Putins next move examined as neighbouring Georgia warned: Must be prepared

Russians living in Georgia burn effigy of Putin in protest of war

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Two Georgian online media publications — Netgazeti.ge and Accentnews — this week claimed that they had been warned by Russia’s communications regulator to remove a Russian-language article related to Moscow’s war against Ukraine. Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) is said to have addressed Netgazeti over a report about the death of Russian major-general Oleg Mityaev in Ukraine, which was published on March 16. While the war rages in Ukraine — with Russia preparing to renew its assault in the east of the country — attention is increasingly being focused on Russia’s neighbours and their place in the wider geopolitical crisis.

Georgia has not had any diplomatic relations with Russia since August 2008 following its war with Russia and Russian recognition of its separatist states.

Like Ukraine, Russia considers Georgia part of its “special zone of influence” — a buffer zone that divides Moscow from the western world and its allied organisations, NATO and the EU.

For Georgians like Natia Seskuria, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the fact that Russia views a sovereign nation as a point of influence is harrowing.

More worrying is how similar Georgia’s situation is to that of Ukraine pre-war: both countries were offered NATO membership in 2008; both had been working towards becoming part of the EU; and both had enshrined NATO membership in their constitutions.

Now, Ms Seskuria has warned that Georgia must be prepared for pressure from Russia to give up on its NATO and EU ambitions.

She told Express.co.uk: “I think Putin sees western aspirations in his neighbourhood, in Georgia, as a threat.

“We have seen a number of examples of this, and unfortunately today Putin has a major leverage over Georgia: 20 percent of its territories are occupied and there are ongoing tensions such as the border policy that Russia is pushing forward — by that, I mean Russia is trying to push its borders further into Georgia’s territory.

“This is an ongoing threat, and the current situation [in Ukraine] shows that we are never far from the escalation.

“While attention has been shifted on [to] Ukraine, at the same time, Georgia has to be prepared in a way that at some point it may be under pressure to denounce our western aspirations.

“Primarily, I think this will concern NATO membership, because that is more important for Russia, and the military aid that Georgia and Ukraine have been receiving from western NATO countries and its allies are a huge concern for Russia.

“So, in this sense, I think Georgia is also a target.”

There are two Russian-occupied territories within Georgia: South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both have been considered conflict zones since the Nineties when Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

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Russia backed the separatist regions, and in 2008, South Ossetian forces began shelling Georgian villages.

When the Georgian military were sent in to stop the strikes, Russia crossed the border and declared war on Georgia.

Moscow has since offered Russian citizenship to those in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, provided extensive financial support and stationed thousands of troops there.

Now, the separatist leader of South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov, has said his goal is to unify the region with the Russian Federation in the near future.

Mr Bibilov was quoted by the press service of the United Russia party late last month: “I believe that unification with Russia is our strategic goal, our path, the aspiration of the people.

“We will take the relevant legislative steps shortly. The republic of South Ossetia will be part of its historical homeland – Russia.”

Later, Mr Bibilov’s spokeswoman, Dina Gassiyeva, told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that the region planned to hold a referendum and the decision was “linked with the window of opportunity that opened in the current situation” — referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Reacting to the news, David Zalkaliani, Georgia’s foreign minister, said it was “unacceptable to speak of any referendums while the territory is occupied by Russia”.

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He continued: “Such a referendum will have no legal force.

“The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Georgian region is occupied by Russia.”

The Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow has not taken any “legal” steps on the matter.

However, he added: “But at the same time, we are talking about people of South Ossetia expressing their opinion and we treat it with respect.”

A referendum there could follow something similar in style to what was held in Crimea in 2014.

After Russia invaded the Ukrainian peninsula and successfully captured it, a referendum was held concerning its status.

The vote, widely viewed as a sham by the western world, found that 96.77 percent of voters wanted Crimea to be a part of the Russian Federation.

While Georgia could be in Russia’s firing line, it has offered a place of refuge for Russians fleeing Putin’s iron grip.

Towns and cities across the country have experienced an influx of Russian migrants since the invasion began on February 24, many of them travelling to Tbilisi, the capital.

Subsequent demonstrations and protests have been posted to social media, including one that saw protestors set ablaze an effigy of Putin.

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