On Wednesday, a year after Moscow took over Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty with the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia that almost completely integrates it with Russia.
The treaty puts a significant amount of pressure on Georgia, Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbor that has sought closer ties with the West and NATO.
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“It’s a cynical and provocative step by Russia… We consider it a move aimed at annexation,” Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili described the treaty in Tbilisi, while the United States and European Union said they would not recognize the agreement, which the EU perceives as a threat to security and stability in the region.
Basically, the Kremlin has controlled South Ossetia and the neighboring breakaway territory of Abkhazia since it won a five-day war against Georgia in 2008. A similar treaty was signed with Abkhazia last year.
Although Russia recognized the territories as independent states and sent their governments millions of dollars in subsidies, it haven’t fully annexed them yet. South Ossetia was also recognized by only a few countries.
The treaty signed by Putin and South Ossetian leader Leonid Tibilov, a former KGB official, allows the tiny region of some 50,000 people for a deep integration with Russia’s economy, military, security forces, customs services and border guards.
Speaking to reporters before his meeting with the Russian President, Mr. Tibilov described Russia as “the only guarantor for our people, for our republic,” and thanked Mr. Putin “for everything that you do for us.”
“Another step is being taken today to strengthen our partnership,” Putin announced after signing the treaty in the Kremlin.
Mr. Tibilov also reminded that Wednesday marked a year since Russia annexed Crimea. “We welcomed that step from the first day. South Ossetia welcomes all political steps that Russia’s leadership makes.”
The EU reacted with its immediate statement which said that the signing of the treaty “clearly violates Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, principles of international law and the international commitments taken by the Russian Federation […] and has no legal standing.”
Russia celebrates one-year anniversary of Crimea takeover
The treaty signing comes as Russia celebrated the one-year anniversary of its annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine with an open-air concert in Moscow.
Vladimir Putin, who has ruled the country for 14 years, addressed the crowds by saying that the Russian people had shown “amazing patriotism” by their warm support of the annexation of Crimea, which the Kremlin regards as a “historical return”.
The most recent Putin’s approval rating has reached 86%, despite the fact that annexing Crimea led to a worsening of the country’s sanctions-hit economy and relations with the West.
“We understood that in terms of Crimea it was not a matter of just some territory, however strategically important it is,” Putin told the crowd. “It was a matter of millions of Russian people, our compatriots, who needed our help and support.”
A year after the annexation, Putin admitted in an interview aired on Sunday that he indeed ordered the Russian soldiers to execute a well-planned operation to take over Crimea. Furthermore, Putin admitted in the interview that “we were ready to do this” when asked about his willingness to ready Russia’s nuclear forces.
To the chants of “Russia! Russia!” Putin, who is believed to be the richest man in Europe with his net worth as high as $200 billion, said that the country would overcome all difficulties from outside – meaning the Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
West’s Mistrust of Russia Puts Global Security in Danger
Meanwhile, top Western officials say that there is little sign of progress in ending the conflict or rebuilding the trust in Russia.
Western officials say that whatever happens in Ukraine will affect the future relations between the West and Russia. The conflict has tested Russia’s credibility as global powers continue to work with Moscow on critical security issues around the world.
“We have a lot of issues that we would like to work with Russia on and are working with Russia on: Iran, Syria, non-proliferation,” said Celeste Wallander, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia on the US National Security Council. “These are important issues. But we have to have a willing partner that we can trust.”
Speaking at a Washington forum on the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Wallander asked: “Will the order that was created and has made Europe so prosperous and so secure, be threatened by the actions of an incredibly powerful and significant country that should be part of the solution, not the core of the problem?”
During the OSCE forum, Ukrainian ambassador to the US, Olexander Motsyk, and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Kislyak, sat next to each other, but the differences between them were very clear.
Motsyk said Russian “aggression” in the conflict “must be stopped now so that it would not be felt in Moldova and Georgia, and to prevent it from expanding to the Baltic and other countries.” Kislyak, in turn, said Motsyk’s claim is “absolutely out of this world.”
US security officials warned that the Ukrainian-Russian crisis puts at risk not only European security, but also the relationships between Moscow and Washington.
Furthermore, according to the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense, NATO jets Wednesday intercepted 8 Russian fighter jets and 3 transport planes in international waters over the Baltic Sea.
“Civil aviation over the Baltic Sea was endangered because of the secretive way the airplanes flew,” a Lithuanian official said.