South Ossetia: Separatist Client or Sovereign State?

South Ossetia: Separatist Client or Sovereign State?

By Erich Greiner

             This past August marked a stark anniversary in global affairs. For ten years Russian Federation forces have occupied territory within the state of Georgia, after brief but intense combat operations between the Georgian military and separatist fighters of the “breakaway provinces” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.[1] According to the European Union, the five-day conflict resulted in the deaths of 170 Georgian military personnel, 14 Georgian law enforcement officers, and 228 Georgian civilians.[2] Nearly 289,000 Georgians are estimated as remaining “internally displaced persons,” due to the Georgia-South Ossetian conflicts of the 1990s and 2008, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book.[3] Russian forces, by comparison, sustained 283 casualties (wounded or killed) and South Ossetian militants and civilians sustained 365 casualties.[4]

The Russian Federation is still attempting to tell its version of the story of the 2008 conflict and its subsequent actions following the fighting. Pro-Russian outlets describe their involvement and continued occupation as little more than a peace-keeping effort, as tensions between the South Ossetian separatists and the Georgian government reached their boiling point that August.[5] They adopt the language of sovereignty and self-determination on behalf of the South Ossetians and Abkhazia. In fact, in an interview done by Sputnik International News on the eve of the ten-year anniversary of the Russian occupation, the former foreign minister and prime minister of Abkhazia, Sergei Shamba, stated that Georgian forces had been surrounding the capital of South Ossetia, before initiating the fighting by firing upon it with artillery.[6] He also claims that international negotiators had already sided with Georgia and were unresponsive to Georgian aggression.[7] Shamba goes on to describe the Russian government as previously having provided humanitarian aide to Abkhazia by rebuilding the railroads of the region, so that they could better mobilize troops to defend against Georgian incursions[8] into the regions recognized as independent states by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru[9], and Syria[10].

However, an examination of the history of Russian-Georgian relations indicates motivations well beyond simple humanitarian support. In fact, Russian interest in the region dates to 1918, when Georgia gained its independence from the Russian Empire.[11] Only three short years later, the Red Army invaded Georgia and established dominion over the country, establishing Georgia and Abkhazia as Soviet Socialist republics.[12] South Ossetia was created by the Soviet regime only one year later, in 1922.[13] This continued until the end of the Cold War, and in 1990, South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia.[14]

Shortly thereafter, Georgia reestablished independence in April 1991.[15] Then, from 1993-1994, Abkhazian separatist forces engaged in armed conflict with the Georgian Army until a ceasefire was negotiated and Russian forces occupied the region.[16] Since that time, the continued Russian occupation has been a source of tension, including President Putin’s threatened military action, accusing Georgia of aiding Chechen insurgents; Russia’s refusal to have peacekeepers comply with Georgian visa requirements; firing upon an unmanned Georgian drone; and finally, when hundreds more troops were deployed in 2008, leading to the South-Ossetian conflict.[17]

Finally, though both factions have adopted a ceasefire mediated on behalf of the European Union by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian Federation troops have blithely ignored its stated principles. Especially at issue is the fifth principle of, “withdraw[ing] to the positions held before hostilities began. . .” and restricting  “additional security measures” to the borders of South Ossetia.[18] In fact, Russian troops have pushed ever further into the heart of Georgia, expanding well past the disputed territory of South Ossetia to occupy almost twenty percent of land recognized as Georgian territory.[19] This practice of “borderization” through the establishment of illegal military checkpoints has limited Georgians’ freedom of movement.[20] There are now 19 Russian outposts in Georgia.[21]

Georgian territory is uniquely strategically valuable to the Russian Federation as well. Turkey is to its immediate west, Iran is to its South, and both the Caspian Sea[22] and Georgia’s Baku-Supsa Pipeline[23] enable the sale of oil. Georgia is also a potential new member state of NATO, and has been major ally to the United States’ war effort in Afghanistan.[24]

Though Russia’s other encroachments, such as those into Crimea[25], and in potential election interference[26] combined with clear violations of the terms of the cease-fire with Georgia cast a long shadow over the South Ossetian secessionist movement, the international community has still had to wrestle with the concepts of statehood, self-determination, and their relationship to recognition.[27]  When the traditional elements of statehood are considered: territory, recognition by other states, and population, the analysis of the status of South Ossetia is indeed complicated and troublesome.[28]

The international community at large has not recognized South Ossetia as its own sovereign state. The recognition of the current territorial boundaries of Georgia and acceptance of Georgia as a member state of the United Nation has de facto rendered South Ossetia’s declaration of independence void.[29] Additionally, as of April 15, 2008, the UN Security Council has also resolved to honor Georgia’s territorial claims—to the exclusion of all others.[30] However, enough land may be controlled by South Ossetia within its disputed borders to satisfy the territorial requirement of a state. [31]  Moreover, it is to be noted that South Ossetia has also been recognized in limited capacity through its entrance into contract and recognition by five other states, and as party to the cease-fire agreement that ended the skirmishes in the 2008 conflict.[32] Still, this has not brought full recognition of South Ossetian sovereignty by the international community, though the people of South Ossetia retain the right to self-determination.[33] Furthermore, though the right of secession of peoples of a recognized-state has historical precedence, it has generally been understood in practice as limited to cases of colonialism or in cases of extreme humanitarian crisis, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing. [34]

This reasoning is also why the Russian and South Ossetian argument in the guise of self-determinism analogous to the United States’ intervention in Kosovo has failed.[35] There, is no concern such as the Albanian ethnic cleansing of ethnic-Serbs in Kosovo that would mandate emergency humanitarian intervention or trigger a right of secession for the South Ossetian people.[36] Furthermore, whereas the recognition of Kosovo was hindered by Russia’s singular veto on the Security Counsel; whereas Kosovo had been classified a United Nations protectorate; whereas Kosovo had recognition from multiple international bodies including the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the Western Members of the Kosovo Contact Group, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, along with 46 United Nations member countries on an independent basis, South Ossetia has no similar claim.[37] As of now, South Ossetia, and its sister Abkhazia will likely remain “entit[ies] short of statehood”.[38]


[1] 2008 Georgia Russia Conflict Fast Facts, CNN (Apr. 3, 2018),

[2] Id.

[3] Middle East: Georgia, The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency (Oct. 17, 2018),

[4] 2008 Georgia Russia Conflict Fast Facts, CNN (Apr. 3, 2018),

[5] How Russia Recognized the Independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Sputnik News (Sept. 8, 2018,     9:38),

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Countries that recognized South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s Independence, TASS (May 29, 2018, 4:59 PM),

[10] Georgia Severs Relations With Syria For Recognizing Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (May 29, 2018, 5:30 GMT),

[11] 2008 Georgia Russia Conflict Fast Facts, CNN (Apr. 3, 2018),

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Background: Six-point peace plan for the Georgia-Russia Conflict, Reliefweb (Aug. 15, 2008),

[19] John Haltiwanger, Russia is quietly seizing territory in Georgia as it warns of a ‘horrible conflict’ if the Eurasian country joins NATO, Business Insider (August 7, 2018 5:11 PM),

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Andrew North, Georgia accuses Russia of violating international law over South Ossetia, The Guardian (Jul 14, 2015, 7:29 EDT).

[24] John Haltiwanger, Russia is quietly seizing territory in Georgia as it warns of a ‘horrible conflict’ if the Eurasian country joins NATO, Business Insider (August 7, 2018 5:11 PM),

[25] John Simpson, Russia’s Crimea plan detailed, secret and successful, BBC News (Mar. 19, 2014),

[26] New York Times: Russian hacking and Influence in the US Election,; Rick Noack, Everything we know so far about Russian election meddling in Europe, Wash. Post (Jan. 10, 2018),

[27] South Ossetia, Oxford Public International Law (January 2013),,

[28] Statehood (international law), Wex, Cornell Law School: Legal Information Institute,

[29]  See Supra. note 27 ¶¶ 18

[30] Id..

[31] Id., at ¶¶ 20.

[32] Id., at ¶¶ 35.

[33] Id., at ¶¶ 25.

[34] Id., at ¶¶ 32.

[35] Sally McNamara, Russia’s Recognition of Independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia Is Illegitimate: They Are Not Kosovo, The Heritage Foundation: Report Europe (Aug. 28, 2008),

[36] Ethnic Cleansing and Atrocities in Kosovo, PBS: War in Europe,

[37] See Supra. Note 35

[38] South Ossetia, Oxford Public International Law (January 2013),, at ¶¶ 18

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