A Look at the Russian Military Moves in Georgia’s Breakaway Territories

Over the past decade, the Russian Army has repeatedly carried out maneuvers on Georgia’s breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Samachablo). Quite often, the exercises involve widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and other military arms.

For example, the latest military exercises, which were held in South Ossetia, ended on June 17 with the involvement of the locally stationed 58th Army of the Russian Armed Forces. The exercises included 3,000 servicemen which is more than half the approximately 5,000 Russian troops nominally thought to be stationed throughout South Ossetia. The Russians are no less active in Abkhazia. Military exercises there are quite common, but the geography of the breakaway entities pose different challenges both to Moscow and Tbilisi.

But let’s return to South Ossetia. As you drive along the major east-west highway about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Tbilisi, which connects Azerbaijan with the Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti, at some points there is a demarcation line less than a couple of kilometers to the north. The Georgians call it the “borderization” and it is managed jointly by Russian troops and separatists from South Ossetia. Turn north, and it becomes easier to notice the artificial fences or concrete barriers on your way.

For the Russians, the demarcation line in South Ossetia poses a significant challenge as there are few geographic barriers the Russians could rely on to build a veritable defensive line. The fences in fact zigzag across low mountainous area and small rivers, making it uncomfortable to defend from a purely military posture. From time to time, it is reported that the Russian troops have moved the demarcation line southward. Moreover, much of the boundary is actually without a fence.

Although the border’s movement might seem uncontrollable, one explanation behind it could be the geography of the territory: small hills, open valleys, etc. No veritable military infrastructure can be found along the demarcation lines. Thus, the Russians are moving southward to find a defensible territory. However, a much more important factor could be at play: bringing it closer to the main east-west highway (Baku–Tbilisi–Kutaisi–Poti).

In some places, it is said that the Russian military units in South Ossetia are only several hundred meters from the highway. Indeed, the Russians see that by cutting the highway, they will be able to paralyze the entire South Caucasus. Furthermore, another threat which the Russians are posing is their artillery’s proximity to strategic pipelines and railways that carry oil, natural gas and goods from Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea to Europe. Cutting this communication line would leave the region defenseless. The Russians did this in 2008, during the Russo-Georgian war, while they occupied Gori, a city in central Georgia on the east-west highway. The country was paralyzed, as was the entire region.

Moving westward to the second breakaway territory of Abkhazia, we see similar processes of intensified militarization of the region, with constant military exercises, troops movements, etc. But there are some crucial differences: unlike South Ossetia, Abkhazia is in a much more comfortable geographic position. Where South Ossetia lacks natural barriers to defend it, Abkhazia, by contrast, has the buffer of the Enguri River. To the east there is the Kodori Gorge – a narrow passage which serves as a natural division line between the breakaway territory and the rest of Georgia. Thence comes the difficulty to prevail militarily over Abkhazia which, like South Ossetia, hosts approximately 5,000 Russian troops. Another consequence of the different geography is the fact that the Russians are not moving the demarcation line in Abkhazia deeper into Georgia, as there is simply no need.

From the Russian perspective, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are of more or less similar military importance. However, the defense strategy differs as it depends on the geography of the entities. South Ossetia is more difficult to defend from the geographic point of view, while Abkhazia has rivers, seas and gorges. Despite this, however, for the Russians, South Ossetia could at times be more interesting as it enables Moscow to impose itself on the east-west highway with the potential to throw the region into transportation and energy disarray as happened in 2008.

Emil Avdaliani

26 June 2017 17:47