WASHINGTON - Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia Tuesday to express his support for separatists there and in South Ossetia on the ninth anniversary of a deadly five-day war between Moscow and Tbilisi.
The Georgian government protested against the Kremlin leader's visit to Abkhazia's Black Sea resort Pitsunda, and the foreign ministry in Tbilisi denounced Putin's “cynical action.” NATO said Putin's trip was "detrimental to international efforts to find a peaceful and negotiated settlement" of the war the two countries fought in 2008.
The foreign ministry said Putin's trip to Abkhazia was a gesture meant only “for legitimization of forceful change of borders of the sovereign state (Georgia) through military aggression, ethnic cleansing and occupation.”
Georgia sees both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as its sovereign territory, and most of the world agrees. Russia is one of only four nations to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru are the only states to side with Russia on the issue.
Minister urges calm
Georgia maintains that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been illegally integrated into Russia's military, political, economic and social system.
Despite Putin's appearance just 400 kilometers from Tbilisi Tuesday, some Georgian officials counseled calm. “We must not be provoked,” said Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, the minister for reconciliation and civil equality. Writing in the journal Foreign Policy, she noted: “We should keep the peace, as it is vitally important for us.”
Georgia and Russia have never restored diplomatic relations since the brief but deadly war nine years ago. A fact-finding mission commissioned by the European found that more than 400 Georgians were killed during five days of clashes, and nearly 1,750 others were wounded; casualties among Russians and residents of Abkhazia were in the same range, and overall, 150,000 Georgians were displaced from their homes.
Just outside Tbilisi, Georgian leaders marked the anniversary Tuesday by laying wreaths at a military cemetery to honor soldiers who died in the conflict.
Addressing the gathering, President Giorgi Margvelashvili vowed that no Georgian would ever tolerate Russian occupation, and he emphasized his government's commitment to peaceful negotiations with the aim of fully reintegrating the entire country.
Multiple protests, in Georgia and abroad
Less than 400 meters from Russian military garrisons in South Ossetia, several hundred Georgians linked arms to form human chain along a main road leading into the Russian-controlled territory, according to BBC.
At United Nations headquarters in New York, Georgian-American demonstrators called for a coordinated international response to growing Russian military aggression in Eastern Europe.
Based on the bitter memories of subsequent Russian expansionist moves, such as its invasion of Crimea in 2014, Daniel Kochis of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation said the U.S. should have levied sanctions against Russia as far back as 2008, when it intervened in Georgia.
“I think the administration (of former President George W. Bush) was caught very flat-footed in Georgia,” Kochis said. “We didn't learn a lesson from Russian actions; we didn't impose any sort of sanctions and I don't think we were strong enough discussing illegal actions by Russia. Again, we saw this sort of aggression a few years later in Crimea, and by then, of course, Russia had learned many lessons from the war with Georgia.”
Recent U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine suggest that Russia may now anticipate consequences for such actions.
US had few options in 2008
Jeffrey Mankoff of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies said the U.S. administration in 2008 had few military or diplomatic choices.
“The U.S. denounced Russian actions in Georgia in 2008, but did not move in a kinetic way,” Mankoff said. “But I also think the U.S. did not have a lot of options: Russia moved very quickly and the fighting was over in five days.”
The Bush and Obama administrations' efforts to normalize ties with Russia despite its aggressive move into Georgia, Mankoff said, may have militarily emboldened Moscow.
“It is an issue for debate and I do not fault any of them for going down that path [of seeking normalized relations), but the Russians took a lesson (away from Georgia),” Mankoff added. “They determined they could get away with a similar scenario in Ukraine. In some ways, it has been a miscalculation, and it got Russia bogged-down in a conflict in Ukraine. But, ultimately, it has also changed the contours of (Western relations with Russia) in pretty fundamental ways, in a way that the invasion of Georgia did not.”
Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed. In 2008, Russia sent troops into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, claiming that Georgian authorities had abused local residents.
Russia's forceful intervention gave both regions de-facto independence from Tbilisi, and Moscow has since tightened its control. Despite international condemnation, Russia keeps thousands of troops in the breakaway regions; Georgia considers them an occupation force. The standoff is not static: Georgian authorities have accused Moscow and the separatists of seizing additional territory in recent months.
Pence visit contrasted with Putin's
On his visit Tuesday, the third since the 2008 war, Putin said he would ease border controls and customs procedures between Russia and Abkhazia, to encourage travel and facilitate trade.
The Kremlin leader's visit contrasted with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's trip last week to Tbilisi, where he was warmly received. Pence strongly reaffirmed Washington's support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and denounced Russia's “aggression” and “occupation” of Georgian territory.
An independent fact-finding mission on the conflict by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights said the brief war killed 171 Georgian servicemen, 14 policemen, and 228 civilians, leaving 1,747 wounded.
“Sixty-seven Russian servicemen were killed, and 283 were wounded, and 365 South Ossetian servicemen and civilians (combined) were killed,” the report said. The conflict also left an estimated 150,000 people internally displaced.
This story originated in VOA's Georgian Service.
Some information is from AP and Reuters.