Vershbow Visits Tbilisi As Russia Takes Concrete Steps to Annex Georgian Territories

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

U.S Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow arrived in Tbilisi on October 19, for talks with high-level Georgian officials. According to the Georgian media, shortly after his arrival he met with President Mikhail Saakashvili and Secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia Eka Tkeshelashvili. His plans included meetings with Georgia’s defense and foreign ministers to discuss specifics of U.S.-Georgian relations.

Early on October 20 Vershbow talked with Georgian political experts behind closed doors and, according to one of the participants of the meeting, political commentator Ghia Nodia, the themes of discussion were Georgia’s external security, relations with Russia, and democratic development.

The formal purpose of Vershbow’s visit, according to Georgia’s foreign ministry, is “to hold a working meeting within the framework of the U.S.-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership.”

Signed in January 2009, the Charter is considered by the Georgian leadership as the major pillar of its relations with the United States government. Expectations in Tbilisi are still high especially when it comes to cooperation on security and defense issues, but at the same time there is more realization by the Georgian public now that to expect too much from Washington would be self-deluding. Issues of Georgia’s crippled sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be solved anytime soon and this gives the already openly pro-Russian forces in Georgia’s political spectrum a bigger say in shaping the country’s public opinion.

Part of the problem is the speed with which Russia outmaneuvered the United States. With Moscow rapidly turning the occupied Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali into its military outposts, many Georgian analysts believe that Washington talks more about the need to stabilize the conditions on the ground and retain the fragile peace in the region than to end the Russian occupation and restore Georgia’s territorial integrity.

But the status-quo is not only disadvantageous to the Georgians, it is rapidly changing from military occupation to full annexation of the Georgian lands. According to some Georgian sources, Russians are now building 20 military garrisons in the Tskhinvali region. Given the size of that territory (1,506 sq mi), the entire region may soon become a high-density military base.

Since the EU monitors stationed in Georgia from the time open hostilities between Russia and Georgia ended last year are not allowed to enter the region under Russian occupation, it is extremely difficult to independently verify both the speed and the scope of the Russian military buildup.

Military garrisons in addition to “Russian border settlements,” are reportedly being built along the entire perimeter of the occupied zone, separating it from the rest of Georgia with heavy fortifications. Unlike military garrisons which are constructed by Russia’s defense ministry, the building of the so-called border settlements is overseen by the Russian security service, the FSB, which traditionally deals with Russia’s borders.

Along with displaying hard power, Russia continues its traditional “passportization policy” as a means to “legitimize” its wartime territorial acquisitions. In line with a new regulation, local so-called Abkhaz passports distributed to the residents living in Abkhazia will soon state that the owner is a Russian citizen.

As the volatile status-quo rapidly changes from occupation of the two Georgian territories to their de-facto annexation by the Russian Federation, many Georgians fear the United States is not using the tools in its arsenal to stop Russia and reverse the situation.

On October 20 Vershbow stated that “the protection of Georgia’s territorial integrity is a matter of principle for the United States,” adding that America wants to have Georgia as “a strong, independent and sovereign partner that will be able to defend itself.” It remains to be seen what concrete steps the U.S. will take in that direction and whether they will be adequate in a rapidly changing balance of power on the ground.