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While the Russian Federation may be occupied with peace talks in Ukraine (though those are currently frozen), they have been active in other “frozen conflicts” on the periphery as well. The West’s focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may allow Putin to make quiet moves in these countries with little reaction from NATO members. Although the losses that the Russian army has suffered in Ukraine make a repeat of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war unlikely, the strong performance of pro-Russian politicians in recent elections could lay the groundwork for Russia to further absorb South Ossetia soon. With Moscow’s recent activities in the Luhansk and Donetsk republics, it is vital now more than ever to keep track of these frozen conflict zones in order to safeguard against a future of Russian land-grabbing across formerly Soviet states.
Given Putin’s strong stance against NATO expansionism, it seems likely he would continue his push into these frozen conflicts like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, regions the Kremlin has recognized as independent since 2008. This could allow Putin to stoke nationalist tensions and reclaim land that he believes is still connected to Russia through spiritual and historic ties. In doing this, he would further exert Russia’s dominance as a growing territory even after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Putin plays well into his game of nationalism, and even managed to increase his popularity rating after moving into Crimea in 2014.
After all five of the South Ossetian April 10 presidential candidates failed to meet the voter benchmark of 50%, the two leading candidates, Anatoly Bibilov and Alan Gagloyev, competed in a runoff election on May 8. Former president Bibilov was public about his desire to join Russia, even recently joining three former presidents and 22 other public figures and politicians in petitioning the Central Election Commission to join Russia. While Bibilov may have lost, with Gagloyev pulling in at 53.67% and receiving congratulatory approval from Putin, he will very likely continue with plans for a referendum as largely supported by South Ossetian experts and his own driving interests.
The result of the 2008 invasion gave Russia an avenue to re-exert its dominance in post-Soviet Georgia, providing financial, military and soon to be dual citizenship–recognition rights after Putin recently pushed a bill to the State Duma for ratification. They have invested well over $800 million since the 2008 war, and provide gas, electricity, phone plan services and pensions to the 50,000 residents of Tskhinvali. Russia has supported South Ossetia for so long that to the community, it only makes sense to rejoin Russia and reap the benefits offered by the Kremlin to this crumbling state.
Like in the Donbass region, Putin chose to independently recognize these separatist republics, allowing him to then invade in support of so-called peace operations on behalf of South Ossetia and, by default, Abkhazia. His arbitrary reasoning follows a similar trend to the situation in Ukraine, although with South Ossetia, local leaders are also helping in the push for a referendum in a move that would more symbolically present Russia with its power. However, as resources have been pulled even from South Ossetia to concentrate Russian resources in Ukraine, Moscow may hold off, at least publicly, on making further moves.
It is also unclear how the international community would react, and further, how they would choose to punish Russia should the incoming contested referendums go awry. Although the current referendums to join Russia have been publicly denounced by the Georgian government, Putin’s own self-governed foreign policy will determine the future outcome of these separatist republics; therefore, there is no absolute rush. Likewise, most of the brunt work is being done by South Ossetian pro-Russia officials, and if they are in favor of rejoining Russia, there may be little left that Georgia will feel empowered to do.
During the 2008 war, the international community hardly intervened outside of ceasefire calls, much like the current situation in Ukraine at its start. Going forward, it is vital to create more feasible methods of checking power within international organizations like the UN and NATO to keep Russia from overexerting its power across modern-day borders. If Putin is further allowed to retake these territories, then at what point does Russia become satisfied with their space on the map? Georgia was surrounded in a matter of days, so ceasefire calls would do little to prevent Putin from moving in under the guise of peace operations and reclaiming a territory Russia has been supporting for so long. This action will not happen overnight, so more pressure from the international community must be placed on ensuring Russia does not continue to expand into these frozen conflict zones through arbitrary means going forward.
While intervention from the West will likely do little, especially given the concentration of energy in Ukraine, even creating information operations could be powerful in reshaping dialogue internally. Abkhazia is content on their own, but with the South Ossetian presidential vote already resulting in plans to move forward both by current and former leaders, only time will tell if Russia will abide by their 2008 ceasefire or if they will stoke the flames of international tension.