Viewpoint: What's behind Russia's actions in Georgia?

By George Mchedlishvili
Chatham House

  • Published
Map of South Ossetia with E60 motorway through Georgia

Russia's latest alleged move against Georgia demonstrates that Moscow remains determined to disrupt the pro-Western course of this small South Caucasus state.

Late on 10 July, Russian troops placed new demarcation signposts along the administrative boundary between the annexed territory of South Ossetia, which was removed from Georgia's jurisdiction by force in the war of 2008, and Tbilisi-controlled territory.

Crucially, a further 1.5km into the Georgian territory was added overnight. The new "border" is now a de facto occupation line, just a mile away from a major highway linking Georgia's eastern and western regions

Not only did this "land grab" disrupt the lives of villagers, whose households ended up overnight within the Russian-controlled territory, a kilometre-long section of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa oil pipeline also now lies outside of Tbilisi's reach.

Russia has been denying any involvement in the latest incident, advising the Georgian authorities to talk directly to the Ossetian "government". Russia recognises South Ossetia as an independent state, while Georgia and the most of the rest of the world regard South Ossetia a part of Georgia by right.

What is Russia thinking?

Georgia's Western ambitions have been a thorn in Russia's side since the early 1990s after it emerged as an independent state from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moscow has only really reacted since the mid-2000s, as Georgia's former President, Mikhail Saakashvili, instigated reforms to attempt to meet Western club accession conditions - efforts that earned him the reputation in Moscow of "Washington's puppet".

Signing a trade agreement with the EU in 2014 and contributing to peace-keeping missions in Afghanistan lent further weight to the Russian accusation that the country had "defected".

Most recently, Nato military training exercises near Tbilisi, talks over a potential Nato training centre in Georgia and slight but steady progress towards visa liberalisation with the EU may also have contributed to Moscow's wrath.

Why is Moscow bothered?

Russia's antipathy towards Nato has long been known, but its inability to accept former Soviet states' closer partnership with the European Union is rather more recent.

In September 2013, Moscow forced Armenia to scrap years of negotiations over its EU trade agreement and join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Two months later, Moscow tried to buy Ukraine's loyalty by offering its soon-to-be-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych $15bn of bailout money in exchange for abandoning its European path.

The transformative power of political modernisation that comes with closer association with the EU is ultimately what irks the Russian leadership.

Political change with economic growth in countries like Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova is seen as a threat to the Russian regime, since success in these countries may motivate the Russian population to question their own governance model.

Image source, EPA

And why Georgia?

Russia's modus operandi of weakening a country that is unwilling to toe Moscow's line has been fanning the flames of separatism, as we are now witnessing in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has been doing this in the internationally recognised Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the late days of the Soviet Union. This policy culminated in the 2008 war that saw both territories occupied by Russian troops. Russia subsequently proclaimed them as independent states.

As in 2008, when Moscow began its invasion on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, the timing of the latest provocation was skilfully chosen. Tied down with the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the nuclear talks with Iran and Greece's financial woes, the West has a lot on its plate.

Russia's actions are also a consequence of its current anti-Western bent, which needs external enemies for regime maintenance and Putin's high approval ratings at home. With the war in Ukraine at a stalemate, and the Nato Article V pledge to come to the rescue of the Baltic states in case of Russian provocation, Moscow needs an easier target.

How should the West respond?

Georgia's only option to counter Russia is international assistance. But Western reaction has been limited to expressions of concern. No major Western news network covered Russia's latest move in the first few days after it took place.

Only a visit to the South Ossetian administrative boundary by European Council President Donald Tusk brought a semblance of international attention to the situation.

Unless the West sends a clearer message about the unacceptability of Russia's policies and defends any violation of Georgia's statehood, Russia may be emboldened to make further territorial advances.

In the absence of such a message, Tbilisi risks succumbing to mounting Russian pressure and faces a stark choice between changing its foreign policy course in Russia's favour on the one hand and further dismemberment on the other.

With Armenia already firmly within the Russian orbit through its Eurasian Economic Union membership and Azerbaijan reheating its relations with Moscow, Georgia remains the West's last serious toehold in the South Caucasus.

Georgia's loss, therefore, would in essence signify the transfer of the whole region, with its substantial energy transit potential and geopolitical significance, to the Russian sphere of influence.

George Mchedlishvili is an academy associate in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at the independent think tank Chatham House.