One might expect that while Russia’s political, diplomatic, military and economic resources are tied down in its protracted war in Ukraine, the Kremlin would have difficulty focusing on other regions within the post-Soviet space. But even a casual glance at Russia’s recent activities in Georgia immediately dispels such assumptions.
During the latest round of Russian-Georgian talks (held on February 26), carried out between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian prime minister’s special representative for relations with Russia, Moscow again raised the issue of the restoration of a Russian-Georgian railway link via separatist Abkhazia. This railway line would connect Russia with its South Caucasus ally, Armenia, and thus strengthen Moscow’s grip over the entire region (Channel 1, February 26). The idea of the railroad’s restoration was raised by Russia back in 2012–2013 (see EDM, January 31, 2013), before the proposal faded away for a couple of years. The fact that Russia has again introduced this issue, and in the middle of its colossal domestic and foreign problems, underscores Moscow’s dogged determination to solidify its position in Georgia and throughout the South Caucasus, regardless of Russia’s difficulties on other fronts.
In fact, Russia has already launched another road project, which reinforces Russia’s land connection with Georgia. Specifically, since August 2014, Russia has been hurriedly constructing the 52-mile-long Avaro-Kakhetian highway, which will connect Makhachkala, the capital of the North Caucasus Republic of Dagestan to the Kakheti region, in the eastern part of Georgia (see EDM, October 2, 2014; December 15, 2014). The highway will be part of a 295-mile-long road network, running through Dagestan. The Avaro-Kakhetian highway is expected to be completed sometime in spring 2015 (Tabula.ge, October 13, 2014). The highway’s importance is purely military-tactical: in case of a future Russian military onslaught against Georgia, Russia could use this highway to rapidly transport troops, tanks and other military hardware and attack Georgia from the northeast (in addition to other fronts). It is worth pointing out that just one month before the start of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Moscow rehabilitated the Sukhumi-Ochamchire section of the Abkhazia railway (Rustavi 2 TV, June 5–June 20, 2008) and then used it to transport troops and invade Georgia from the northwest when hostilities began.
Russia’s recent activities in Georgia have not been limited to road projects. On February 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified the so-called “Alliance and Strategic Partnership Treaty” with separatist Abkhazia (Regnum.ru, February 4). The treaty, signed between Russia and the Abkhazian separatist regime back in November 2014, envisions a gradual and eventual merger of Russian-occupied Abkhazia’s defense, law enforcement, security, border, customs, economic and healthcare agencies with that of Russia (see EDM, October 29, 2014; November 24, 2014). In fact, the treaty amounts to a major step toward the full annexation of Abkhazia into the Russian Federation. Highlighting separatist Abkhazia’s continued importance to Moscow, the Kremlin reaffirmed, on February 16, that regardless of Russia’s own economic hardships, it would not cut promised financial aid to Abkhazia, which currently amounts to $146.4 million per year (Civil Georgia, February 17).
Moreover, Russia is concurrently pushing Georgia’s other breakaway region, South Ossetia, toward gradual annexation, as the Kremlin prepares an agreement similar to the Russia-Abkhazia “Alliance and Strategic Partnership Treaty” to be signed with the separatist regime in Tskhinvali (see EDM, February 27). The treaty will be signed sometime during this year (Civil Georgia, December 23, 2014).
Russia’s recent relentless activities in Georgia and across the Caucasus clearly illustrate several key trends. First, regardless of Russia’s ongoing political isolation in the world and serious financial-economic hardships at home, the Kremlin has not ceased devoting all of its available political and economic resources to strengthening its grip over Georgia. This is a vivid indication of how crucially important Georgia, in particular, and the Caucasus region, in general, remain to Russia’s revanchist regime. Needless to say, Russia does not intend to give up anything in Georgia and the Caucasus. Quite to the contrary, the Kremlin is actually consolidating, and rather successfully so, its position in the region.
Second, and more disturbingly, Russia might be preparing for a final assault on Georgia—which certainly may include overt military pressure. Russia’s recent activities in Georgia strongly suggest where the Kremlin may wish to move forward next, should Russia prevail in the Ukrainian war and succeed in dismembering this country or ensuring Kyiv’s forced subjugation back into the Russian “sphere of privileged interest.” After Ukraine, Georgia is perhaps the former Soviet republic (aside from the three Baltic States) most vigorously resisting membership in the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, President Putin’s brainchild to resurrect the Soviet Union. So, by subduing Georgia, Putin will be able obtain the last highly important piece to complete his Eurasian integrationist project. Moreover, by reasserting control over Georgia, Russia once and for all will secure a direct land link to Armenia, its key satellite in the South Caucasus region. And consequently, Moscow would be able to geographically isolate Azerbaijan from the West, which could then hasten Baku’s “inevitable” return to the Russian orbit.
The biggest problem, however, is that neither Georgia, nor any of its partner countries in the West seem to be prepared to react to the above discussed scenarios. As a result, once Russia strikes, they are likely to be caught by surprise, as was the case when Russia annexed Crimea and launched the war in eastern Ukraine. Hence Russia’s every step in Georgia and in the entire Caucasus region will need to be carefully analyzed and counterbalanced. Failure to do so, as recent history has already shown, may yield far-reaching, devastating results.