After a year of negotiations on the small print, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his formal approval this week for the signing of an intergovernmental agreement on the modalities for the incorporation of "some military units" of Georgia's breakaway Republic of South Ossetia into the Russian armed forces.
Details of precisely how many South Ossetian servicemen are involved remain unclear, although the revised version of the agreement reportedly preserves at least partially the independent military capacity that the region's de facto president and defense minister have consistently insisted is essential to deter and/or repel an anticipated attack by Georgia.
The agreement in question is one of a series of ancillary accords deriving from the framework Treaty on Union Relations and Integration between the Russian Federation and the Republic of South Ossetia (RYuO) signed in March 2015. That treaty made provision for "individual units" of the South Ossetian army to be subsumed into the Russian armed forces within the framework of a "common defense space."
That provision encountered stubborn resistance, however, from within the South Ossetian Defense Ministry, which construed it as heralding the downsizing, or even the abolition of the region's armed forces.
In his annual address to parliament in February 2016, South Ossetia's de facto President Leonid Tibilov declared that "in order to preclude a repeat of the August 2008 [entrance into South Ossetia by the Georgian army], South Ossetia needs its own national military formation, not necessarily a large one, but disciplined, mobile, well-armed, and professionally trained to conduct military operations effectively in mountainous and forested terrain and within populated areas."
Tibilov recalled that, in 2012, he succeeded in persuading President Putin to annul an agreement his predecessor Eduard Kokoity had concluded with Moscow on downsizing South Ossetia's military, and thus "we managed to preserve our army."
Maximum Benefit For Moscow
De facto Defense Minister Ibragim Gasseyev similarly argued that "the republic should have an army that is capable of resisting aggression in the event of an attack on our country," and for that reason, "the Defense Ministry is not prepared for a significant down-sizing of the RYuO armed forces."
Piecing together sporadic cryptic references to the negotiation process, it would seem that the Russians sought to extract the maximum benefit in terms of gaining additional manpower, but were hindered by the need to ensure the final text of the agreement does not violate existing Russian laws.
Alan Djussoyev of the social movement "Your Choice, Ossetia" had already pointed out that there is no such legal concept as the subsuming of military units of one national army into another, and no precedent for doing so.
Tibilov told journalists in early April 2016 that in order to bring it into line with Russian legislation, the provision of the initial draft providing for the transition [переход] of individual South Ossetian army units into the Russian armed forces would be amended to refer to the acceptance [прием] of individual servicemen into the Russian army.
The revised version of the treaty makes it clear, however, that individual South Ossetian servicemen who opt to sign up as contract servicemen serving at Russian military bases must first resign from the South Ossetian army. The official designation of the agreement as "regulating the inclusion of South Ossetian army units into the Russian armed forces" is therefore both inaccurate and misleading.
Moreover, according to an unnamed RYuO Defense Ministry official quoted by RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, only some 200 South Ossetian servicemen meet the standards set for Russian army contract servicemen. It thus appears that South Ossetia will retain a tiny army, given that President Putin has told the Russian Defense Ministry it may make only any minor changes that may prove necessary prior to the official signing of the agreement. The fate of the General Staff is not clear. Defense Minister Gasseyev was quoted in January by civil.ge as saying "we managed to preserve the number of armed forces of South Ossetia … this way, the ministry of defense will keep its combat units." At the same time, he said, unspecified "changes to the organizational and staff structures" will be implemented after the agreement is signed.
Georgia has denounced the agreement as "yet another Russian provocation aimed at destabilizing the region." The news portal Caucasian Knot quoted Deputy Defense Minister David Dondua as admitting that it will not change the situation on the ground. At the same time, he said it constitutes a violation of the cease-fire agreement of August 12, 2008 that ended the so-called "four-day war."