Luke Coffey is the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a Special Adviser in the Ministry of Defence. Follow Luke on Twitter.
Four years ago this week in August 2008, while the world was fixated on the Summer Olympics in Beijing, hundreds of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles passed through the Roki tunnel on the Russian-Georgian border. Today, as the spectacle of London’s Summer Olympics is watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world, we should not forget that 10,000 Russian troops still occupy 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory.
At the time, Russian troops got within mere miles of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi and even bombed the civilian airport there. Hostilities were finally brought to an end after a Six Point Ceasefire Agreement was brokered by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Russia is still in direct violation of this ceasefire agreement and very few in the world even care.
Four years after Russia agreed, as part of the ceasefire agreement, to withdraw their military forces behind their pre-August 2008 positions one only has to visit the Line of Occupation to see the effects of Russia’s military build up. Once there, an observer will see Russian checkpoints flying Russian flags and manned with Russian soldiers – all in an area that is internationally recognised to be inside the Republic of Georgia. This is the 21st century’s version of the 20th century Cold War front line.
South Ossetia has essentially become one large Russian military base. Beyond the reach and sight of the European Union Monitoring Mission (the Russians do not allow international monitors to enter the occupied territories – another violation of the Six Point Ceasefire Agreement), the Russians have deployed advanced anti-aircraft systems, rocket launchers, and tactical ballistic missiles. Since Georgia’s capital is only 30 miles away, all of this is within striking distance of Tbilisi. Unfortunately, none of this looks temporary and the Russians appear to be there to stay.
Soon after the war in 2008 Russia unilaterally recognised the sovereign independence of the two occupied provinces. Since then an international drive led by Russia for recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has been a dismal failure. So far, in addition to Russia, only Nicaragua, Venezuela, and three tiny Pacific Island countries of Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and Nauru recognize the sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Nauru formally recognised the breakaway provinces only after Russia provided it with $50 million in international aid.
In the same way Russia is failing at getting international recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Georgians are having difficulties getting their European allies to formally recognise Russia’s military presence there as an occupation. If 10,000 Russian troops permanently based on 20 percent of Georgia’s territory is not an occupation, what is? Yet most European nations – including Britain – have remained mute.
To many, the Russian invasion of Georgia seems like a distant memory. In Britain at the time, Downing Street was slow to react. Gordon Brown and then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband were on holiday and showed no immediate concern for the Georgians or bringing an end to the conflict. Thankfully David Cameron, as Leader of the Opposition, was able to exhibit some British leadership on the world stage when he flew out to Georgia to see the Russian-induced carnage for himself. David Miliband finally followed soon after.
At the time, David Cameron took a very robust line - even suggesting that Russia should be suspended from the G8 and that the visa regime in place for Russians entering Britain should be reviewed. "Russian armies can't march into other countries while Russian shoppers carry on marching into Selfridges" said David Cameron.
But where is the British Government on Georgia today? David Cameron has been on the record in the past describing Russia’s presence in Georgia as an occupation. For some reason the Prime Minister’s words have not turned into policy. It is time the United Kingdom recognises the presence of Russian soldiers on Georgia’s territory for what it is: an occupation. Doing so will place the appropriate amount of pressure on Moscow to live up to its legal responsibilities as an occupying power. This would also place Britain in the same position as the United States, France, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly – all of which, through various public statements or resolutions, recognise the Russian military presence in the two provinces as an occupation.
British recognition of the Russian occupation would not immediately change the situation on the ground and the Russians probably couldn’t care less, but it would mean a lot to the Georgian people and it would demonstrate Britain’s support for Georgia in a conflict most in the West have long forgotten.