On September 17, three days after the announcement of a U.S.-Russian agreement to end Syria's chemical weapons program, Moscow made a small but significant move that ordinarily would have irritated Washington. The Russian military began all-but-annexing a tiny chunk of territory for Georgia's separatist region of South Ossetia.
That Russia would again violate its 2008 ceasefire agreement with Georgia, which requires Russian forces to go back to positions held prior to the outbreak of hostilities, did not surprise regional experts and U.S. lawmakers. But Washington's relative silence in the face of the violation did.
The U.S., arguably Georgia's strongest ally in the West, has issued no formal statements from Washington. The European Union, on the other hand, is publicly raising objections to the process of "erecting fences and other physical obstacles along the administrative boundary lines with South Ossetia." And on Wednesday, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus James Appathurai said "this violates the agreement and makes political progress more difficult." The State Department did not respond to a request for comment by The Cable on a formal response to the developments although a Georgian official notes that U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland did say the incursions were "in violation of international law" on Thursday.
The muted reaction "is unusual," Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation, said. "But it would be consistent with the U.S. engaging Russia on Syria right now."
The relative quiet is troubling some Georgian officials, who are afraid that their issues are about to get shoved aside as the American and Russian government try to work through an agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
Reports of Russian troops building barbed-wire fences along the border of Ditsi emerged on Tuesday as a group journalists attempting to travel into South Ossetia witnessed the wiring of fences. Georgians accuse the troops of trying to annex as much as 500 square meters of Georgian-controlled territory and committing acts of violence against local residents, while Russia maintains that its troops are there to maintain peace in a country still recovering from its five day war with Georgia in 2008. It's not a lot of territory, of course. But Cohen said the transgression warrants a response from the State Department.
"The principle of territorial integrity is an important principle of U.S. foreign policy, which cannot tolerate countries encroaching and deciding borders unilaterally," he told The Cable. "Moreover, if European countries are objecting, then Washington needs to be singing from the same sheet of music."
Of course, the dispute is not just about Georgia. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to the Syria framework which could take a decade or more to complete given the intense logistical difficulties involved. Analysts have already hailed the Russian-brokered agreement as a sly maneuver by President Vladimir Putin to avoid a U.S. military strike and bog down the U.S. in the painstaking process of arms control verification and disposal. Proponents of the deal say U.S. diplomats were nimble in responding to an opportunity that punishes Assad for using chemical weapons and doesn't further entangle the U.S. into the messy conflict.
Regardless, Russia continues to cement its influence in the Middle East and among its former Soviet neighbors. Some in Congress are beginning to notice. As of late, Russia has pressured former Soviet states into declining agreements with the European Union ahead of the EU's Eastern Partnership Summit. It's also pressuring Ukraine, Armenia and Moldova into joining its own customs union, which Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee spoke out against yesterday.
"I am calling on the State Department to speak out strongly against recent attempts by Russia to prevent Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and others from strengthening their economic and political ties with Europe," Engel said in a statement. "Russia's campaign of intimidation and pressure blatantly violates the fundamental sovereignty and independence of these countries. Each nation has the right to form its own partnerships, in keeping with its interests and values."
The developments raise the question as to whether the U.S. can successfully compartmentalize its diplomatic issues with Russia as it relies on Moscow to keep pressure on Assad to give up his chemical weapons.