Russian Move In South Ossetia Raises New Questions On Putin’s Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 31

During the night of June 11-12, a massive convoy of Russian Army trucks, carrying tarpaulin-covered cargoes, reportedly entered Georgia’s territory in South Ossetia via the Roki tunnel from Russian territory. It is assumed that the trucks carried military equipment and troops. The Russian military did not notify Georgia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE’s) mission in Tskhinvali, a violation of the armistice agreement which is in force in the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict zone. Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava and other officials in special news briefings cited reports from the field estimating the number of trucks in the intruding convoy at up to 170. The OSCE mission confirmed the entry of at least 60 Russian army trucks, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Salome Zurabishvili. She voiced the hope that “international media will let the whole world know what is going on.” The ministry sent a protest note to Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, asking for explanations and announcing that it would report the incident to international organizations (Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, Kavkasia-Press, June 12).

After Tbilisi publicized the move, the Russian side issued a flurry of inconsistent statements. Spokesmen for Russia’s North Caucasus Military District and the 58th Army Command (in North Ossetia) conceded that the convoy had been sent to South Ossetia, but denied that it carried weapons. These spokesmen claimed that the convoy only carried non-lethal supplies as well as some troops as part of a planned rotation of Russian “peacekeeping” troops. Leadership of the military command and a Defense Ministry spokesman in Moscow made vague statement indicating that there had been “no movement.” Dmitry Rogozin, the Rodina bloc’s leader in the Duma, stated that the move was a justified “response to Georgia’s provocations.” Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov disclaimed any knowledge of the Russian military move when Zhvania telephoned for explanations. Zhvania termed the move “irresponsible, unfriendly and very regrettable” (Itar-Tass, Ekho Moskvy, Interfax, June 12).

Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili received a vague reply from his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin when Saakashvili telephoned to request information. “Naturally, I expressed my displeasure over the redeployment of equipment. However, he reassured me — and, as a rule, he does not lie — that it was not done on his initiative.” (Rustavi-2 TV, June 13). The Kremlin press service was first to announce that Saakashvili had called Putin, but did not report that they discussed events in South Ossetia (Itar-Tass, June 13). This omission left Saakashvili with no choice but to make his protest public.

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued two statements on June 11, timed to the military move (Interfax, June 11). According to one statement, First Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Valery Loshchinin “received” U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow and “expressed serious concern that U.S.-trained Georgian troops were involved in the Georgian authorities’ provocative actions in South Ossetia. This situation has produced a negative effect on the situation in the conflict zone.” In the other statement, the ministry’s chief spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko called on Georgian and South Ossetian authorities to show restraint, avoid any unilateral moves and de-escalate the situation. This is consistent with Moscow’s usual practice of equating legitimate governments and secessionist authorities, and inserting itself as arbiter between the two sides, while in effect shielding one side.

South Ossetia leader Eduard Kokoity was in Moscow on June 9-12 for consultations with senior government officials. While there, Kokoity announced that complete cessation of South Ossetia’s contacts with the rest of Georgia, citing three conditions for resuming those contacts: a Georgian admission of culpability for the 1990-91 “aggression” against South Ossetia, official apology for “genocide,” and compensation which would be fixed by South Ossetia. (Interfax, June 11; NTV Mir, June 12). The demands are identical to those which Trans-Dniester had demanded of Chisinau. However, those demands were dropped when Chisinau agreed to negotiate on “federalization.” Kokoity’s delegation was in Moscow on the heels of Trans-Dniester’s Supreme Soviet delegation (see EDM, June 14).

Kokoity, along with Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, Ivanov and Loshchinin, took part in closed special sessions on South Ossetia, held by the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Security Committee and CIS Affairs Committee. Kokoity hand-carried the text of a resolution by South Ossetia’s legislative assembly, requesting Russia’s bicameral Parliament and its president to recognize South Ossetia’s secession from Georgia and right of accession to the Russian Federation via North Ossetia (Interfax, June 11-12). The request is not the first of its kind.

Commenting on that request, the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov stated that Russia would rather have a “federative Georgian state on its border” (Ekho Moskvy, June 12). This statement reflects the now-evolving Russian policy. That policy will not officially or openly challenge the territorial integrity of post-Soviet countries and their recognized borders. Rather, it seeks to change the internal constitutional arrangements of several such countries, so as to place them and certain territorial units or population groups within under Russia’s droits de regard. Russian officials are usually cautious in articulating this goal publicly. But Russian policy at this stage is clearly aiming for such outcomes in Moldova, Georgia, and Latvia, within varying time-frames.