The Cable

Putin Heads to Occupied Georgia Territory on War Anniversary

It's a slap at Mike Pence and Georgia itself nine years after the Russian invasion.

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On Tuesday, the ninth anniversary of the war between Russia and Georgia, Russian President Vladimir Putin took time off from shirtless fishing in Siberia to pay a visit to Abkhazia.

That’s one of Georgia’s two occupied territories, recognized as independent by Russia since the war — and Putin’s trip comes exactly one week after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Tbilisi and gave a shout out to Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO. (Keeping Georgia out of NATO was the driver behind the 2008 war.)

The meeting between Putin and the so-called president of Abkhazia was a poke in the eye to Georgia — and understood as such. “We must not be provoked. We should keep peace as it is vitally important for us,” said Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, Georgia’s minister for reconciliation and civil equality.

That sentiment was echoed by Georgian officials in Washington. “We must do everything in our power to politically resolve our conflict with Russia in a peaceful and constructive manner with support from our international strategic partners,” David Bakradze, Georgian ambassador to the United States, said in an email to Foreign Policy. “We are focused on ensuring reconciliation between our populations living on either side of the occupation line and uniting our country.”

Russia, naturally, saw Putin’s Abkhazian visit — his first in four years — somewhat differently. “The most important thing is that we have very special relations with Abkhazia. We safeguard the security and independence of Abkhazia. I am confident this will continue into the future,” Putin said. He also noted that the Russian military group deployed there is “developing well.”

But, then, Russia and Georgia maintain different narratives on the war. For Tbilisi, the war was an invasion, a body-check just as the small Caucasus country flirted with joining NATO, and positive proof Russia still saw its former republic as part of its sphere of influence. (NATO spokesman Dylan White put out a statement Tuesday saying the visit was without Georgian permission, and that “NATO is united in full support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally-recognised borders.”)

“Nine years ago, Russia invaded Georgia and to this day continues to occupy 20 percent of its territory,” Bakradze said.

Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday that Russia was stopping Georgian “barbarism” in 2008, and that Russia will always stand ready to defend its citizens. Today, Russia is one of the few countries that recognizes the independence of the breakaway territories; nearly every other country insists Abkhazia and South Ossetia are part of Georgia.

In a twist, one of the people at the center of the struggle almost a decade ago is now something of an enemy to both governments.  

Georgia is reportedly currently trying to extradite Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia and governor of Odessa, who was Georgia’s leader at the time of the war. Right now he is in Poland, stripped of both his Georgian and Ukrainian citizenship. He is wanted for crimes allegedly committed while he was in office; Saakashvili maintains the charges are politically motivated.

But Putin is still “Misha’s” main bogeyman. (The Russian president famously threatened to string Saakashvili up “by the balls” during the 2008 war.) Though Putin is angling for another term as president, and continues to blur borders from Georgia to Crimea, Saakashvili figures time is not on the Russian’s side.

“In the end, Putin will be in full international isolation,” he says. “He is going downhill fast.”

Update, Aug. 8 2017 1:21 pm ET: This post was updated to include NATO spokesman Dylan White’s statement. 

Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

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