Putin Slyly Redraws Georgia's Borders

A warning sign is pictured on July 14 behind a wire barricade erected by Russian and Ossetian troops along Georgia's de facto border with its breakaway region of South Ossetia in the village of Khurvaleti. Georgia accused Russia of violating its sovereignty by placing border markers on the edge of the South Ossetia region, leaving part of an international oil pipeline in territory under Russian control. David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Late on July 10, after a year of relative calm, Russian forces resumed their "border demarcation" activities along the South Ossetian administrative boundary, installing large signs reading "State border of the Republic of South Ossetia" about a mile deeper into Georgian territory than previously, just over a mile from Georgia's major East-West Highway.

Not only did this land grab disrupt the lives of villagers, whose households ended up overnight inside Russian-controlled territory, but an approximately half-mile section of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa oil pipeline also now lies outside Tbilisi's reach. With Western attention focused elsewhere, Georgia has again been left on its own to grapple with a major challenge.

What Is Behind Russia's Actions?

The move caught the Georgian authorities by surprise. Over the last year, the main focus of Moscow's actions toward Georgia had been "cooperation and security treaties" with the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But while Georgia's bids for membership of the EU and NATO are stalled, cooperation with both is ongoing. NATO's military training exercise Agile Spirit 2015 began at a military base outside Tbilisi on July 8 with the involvement of five member states, including the U.S.

Russia has a record of creeping annexation tactics along the South Ossetian administrative line during seminal events. There were similar occurrences during the Georgian presidential election of October 2013 and the signing of the EU Association Agreement in June 2014.

That Georgia and the EU are inching toward a visa liberalization agreement may also have contributed to Moscow's wrath. Russia believes that any progress along the path of European integration by Georgia would hinder its attempts to regain its influence.

Just as in 2008, when Moscow began its invasion on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, the timing of the latest Russian provocation is skillfully chosen. Tied down with containing ISIS, Greek financial woes and nuclear talks with Iran, the West has a lot on its plate.

A Wider Agenda?

This latest incident also coincided with the visit to Moscow of Nino Burjanadze, former parliamentary chairman and now the leader of the Democratic Movement Party. She is the most prominent pro-Russian politician in Georgia, and her public criticism of the current Georgian authorities, voiced most recently during an interview with a Russian TV channel, concerned Tbilisi's alleged reluctance to engage in dialogue with Russia.

Burjanadze acts as Putin's messenger of sorts. The incursion could have been a show of strength before a hoped-for a meeting between the Georgian and Russian presidents, where Putin would demand significant political concessions from the Georgian leadership. The current format of Georgia-Russia interactions remains limited, given the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Where Is the West?

Georgia has only one realistic option to counter Russian provocation: international assistance. But the West has largely been silent, not venturing beyond tired phrases of concern and counterproductiveness. In the first few days following Russia's latest actions, no major Western news network offered coverage of the occurrence.

The West may embolden Russia to make further territorial advances unless it sends a clearer message of the unacceptability of such policies and restates (consistently) the inviolability of Georgia's statehood. In the absence of such a message, Tbilisi risks succumbing to mounting Russian pressure and faces a stark choice between changing its foreign policy course in Russia's favor on the one hand and further dismemberment on the other.

With Armenia already firmly within the Russian orbit through its Eurasian Economic Union membership and Azerbaijan reheating its relations with Moscow, Georgia remains the West's last serious toehold in the South Caucasus. Georgia's loss, therefore, would in essence signify the transfer of the region, with its substantial energy transit potential and geopolitical significance, to the Russian sphere of influence.

George Mchedlishvili is academy Robert Bosch fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, on whose site this article first appeared.