The Corner

National Security & Defense

Gnawing at Georgia

From Chatham House comes another reminder (with my emphasis added) that the growing (if not always honestly acknowledged) contest between Russia and the West is playing out on many fronts. As background, South Ossetia is a  ‘state’ carved out of the former Soviet Republic (and, yes, I know Georgians hate hearing their country described that way) of Georgia that has been under full Russian control since 2008’s brief Russo-Georgian war. The background to the conflict is complicated, and stretches back into the early years of the last century and beyond, but what’s going on now is, as these things go, straightforward:

Late on 10 July, after a year of relative calm, Russian forces resumed their ‘border demarcation’ activities along the South Ossetian administrative boundary, installing large signs reading ‘State border of the Republic of South Ossetia’ about 1.5 kilometres deeper into Georgian territory than previously, just two kilometres from Georgia’s major East-West Highway.Not only did this land grab disrupt the lives of villagers, whose households ended up overnight inside Russian-controlled territory, a kilometre-long section of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa oil pipeline now lies outside of Tbilisi’s reach. With Western attention focused elsewhere, Georgia has again been left on its own to grapple with a major challenge.

…. But while Georgia’s bids for membership of the EU and NATO are stalled, cooperation with both is ongoing. NATO’s military training exercise Agile Spirit 2015 began at a military base outside Tbilisi on 8 July with the involvement of five member states, including the US. Russia has a record of creeping annexation tactics along the South Ossetian administrative line during seminal events. There were similar occurrences during the Georgian presidential election of October 2013 and the signing of the EU Association Agreement in June 2014.

That Georgia and the EU are inching towards a visa liberalization agreement may also have contributed to Moscow’s wrath. Russia believes that any progress along the path of European integration by Georgia would hinder its attempts to regain its influence. Just as in 2008, when Moscow began its invasion on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, the timing of the latest Russian provocation is skilfully chosen. Tied down with containing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Greek financial woes and nuclear talks with Iran, the West has a lot on its plate.

It does, and geography being what it is, there’s a limit to what the West can do beyond highlight what is going on, and it’s not even doing too much of that.

Georgia has only one realistic option to counter Russian provocation: international assistance. But the West has largely been silent, not venturing beyond tired phrases of concern and counter-productiveness. In the first few days following Russia’s latest actions, no major Western news network offered coverage of the occurrence.

The West may embolden Russia to make further territorial advances unless it sends a clearer message of the unacceptability of such policies and restates (consistently) the inviolability of Georgia’s statehood. In the absence of such a message, Tbilisi risks succumbing to mounting Russian pressure and faces a stark choice between changing its foreign policy course in Russia’s favour on the one hand and further dismemberment on the other. With Armenia already firmly within the Russian orbit through its Eurasian Economic Union membership and Azerbaijan reheating its relations with Moscow, Georgia remains the West’s last serious toehold in the South Caucasus. Georgia’s loss, therefore, would in essence signify the transfer of the region, with its substantial energy transit potential and geopolitical significance, to the Russian sphere of influence.

Russia seems oddly unaware of the fact that this sort of behavior is something that Barack Obama has consigned to the history (or end-of-history) books. Strange, that. 

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