On July 28 in Moscow, South Ossetia’s leader Eduard Kokoev told a news conference that “Abkhazia, Karabakh, and Trans-Dniester are ready to render military assistance to South Ossetia” against Georgia. (NTV, July 28). Coincidentally or not, Trans-Dniester’s self-styled “foreign affairs minister” Valery Litskay was in Moscow at the same time (Interfax, July 28). It was Trans-Dniester’s leaders who had first aired — several times in June, via Russian state-controlled media — the idea of rendering military assistance to South Ossetia against Georgia. Kokoev’s July 28 statement threatens to renew an operation that was, in fact, undertaken in mid-July, with no international notice, let alone strictures.
On July 8, South Ossetia’s leadership publicly appealed to Abkhazia, Trans-Dniester, and to Russian Cossacks to send volunteers urgently. Hundreds of them arrived in South Ossetia on July 11-12, some of them with arms, crossing several regions of Russia. The prompt response indicated that Russian security services were pulling a preexisting plan from the drawer.
Russian news agencies and television reported on the volunteers’ public assembly in Tskhinvali, billeting in Java, and drills there (Itar-Tass, Interfax, NTV Mir, Ekho Moskvy, July 11-15). South Ossetia’s authorities announced on July 12 that their billeting capacities were overfilled with almost 1,000 volunteers “from Abkhazia, Kuban Cossacks, Trans-Dniester” (Interfax, July 12; Institute for War and Peace Reporting, “South Ossetia Tensions,” July 14).
Volunteers participated on July 12 in a joint combat exercise, the scenario of which was described as “coordinating tactical actions of South Ossetian troops with those of volunteers from the [Russian North] Caucasus, Abkhazia, and Trans-Dniester” against Georgian troops (Center TV, July 12). Tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery, handed over earlier by Russian forces to South Ossetian troops, were used in the exercise. It, too, was televised on Russian channels, the footage replayed in Georgia. The commander of South Ossetian troops, Russian Army Colonel Anatoly Barankevich, directed the joint exercise.
According to Georgia’s Minister of State for Conflict Settlement, Giorgi Khaindrava, “information that guerrillas from Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia, and the North Caucasus had entered South Ossetia played the biggest role, I want to stress the biggest role” in prompting Washington to ask Moscow to de-escalate the situation (Imedi Television, July 16). On July 18, South Ossetia’s authorities announced that volunteers were returning to Abkhazia, Trans-Dniester, and the North Caucasus in specially provided buses (Rustavi-2, July 18). Nevertheless, on July 22, self-styled “foreign affairs minister” Murad Jioev declared that South Ossetia remained “in permanent contact with Abkhazia, Trans-Dniester, and Karabakh . . . to gain military support if necessary. Nearly all volunteers who had arrived in South Ossetia have left, but would return as need be” (Interfax, July 22).
Western governments and international organizations failed to take a position on this paramilitary operation, despite advance warnings and ample coverage by Russian media. The OSCE, which has responsibilities in both South Ossetia and Trans-Dniester, looked the other way. The unwitting signal is one of tolerance for armed groups crossing international borders to support a secessionist force against a legitimate state (which had never intended to attack in any case). Russian state-controlled media served as megaphones for the advance warnings; passage of the volunteers was ensured via Russian territory; and, now, Moscow provides Kokoev with a stage for threatening to repeat such an operation. Thus, Kokoev’s July 28 warning appears to reflect confidence in the impunity that Moscow’s support seems to ensure for its proxies.