After playing hide-and-seek with the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be back in the land-grab business. This time, with Georgia's runaway region of South Ossetia.
Yet the Wednesday deal does merge certain parts of key institutions (de jure in Russia's case; de facto in South Ossetia's) -- namely, in the army, intelligence, law enforcement and customs.
South Ossetians long have been going around Moscow asking to be annexed (and united with neighboring North Ossetia), but the Kremlin has been rolling its eyes at the idea as “out of the question.”
Last week, the region’s separatist leadership had an embarrassing moment, when they arrived with their agreement in Moscow, but could not even catch Putin, much less have him sign on the dotted line.
Still, happy as Russia seems with the status quo, it won’t pass up an opportunity to blur the distinction between it and South Ossetia a bit more.
Not amidst the war in Ukraine. And particularly not so close to the anniversary of Moscow's takeover of Crimea.
South Ossetia may be no Crimea or Abkhazia, once popular resort destinations for Russians, and, in the former’s case, a powerful nationalist symbol, but Moscow already has thousands of troops deployed in South Ossetia, and has poured millions of rubles into the region. It also has helped build and man a fence that cuts off the region from Georgian-controlled territory.
In the region’s de-facto leader, Leonid Tibilov, a fellow former KGB veteran, Putin has an obliging dependant. And no vocal opposition to the integration-deal, as in breakaway Abkhazia.
Tibilov invited Putin to South Ossetia this September for the 25th anniversary of the region’s declaration of independence and told the Russian president that he and all of South Ossetia support everything that Moscow does. In return, Putin promised him a billion rubles, about $16 million, roughly.
The US and EU may object, and Tbilisi may protest, but, by now, those statements rank for Moscow more as background rumblings. Not as a deal-breaker.