On November 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into a law an agreement between the Russian Federation and Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia on establishing a new joint military force (NG.ru, November 21). The Russian Duma ratified the agreement in early November, almost one year after the parliament in Sukhumi endorsed it. Russia will participate in the joint force with its military base stationed on the territory of Abkhazia, while the breakaway region will contribute two motorized rifle battalions, artillery and aviation groups, as well as a special operations unit. The commander of the Russian base is in charge of the joint force. In the event of war, the command will be taken over by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Commenting on this recent development, former Georgian Minister of Defense David Tevzadze stated that Georgia is now facing a new reality. “Before the agreement, our territories were occupied; after the agreement these occupied territories are being annexed,” Tevzadze emphasized (Accent, November 23). Furthermore, Tevzadze believes that this strategic move by Moscow follows a certain logic that aims at solidifying Russia’s military positions in the South Caucasus by linking its military bases in Crimea, Sokhumi, Tskhinvali and potentially Gyumri in Armenia. He interprets this immediate takeover of military control in Abkhazia as a Russian response to NATO’s recent amplification of its military presence in the Black Sea region (Netgazeti, October 30). Expecting further advances by Russia, Tevzadze charges that Georgia lacks the active foreign policy, intelligence gathering, and demand-oriented armed forces necessary to thwart them.
On December 6, the United States and Georgia, in turn, signed their own framework agreement on security cooperation, a supporting document to the memorandum agreed upon in July (Civil.ge, July 6). “The three-year framework agreement … outlines long-term tasks of bilateral cooperation, synchronizes planning of priorities and resources and promotes development of resolute defense capabilities,” the Georgian Defense Ministry reported (Civil.ge, December 6). From November 10 to November 20, NATO–Georgia Exercise 2016 took place in Krtsanisi, educating and training the General Staff of Georgia’s Armed Forces for an exercise with a “Georgia-led Multinational Brigade Headquarters in a Non-Article 5 Crisis Response Operation” (Mod.gov.ge, November 10). It is unclear, however, whether such capability-increasing and training measures alone can be considered an adequate response to what Tevzadze and other experts evaluate as a clear-cut strategic change in Russia’s positioning in the South Caucasus.
Notably, such shifts align with the ideas of Eurasianist ideologue and conspiracy theorist Alexandr Dugin, who has lobbied for a more aggressive Russian stance in the Caucasus. Upon the enactment of Georgia’s Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) in July, Dugin’s anti-Semitic “analytical center” Katehon claimed that “The only alternative to the … Agreement, which is suicidal for Georgia, is its integration with the countries that stand on the same level of economic development…These are the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union” (Katehon.com,July 1). In a lengthy interview with Katehon, Levan Vasadze, head of the Demographic Revival Fund of Georgia and the most prominent Georgian public figure associated with the ruling Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia (GDDG) party, advocated for fellow Orthodox Russia stepping up as a military and political “peacemaker” in Georgia’s reconciliation with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Youtube, August 18, 2015). Katehon also excluded the possibility of Georgia receiving visa-free travel regime with the EU, which was approved on December 8 (Civil.ge, December 8).
The new comprehensive outline of Russian foreign policy, signed by President Putin on December 1, has been pointedly dubbed as a “Cold War doctrine,” in which the United States is expressly declared a “threat” for the first time since the downfall of the Soviet Union (EDM, December 8). However, Dugin, who is considered Putin’s geopolitical advisor, celebrated the results of the US presidential election as the purported beginning of a new era for the “entire global order” (Katehon.com, November 11). Alleging that Russia and the US will now join their presumably equally anti-globalist forces, Dugin even fantasized that “The Soros Foundation … will apparently in the near future be recognized as extremist in the USA itself.” Such outlandish claims may, however, explain why the Russian Federation could feel an even freer hand in offensively moving forward with the consolidation of direct military control in the above-mentioned strongholds in the South Caucasus. The new Russian concept echoes Dugin’s and Vasadze’s sentiments. “Russia is interested in normalizing relations with Georgia in those spheres where the Georgian side is ready for this, considering the realities that have formed themselves in the Southern Caucasus” (Gov.ru, December 1).
It seems that Russian geopolitical strategists may have found an incentive in their propaganda to help generate legitimacy for Georgia’s ruling party’s planned thaw with Russia (EDM, October 31). Vasadze suggests as a pragmatic solution that Russia should facilitate the return of Georgian internally displayed persons (IDPs) to the breakaway regions, even while maintaining their independent status. But so far Moscow has shown no interest in such a prospect. Georgia’s ruling party plans a softening of the country’s law about the occupied territories, which currently prohibits anybody from entering Georgia via the breakaway regions (Netgazeti, December 2). The government is rationalizing this measure as a means to foster tourism from Russia, but it appears to legitimize the creeping annexation of the breakaway regions.
It is unclear what specific direction US policy toward Georgia may take after the January 20 inauguration of the new president. Representatives of the US foreign policy establishment, such as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have stressed that “America’s vital interests are at stake” in Georgia, and have received acclamation in the Georgian pro-Western opposition media (Accent, November 23). However, the typical inertia manifested by GDDG with regard to national security problems relating to Russia may prove costly in pursuing the necessary policies to counterbalance Russia’s encroachment.