Russia’s Coming War with Georgia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 29

Six months after the French-brokered agreement ended the Russo-Georgia war on August 12, 2008 the ceasefire continues to be fragile with constant incidents that both sides describe as "provocations." Last month the Defense Ministry of the separatist South Ossetia said Georgia was moving troops towards its border (RIA-Novosti, January 9). This week the South Ossetian authorities again accused Georgia of "increasing preparations to begin an aggression" and firing two RPG-7 shells at the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and accused EU observers that monitor the Georgian side of the ceasefire line of turning a blind eye to the alleged Georgian military buildup. On January 26, Tbilisi signed an agreement with the EU observer mission to limit its armed presence near South Ossetia and Abkhazia to one battalion (500 men) and exclude all heavy weapons. The South Ossetian authorities called this agreement a sham to cover "the preparation of an aggression" (Interfax, February 9).

The EU monitors in turn say they found no evidence of Georgian troop concentrations near South Ossetia or Abkhazia, or preparations for military action. The EU observer mission announced it would be willing to investigate Ossetian accusations of Georgia’s shelling of Tskhinvali, if it is granted access to the city (Novosti-Gruzia, February 11). This week the South Ossetian police detained two OSCE observers for "illegally crossing into South Ossetian territory" and after three hours expelled them to Georgian-controlled territory. The OSCE protested that the incident had "violated the diplomatic status of the observers." Tbilisi called the incident a "provocation." The South Ossetian authorities accusing the OSCE and EU observers of siding with Georgia, said they were "systematically crossing into South Ossetia and increasing tension in the region." Since last August, foreign observers are not allowed to enter South Ossetia. The authorities in Tskhinvali say they may allow the OSCE back in only after its recognition of South Ossetia’s sovereignty (Interfax, February 11).

After the war with the central authorities in Tbilisi in 1991-1992 during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, separatist South Ossetia continued to be geographically and economically part of Georgia. The borders were open and trade was brisk. Ossetians and the Georgians living in South Ossetia were earning a living on transit trade and contraband through Ossetia into Russia. Now the transit trade is dead and the depleted population of South Ossetia, from where the ethnic Georgians have been ethnically cleansed, is surviving on only limited aid. The only mountain road from South Ossetia to Russia, as always during winter, has been closed by snow for weeks (RIA-Novosti, January 7).

South Ossetia, isolated and with its "independence" unrecognized by the international community, is in crisis. This may explain the constant bellicose statements coming from Tskhinvali: renewed military confrontation may seem the only way to end the unacceptable status quo, established by the August 12 ceasefire.

The belligerence of the separatists is actively supported by Moscow, which has its own reasons to detest the status quo. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced, "Russia is concerned about Georgian troop concentrations near the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia" (RIA-Novosti, January 16). EU assurances that there is no "troop concentration" are not accepted. This week the Russian permanent representative in the OSCE, Anvar Azimov, announced, "The Georgians are concentrating troops and heavy weapons, building new bases and checkpoints." Azimov accused the EU observers of impotence and illegally trying to move their operations into Abkhazia and South Ossetia (RIA-Novosti, February 11).

The ceasefire last August has left the strategically important Russian base in Armenia cut off with no overland military transit connections. The number of Russian soldiers in Armenia is limited to some 4000, but during 2006 and 2007 large amounts of heavy weapons and supplies were moved in under an agreement with Tbilisi from bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki (Georgia). At present there are some 200 Russian tanks, over 300 combat armored vehicles, 250 heavy guns and lots of other military equipment in Armenia – enough to fully arm a battle force of over 20,000 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozrenie, August 20, 2004). Forces in Armenia can be swiftly expanded by bringing in manpower by air transport from Russia. Spares to maintain the armaments may also be shipped in by air, but if a credible overland military transit link is not established within a year or two, there will be no possibility to either replace or modernize equipment. The forces will consequently degrade, undermining Russia’s commitment to defend its ally Armenia and Moscow’s ambition to reestablish its dominance in the South Caucasus.

Azerbaijan has accused Russia of handing over to the Armenian military Russian armament holdings on Armenian territory: including 21 tanks, 44 CAVs, 30 guns, other military equipment and munitions (, January 10). The Azeris have rejected Russian denials (Interfax, January 20). It is clear that Azerbaijan will not permit military transit into Armenia and Georgia will not do so without serious concessions from Russia on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

While snow covers the Caucasian mountain passes until May, a renewed war with Georgia is impossible. There is hope in Moscow that the Georgian opposition may still overthrow Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime or that the Obama administration will somehow remove him. However, if by May, Saakashvili remains in power, a military push by Russia to oust him may be seriously contemplated. The constant ceasefire violations could escalate to involve Russian servicemen – constituting a public casus belli. The desire by the West to "reset" relations with Moscow, putting the Georgia issue aside, may be interpreted as a tacit recognition of Russia’s right to use military force.