U.S. Sees Russian Push to Consolidate Foothold in Georgia 

Russian-backed authorities in Georgia’s separatist regions are continuing to harden border crossings, limiting access for the United States and aid organizations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for a meeting with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia is using frozen conflicts in Georgia’s breakaway regions to further undermine the Caucasian nation’s stability and the viability of its bid to join the European community, according to a State Department report obtained by Foreign Policy, using physical obstructions to harden borders and prevent access. 

In a yearly report to Congress sent in May marked “sensitive but unclassified,” the State Department said open-source reporting indicated that Russia provided up to $275 million in 2019 to finance the vast majority of state budgets in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia—breakaway republics that comprise about one-fifth of Georgia and which Russian forces have occupied since a five-day war in August 2008. 

“Russia has continued to use the conflicts involving Abkhazia and South Ossetia to undermine the independence and stability of Georgia, limit the country’s attractiveness as a potential economic partner, and complicate its EU and NATO aspirations,” according to the report, seen by Foreign Policy. “Russia has not fulfilled its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement, including the withdrawal of its forces to pre-conflict positions, nor has Russia fully implemented its commitment to permit free access for humanitarian organizations in the regions it occupies.”

Though Russia has long sought to distance Georgia from the European community, the news comes as U.S. President Donald Trump, trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in election polls, is facing increasing questions from Congress and NATO allies about his failure to condemn Russian aggression, including intelligence community reporting of Russian bounties for Taliban fighters to take out American troops in Afghanistan, first reported by the New York Times

With Trump angering allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, by proposing to reinvite Russia to the delayed G-7 summit planned for Camp David in the fall and unilaterally slashing U.S. troop levels in Germany, some on Capitol Hill are worried that Russia could make more foreign-policy mischief ahead of the November U.S. election without a tougher line from Washington. 

Trump’s war of words with allies such as Germany “delights the Russians and gives them tremendous opportunities,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy in an interview.

“Russia knows that the clock is ticking,” he said. “There’s likely only six months left in the Trump administration. They’re going to try and take advantage of this time to advance as many of their interests and solidify as many of their gains they’ve achieved over the past few years as possible.”

While much of Russia’s destabilization efforts in recent years have focused on Ukraine and cyberattacks, the Kremlin is continuing its efforts to undermine Georgia. For much of the past year, Russia has backed a push by the breakaway regions to physically distance themselves from Georgia, constructing fences and installing observation towers and cameras along the proclaimed borders to “to destabilize the security situation and separate Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia,” which has hampered movement into the rest of the country, the State Department reported.

In Georgia’s separatist territories, the United States is increasingly cut off from having any impact. The State Department said new precautions for international visitors in Abkhazia are preventing U.S. personnel from traveling there and limiting access for aid organizations. 

“The international assistance community has warned this policy could lead to a severe reduction in aid to Abkhazia, as international actors lose access necessary to manage and monitor their programs,” the State Department reported. 

The United States has substantially upped military sales and aid to Georgia since the 2008 war, with the Trump administration overriding Barack Obama-era hesitation to provide $75 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles in 2017. The European Union has provided as much as $511 million in programming assistance for Georgia since 2017.

What’s more, some in Washington fear that Russia is using allies to reinforce the separation of the Georgian regions and that of eastern Ukraine. South Ossetian authorities support their counterparts in the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” in Russia-controlled areas of Ukraine, allowing them to use banks to “launder money and evade international sanctions,” the State Department reported, citing open-source reports. 

Only Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Syria, and Venezuela recognize Georgia’s breakaway regions, and Congress has used recent State Department appropriations bills to prevent U.S. aid to countries that recognize their sovereignty. 

Former U.S. officials see Russia’s further reinforcement of separatist areas as a sign that Moscow is primed to further disrupt U.S. foreign policy during an election year. 

“Looking at the scene, I think that Putin finds he’s in a pretty good position to take advantage of problems in the world,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. 

“He’s a jiujitsu master. If he can check his hip a bit, he can flip his opponent without a lot of energy expended—that’s what he does.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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