The Russians Want to Build a Super-State. It May Now Include Parts of Georgia.
Author: Nicholas Castillo
Nov 16, 2023
Rhetoric around the formation of a Union State to include Georgia’s breakaway territories continues to come up among the Kremlin’s policymakers. The Union State, long on the books due to a treaty between Belarus and Russia, envisions an expanded polity that blurs post-Soviet borders between participating states. Despite being agreed to over 20 years ago by Russia and Belarus, the project for decades seemed too vague and frozen in negotiations, unlikely to meet its lofty political ambitions. But now, with an expansionary bent to the regime of Vladimir Putin, the Union State concept is receiving renewed attention and includes newfound implications for the South Caucasus.
“[A]fter the Russian Federation successfully completes the Special Military Operation on the territory of Ukraine, there will be a completely different reality,” stated Abkhazia’s de-facto head of administration Aslan Bzhania on Russian state television in August of 2022. Expanding further, he went on to say that within this new reality, he believed “a certain outline of the Union State will be created. We are counting on this, and we are ready to take part in this.” Following, his statement, Abkhaz’s entry into a Union State with Russia was endorsed by State Duma deputy Konstantin Zatulin, who chairs a Duma committee on relations with many bordering countries. This November, special meetings on Union State accession were supposed to be held by the separatist legislature of Abkhazia before last-minute cancelation, supposedly due to the absence of a key member. Taken together, these incidents suggest serious if still burgeoning Russian and Abkhaz intentions to expand a Russian-led Union State into what is internationally considered Georgia.
While the 1999 treaty on the Union State included only Russia and Belarus, as the Kremlin’s expansionism has grown, conversations over the Union State have come to include the breakaway territories of Georgia. While for years, a Union State appeared unlikely to ever materialize, the increasing isolation of Russia and Belarus from Europe, paired with the Kremlin’s own expansionary posture, has brought the project new viability. Since the fraudulent 2020 Belarusian elections served to sever Minsk almost entirely from Europe, there have been more agreements between Minsk and Moscow relating to the Union State and steps toward the integration of the military and media, as well as press conferences and meetings between Putin and Lukashenko where Putin has repeatedly claimed progress on forming a single state. Perhaps most significantly, a leaked Russian document in 2023 stated it was the Kremlin’s intent to annex Belarus into the Russian Federation by 2030. Like the war in Ukraine, this confirmed Russia’s intent to transform itself into a state reflective of Moscow’s current ideological directions: Slavic nationalism, Eurasianism, and post-Soviet revanchism. These ideological elements have strong implications not only for Belarus but for nearly all countries bordering Russia. This is especially true for Georgia, where Russian support for separatism has long been a source of instability and previewed the Kremlin’s early disregard for post-Soviet borders.
While the Union State would naturally impact Russia’s southern neighbors by adding millions of people and hundreds of thousands of square kilometers to Russia, the incorporation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into a Union State headed by the Kremlin would consolidate disputed Georgian territories into Russia proper. Moscow has backed both Abkhazian and South Ossetian ‘separatist’ administrations since the 1990s and, following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, recognized them as independent states. Since the 1990s, these regions have existed in states of limbo while also experiencing steady integration with Russia, with Moscow for instance issuing Russian passports to inhabitants of the regions. Annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Russia has been discussed for years, but with the new expansionary approach taken by the Kremlin, the risk of their incorporation into some kind of state-centered in Moscow has only grown more severe.
A series of moves already point to an increasing pace of military integration between Russia and the Russian-occupied territories of Georgia. Since the war in Ukraine began, working visits between the Abkhazian administration and Moscow have become more frequent. On October 5, the de-facto leadership of Abkhazia announced the upcoming construction of a permanent Russian naval base within Abkhazia, reflective of the Kremlin’s long-running strategic interest in Abkhazia’s Back Sea coastline. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s reacquisition of Karabakh by force last September may have hastened Abkhaz or Ossetian desire to join with Russia, as it perhaps demonstrates that only formal integration with Moscow could ensure the same could never occur in Georgia. A number of Russian elites have voiced broad support for the annexation of the Georgian regions, whether through a Union State or flat-out annexation. Last August, former Russian President and current deputy head of the Russian Security Council, Dimitry Medvedev, published an essay suggesting the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the Russian Federation.
Yet, at the same time, the formation of a Union State should not be expected in the immediate future, nor is it a settled inevitability. Despite Russia’s clear intent to annex Belarus, Belarussian elites themselves have fought to maintain whatever sovereignty possible. Likely understanding the chaos this could bring domestically, Belarus has not joined Russia’s war in Ukraine despite assisting Moscow. While increasing diplomatic engagement with the territories since 2020, Lukashenko has never recognized the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Recognition of these breakaway territories would be one decisive way to hint at a Belarussian endorsement of a Union State. In Abkhazia, where there is a long-running popular and elite-level commitment to the supposed independence of the territory, it appears local leaders are split on the issue of total integration with Moscow. Abkhazia, therefore, may reflect Belarus and attempt to resist full integration. This is one possible explanation for the fact that recent meetings on Union State accession in Abkhazia were abruptly canceled, with the official reason given being that a key member of the local separatist legislature was not available. The same cannot be said of the comparatively much smaller South Ossetia, where elites have long advocated full integration with Russia.
Russian relations with Georgia present another obstacle to a Union State including Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With Moscow and Tbilisi having entered detente, which has included Georgia refusing to sanction Russia and the resumption of commercial flights between the two countries, the annexation of Abkhazia or South Ossetia into Russia or a Union State would likely destroy the progress made on Georgian-Russian relations in recent years. The governing Georgian Dream party, which has sought to maintain calm relations with their northern neighbor, would likely face such political outrage at home that they would have no choice but to reverse relations with Moscow regardless of their own policy preferences. This may explain why Putin, while making frequent references to integration with Belarus, has so far held off on explicitly calling for Abkhazia or South Ossetia to join the Union State. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has likewise left references to a Union State out of his press releases related to increasing ties with the Georgian separatist territories.
Instead, the formation of a Union State is likely still contingent on a number of factors. The largest of these is likely what position the Putin regime will be in following the war in Ukraine. If the regime remains strong and militarily powerful, and its resource-based economy remains viable, it may be able to coerce Minsk into a Union State centered in Moscow. Likewise, if Russia feels confident enough in its position in the South Caucasus to provoke anger in Georgia, it may opt to include the Georgian break-away territories in its Union State project, which in turn would cause Russo-Georgian relations to crater and produce political chaos in Georgia, where the population already holds strong anti-Russian views. Still, in the past Russia has benefited from a politically precarious South Caucasus. For years, the Kremlin used the conflict over Karabakh to strengthen its diplomatic and military role in the region. Expanding a Union State into Georgia would not only naturally expand Russian power but also foment the kind of chaotic political environment Russia may view as advantageous. Russia may therefore seek to utilize the chaos an expanded Union State would entail. For instance, the Kremlin may threaten to annex the territories as a strategy to halt Georgia’s western alignment, which would be in keeping with Russia’s reaction to EU expansion in Ukraine in 2014.
The Union State project is not an inevitability as of now, nor is its inclusion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet there is reason for concern in the capitals of the Caspian region. For many, the Union State has become a project wrapped up in violating the territorial integrity of Georgia and would create a newly empowered Russia, one that may feel emboldened to reassert its traditional influence over the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Today’s Kremlin is one that has shown itself to have a high tolerance for the political and human cost of territorial expansion, and recent years have seen Russian elites increasingly push the Union State idea forward. While its establishment remains years away, recent developments point to the regional threat the Union State project now likely entails for the South Caucasus.