and sectors such as energy, transport, environmental protection, industrial development, social development and protection, education, youth and culture.

Values: the Agreement puts a strong emphasis on democracy and the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms, good governance, a well-functioning market economy and sustainable development.

Trade: the Agreements will offer their signatories a framework for modernising their trade relations and for developing their economies. Opening the markets through the progressive removal of customs tariffs and quotas, and harmonising laws, norms and regulations in various trade-related sectors will make this possible.

As well as contributing to stability and the promotion of democratic values in the EU’s neighbourhood, the agreements will benefit EU businesses by opening up new markets and providing for a more secure business environment when investing in these three countries. (The European Commission, June 23, 2014)

Beruchashvili noted that she discussed the issue of the EU Association Agreement with Biden:

According to Beruchashvili, the sides also discussed the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit, to be held in Riga in May 2015.

“We talked about concrete support and results which related to the signing of the Association Agreement (AA). It was noted that Georgia successfully completed the first phase of the visa liberalisation process. Another message was that the countries who have signed the AA should receive maximum support from the US and the EU. It is important that the U.S. expressed its support in every direction,” she said. (Agenda.ge, January 30)

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, highlighted in light orange, in Georgia. (Photo map courtesy of Elmor/Asia Location and Wikimedia Commons)

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, highlighted in light orange, in Georgia.

Georgian officials are wary of U.S. statements and rhetoric largely due to memories of failing to gain U.S. support prior to Russo-Georgian war in 2008. At the time, the administration of President George W. Bush was embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was unwilling to commit resources to defending Georgia from what would eventually become an invasion by Russia.

At the time, the Bush administration had signaled to then-President Saakashvili that his rhetoric and that of Russia could lead to a war that the U.S. had no intention of becoming embroiled in. Saakashvili is regarded by many observers to have ignored those warnings and pursued what would ultimately be a path that led to war and an invasion by Russia. Beruchashvili reiterated Georgia’s plea for world support in protecting Georgia’s territorial integrity, as many believe it is being undermined by Russian action in South Ossetia—not unlike previous efforts in Abkhazia:

She warned that Russia could annex Georgia’s breakaway region of Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) as it did Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

“[Russia’s] next move is on [South] Ossetia. There are signals that the Crimea-like scenario could be repeated and South Ossetia could be annexed. South Ossetia could hold a referendum as Crimea did in March that would be used to show that the local population wants to join Russia. That can be well organised, it’s not a problem for Russia,” she said.

She also noted Russia continued to make “destructive moves,” including signing the so-called Alliance and Integration treaty with Georgia’s other breakaway region Abkhazia.

Beruchashvili said the substance of that agreement would involve “more integration” with Russia than a strategic pact signed by Russia and Abkhazia’s self-styled government in November, which aimed to strengthen Moscow’s economic and military ties with Georgia’s breakaway region. (Agenda.ge, January 30)

In June, Biden met with leaders of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in Kiev—three countries which would later sign association agreements with the EU and codify their intent to join the organization. In that session, the Obama administration officially tendered an offer of an additional $5 million in assistance to Georgia, specifically. In late August, nearly a month following the downing of Malaysian Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, Biden again went public with a statement on the issue of Georgian territorial integrity. In a statement released by the vice president’s office, the administration reaffirmed its support for Georgia’s membership in the North Atlantic Security Organization (NATO) as well:

But the Obama administration has sharpened some of its rhetoric toward Russia in subtle but still significant respects, as a seemingly innocuous and little-commented-upon press readout from Friday demonstrates.

On the same day a Russian “aid convoy” reportedly entered southeastern Ukraine, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s office released a readout of his conversation with Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili. In it, Biden “underscored his support for Georgia’s NATO membership aspirations.” (Armin Rosen, Business Insider, August 26, 2014)

All of this underlines the unsteady posture of the Georgian government and the potential impact widespread insecurity in Georgia could have on Caspian Sea energy transport. In the context of the recent Russian announcement to cancel its long-planned South Stream project—which would have supplied Europe with natural gas through an underwater pipeline laid in the Black Sea, emerging on the coast of Bulgaria or Romania and onward to central Europe—and the subsequent efforts of Russian strategists to establish an alternative through Turkey, the agreement in Abkhazia, together with the expected treaty between Russia and South Ossetia, are indicators that Russia will continue to flex its muscle to influence or acquire territory in support of an aggressive foreign policy strategy.

In the coming weeks, it is expected that Russia will sign a similar treaty with South Ossetia, integrating the Georgian breakaway territory’s military and economy with those of Russia and, even more consequentially, effectively erasing the border between Russia’s Federal Republic of North Ossetia with its neighbor to the south. The two regions are linked primarily by the Roki Tunnel, noted for its centralized role in the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia.

The 3.7-kilometer-long tunnel (first opened in 1984 by the Soviet Union) was reopened this past November after several years of reconstruction following heavy bombardment by the Georgian military as it sought to cut off invading Russian military forces during the war. The tunnel is considered an essential line of communication for any Russian military effort into South Ossetia. Analysts assert that there are roughly 11,500 Russian military personnel spread through Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two breakaway regions are only recognized by four countries (Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru) and are internationally recognized as part of the sovereign territory of the Republic of Georgia.

Georgia and NATO’s training center

In conjunction with the announcement of the Biden/Beruchashvili meeting and which appears to be timed to correspond with Beruchashvili’s visit to Washington D.C., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced its official intent to open a training center in Georgia last week. In a move which has the potential to be a game-changer in the conflict between Russia and the West, NATO’s announcement and that of the Kremlin on the South Ossetia-Russia border treaty represent a significant escalation for the suddenly intense battle over territorial authority in the South Caucasus. The training center, currently scheduled to become operational by the end of 2015, would facilitate joint military exercises between NATO command and Georgian military elements:

The NATO Deputy Secretary General believes all tools are in place for Georgia to move forward with its aspiration to integrate into Euro-Atlantic structures.

NATO high official Alexander Vershbow was interviewed by the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) Moambe news program where he spoke about his upcoming visit to Tbilisi and the NATO training centre planned to be established in Georgia.

The Alliance again reaffirmed its commitment to the decision adopted at the 2008 Bucharest Summit to support Georgia as it moved towards becoming a NATO member, and underlined that the Alliance strongly supported Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, Vershbow told Georgian journalists in Brussels.

Vershbow believed the NATO training centre in Georgia would be operational by the end of 2015 and would have symbolic, political and practical importance.

The exact opening date and place where the joint training centre will be established has not been yet decided, Vershbow told GPB, and added that more details would be known after his visit to Tbilisi on January 29. (Agenda.Ge, January 27)

NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow’s visit to Georgia, ending on January 30, was in conjunction with both Beruchashvili’s visit to Washington D.C. and the announcement by the Kremlin of the planned signing of the South Ossetia-Russia treaty on February 18. To understand how these visits are viewed in Moscow, one needs only to be reminded that a NATO delegation visited Kiev, Ukraine just two weeks prior to Vershbow’s visit to Georgia. Vershbow’s visit was partly to establish a location for the planned training center, but it also had ceremonial significance, as it occurred as Russia pulled back from the Minsk talks and announced the South Ossetia treaty signing:

Vershbow’s meetings with Georgian leaders on January 29 focused on the implementation of a package integration mechanisms that was expanded at a NATO summit in Wales in September.

Afer meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, Vershbow said Georgia and NATO “are committed to have the training center up and running later this year.”

He said it would “help Georgia to reform, modernize, and strengthen security and defense sector, and it will also be open to other NATO allies.” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Georgian Service, January 30)

It is difficult to overstate the significance of this week’s announcements when taken together. The Obama administration is signaling an intent to support Georgia’s right to territorial control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia even as talks fail in Minsk and the war in Ukraine intensifies. In August, Georgia  announced plans to participate in joint military exercises with NATO member Turkey and Azerbaijan in a three-state operational exercise. The cooperation fomented by years of U.S. military advisory and training support for the Georgian military, especially its special operations forces, has led to improved capacity to fight conventional warfare, better weapons systems, and unconventional fighting experience and institutional memory in Georgian SOF after the country’s military-supported coalition forces fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Upon taking office in 2004, President Saakashvili prioritized a modernization of Georgian military strategy and capability in order to ward off aggression by external actors and re-assert authoritative control over its ostensible breakaway regions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With the Georgian military focusing on increasing its ranks from a force structure below 20,000 personnel in 2003 at the time of the revolution to more than 35,000 at the time of the Russian invasion of August 2008, the country’s leadership has focused primarily on the military capacity to defend its borders, deter aggression from neighbors, and ensure control over the two breakaways.

This is partially a focus of national security strategy, partially an attempt to meet basic standards for NATO membership, a stated policy of the Tbilisi government since the presidency of Saakhashvili. With the establishment of the training center, NATO is signaling Moscow that the Atlantic Alliance is making permanent its relationship with the former Soviet republic in the South Caucasus.

What lies ahead?

Whether Biden’s latest meeting with Beruchashvili represents a heightening of U.S. involvement in what is fast becoming a strategic concern in Georgia is debatable. If promises were made, those promises were not disclosed to the public. What is clear is that the Tbilisi government continues to sound alarm bells about Russian encroachment on national sovereignty in Georgia. By all appearances, the statements of Beruchashvili regarding her meeting with the U.S. vice president seem to be consistent with previous meetings. U.S. support for Georgia’s pursuit of international pressure against Russian aggression, while remaining measured and appropriate, seems to be as forthcoming now as it was last summer.

The agreement that Russia will sign with South Ossetia on February 18th will resemble the treaty Russia signed in November with Abkhazia in many ways. Consequently, the geostrategic imperative becomes even clearer: energy security, government stability, and international norms continue to be undermined by Russia’s failure to recognize the implications for violating the territorial sovereignty of states in eastern Europe and the South Caucasus.

What is certain now is that the planned opening of a NATO training facility in Georgia will heighten tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow in ways that could lead to a Donbass-like war in Georgia, one much more protracted than the country fought against Russia in 2008. Scenarios for war in Georgia, to include annexations of Abkhazia and/or South Ossetia, rebellions in those territories against an attempt by Tbilisi to re-assert authority over the two breakaway regions, or even an all-out Russian military invasion will be outlined and assessed in my next article.

(Featured image courtesy of Kober and Wikimedia Commons.)

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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.