In February 2023, on the one-year anniversary of its re-invasion of Ukraine, Moscow stepped up relations with the two occupied regions of Georgia—Abkhazia and the so-called “South Ossetia” (Tskhinvali region). For example, mutual working visits have become more frequent. The leaders of the puppet regimes visited Moscow in February 2023 (Interpressnews, February 16), in regards to Russia’s military failures in Ukraine. In this, The Kremlin is pursuing several goals in parallel: Against the backdrop of a possible military and political collapse, as well as a weakening of its position in the region, Russia is trying to calm the existing puppet regimes under its patronage who are concerned about the future fate of their “statehood.” They are no longer sure that Russia will have enough economic resources to support these subsidized regions and guarantee their security. As it grows increasingly isolated internationally, Moscow must also demonstrate to its domestic audience that it still has allies, and even these two occupied regions, in return for maintenance and support, are gathering proxy fighters to participate in Russia’s war against Ukraine (Civil.ge, April 2, 2022).
By imitating interstate relations with quasi-states, Moscow already seems uncertain in its approach. When the president of “South Ossetia,” Alan Gagloev, arrived in Moscow in February earlier this year to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he suddenly came down with COVID-19, and the meeting was postponed (Interfax, February 22). In 2022, when “South Ossetia” arbitrarily decided to organize a referendum on joining Russia (BBC News Russian, May 13, 2022), at the direction of the Kremlin, the prospective vote was canceled.
On the one-year anniversary of Russia’s all-out aggression against Ukraine, expectations were mounting that Moscow would announce the creation of a new union state that, together with Russia and Belarus, would include Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” (JAM-news, February 21). For its part, “South Ossetia” seeks to merge directly with Russia. However, in Abkhazia, the prospect of a union state, and even more so, immediate inclusion in the Russian Federation is considered contradictory by some—as there are a significant number of opponents in Abkhazia to such ideas (Ekhokavkaza.com, February 20). Even so, in August 2022, the self-declared president of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, declared that the region is ready to join the Union State of Russia and Belarus with other countries, which could be formed once the war ends (Ekhokavkaza.com, August 25, 2022).
Yet, while thousands of demonstrations have taken place in Tbilisi starting on March 7 and 8 against the Georgian Dream ruling party’s “foreign agents” bill, Abkhazia increasingly fears a change of power in Georgia and has transferred law enforcement personnel to an enhanced work regime. Additionally, “military exercises” were initiated in the region on February 13 (see EDM, March 13).
Moscow’s uncertainty vis-à-vis Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” is dictated by the fact that, at this stage, the Kremlin does not want to irritate Georgia. According to Moscow and the two puppet regimes, the current Georgian government is behaving moderately and has not used Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine as a pretext for restoring its territorial integrity. In March 2023, Bzhania pointed out that the current Georgian leadership “keeps the situation under control” but that the opposition is “planning a number of bad events” in Abkhazia (Ekhokavkaza.com, March 3).
Therefore, Moscow is limited in its options. On the one hand, the formal annexation of the two Georgian territories in the wake of numerous military failures in Ukraine could, to some extent, rehabilitate the Kremlin’s image—as a collector of former Soviet lands—in the eyes of its domestic audience. But on the other, it will likely jeopardize the pro-Russian authorities in Tbilisi, which could trigger a wave of anti-Russian policies and actions in Georgia.
In an effort to console these puppet regimes, Moscow threw them “a deflated lifebuoy” in Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who visited Abkhazia on September 28, 2022, and met with Bzhania (YouTube, September 28, 2022). On February 20, Lukashenka, in turn, hosted the self-proclaimed Abkhazian president in Minsk (YouTube, February 20). If during the September 2022 meeting “trade and economic ties” were discussed, during the most recent meeting, emphasis was placed on “issues of developing cooperation between Belarus and Abkhazia,” including deepening cooperation between the defense departments and special forces of Abkhazia and Belarus (Facebook.com/MovementforAbkhazia, February 28).
However, Abkhazian society was not satisfied with this visit. In the course of speaking with Bzhania, Lukashenka stipulated: “We are not gigantic states that divide some countries and peoples, we need to be closer to each other in this difficult time—and Tbilisi, both Sukhumi and Minsk, everyone should somehow stick together, strive for each other” (YouTube, February 20). Earlier, the Belarusian president had stated that he does not exclude the recognition of these breakaway regions’ independence, which will happen when Putin announces the need for such a step (TASS, February 7, 2022). Apparently, Lukashenka is not yet quite ready, at least on his own, to formally recognize these territories, which have so far been recognized by only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria. In 2021, the Belarusian leader noted that, if these regions were recognized as independent, the West would threaten Minsk with additional sanctions and that Moscow was not ready to compensate for the potential economic losses (YouTube, August 9, 2020).
After visits to Moscow and Minsk, the proxy regime of Abkhazia took the initiative to transfer the format of the Geneva International Discussions from Switzerland to Belarus (Facebook.com/MovementforAbkhazia, March 3). The Kremlin has long been uncomfortable that the negotiations in the Geneva format, which started after the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008, are co-chaired by the European Union, United Nations and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—along with Georgia, Russia, representatives of the two puppet regimes and the United States. In 2022, the Russian Foreign Ministry proclaimed that “the Geneva discussions have become hostages of geopolitics” and pointed to the need to negotiate “in a more neutral format” (Ntv.ru, August 8, 2022).
On February 13, the Russian Foreign Ministry, once again, demanded that Georgia sign an agreement with Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” on the non-use of force (Interpressnews, February 13). Despite the fact that, for many years, Georgia has declared a policy of de-occupation by exclusively peaceful methods, Moscow needs Tbilisi’s signature on such a document to provide the puppet regimes with protection as independent actors and to position Russia as an international guarantor of their security.
Representatives from the breakaway regions refer to the statements of some Georgian authorities that Ukraine and the West are urging Georgia to open a “second front” against Russia (Facebook.com/MovementforAbkhazia, February 28). They praise Tbilisi for its pro-Russian course, especially for its neutral position on the Russo-Ukrainian war. But at the same time, they fear a potential change of power in Georgia as fomented by anti-Russian forces.
Despite all of Moscow’s desperate steps, the Kremlin is well aware that, if it loses the war against Ukraine, then the question of Russia’s withdrawal from the occupied regions of Georgia will follow. And in such a scenario, the Belarusian “lifebuoy” abandoned by Moscow will not stop the drowning of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s “statehood.”