More than four months after the hot phase of Russia’s war on Georgia, Russia continues to violate the European Union-brokered ceasefire agreements of August 12 and September 8. Russia agreed to return to pre-August 7 lines and to withdraw its forces from areas of Georgia adjacent to the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It has done neither.
Most peculiar is its occupation of Perevi, a village in the Sachkere District of Imereti Region, west of South Ossetia.
On October 9, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev claimed that Russia had “fulfilled all obligations” under the agreements he signed with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. When the dust settled, however, Russian forces far exceeded the pre-August 7 peacekeeping contingents in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, including the previously Georgian-controlled Kodori Gorge. Russian forces also occupied Akhalgori, a district of Mtsketa-Mtianeti Region, east of South Ossetia. Though illegitimate, this move is strategically understandable. It also underscores that Moscow justifies its actions only in accordance with Soviet laws and its isolated August 26 recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries. On October 13, Vladimir Chizov, Russian representative to the EU, told RIA Novosti, “Just as the Kodori Valley is part of Abkhazia, the Akhalgori District is an integral part of South Ossetia. Therefore, the presence of Russian troops in these regions concerns only Russia and the governments of these sovereign states.”
In contrast, Perevi fits neither Moscow’s strategic designs nor its imperial delusions. The village lies 20 kilometers down a washed out road from the district administrative center of Sachkere. Sachkere itself is 60 kilometers from Georgia’s East-West highway and railroad. Occupation of Perevi does not accrue Russia any strategic advantage that it does not already enjoy from its occupation of South Ossetia.
Nonetheless, Moscow soon added Perevi to its bogus legal argument. Asked on October 29 why Russian forces tarried in Akhalgori and Perevi, Russian OSCE representative Anvar Azimov, replied: “Akhalgori is one of five districts of South Ossetia, formerly named Leninogorsk. There is no question whether Leninogorsk should be part of South Ossetia. The same stands for Perevi village—according to the last administrative division of the USSR, this village belonged to South Ossetia.”
Apart from being irrelevant, even the Russians appear to doubt their own assertion. Due to the “specificity of geographical location,” said a December 19 Russian Foreign Ministry statement of Perevi, it was necessary to define South Ossetia’s border. This lack of definition apparently led the Russian occupation force into some peculiar perambulations around Perevi.
On November 8, Russian forces quit Perevi, replaced, commented the EU Monitoring Mission, “by forces of the South Ossetian de facto authorities. This would further exacerbate tensions to the detriment of the civilian population in and around the village of Perevi.” After a week, Russian forces returned, and the EUMM stated, “The installation last weekend of South Ossetian forces was exacerbating tensions, causing many people to leave the village during the past week. The EUMM hopes that the return of Russian units will contribute to an improved situation for the local population.” That said, “The EU insists that the Perevi checkpoint as well as the village of Perevi are clearly outside the administrative boundaries of South Ossetia and that they should be relinquished by both Russian and Ossetian units.”
On December 12, Russian forces again quit Perevi. However, by the time a delegation of western ambassadors from Tbilisi arrived on the morning of December 13, Russian forces had returned, denying the diplomats access to the village. The EUMM “verified that Russian troops have reoccupied the Perevi checkpoint in Georgia…and even deployed a considerable number of troops in and around the village.”
Whether Russia’s serial occupation and perambulation began by blunder, Kremlin infighting or design, there are two plausible outcomes.
The first is that Moscow will befuddle the West to divert attention from its serious violations of EU-brokered agreements. Westerners might even welcome continued Russian violations. In November, for example, when Russian forces returned to Perevi to oust the South Ossetian thugs that they had themselves left in charge, Sarkozy said, “This reassures me that Medvedev is a partner with whom we must maintain a dialogue.” Such disorientation could set up Perevi as a diplomatic bargaining chip. After tough negotiation, Russia may quit the village—in exchange for a pass on other violations.
More dangerous, the Kremlin may use Perevi to craft a pretext for another attack on Georgia. It would not require much imagination to spin a yarn of Georgian aggression out of some clash between the Georgian police and the Russian Army on one of its peculiar perambulations around Perevi. Explaining the December 12 reoccupation of Perevi, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “Georgian authorities undertook a new provocation and flooded Perevi with a special task force—over 120 heavily armed fighters.” In reality, there were about 40 Georgian policemen there to protect the villagers and dismantle the Russian checkpoint.
Beware what designs may lurk at the end of a washed out Imeretian road.
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This column originally appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.