On the 24th of May 2022, Alan Eduardovich Gagloev was proclaimed President of South Ossetia. The scene happened in Tskhinvali, a territory recognized by a majority of the international community as a part of Georgia, except for Russia and a pair of its allies that consider it as an independent republic. Gagloev ascended to the highest state position, gaining some 15,000 votes at the last presidential elections, and beating the incumbent Anatoly Bibilov. One could legitimately ask questions about the importance of such elections in a remote, scarcely populated territory that is not even recognized as legitimate by most of the states around the globe.
Recently, events happening in the post-Soviet space have been making headlines because of the large-scale ongoing conflict in Ukraine: nevertheless, other former USSR territories are home to brewing tensions that threaten to escalate. Presidential elections in South Ossetia have brought renewed attention to the Southern Caucasus, especially after a statement made by the former president, Bibilov, in which he announced his intention to hold a referendum for the unification of South Ossetia with Russia (North Ossetia is already part of the Russian Federation). On one hand, this move had a clear electoral scope given the approaching elections, on the other, it contributed to a rise in the tensions with Georgia, which considers the Tskhinvali region as part of its territory.
The fact that, with the new President, South Ossetia has rapidly abandoned the idea of the referendum illustrates well that its independence is only a façade – nearly all of the budget of this small breakaway republic is comprised of “aid” from Russia, which also holds a military presence there (labelled as peace-keepers). Nevertheless, every five years presidential elections are held, and Tskhinvali has witnessed a certain turnover in terms of Presidential figures (for sure higher than Russia). Even if the South Ossetian president has very limited room to maneuver, the election of Gagloev, who expressed a more moderate position on the annexation referendum than Bibliov, is surely good news for Moscow, in order to avoid the explosion of tensions in the Caucasus - something that Russia cannot afford right now. We cannot rule off the possibility that the result of this election was decided in advance, or at least influenced, by the Russians. It is also impossible to gauge how much the South Ossetians truly support the idea of joining the Federation, as it is to know if the referendum was canceled after pressures coming directly from Russia. However, the absence of reliable data on these matters does not allow us to escape from the range of the hypothesis when we speak about elections in a de facto state such as South Ossetia.
The Russian calculus over South Ossetia is centered around the question of the degree of influence that Tskhinvali grants Moscow in Georgia and the Southern Caucasus. The mobilization of ethnic or territorial questions stemming from the disaggregation of the USSR to weaken post-Soviet states has been a constant in Russian foreign policy since the ’90s: this reasoning has driven Russian interventions in Transnistria (1992), Abkhazia and South Ossetia (1992, 2008) and Donbas (2014).
The first partition of the Ossetian territory occurred in 1922. At that time the Soviet Union dived it into a northern section, belonging to the Russian Caucasus, and a southern part belonging to the Georgian RSS but carrying the status of an autonomous province. This same autonomy, which was revoked in 1990, sparked the beginning of a regional separatist movement against Tbilisi, which was readily exploited by Moscow as a tool to weaken Georgia and regain its presence south of the Elbrus. In 2008, the South Ossetian issue was one of the triggers of the five days war, when Russia reacted violently to the Georgian attempt to recover its breakaway territories. The origins of any conflict in South Ossetia must be understood within the context of the territorial organization of the USSR republics in the Caucasus which are explicitly designed to lead to interethnic tensions.
After the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, the Russians issued important symbolic messages to South Ossetia, such as when they had the 7th Symphony of Shostakovich, (originally dedicated to the Soviet resistance at the Leningrad siege), executed in Tskhinvali by the renowned Russian (North-Ossetian) orchestra director, Valery Gergiev. If even after such a symbolic event, a war in which the northern “brothers” came to the rescue of South Ossetians, there was no proposal to have Tskhinvali join the Russian Federation, it is legitimate to ask if such a proposal will ever be made, especially in a moment when Russia is facing other difficulties as it is today.
Furthermore, it must be stressed that now more than ever, Russia needs its vassals in the post-Soviet space: these de facto states are one of the paramount instruments of Moscow for maintaining influence in its near abroad. The value of Transnistria in conditioning Moldova, or of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for Georgia, is now higher for Moscow, and it will increase further in the unlikely case that one of these countries applies for NATO membership.
Even if these de facto states lie in a juridical grey zone, this is not something that Moscow gives importance to: it is sufficient to note that one week before the launch of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia refused to recognize the “Popular Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been in place for seven years, and then finally used this as a rhetorical excuse to launch a “special operation”. This highly instrumental dynamic clarifies how Moscow views these territories, and South Ossetia is no exception. A mountainous territory in the middle of the Southern Caucasus, the breakaway region of Tskhinvali lies in a strategic position: it can guarantee transit between the northern and southern Caucasus (a pipeline and a highway pass through this region, allowing logistic and energetic connections between the two sides) and impedes over the capital and the middle of the Georgian state, representing an implicit direct threat to Tbilisi.
In the Russian strategic thinking, the occupation of territories beyond the first orographic obstacle is a continuum: this logic can be retraced in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, it was also at the base of the Russian Empire’s expansion south of the Caucasus or of the Red Army’s advance over the Carpathians chain during the second world war and the consequent absorption of these territories to the Russian (Soviet at the time) orbit.
But this is not the only aspect of continuity in the Russian approach to the Caucasus: the combination of military presence and control of the foreign relations of its vassals has been the political approach of the Russian Empire to this region long before its complete occupation. The treaty of Georgievsk, signed in 1783 between the Empire and the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti (roughly today’s eastern Georgia), established that the latter would subordinate its foreign policy decisions to Saint Petersburg, which would, in turn, grant it territorial integrity. With due proportions, the situation of South Ossetia in 2022 does not differ substantially, in terms of power relations with Russia, from that of Kartli-Kakheti in1783.
With Moscow’s tight grip over South Ossetia, it is pertinent to ask which impact the invasion of Ukraine would have over it, and the Caucasian region more broadly. First, Moscow will have at its disposal fewer and fewer resources and it will not be able to allocate as much to the sustainment of South Ossetia. Second, the attractivity of Russia beyond its borders is weakening steadily. Furthermore, after the aggression towards Ukraine, it is not impossible to imagine that the countries in its near abroad could try to create some distance from Russia (always within the limits of what Moscow can accept). Regionally, other actors are on the rise, even if none of them has voiced their intention of moving against Russia. Moreover, if Russia becomes so weakened as to lose any form of control over South Ossetia or Abkhazia, control of the entire Caucasus could be under question, starting from the peoples that are part of the Federation but have repeatedly shown their dislike of Russian rule (Chechens or Ingushs for instance).
The hegemonic position of Russia over the Caucasian region has significantly been eroded since the last act of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, when Azerbaijan took significant advantage over Armenia with the decisive support of Turkey. The consolidation of the Ankara-Baku axis favors the extension of Turkish influence in the region, from which the world’s superpowers – the US and China – are relatively absent. Among the active actors in the Caucasus, Israel must not be forgotten, which supplied Azerbaijan with cutting-edge weapons during the last conflict, nor can Iran. Tehran did not manage to significantly extend its influence in the region, not in the Shia Azerbaijan nor among the Ossetians, a people which ethnically features a Persian origin but is Cristian Orthodox, with which the contacts are weak.
If it is true that the Russian intervention has temporarily put an end to the conflict for Nagorno-Karabakh with the installation of a peace-keeping mission on the frontline. However, the weakness of the ceasefire has been exposed by the Azerbaijani forces, who penetrated the Armenian controlled territory at the very same time when Turkey hosted the first peace talks between Ukraine and Russia. Similarly, the weakness shown by Moscow in its Ukrainian campaign has immediate repercussions on its positions in the Caucasus. Consequently, the weakening of Russia favors the rise of the Turkish-Azerbaijani couple, with the latter able to profit from Russia’s increased isolation to boost its energy exports, which will have to be transported through Georgia. How, and if, these dynamics will impact South Ossetia is a difficult call to make for now; what is more ascertainable is that in the southern Caucasus Russia does not hold a hegemonic position anymore, thus opening the way for a possible rise of potentially concurrent actors who would not mind seeing Moscow relegated to the northern part of the mountain chain. If Russia acknowledges its grip over the southern Caucasus to be loosening too much, in extremis it could make a play for South Ossetian integration into the Federation, in order not to lose this strategic territory. If it proceeds this way, then there is little doubt that the outcome of an eventual referendum will be in favor of Moscow: in any case, given the power relation between the two entities, if and when an annexation referendum will be held it is a decision that will come from Moscow, not one taken autonomously in Tskhinvali.
Future scenarios involving South Ossetia are strictly dependent on how costly the conflict in Ukraine will be for Russia. Considering the losses that Moscow will have to undergo in order to sustain its war effort, it is possible to predict the probability of maintenance of the status quo (high, since the interest shown towards South Ossetia by third-party actors is poor), integration with Russia, (low, since it would mean the opening of a second confrontation front for Russia) or the return of the region to Georgia (low, unless Georgia manages to find strong allies or major support from NATO or the US for reclaiming its territories).
Francesco Stuffer is a geopolitical analyst who graduated from the Paris School of International Affairs. His center of interests are the Post-Soviet Space and the Balkans.