On the one-year anniversary of its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Russia signed an integration treaty with Georgia’s breakaway region South Ossetia, seemingly paving the way for absorbing that territory as well.
In Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a twenty-five-year pact with his self-declared South Ossetian counterpart, Leonid Tibilov, under which Russia takes responsibility for the region’s borders and security and South Ossetia gets €140 million in aid over the next three years. Russia has already given the region €670 million in the last six years.
The treaty is similar to one Russia signed with Georgia’s other breakaway region, Abkhazia, late last year.
“A joint defense 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 on Wednesday.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia have depended on Russian economic and military support since they seceded from Georgia, a former Soviet republic, in 1993. Before Georgia became independent from Russia in 1991, Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been autonomous republics of the Soviet Union.
Georgia most recently tried to retake the territories in 2008, triggering Russia’s intervention. Without Russian support, it is doubtful the two statelets would have been able to withstand the Georgian offensive.
While some Abkhaz leaders were wary of deeper integration with the Russian Federation, fearing total submission to Moscow, the Ossetians are enthusiastic. After Russia occupied and annexed the Crimea from Ukraine last year, South Ossetian leaders openly called on Russia to annex them as well.
Russia is one of few countries that recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Georgia’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, said on Wednesday the Abkhaz-Russian integration treaty was a move against the “territorial integrity” of his country and tantamount to “annexation.”
Georgia’s Western backers similarly denounced the agreement. “The regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are integral parts of Georgia and we continue to support Georgia’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the United States State Department said.
The European Union’s foreign policy coordinator, Federica Mogherini, and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg made similar statements.