WASHINGTON – As the focus of world attention remains on ISIS, Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and other countries that once comprised the Soviet Union are receiving little notice, particularly Moscow’s designs for Georgia, which will have ramifications for the entire Caucasus region.
“Russia might be preparing for a final assault on Georgia which certainly may include overt military pressure,” said Vasil Rukhadze of the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank Jamestown Foundation.
One of the reasons Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking critically at Georgia is that it has sought to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and continues to seek membership despite Kremlin warnings.
Putin’s moves into Ukraine and now the threats toward Georgia are to maintain a buffer between the NATO countries and the Russian Federation. Putin has been critical of NATO’s “eastward expansion,” such as in the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where a significant number of ethnic Russians reside.
There also are mounting concerns that Moscow has targeted Estonia, because of its weak economy and political uncertainty, to force the country, along with the entire Baltic to leave NATO and rejoin its Eurasian Union.
For now, however, the immediate concern after Ukraine is Georgia, with Russian troops occupying the two Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Russia’s recent activities in Georgia strongly suggest where the Kremlin may wish to move forward next, should Russia prevail in the Ukrainian war and succeed in dismembering this country or ensuring Kiev’s forced subjugation back into the Russian ‘sphere of privileged interest,” he said.
The Russians are all but prepared to annex Abkhazia, now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ratified the so-called “Alliance and Strategic Partnership Treaty” with that region.
Russian troops occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, which lasted five days. Russian troops have never left.
At the same time, Moscow is working, in effect, to annex South Ossetia, much as it did Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula last year, with an Abkhazia-type Alliance and Strategic Partnership Treaty.
Some regional observers say Russia’s 2008 advance into Georgia and takeover of its two breakaway provinces was just a warm-up to annex the Crimean Peninsula.
Now, the rest of Ukraine, especially in the East, is looking at the specter of Russia being called in to protect ethnic Russians there, much as it did in Crimea.
Russia’s treaty with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which the international community still regard as part of Georgia, underscores the priority it holds in regaining its hold on Georgia and the overarching importance the Caucasus holds for Moscow.
“Needless to say, Russia does not intend to give up anything in Georgia and the Caucasus,” Rukhadze said. “Quite to the contrary, the Kremlin is actually consolidating, and rather successfully so, its position in the region.”
He said that after Ukraine, Georgia is perhaps the former Soviet republic that has been “vigorously” resisting membership in the Russian Eurasian Economic Union, which is supposed to be the economic counterpart to the West’s European Union.
In Rukhadze’s view, the Eurasian Economic Union is nothing more than a cover for Putin to resurrect the Soviet Union.
“So, by subduing Georgia, Putin will be able (to) obtain the last highly important piece to complete his Eurasian integrationist project,” Rukhadze said.
But Putin has other strategic designs for the region, which would give him access to one of the major oil and natural gas pipelines outside Ukraine to provide energy to Europe.
It also would give Russia a long-sought direct land link to Armenia, which Rukhadze describes as a “key satellite” in the South Caucasus region.
The landline would permit Moscow to resupply its only military base outside the Russian Federation, a request it has made to the Georgian government that consistently has been rejected.
With such a land-link directly from the Russian Federation into Armenia, Moscow would geographically isolate Azerbaijan from the West, which then would prompt that country’s “inevitable return to the Russian orbit,” Rukhadze said.
Neither Georgia nor the West seem to be prepared to respond to the prospect of a Russian takeover in Georgia, establishing a landline into Armenia and moving Azerbaijan back under Moscow’s influence.
“As a result, once Russia strikes, [the West is] likely to be caught by surprise, as was the case when Russia annexed Crimea and launched the war in eastern Ukraine,” Rukhadze said.
“Hence, Russia’s every step in Georgia and in the entire Caucasus region will need to be carefully analyzed and counterbalanced,” he said.
“Failure to do so, as recent history has already shown, may yield far-reaching, devastating results.”