A year ago on March 18, 2014, just two days after the annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a speech to his constituents and State Duma deputies regarding the referendum vote that made historical headlines. Despite reverberating criticism from the West and shock from Ukraine, Putin reiterated to his audience that the referendum was in “full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms.” He cited the United Nations Charter, its right of nations to self-determination, and the “Kosovo precedent” developed by Russia’s Western colleagues, when the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia was deemed legitimate without permission from the country’s central authorities.
“General international law,” Putin added, “contains no prohibition on declarations of independence.” This is an oversimplified truth, but it is hard to see how Russia’s meddling falls within the same rubric of legitimacy.
On the anniversary of Crimea’s annexation, Russia is poised for yet another self-proclaimed legally compliant land grab; this time of Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region.
During Putin’s mysterious 10 day absence from public spotlight, an important meeting with, the de facto president of the Republic of South Ossetia, was abruptly canceled and conveniently ignored by media reports consumed with possible explanations of Putin’s disappearance. The rumor mill went wild with theories of Kremlin power struggles to speculation on Putin’s health and personal life. None of the conjectures, however, analyzed the significance of the canceled meeting between Putin and the separatist leader. March 11th was to be a historic day for South Ossetia, which has made its desires to join Russia and follow in Crimea’s footsteps no secret.
The meeting took place on March 18—an ironic date considering the political similarities between Georgia and Ukraine—when the two leaders signed a Treaty on Union Relations and Integration.
The conflict in Ukraine can be seen as a replay of an old Kremlin tactic used to maintain influence across the former Soviet Union. Russia has supported and at times directly contributed to four other breakaway ethnic regions in Eurasia, including Transdniestria (recognized by the international community as belonging to Moldova), Abkhazia and South Ossetia (provinces recognized as being part of Georgia), and Nagorno-Karabakh (a region recognized as part of Azerbaijan). Moscow’s interference has created frozen conflicts in these states, in which splinter territories remain beyond the control of the central governments and the local de facto authorities enjoy Russian protection and influence.
When Russia’s status as a great power is threatened, its habit has been to instigate ethnic succession in former Soviet republics. The legal argument is always a “defense of nationals,” where Russian speakers are equated with Russian passport holders despite varying ethnic backgrounds. In 2004, when Mikail Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia, he attempted to bring Georgia into NATO and recover the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which held de facto independence since 1994 and 1992 respectively, with the territorial presence of Russian troops as peacekeepers. Fearing an imminent Western alliance, Russia immediately created a pretext to boost its forces in the separatist regions in retaliation against a Georgian attack.
Georgia holds a strategic interest for Russia because of its border with Turkey and the Black Sea coast. Moreover, Georgia hosts part of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline which supplies oil to Europe bypassing Russia and Iran.
Until Crimea, Russia has never gone so far as to bluntly annex a separatist region in order to exert regional influence or bolster its international reputation. But considering the weakened state of Russia’s economy, partially due to sanctions over involvement in Ukraine, Putin is again ready to take what he considers rightfully Russian. The recent murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow may have also left Putin feeling a bit uneasy. One of the theories for his furtive absence is that he was trying to stabilize warring factions within his circle of Kremlin elites, some of whom were directly implicated in the assassination. In order to reinforce his authoritarian rule to all interested parties, both at home and abroad, now seems like as good of a time as any to legally integrate South Ossetia into Russia.
The treaty of alliance and integration does not outwardly announce annexation goals, but its language envisages an easing of such a process in the future. The objective is “to promote all-round cooperation, convergence, and integration… making the transition to a new level of alliance and strategic partnership.” South Ossetia agrees within six months to “transfer power to ensure security and defense” and integrate its security forces to “become part of, respectively, the Russian Armed Forces and the Federal Security Services.” Furthermore, Russia’s central bank will “assist the National Bank of the Republic of South Ossetia in the implementation of monetary policy and strengthening the financial system.”
The Georgian Foreign Ministry condemned the upcoming treaty signing—and Moscow’s similar treaty with the other breakaway region of Abkhazia, signed in November—as part of a “creeping annexation” of occupied territories. The South Ossetia treaty goes farther than the Abkhazia one, since it hands over full control of their security and borders to Russia. Russia also pledges to increase pensions (starting in 2016) for those residents who hold Russian passports, thus facilitating the eventual granting of Russian citizenship to South Ossetians.
In a nutshell, said Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment, “South Ossetia is being swallowed up.”
How does all this fare with international law standards? Putin has successfully convinced his public that Russia is well within its diplomatic rights to annex Crimea. Moscow has also proved cooperative with the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) preliminary investigation into the August 2008 Russia-Georgia War, stating that Tbilisi is responsible for any alleged crimes against humanity or war crimes committed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Kremlin head uses legal rhetoric and ethnic grievances to rationalize Russia’s involvement in separatist regions, but under international law there is no general right to secession, regardless of referendum results. Self-determination, on the other hand, is a respected right but only when it does not encroach on the territorial integrity of another state.
“There is no right in international law to control spheres of influence over other sovereign states,” wrote Christopher Borgen, an international law scholar. Instead, Russia’s tactics in separatist regions can be understood as a dangerous, revisionist view of international law that is skeptical of political cooperation with the West.
The timing of the treaty signing further indicates Russia’s disrespect for diplomatic protocol. A Georgian delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Dondua is currently in Switzerland for the 31st round of the Geneva International Discussions—the only platform between Georgia and Russia mediated by international organizations to discuss stability in the Transcaucasus region. Neither Washington nor the European Union recognize the treaty signing and call on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement and reverse its recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions as independent states. Both condemnations have fallen on the Kremlin’s deaf ears.
If history has a way of repeating itself, the current Ukraine crises could have been predicted back in 2008, when Russia made its intentions of preserving regional influence well known in Georgia. Likewise, Crimea demonstrates that annexation will not necessarily “unfreeze” or end conflicts in separatist regions. South Ossetia is on its way to becoming the next Crimea and President Putin may be strategically timing a performance of Russia’s ability to define and evolve international law standards.