In Georgia, fears of Russia aggression amplified by Ukraine war
NEAR THE GEORGIAN-SOUTH OSSETIAN BOUNDARY — The two Russian soldiers ducked to the ground on top of the steep Georgian hills in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, hoping to elude monitors from the European Union watching their steps through binoculars just hundreds of yards away.
Seconds before, the soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders, appeared to be passing heavy rocks between one another as they built what the Georgian government and the EU observers said was a blatantly illegal border construction.
This reporter accompanied the EU monitors on a patrol alongside the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) on Saturday, getting a glimpse at how Russian troops operate in a region they have occupied since invading in 2008.
“I see them,” I said, looking through the binoculars at one of our stops.
“They can see you too,” Marek Szczygieł, head of the EU’s monitoring mission, answered.
Earlier that day, the EU monitors had called the Russian-backed authorities to alert them that an American journalist was accompanying the patrol.
The phone call, through a deconfliction hotline, was meant to avoid increasing tensions in an area that has only grown more strained with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
“The events of the past several months have shown the world the Kremlin’s aggression and brutality. I know the women and men of Georgia did not need reminding of that,” Karen Donfried, assistant secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, said during an international women’s conference on peace and security, held in Tbilisi last week.
“As we see Putin attempting yet again, to further undermine a neighbor’s independence, the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine, with Georgia and with other countries facing the costs of the Kremlin’s aggression.”
Yet for many Georgian officials, the words of support from U.S. and European officials can ring hollow.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili traveled to Washington in April pressing for more U.S. support but left without securing a face-to-face with President Biden.
A planned meeting with Vice President Harris was canceled after the vice president tested positive for COVID-19.
Another blow came last week. The European Commission announced that while it would recommend Ukraine for candidacy to the 27-nation bloc, it would provide only “prospective” EU member status to Georgia. The commission called for Georgia to carry out concrete reforms on a dozen priorities before it can be considered for candidate status.
“The door is wide open,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a press conference. “It is up to Georgia now to take the necessary steps to move forward.”
Zourabichvili reacted with disappointment “and a little bit of anger,” saying the EU should weigh heavily how their decision is interpreted by Russia.
“We understand the warning [from the EU]” about the need for reform, she said, before adding, “They also need to understand the current threats from our neighbor and how [Russia] might understand this differently.”
Nearly 700 Russian troops are stationed along the boundary of the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Nineteen military bases operate there under the authority of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the security agency that succeeded the Soviet Union’s KGB.
Their job is to establish a nearly 250-mile border. Physical tactics include laying down razor-wire fencing, digging up dirt trenches with tractors or staking signposts forbidding passage.
The Georgian police who maintain security in the area have little power to stop these efforts.
In one area, the Russians erected a three-story guard tower covered in camouflage netting and separated from the Georgian-controlled side by more razor-wire fencing.
“Our assessment is that this kind of infrastructure that they deploy here is representing the same standard that can be seen on the border between Russia and NATO countries,” explained Szczygieł, the head of the EU mission. “This is quite a high level of sophistication, and they do not give the impression of being here just temporarily.”
They also intimidate, antagonize and drive out local residents to further establish control.
In one area, razor-wire fencing has split a local village in two and runs through the backyard of an elderly woman’s residence. The European monitors said she’s afraid to go into her garden for fear that the Russian patrol guards will detain her for crossing their arbitrary border.
The Russians have at least seven Georgian citizens detained in prison in Tskhinvali, the so-called capital of South Ossetia. All could receive years-long sentences.
Szczygieł said they are seeing an increased number of detentions this year, reflecting more intensive Russian patrols and an “assertive posture,” he said.
The EU monitoring mission operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to document Moscow’s attempts to harden the boundary, sending ground reports four times a year to Geneva.
The reports are received in a conflict resolution format co-chaired by the United Nations, EU, Russia, Georgia, representatives from the breakaway territories, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the U.S.
Szczygieł said that the constant and routine presence of monitors, in trucks and clothing bearing the EU flag, signal to the local residents that Europe is paying attention.
The mission regularly hosts European officials and lawmakers, taking them on patrol and briefing them on the latest security assessment.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the mission in July 2021, at the boundary with Russian-occupied Abkhazia, in the northwest of Georgia.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), co-chair of the Senate NATO Observer Group, and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), visited the boundary in June 2021.
Szczygieł describes the current situation along these boundary lines as “relatively stable, but still with high potential of security incidents.”
In the days leading up to and following the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Szczygieł said there was some tension and more intensive patrolling patterns on the side of the Russians. The EU mission observed that the Russians redeployed “a significant part of their military assets from both breakaway regions to Ukraine.”
Donfried, in her remarks in Tbilisi, said that the U.S. “will continue to work with our Georgian partners to strengthen Georgia’s defensive capabilities and resilience to various forms of malign Russian influence” and called for an “end to Russia’s continuing occupation of parts of Georgia.”
Szczygieł warns against viewing this situation as a “frozen conflict.”
“Russian intentions are clear, to separate those two breakaway regions from the rest of Georgia,” he said, adding that control of South Ossetia would position Russian troops only 200 yards from the main highway that runs across the country from east to west, and only 25 miles to Tbilisi.
“This is a kind of situation that is not developing in the positive direction,” Szczygieł said.
Updated on Tuesday at 5:22 p.m.
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