Since the war between Georgia and Russia-backed South Ossetia ended in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been no clearly demarcated line between Tbilisi-controlled and separatist-controlled territory. After the war, Tbilisi governed large parts of the territories that belonged to the South Ossetian autonomous republic during Soviet times, including most of the strategically important Akhalgori region. Although skirmishes along the dividing line occasionally took place, they did not devolve into something serious until 2008, when war broke out between Georgia and Russia. In August 2008, South Ossetian and Russian forces occupied the Akhalgori region and pushed past the demarcated border to occupy land controlled by Tbilisi. Since then, the South Ossetians, with Russian help, have been actively building defensive infrastructure to fend off any possible Georgian assault.
Following the 2008 war, the Russians began creeping into Georgian territory rather than forcefully advancing on it. In 2010, reports surfaced alleging that Russian forces had pushed the border 2 kilometers southward in the Akhalgori region. Authorities quickly denied the reports, but Tbilisi had to admit that the border had indeed advanced farther into Georgian territory since the 2008 war, particularly near the Perevi village in eastern South Ossetia. In March 2013, Russian and South Ossetian forces fenced in five villages, comprising some 100 hectares. Later, in May and September of the same year, the Russians moved farther south and occupied the mainly Georgian-populated villages of Ditsi and Dvani. In Dvani alone, the border moved by some 600 meters. But these moves were dwarfed this year by Russia's July 10 advance into the Georgian-populated villages of Tsitelubani and Orchosani.
Russia's Strategic Motivations
Moscow had military superiority over Georgia in the war of 2008. However, Russian forces faced an important strategic challenge thereafter: how to defend South Ossetia, which unlike the other breakaway territory of Abkhazia, does not share a long border with Russia. Instead, South Ossetia is almost completely surrounded by Georgian territory. And Tskhinvali — the capital of South Ossetia and a strategically important city on the route north to the major Caucasian pass Djava — is very close to the Georgian border, which inhibits the Russian forces from having geographic depth for effective defense. Furthermore, there are no major rivers or mountain ranges running along the contact line between the Georgian and separatist regions. In fact, there is no geographic barrier at all until Gori — a strategically important city at the center of the country. Moving southward provides the Russians with a necessary geographic depth, which, along with the development of defensive infrastructure, would buy them time if conflict broke out again. Nevertheless, the Russians would still find the lack of natural obstacles problematic if it came to open warfare.
The timing of the July 10 advance is also interesting because of the evolving political situation and rising Western military influence in the South Caucasus amid the broader standoff between Russia and the West. Georgia's integration efforts with the European Union present a major problem for Russia. In addition, Moscow is especially worried about the increasing military cooperation, constant defense meetings and military drills taking place between Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey — intended to protect the major infrastructure projects running through all the three countries. Russia is also likely uncomfortable with the fact that the Georgian military has been holding joint military drills with U.S. and NATO forces more and more regularly over the past several months. In fact, many previous Russian pushes southward also took place as Tbilisi made major steps toward integration with the European Union and NATO, so it is unsurprising that the most recent push would coincide with the NATO-sponsored military drills dubbed Agile Spirit that are currently taking place in Georgia.
Although tactical border movements seem like an unusual political response, they are important when it comes to ensuring Russia's defensive capabilities in South Ossetia. A NATO training center is set to open in Georgia later this year, which will enhance Tbilisi's military capabilities and boost the Western military presence on Georgian soil. It is within this context that Russia is working to also expand its capabilities in the area. And this improvement aligns with Russia's broader regional policies; at the beginning of this year, the Kremlin announced it would strengthen its bases in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Armenia. It also recently provided Armenia with a $200 million loan for military purchases.
Georgia can be divided roughly into two parts, east and west, connected only through the east-west highway. The section of the BP-operated pipeline that falls within the recently-seized territory may be important for Russia, but the highway, which serves as a major trade route for land transportation from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea ports and east Turkey, is no less important. Because two BP-operated pipelines, the Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, roughly run along this major highway, Russian posturing there sends a clear message to the West that Russia has a great deal of control over energy as well as Caspian and European trade. Though so far energy flows through the Baku-Supsa have not been hindered, and BP and Western governments alike seem relatively calm, by advancing southward Russia has acquired an additional tool for influencing regional governments and BP in the South Caucasus region.
Thus, Russia's recent moves in South Ossetia are motivated by its security and strategic concerns in the territory and are part of its overall military strategy in the South Caucasus. Though a major Russian military operation into Georgia is very unlikely at the moment, it is clear that both sides, Georgia and South Ossetia with Russian support, are trying to improve their position within the given restraints. Georgia is trying to connect to its NATO and Western allies and is trying to improve its own military capabilities. South Ossetia, on the other hand, is integrating security efforts with Russia and is trying to gradually nudge the border outward to increase the depth of its territory, enabling Tskhinvali to better defend itself.