Russia’s Quiet Annexation of South Ossetia Continues
March 21, 2017
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the consequences were harsh for the invader—global outrage over and condemnation of the Kremlin’s actions were quickly followed by the application of Western sanctions against Moscow. Although these actions did not stop President Vladimir Putin from further pursuing his expansionist policies, the Ukraine crisis did play an important role in the rapid deterioration of relations between Russia and the West. Russia’s actions inspired endless debates in Washington’s policy circles on whether or not the West entered into a “second Cold War” with Russia in 2014. But there is only so much punishment and outrage the West can direct towards a single aggressor country. There have always been smaller things—perhaps less strategically important (for the West), but equally as incriminating actions that Russia has taken against its neighbors—that have traditionally gone over without any consequences of significance for Russia. The case of Russia-Georgia relations is one such example.
Georgia—a small ancient empire in its own right—has had stressed relations with its northern neighbor for centuries. In 1801, the Russian empire broke its treaty of protection with Georgia when it annexed Georgia. Since then, Georgia has been engaged in multiple losing battles against Russia and later the Soviet Union. One leader who oversaw Russian oppression of Georgia was none other than Georgia’s own Joseph Stalin, better known in his home country as Ioseb Jughashvili.
When Georgia regained independence from Russia in 1991 after the USSR’s dissolution, two civil wars broke out within its borders, in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia. The newfound formal independence brought a different kind of dependence on Russia for Georgia, as Moscow helped broker ceasefires in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and placed permanent “peacekeeping forces” in the two breakaway, de-facto autonomous states. Since then, the presence of Russian military forces in the two territories has been a cause of endless violent incidents between Georgia and the two de-facto states. The most recent one occurred in 2008 and led to a war in South Ossetia, resulting in Russia bombing undisputed Georgian territories. While the West was integral in brokering a ceasefire and limiting the war to only five days, the damage done to the Georgian side proved irreparable. Notably, the Russian forces put up a barbed wire fence between Georgia and South Ossetia, an act that later became known as a “creeping occupation” due to the apparent fluidity of that border—the Russian forces have continuously moved the fence deeper into the undisputed Georgian territories. Russia has one very important reasons for this creeping occupation: the newly established “border” has left a part of a BP oil pipeline within Russia-controlled South Ossetian territory. The pipeline transits oil from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea through Georgia. The extended border makes it easy for Russia to sabotage the pipeline if and when it desires.