Late last week, about 1,800 additional Russian troops poured into the already heavily occupied Georgian territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Akhalgori District.
The latest Russian contingents are Federal Security Service (FSB) Border Guards sent to implement a so-called border control agreement signed at the Kremlin on April 30 by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and separatist leaders Sergei Bagapsh from Abkhazia and Eduard Kokoity from South Ossetia.
The ink on these documents was barely dry when the first Russian Border Guards arrived on Georgian territory. “The border must be securely closed and made inaccessible for enemies,” said General-Colonel Nikolai Lisinsky, Border Guard Chief for Russia’s Southern District, Interfax reported.
According to the 10 year agreements, Russia has assumed responsibility to patrol the lines between Georgian-controlled and Russian-occupied portions of Georgia, including maritime patrol along the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia.
“Modern technologies will be used to protect the border, including sensors, video monitors and unmanned aircraft. It is not planned to install barbed wire,” Lisinsky said.
These agreements come in the wake of Moscow’s incorporation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the Russian legal and economic space, Russia’s August 2008 war on Georgia, subsequent occupation of the Georgian territories, Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries and signature of mutual defense pacts with them.
It is difficult to tell whether Moscow is recognizing or annexing the two Georgian territories. Either way, Russia is consolidating its position in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to near universal condemnation.
“The scope of the ‘agreements,’” says an April 30 Georgian Foreign Ministry statement, “is to provide protection of the so-called state border of Georgia’s occupied territories. The truth, however, is that the ‘agreements’ represent Russia’s yet another attempt to strengthen military build-up on Georgia’s occupied territories and legitimize the occupation process.”
From Warsaw, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili added, “You cannot legalize something that is fundamentally illegal. It is very dangerous to everybody, including Russia itself.”
Georgian Interior Ministry Spokesman Shota Utiashvili outlined for the New York Times the new danger that Tbilisi sees. Although the Russian army had earlier patrolled the control lines, deployed FSB units “might be more willing to stage operations.”
In Washington, also on April 30, State Department Spokesman Robert Wood said that “The United States expresses its serious concern over the agreement signed earlier today in Moscow between Russia and the de facto authorities in Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia…This action contravenes Russia’s commitments under the August 12 ceasefire.”
The same day in Prague, the Czech presidency of the EU said, “The EU is deeply concerned by the signing of the agreements on the joint protection of borders between Russia and the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are in contradiction with the six-point agreement of August 12, 2008.”
In Brussels, NATO Spokesman James Appathurai said on April 30 that the Russian agreements with the two Georgian separatist territories were “in clear contravention” of ceasefire agreements brokered by the EU in the aftermath of last summer’s war, and that Russia’s actions “are not in the interest of long-term peace and stability for all the people of the South Caucasus region,” Deutsche Presse Agentur reported.
No doubt the west shares Utiashvili’s concern that permanently deployed FSB Border Guard units could be prone to make the kind of mischief that could lead to a flare-up of hostilities. However, this matter also raises a broader issue that the west must consider.
The most recent round of western condemnations—swift and tough, by diplomatic standards—underscores a mismatch between the west’s 21st Century diplomatic paradigm and Russia’s 19th Century geopolitical paradigm. The west dispatches demarches; Russia dispatches tanks.
Consider the frustration of NATO officials last week. In addition to denouncing the deployment of Russian Border Guards in Georgia, NATO pitched two Russian diplomats out of its Brussels headquarters for espionage and again rejected Russian claims that upcoming Partnership for Peace exercises in Georgia are any kind of threat to Russia.
“Russia,” said Appathurai, “continues to claim that it has been surprised by the exercise in Georgia, even though it has been informed fully and from the beginning of the planning stages, and even if it continues to refuse the repeated invitations to this exercise.” (Russia, by the way, is a Partnership for Peace member.)
Appathurai continued, “It is becoming increasingly difficult to match the Russian rhetoric with what is happening on the ground.”
That is because what is happening on the ground is something the west does not see—or does not wish to see. Call it what you will—Russia’s “near abroad,” a “liberal empire” or even “Eurasia”—Russia has just extended the borders of what Medvedev calls a “privileged sphere of influence.”
And western complaisance is one of Moscow’s weapons.
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This column appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.