Moscow may have been hoping for some respite from the constant tensions along its borders after completing a prisoner exchange with Ukraine over the weekend. But that doesn’t seem likely, as long-simmering tensions between Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia continue to escalate. The Russian-backed separatist republic has accused the Georgians of encroaching on its territory, after Georgia erected a checkpoint along the disputed border. Other allegations of provocations and territorial violations have been exchanged on both sides; so far, however, Russia appears to be in no hurry to step in and defend a republic that remains woefully dependent on Russian support.
The current round of unrest really began in June, when a visiting Russian lawmaker sat in the chair of the parliamentary speaker in the Georgian parliament and spoke Russian during a meeting of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. The move drew thousands of people to the parliament building in protest. Then, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russian airlines would suspend direct flights to Georgia beginning in July. The dispute seemed to subside for a while, until late August, when Georgia erected a checkpoint near Tsnelisi (known as Uista in South Ossetia), a village on the South Ossetian side of the border. Authorities in South Ossetia demanded that Georgia remove the police post by Aug. 30 and promised to use “all legal measures” to protect the people of South Ossetia if it did not do so. Georgia refused to comply, and South Ossetia then erected a checkpoint of its own nearby. Just days later, South Ossetian lawmakers visited the village of Sinaguri after residents there said that Georgia was constructing another checkpoint nearby on the Georgian side of the border. South Ossetia also accused Georgia of downing one of its drones on Sept. 1, and just last week, it closed two border crossings – at Mosabruni and Sinaguri – along the border because of the worsening security situation there.
What these events indicate is that Georgia still wants to bring South Ossetia back under its control. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili stated as much in August, when she said Georgia would never accept the loss of South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, and expressed hope that these territories would be returned to Georgia during her presidency. On Sept. 9, South Ossetia even published a “secret document,” allegedly written by Georgia’s security service, that says one of Georgia’s top priorities is to reclaim its lost territories.
South Ossetia has asked Moscow for help, but so far, it has been reluctant to lend any assistance beyond the military, political and financial aid it has provided the region for years. Although Russia would welcome an opportunity to increase its influence over an important buffer zone, it’s also wary of getting too involved in another border dispute.
Russia already has a military base and about 4,000 troops deployed in South Ossetia. But increasing its presence there, even at the request of South Ossetian authorities, would come with certain consequences the Russians aren’t willing to accept. Georgia might see coordination between Russian troops and the South Ossetian army as a provocation and a reason to invade South Ossetia. Russia could also risk incurring additional sanctions from the European Union if it’s seen as supporting a conflict in the region. On the other hand, there could also be repercussions from South Ossetia and Abkhazia for Moscow’s refusal to defend the separatist republic. Still, Moscow seems to prefer that the conflict there remain frozen for now, since any instability could encourage extremism and separatism throughout the region, which would have a destabilizing effect on the entire Caucasus.
So, Russia will continue to offer the same kind of assistance to the separatist republics it always has, including peacekeeping operations, joint crime-prevention activities along the Russian border and funds for the modernization of Abkhazia’s armed forces. Russia also regularly conducts military drills in the region. In August, South Ossetia hosted scheduled exercises with Russian troops from the Russian base in South Ossetia. In early September, Russian troops participated in planned five-day bilateral drills in Abkhazia at a training ground on the Black Sea.
Russia has, of course, criticized Georgian actions along the South Ossetia border, saying that the Georgian government has exacerbated the long-standing border dispute. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union have also tried to mediate, but no resolution has been reached thus far. So the Kremlin will continue to carefully consider any involvement in the dispute, fearing that its engagement there could plunge the fragile region into conflict.