The government of the Russian Federation has approved the draft agreement between Russia and South Ossetia “on integrating some units of the Armed Forces of the Republic of South Ossetia [sic] into the structure of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” The document has now been submitted to Russian President Vladimir Putin for his signature (RBC, March 13).
An important clause in the text of the resolution states that with the inclusion of some South Ossetian military units into the structures of the Russian Army, residents of South Ossetia can now sign a contract and be assigned for service at the Russian military base in Tskhinvali, the breakaway Georgian region’s capital (SOVA, March 13).
When concluding a contract with the Ministry of Defense of Russia, a resident of South Ossetia must resign from his service in the South Ossetian Armed Forces and agree to be covered by Russian law. Moscow, in turn, pledges to pay such South Ossetian service members–contractors a salary and military pensions in accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation. In defense of this agreement with Russia, South Ossetian “president” Leonid Tibilov said that the separatist republic “needs reliable protection against external aggression” (SOVA, March 13).
Irakli Aladashvili, the editor-in-chief of the military-analytical magazine Arsenali, told this author that the initiative to absorb the South Ossetian army did not come from the separatist authorities, but from Moscow: “The latest decision does not influence the real ratio of military forces in the region in any way. The prevailing military factor has been and remains the grouping of 4,000 Russian troops occupying this region of Georgia.” According to the expert, “Moscow wants to ensure that armed formations formally independent of Russian generals are not created in either South Ossetia or Abkhazia.” Prior to their incorporation, the total number of local armed forces in South Ossetia numbered 2,000–3,000 people, he said. He added, “Russia considers the local armed groups to have already ‘done their job’ by having provoked the conflict of 2008 by attacking Georgian villages and Georgian peacekeepers; it no longer makes any sense [for Moscow] to maintain these local armed forces’ formal ‘independence’ from the Russian army” (Author’s interview, March 17).
The same trend is also being observed in the other occupied region of Georgia—Abkhazia. “The Ossetians and Abkhazians will be used in different armed conflicts—in Syria and Ukraine. This process has already begun: servicemen from Abkhazia and South Ossetia are constantly being sent to eastern Ukraine. They are first trained in Rostov, and then sent to fight against Ukraine,” Aladashvili said.
On the other hand, Aladashvili pointed out, “Such decisions have not yet been made in eastern Ukraine, where the process of annexation and occupation has not come ‘to an end,’ and Moscow still needs to cloak its activities [by preserving the supposed independence] of so-called ‘armies’ of DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LNR [Luhansk People’s Republic].”
Vakhtang Maisaya, a doctor of military sciences, stressed that the agreement on the actual liquidation of the South Ossetian army was signed as early as 2015, but various legal procedures have continued since then. Moscow has been sounding out Georgia’s and the West’s reaction to this decision. “Having incorporated the South Ossetian armed formations, the Kremlin has begun to carry ‘the Crimean scenario’ in South Ossetia to complete and final annexation of these territories,” Maisaya argued. Besides the South Ossetian army, Russia is also incorporation other local law enforcement structures: “The KGB of South Ossetia has been granted the status of a branch of the Russian security services. Thus, South Ossetia is officially becoming an outpost of the FSB [Federal Security Service] and the Foreign Intelligence service of the Russian Federation,” he declared (Author’s interview, March 17).
He is convinced that Russia’s further steps to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia, including by incorporating their law enforcement agencies, are aimed at reducing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) activity in the region and creating additional obstacles to Georgia’s cooperation with the West. For the same purpose, Russia is deploying S-300 anti-aircraft systems into Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Author’s interview, March 17).
Georgia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikheil Janelidze called the Russian–South Ossetian agreement “an actual annexation and the undermining of regional security.” The minister confirmed Russia’s deployments to Abkhazia of S-300 divisions, which are capable of controlling most of the eastern Black Sea. He stressed Tbilisi’s readiness to push Moscow to respect international law, with the support of the West and the international community (Apsny.ge, March 17).
The former deputy minister of defense of Georgia, Nodar Kharshiladze, told the author that such statements by the government are not enough to draw international attention to the process of the creeping “Crimeasation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “This issue should have been more actively raised at all international levels before Moscow’s aggressive decisions were realized,” Kharshiladze mentioned (Author’s interview, March 17).
David Avalishvili, of GHN news agency, expressed the paradoxical idea that the total “absorption” of the South Ossetian armed formations by the Russian army actually signifies Moscow’s refusal to annex other Georgian territories outside South Ossetia: “Former [South Ossetian] separatist leader Eduard Kokoity, who headed the pro-Russian armed groups in 2008, repeatedly advocated the annexation of the Truso gorge and the Kazbegi district of Georgia. But Moscow, in fact, forbade Kokoity from participating in presidential elections on April 9, 2017; and his paramilitaristic formations have been incorporated into the structures of the Russian army to avoid any unauthorized and illegal actions.” Avalishvili added that Moscow’s decision was kept at its more modest level by the West’s unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity since 2008. The incorporation of the South Ossetian armed forces into Russian structures means that “all responsibility for any new aggressive actions [against other Georgian territories] will be put on Moscow and not on the ‘proxy army’ of the separatists,” Avalishvili argued (Author’s interview, March 17).
Over the coming months, it will become increasingly clear whether Moscow’s decision to incorporate the so-called “Army of South Ossetia” into the Russian Army will become a prelude to the implementation of the “Crimean scenario” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also remains to be seen whether the West will resolutely step up to oppose this policy, particularly considering the complex internal problems that currently plague both the United States and Europe.