South Ossetia and a new front for Russia in the Caucasus?
Updated: Apr 2, 2022
On March 31, Anatoly Bibilov, the president of the separatist region of South Ossetia in Georgia announced the intention to hold a referendum on joining Russia, which the Georgian government immediately called “unacceptable” (https://www.rferl.org/a/south-ossetia-joining-russia/31779469.html) . This opens a potentially new flashpoint in the South Caucasus region, pitting another former Soviet state seeking to join the EU and NATO, against its powerful Russian neighbor. Russia and Georgia had already fought a war in 2008 over the region.
First this is not particularly surprising, but is likely a direct result of the Russian announcement that it was redeploying troops from the region to support its flagging war effort in Ukraine. Bibilov may question Russia's willingness to defend the tiny breakaway region and is seeking annexation in order to ensure Russia's defense of South Ossetia. This would force Russia's hand in a way. However this would open up the possibility of conflict in the region. This time, the Georgian military is much better prepared, having been rearmed by the west and having experienced combat troops who have been deployed in Afghanistan. Conflict in Georgia could be as disastrous for Russia as has been the war in Ukraine.
Second, interestingly, the Abkhaz reaction to the Ukraine War and troop re deployments has been quite different. Perhaps in part because the current government in Abkhazia, headed by a president Aslan Bzhania who was elected in 2020 partially on a platform of seeking “dialogue” with Georgia. Bzhania, had been detained by Russian authorities to prevent his election in 2020, and claims, at least in public, a more independent stance vis a vis Russia. Thus, Abkhazia, in contrast to South Ossetia, is not as intent to seek annexation (even though like South Ossetia, its citizens hold Russian passports, and the rouble is the local currency) despite the redeployment of Russian troops from Abkhazia. Indeed, Valery Kvachia, the ”defacto” speaker of the Abkhaz parliament announced that “There is no issue of Abkhazia joining Russia. Abkhazia's constitution absolutely and clearly considers our country as an independent state." However, he added that Russia was Abkhazia's "strategic partner."
Seeking annexation by Russia in the next months is a direct challenge to the current Georgian government, which is viewed by many as already too accommodating with regards to Russia. Annexation would be an unacceptable challenge that the current government may feel compelled to act, especially if Abkhazia were to remain "neutral" (and Abkhazia is far more important to Russia than tiny South Ossetia).
So what if Georgia attempted to reannex South Ossetia as in 2008, now that Russia has weakened its military position there? This is unlikely (because the current governing party in Georgia, the Georgia Dream party, is much less willing to antagonize Russia than former president Mikheil Saakashivili was in 2008). However, it does beg the question of whether Russia would as aggressively defend South Ossetia as it had in 2008? Putin can ill afford another military front in Georgia as long as the war in Ukraine drags on.