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Border Bluster
Russia Escalates Ground Game in Georgia

As Russia consolidates its gains in Syria and stalls on peace talks in Ukraine, the New York Times reports that Russia is slowly inching forward on another front. In South Ossetia, the breakaway republic of Georgia sponsored by Russia since the 2008 war, the border keeps creeping forward: 

Marked in places with barbed wire laid at night, in others by the sudden appearance of green signs declaring the start of a “state border” and elsewhere by the arrival of bulldozers, the reach of Russia keeps inching forward into Georgia with ever more ingenious markings of a frontier that only Russia and three other states recognize as real. 

But while dismissed by most of the world as a make-believe border, the dirt track now running through this tiny Georgian village nonetheless means that Vephivia Tatiashvili can no longer go to his three-story house because it sits on land now patrolled by Russian border guards. […] 

“Russia starts right here,” said Mr. Tatiashvili, pointing to the freshly dug track that separates his house from Georgian-held land.

“But who knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “If they keep moving the line, we will one day all be living in a Russian-Georgian Federation.”

The Times story is a fascinating look into the day-to-day realities of living in disputed territory produced by one of Moscow’s frozen conflicts. It also demonstrates Russia’s ability to create “facts on the ground” through the application of force and the tacit complicity of leadership—in Georgia and the West—that is too distracted or risk-averse to push back. Russia has been moving the occupation line and setting up barbed-wire barricades since 2013.

The shifting border has created credibility problems for the Georgian government, exposing the ruling Georgian Dream party to criticism that it is too soft on Russia. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party’s founder and sponsor, has always encouraged a lenient line toward Moscow, musing about joining the Eurasian Union and urging “patience” as Russia installed fences on the border. Nonetheless, Georgian Dream prevailed in the initial parliamentary elections on October 8, with the runoff at the end of the month set to determine the extent of the party’s majority.

Even with a stronger mandate, however, Georgian Dream is unlikely to take a harsher stance on Russia. True, the New York Times quotes Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili apparently questioning the wisdom of rapprochement: “Unfortunately, Russia never appreciates when you concede or make a step forward or compromise,” said Kvirikashvili. “They always take it for granted.” But the true decider in Georgian Dream remain Ivanishvili, who craves good relations with Moscow and has floated the idea of cooperating with the Alliance of Patriots, the most overtly pro-Moscow party in Parliament. While the Prime Minister’s words may provide hope to Russia hawks, they have not translated into actual policy proposals to counter Russia’s actions.

So, expect business as usual in Georgia: Russia will continue to change facts on the ground, while Tbilisi and the West do little but protest.

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