West cries foul as Russia strengthens ties with South Ossetia

Leonid Tibilov and Vladimir Putin [The Kremlin]

Russia signed a wide-ranging alliance with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia on Wednesday (18 March), which will further cement its control over the territory, despite fierce condemnation from the West.

President Vladimir Putin inked a deal in Moscow with South Ossetian leader Leonid Tibilov, which makes Russia responsible for defending the republic, where the Kremlin has stationed thousands of troops since a war with Georgia in 2008.

The signing of the controversial pact came as Russia marked one year to the day since Putin signed off on the annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea republic of Crimea in a seismic shift slammed by both Kiyv and the West as an illegal land grab.

Putin hailed the “landmark” agreement after the signing ceremony in the Kremlin, saying it would bind Russia and South Ossetia even closer together.

“A joint defence and security zone will be created between our two countries. Our customs agencies will be integrated and border crossings for our citizens will become open,” Putin said.

Officials in pro-Western Georgia have blasted the pact — similar to one sealed between Moscow and a second separatist enclave Abkhazia last year — as a “de facto annexation” of its territory.

“This step made against the territorial integrity of a sovereign state further worsens the situation created as a result of the occupation and brings it to the level of an annexation,” Georgia’s President Giorgi Margvelashvili said in a statement.

“It is outrageous that the Russian Federation responds with destructive actions to Georgia’s efforts to find meaningful ways to settle the existing problems.”

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that the treaty would further destabilise the volatile region.

“The signature by the Russian Federation of a so-called ‘Treaty on Alliance and Integration’ with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia… will be yet another step that goes against ongoing efforts to strengthen security and stability in the region,” she said in a statement.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia after civil wars in the 1990s that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Moscow officially recognised their independence after fighting a five-day war with Georgia in 2008 and stationed thousands of troops there.

The rebel regions are hugely dependent on Russia for military and financial support.

Only a handful of other countries allied to Russia recognise the regions’ independence.

Recently Russia signed a “strategic partnership” agreement with Abkhazia.

>> Read: Georgia cries fouls as Moscow strengthens ties with Abkhazia

Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in August 2008. The conflict saw Russian troops repel an assault on the breakaway pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, which broke free from Tbilisi's rule in the early 1990s. 

Russia later recognised South Ossetia and Georgia's second breakaway region of Abkhazia as independent states. Russia has thousands of troops stationed in both regions. 

Privately, EU representatives generally recognise that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was to blame for the August war. However, he still enjoys Western support as a symbol of the 2003 'Rose Revolution' in Georgia. 

An independent fact-finding mission appointed by the EU published a report in September 2009, which concluded that both sides were responsible for triggering the conflict.

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