The creeping Russian border in Georgia

Moscow-backed security forces recently moved the border fence with Georgia, taking more territory for Russian control.

Russia's border creep is nothing new and dates back to 2008, writes Coffey [Getty]

While the world has been focused on the eurozone crisis in Greece, the nuclear talks in Vienna, and Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine, things have been heating up in Georgia.

On July 16, Moscow-backed security forces moved the administrative boundary fence dividing the Russian occupied region of South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia – thereby placing more Georgian territory under Russian control.

These same security forces, armed with assault rifles, were also seen crossing into Georgian-controlled territory and tearing down a Georgian flag.

A history of conflict 

After a brief war between the two countries in August 2008, Russia occupied the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At one point, Russian forces bombed Tbilisi’s civilian airport and advanced within miles of the capital city.

Up until 2008, Russia recognised both regions to be part of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Most of the international community still does.

Soon after the war – and with Moscow’s backing – Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia. Only Russia, Nicaragua, Nauru, and Venezuela recognise their independence today.

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In reality, both regions have puppet governments which depend wholly on Moscow for their economic survival and are currently occupied by thousands of Russian troops.

The 2008 war ended after then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered a five-point peace plan.

Almost seven years later, Russia is still in violation of this peace deal because it refuses to allow international observers into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while Georgia gives these observers unfettered access. Russia has also refused to move its troops to pre-war locations, which Georgia has already done. 

A rural Berlin Wall

This most recent border creep is particularly alarming because Russia is in a position to directly threaten important transport links between Georgia and the outside world.

Russia’s actions now place the administrative boundary fence within 500m of Georgia’s E60 highway, which is the main road linking the Black Sea to Azerbaijan.

The new fence also places a 1.6km segment of the BP-operated Baku-Supsa pipeline inside Russian occupied territory.

Moscow has long sought to control the flow of oil and gas from the Caspian region to Europe and has never liked pipelines bypassing Russian territory.

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As far as Putin is concerned: If Europe isn’t getting its oil and gas from Russia then they shouldn’t be getting it at all.

Russia’s border creep is nothing new. Since the 2008 war, Russia has slowly been advancing further and further into Georgian territory by constructing fences and other barriers.

In some cases villages are cut in half by fences. Locals have even gone to bed in Georgia, and after Russians installed a fence overnight, have woken up in occupied South Ossetia. This is a rural Berlin Wall.

Russia’s imperialism 

True to form, Russia acted when the West was distracted.

It is no coincidence that Moscow decided to move the administrative boundary in the same week that the Iranian nuclear talks were reaching their pinnacle, or the same week that the EU was dealing with the fallout from the recent Greek referendum.

As far as Putin is concerned: If Europe isn’t getting its oil and gas from Russia then they shouldn’t be getting it at all.


Russia uses its occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (amounting to 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory) as a way to exert its influence in the region.

The 2008 war, and the subsequent Russian occupation, has displaced hundreds of thousands of people; not to mention the existential threat to the country posed by the thousands of Russian troops based on Georgian soil. 

Even under immense Russian pressure, Georgia has remained committed to its westward orientation.

Regarding the occupied territories, Georgia has made a non-use of force pledge to get them back. Tbilisi knows that there can only be a peaceful end to the Russian occupation. It is a shame Moscow does not see it the same way.

Keep an eye on Georgia

Georgia is an island of democracy and stability in a very rough region. It is firmly committed to Euro-Atlantic integration which is something Moscow simply despises.

Instead of letting the Georgian people choose their own destiny, Russia wants them to be under its sphere of influence.

Anything Moscow does in the region is seen through the lens of Russia’s recent annexation and invasion of Crimea.

Georgians are nervous – and rightfully so. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia is a 21st century country with 18th century ambitions. There is no denying that Georgia is on Putin’s imperial “to-do” list.

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The journey from the capital Tbilisi to the line of occupation only takes a couple of hours by car. Once there, one can see the divide between free Georgia and oppressed Georgia.

Russian military bases are being built. Russian flags fly high at checkpoints. Families are divided. Local economies wrecked. Livelihoods destroyed. All in the name of Putin’s imperialism.

As the world heads into the sleepy days of August, we must wisely keep an eye on this region.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.