[Photo Credit: The separatist leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity (left and right respectively) with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center). The Kremlin, Moscow, April 30, 2009. Photo courtesy of the Presidential Press and Information Office/President of Russia Official Web Portal.]
On Thursday, April 30, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and separatist leaders of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity - signed bilateral agreements that, in effect, make the Russian border guard troops, which are under the jurisdiction of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), responsible for protecting the de facto borders of secessionist regions with Georgia proper. According to the Kremlin press release, Russia will assist the separatist authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with personnel training and establishment of national border guard services. In addition, the agreements on cooperation and collaboration between FSB and Abkhazia's State Security Service and South Ossetia's State Security Committee were signed thereby confirming the status of Moscow's newly acquired satrapies as intelligence-gathering bridgeheads in the Transcaucasus. President Medvedev used the ceremony marking the signing of the security pacts in the Kremlin to attack the planned NATO exercises in Georgia calling them "a blatant provocation."
Russia's signing of border defense pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia drew rebukes of varying degrees of severity from the EU, US and NATO. EU Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg accused Russia of violating last year's Sarkozy-Medvedev six-point ceasefire agreement and stated that Moscow's move destroyed any hope of trust. The US State Department statement expressed "serious concern" and charged Russia with violating Georgia's territorial integrity. NATO spokesperson James Appathurai echoed Schwarzenberg's comments when he characterized the signed border defense pacts as a "clear contravention" of the Medvedev-Sarkozy ceasefire agreements of August 12th and September 8th.
Meanwhile, unperturbed by the international outcry the Russian border guards assumed control over the de facto border between Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Head of the FSB's Department of Border Guards in the Southern Federal District, Colonel General Nikolai Lisinsky confirmed that Russian border guard units began patrolling the de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia. Lisinsky revealed the plans to build 20 military compounds along the border perimeter, which will be monitored with modern equipment, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (an obvious exaggeration considering that currently Russian UAV capabilities are still in their infancy; see the related past story here).
By deploying its border guards to protect the de facto borders of Georgia's separatist territories Russia is significantly upping the ante ahead of the NATO exercises planned for May 6-June 1. The Kremlin's belligerent rhetoric already scared Kazakhstan, Moldova and Serbia out of participating in the aforementioned exercises. Taking into account the volatile situation in the areas along the de facto border between the breakaway regions and Georgia proper, Tbilisi is now bracing for possible provocations timed to coincide with the NATO exercises. More specifically, the possibility of orchestrated harassment of the Georgian population in the Gali District of Abkhazia looms as particularly ominous contingency because it will force the Georgian government to react. Although the Georgian population of the Gali District fluctuates considerably it is estimated to be in the 30,000-40,000 range.