Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his government to undertake the modernization of the Armed Forces of the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia and to equip its military with additional weapons. According to Russia’s ambassador to Abkhazia (which remains unrecognized by almost every other country in the world), Alexei Dvinyanin, “We assess this sectoral agreement positively. Its signing is a testament to the close cooperation of the two countries [sic] in the military sphere.” Dvinyanin additionally expressed confidence that the document “will contribute to the modernization of the Abkhaz army and strengthen its combat readiness.” Finally, the Russian diplomat emphasized that the “sectoral agreement” was the result of the November 24, 2014, framework agreement between Moscow and Sukhumi “On Alliance and Partnership” (RIA Novosti, September 23).
The 2014 bilateral deal obliged Russia and its client statelet to “conduct the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Abkhazia no later than three years from the date of entry into force of this agreement.” This effort was to specifically include the “phased unification of the standards of military command, logistics, cash allowance and social guarantees of military personnel.” It also called on the signatories to jointly organize the training of the Abkhazian armed forces and equip them with modern weaponry (Ekho Kavkaza, September 23).
The Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) ratified the framework Russian-Abkhazian agreement only in 2016. And the government further delayed undertaking any activities pertaining to specific cooperation in the military sphere. “Moscow was unhappy with the position of the Abkhaz authorities on the issue of the free sale of real estate, [it] was waiting for the reelection of [Abkhazia’s] President Raul Khajimba, and [Moscow] was [simultaneously] leading a game of ‘softening tensions with Tbilisi,’ ” Georgian political analyst David Avalishvili explained (Author’s interview, September 25).
Finally, on August 23, 2019, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Abkhazian “counterpart,” Mirab Kishmariya, signed an agreement on financing the costs of modernizing the breakaway republic’s armed forces. The following month, on September 12, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev approved the signed document. And ten days later (September 22), the president of Russia ordered the government to finance the modernization of the Abkhazian military (Ekho Kavkaza, September 23).
Tbilisi, of course, immediately condemned the Russian-Abkhazian military accords. Georgian foreign ministry spokesperson Vladimir Konstantinidi called Moscow’s decision “an illegal step.” He asserted that, through its actions, the Russian Federation “continues its annexationist policy” and “seeks to integrate the occupied Georgian regions into its political and military space.” Konstantinidi promised that his country “will use all international venues, including the [United Nations] General Assembly” to publicize this issue (1tv.ge, September 23).
The details of the Russo-Abkhazian military modernization agreement are still unknown. Moscow has not revealed how much money will be allocated from the Russian budget or what types of weapons the Russian Federation will supply the Abkhazian army. But as IrakliAladashvili, the editor-in-chief of the military-analytical magazine Arsenali, noted in a September 25 interview with this author, the decision of the Russian leadership clearly defines its political goals. “The entire Abkhazian army is no more than one Russian brigade,” the expert recalled. In his opinion, by symbolically strengthening the breakaway territory’s local military, Russia is “preparing an argument for an information war” in the event of a new conflict with Georgia. “Moscow again wants to create the illusion that not Russia but Abkhazian and Ossetian separatists are fighting against Georgia,” Aladashvili explained. He stressed that the real military force in Abkhazia is the Russian military base, where about 4,000 troops with the latest weapons are already deployed.
Another reason for why Russia and Abkhazia have suddenly moved forward on intensifying military cooperation has to do with the recent statement by the Georgian Ministry of Defense regarding the latter country’s “deepening military cooperation with the United States.” Moscow fears this will take the form of “joint [Georgian-US] security points”—that is, Cooperative Security Locations (CSL), which assist US military logistics around the world (Fondsk.ru, August 22; Ekho Kavkaza, September 23). “Moscow is very angry that Georgia is not giving up its desire to join NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and draw closer to the United States in the military sphere,” noted Giorgi Gvazava, the former chairperson of the Supreme Council of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic (in exile) (Author’s interview, September 25).
Despite all this and even though Russia continues to strengthen its occupation of Georgian territory, the government in Tbilisi remains willing to cooperate with Moscow on certain issues. On September 20, Georgia permitted the extradition to Russia of an ethnic-Chechen Russian citizen, Ramzan Akhiadov, whom Russian prosecutors accuse of terrorism. Akhiavdov had requested political asylum in Georgia, arguing that he faced torture in Russia; but the authorities nevertheless decided to satisfy Moscow’s demand. Georgian Justice Minister Thea Tsulukianitold reporters that, prior to Akhiadov’s extradition, she had received guarantees from Russia that his human rights would be respected (Agenda.ge, September 20).
Meanwhile, recent scandalous events in Tbilisi confirm Moscow’s ongoing, and apparently growing attempts to interfere in Georgian domestic politics. Specifically, on September 10, Irma Inashvili, the deputy chairperson of the Georgian parliament and leader of the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots party, sought to interrupt the fifth annual international conference organized by the Center for Economic Policy Research and the McCain Institute. One of the conference panels, titled “Where is Russia Going?” was specifically going to discuss Russia’s violations of human rights and international law, with a special focus on Georgia. Inashvili, who was not invited to the event, blasted what she described as “blackmail of her party by the participants of the conference […] over the past two days,” which she apparently watched on television (Agenda.ge, September 10).
Former US Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer urged Inashvili to leave the conference after she broke in, but the deputy chairperson of the Georgian parliament flatly refused (Agenda.ge, September 10). When she was given the floor to speak, Inashvili accused the US guests of “supporting former president [Mikheil] Saakashvili’s regime” and of “violating democratic principles.” The following week (September 16), the Alliance of Patriots held an unprecedented rally outside the US Embassy in Tbilisi (Oc-media.org, September 16).
Georgian political scientist David Avalishvili noted that while the government of Giorgi Gakharia is trying to “balance” between Russia and the West, Moscow “is increasing the pressure using all tools, including military assistance to occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia’s economic dependence, and the activation of pro-Russian, anti-Western groups” (Author’s interview, September 25). This pressure campaign is unlikely to lift without major Georgian concessions.