Just before President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin’s tête-à-tête at the G-20 on July 7, Russia quietly annexed “about 10 hectares” of Georgian territory on behalf of the Republic of South Ossetia, a polity recognized by just four countries (including Russia).
The move went largely unnoticed — except, of course, in Georgia proper, where President Giorgi Margvelashvili decried “creeping occupation.” That generalized silence is what the Kremlin was counting on.
One American official did take notice, though: Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told BBC’s Radio 4 on July 7 that the seizure was “not something that should go on.” He lamented, “Russia has been able successfully to play a weak hand very aggressively because it has counted the fact that we are not going to respond in any kind of assertive way.”
Then, the very same day, the Trump administration appointed Volker special envoy to Ukraine. In this role, he’s now responsible, inter alia, for holding Russia to account for annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Writing in Foreign Policy in 2015, Volker argued that Russia is trying to create a frozen conflict situation in Ukraine “along the lines of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.” Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian-backed breakaway republics in Georgia, just as Donetsk and Luhansk are Russian clients in Ukraine.
Volker’s appointment could signal a new willingness on the part of Washington to contain Russian expansionism (and reassure NATO allies and partners in the process). Another signal is an announcement that Vice President Mike Pence will visit Georgia, along with Estonia and Montenegro, in late July and early August.
In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Pence is expected to tout the “Noble Partner” exercises, in which American, Georgian, and other allied troops conduct war games. The partnership was established in 2015; last year, the Kremlin assailed it as “provocative.”
But newfound American resolve comes as too little, too late for Georgians affected by the land grab. The English-language Georgian Journal reported that, by shifting the “administrative boundary line” between Georgia and South Ossetia some 700 meters, Moscow has made it so “several local farmers’ agricultural lands have now partially fallen” into de facto Russia territory.
David Bakradze, Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, told FP, “The Government of Georgia unequivocally calls for the restoration of international norms regarding its territorial integrity. It is imperative that the U.S. administration and Congress continue to provide active support for our sovereign territory and bolster our efforts to protect our citizens.”
For its part, Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Georgian protests as “absurd,” claiming instead that Tbilisi was levying “false allegations” so as to disrupt a regularly-scheduled diplomatic summit between the two countries held in Prague.
This ever-morphing border isn’t just an academic concern, or a problem for a few farmers. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia after Tbilisi cracked down on separatists in South Ossetia.
Photo credit: MAXIM SHEMETOV / AFP / Getty Images
Correction, July 13, 2017: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Giorgi Margvelashvili was the prime minister of Georgia. He is the president of Georgia.
Update, July 13, 2017: This story was updated to include comment from the Georgian ambassador to the United States.