Trump on Georgia's Territorial Integrity: Not Much Interested?
They talked election meddling and Syria. And, in some way, cyber-security. But, as far as is known, during their two-hour-plus, July 7 get-together in Hamburg, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not broach last week’s reported 700-meter (just under half a mile) incursion by Russian-backed, South Ossetian separatists into Georgian-controlled territory.
The European Union Monitoring Mission confirmed that "borderisation activities" had taken place in the area in late June, but did not confirm the July 4 installation of South Ossetia "state border" signs near the Georgian village of Bershueti, as reported by the Georgian government, media and locals. Moscow denied the claims as "a provocation."
The dispute is one of many dating back to the aftermath of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. It is not the first during the Trump administration.
It followed the established pattern – a barrier or signpost pops up; locals sound the alarm; Tbilisi, a handful of ordinary people and civil society protest; Georgia’s allies repeat their commitment to the country’s territorial integrity; Russia denies any wrongdoing, and the barrier stays put.
But this latest reported grab came with interesting timing.
It allegedly occurred three days ahead of the Trump-Putin meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
It also came not long before US Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to Georgia in less than a month to talk shop and observe a US-Georgia, NATO-linked military exercise to which Moscow has previously objected.
As yet, apart from US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly, who repeated the refrain about respecting Georgia's internationally recognized borders, the US has not commented on the July 4 land snatch.
Just a few months ago, Tbilisi appeared to expect something more. The 2017 Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed by Trump in early May, stated that the US would not provide any direct assistance to the central governments of countries that recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Within Georgia, the legislation was hailed by Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili as a milestone, and by others as a sign that the US would back Tbilisi's rights to both Russian-occupied territories more robustly than had President Barack Obama.
Some Georgian media presented Prime Minister Kvirikashvili's meeting with Trump a few days after the appropriations bill was signed into law as the seal on the deal.
The US, though, has not provided any financial assistance to Russia since 2015, according to Foreignassistance.gov.
Even so, Trump the negotiator wants flexibility. He has stated that the provisions on the breakaway territories could, “in certain circumstances,” interfere with his constitutional power to recognize foreign states or “negotiate international agreements." He said that his administration will handle the breakaway provisions "consistently with my constitutional authorities."
That presumably means keeping his options open with Russia.
Yet if Georgia’s most powerful ally isn't punching its weight on South Ossetia, where does that leave Tbilisi?
Parliamentary Secretary Irakli Kobakhidze went so far as to say the land grab is not a topic the Georgian National Security Council should discuss. Under the constitution, its responsibilities are limited to topics of “defense and military build-up,” he noted.
Why Kobakhidze does not see territorial loss as a defense issue was not clear, but jousting with the National Security Council has long been a political pasttime of Georgia's ruling party. Its head is appointed by President Giorgi Margvelashvili, whom the party does not consider a friend.
That does not faze National Security Council Davit Rakviashvili, who, on July 8, declared that Georgia needed a “new approach” for responding to “any action against Georgia’s statehood.”
The question is whether it can come up with one.
--This post was amended on July 13, 2017 to reflect the fact that the EUMM's July 4 statement did not specifically confirm the reported Bershueti incident.