The Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 resulted in a massive increase of Russian military presence in Georgia’s South Ossetia region. An estimated 5.000 Russian military personnel (3.500 Armed Forces, 1.500 border guards) are deployed in the region. This is a tenfold of official Russian (“peacekeeping”) presence prior to 2008 and with much stronger warfare equipment. According to the latest data just 53.000 people live in the area.
In 1992, after the Georgian-Ossetian civil war of 1991-1992, a cease-fire was reached through the Sochi Accords. This also established the Joint Control Commission (JCC) and the Joined Peacekeeping Force (JPKF). It was the start of post-Soviet Russian military presence in South Ossetia. The JPKF was commanded by the Russians, and was composed of 1.320 troops: Russian Federation (500), Georgia (320), and North/South Ossetia (500).
The six-point agreement between Russia and Georgia was signed in August 2008 to end the war after mediation by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the EU. This stipulated, among other things, “Russian armed forces to withdraw to the positions held before hostilities began in South Ossetia”, the source of dispute between Russia and Georgia (and most of the international community) since then.
Two weeks after the agreement was signed Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia (and Abkhazia). In September 2008 the EU and Russia worked out the six-point agreement in terms of deadlines and implementation of observer missions. It was at the press conference the separate visions on withdrawal became clear.
Medvedev said: “Russia will withdraw in full its peacekeepers from the zones adjoining South Ossetia and Abkhazia to the positions where they were stationed before the start of hostilities”. While Sarkozy stated: “…within a month Russia’s Armed Forces will have left Georgian territory”. In the vision of Sarkozy that included both regions as he repeated the EU’s position on the status of the regions as inseparable parts of Georgia.
Since that moment Russia has rapidly expanded its military infrastructure in the region to host troops and equipment. In a second stage it has built compounds for the families of the military personnel on long term deployment. In March 2015 the Kremlin and the de facto leaders in South Ossetia signed an “Alliance and integration Treaty”, effectively integrating the security forces (including border security) of the Ossetians into the Russian structures. Among other things. The full merger of the Ossetian forces into the Russian forces was formalized in 2018. In other words, South Ossetia has become a colonized protectorate of Russia.
This article visualizes some of the expansion of Russian presence over the years, based on public material available.
Main military bases
Capital Tskhinvali and Java in central South Ossetia are the main Russian military locations with multiple sites including military camps, residential compounds, large exercise areas, and storage facilities.
The main base of Russia’s Armed forces in South Ossetia is the 4th Military Base on the western outskirts of capital Tskhinvali. This vast complex opened in February 2009, together with residential housing north from the base. In 2011 expansion took place on a free plot north from the base compound, and various minor expansion within the existing perimeters of the base.
In 2012 construction of a compound with family apartments was finished just south-east from the main base, and in 2013 a military compound was constructed within a city block. A substantial enlargement took place in 2015 on the west side of the base. The capacity of the base is estimated at 4.000 troops.
Java (or Dzau in Russian and Ossetian references) is the main town of the Java / Dzau district in central South Ossetia on an important junction of roads. It is also on the route from the Roki tunnel on the Russian border, the sole access road from Russia. The town is outside of the 15 km conflict zone as determined by the JCC, and was under control of the South Ossetians by the time the 2008 war broke out.
Russia secretly rebuilt the supposedly disbanded Ugardanta military base here since 2006 outside of the JCC mandate and international monitors. The area was outside of international oversight. The base played an important strategic role in Russia’s invasion in 2008. Java maintained its importance for strategic deployment of Russian troops and equipment after the war; the military infrastructure rapidly developed into the second largest in South Ossetia.
Border Guard compounds
Along the Administrative Boundary Line a string of sites have been constructed over the last decade in the post-2008 period, mostly between fall 2009 and 2011. These stations take care of patrolling and monitoring the ABL, adding physical barriers (such as barbed wire, fences and more recently trenches). The border guards are (mostly) Russian and serving under FSB command. Dozens of times per year locals (mostly Georgians) are arrested and detained by the border guards for trespassing the (mostly unmarked) ABL. The arrested persons generally get transported to Tskhinvali or other stations for detention and ransom. Most of the sites have helipads. A walk through per administrative district below.
Kornisi / Znauri District
The south western corner of South Ossetia was the scene of tension buildup and shelling of villages in 2008. The eastern portion fell within the 15km JKPF “Conflict Zone” around Tskhinvali. The Georgian populated area (Nuli, Avnevi and Didmuha) was 100% ethnically cleansed as result of the war, with a total of nearly 1800 dislocated Georgians. Traces of the deserted and looted villages can still be seen. A relative high density of military infrastructure has been developed in the southern area of the district between 2009 and 2011.
Java / Dzau District
Java / Dzau is the largest district of South Ossetia consisting mostly of high mountain territory. It also forms the entire South Ossetian border with Russia. The sole access route, the infamous Roki tunnel played a crucial role in the Russian invasion in 2008. The western flank is made up of the boundary line with Georgia proper. Here are a few populated river valleys with cross-boundary roads. Prior to the 2008 war the area around Kvemo Karzmani and Sinagur was Georgian controlled and a community of Georgians still lives here. In the northern most corner is the Mamisoni Pass, an old high mountain passage from Georgian controlled lands into Russia, passing through South Ossetia for 2km (and thus closed). It does not have any connections into South Ossetia.
The difficult terrain and the limited points of potential interaction with Georgian controlled land result in few compounds of Russian security forces.
The district of the capital Tskhinvali is obviously key to the Russian military presence with a large military base in the capital. The district itself hosts the longest section of the Administrative Boundary Line in the populous southern lowlands of the region, often farmland. A complicated boundary line that zigzags seemingly random through the lands of local farmers and between villages. With Georgians (or relatives) living on both sides of the boundary line. In this section most of the arrests and abductions happen, as most of the “borderization”, meant to separate communities and prevent farmers to reach their land. The presence of security forces is therefore quite strong, contrary to the Java district, but comparable with the southern section of the Znaur district and mostly near the ABL.
The Didi Liakhvi river gorge, north from Tskinkvali leading up to Java, was prior to the 2008 war a Georgian populated area under Georgian control. A strategic position where a lot of (pre-war) exchanges of fire took place. Nowadays the villages are deserted and looted, which can still be seen from satellite images. This area has been ethnically cleansed with more than 9000 IDP’s. Patara Liakhvi river valley in the central-eastern part of the Tskhinvali District was a Georgian populated area as well, which has been ethnically cleansed resulting in more than 6000 IDP’s.
Akhalgori / Leningor District
The eastern most district of South Ossetia is the closest to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, a predominantly Georgian populated area, especially along the Ksiani river valley, the central river of the district. It is a generally mountainous area, with the one exception to the southern most point.
The southern point is an area that often raises publicity with borderization and arrests. Also, the ABL runs the closest to the central East-West highway a distance of just 300 metres. It is here that two Border Guard station are concentrated as a clear signal of Russian presence, with obscured observation posts in the landscape.
[to be continued – work in progress]