Russian Soft and Hard Power Revisited: Georgia’s Frozen Conflicts


After the Soviet Union’s dissolution, interstate and intrastate warfare ensued due to re-emergent ethnic nationalism. In Georgia, this manifested in two separatist wars. The first occurred from 1991-92 in South Ossetia, whose capital Tskhinvali, is less than 60 miles north of Tbilisi. Under pressure from Boris Yeltsin, the Georgian government agreed to a Russian brokered peace deal with South Ossetian separatists, creating a joint Russian-Ossetian peacekeeping force that rendered the conflict inert [1]. The second conflict emerged in 1992-93 in the northwest region of Abkhazia. Supported by Russian Cossacks and North Caucasian groups, Abkhaz fighters defeated Georgian forces and displaced the local Georgian population through ethnic cleansing, with atrocities occurring on both sides [2].

More than twenty-five years later, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still considered frozen conflicts by the West; both of which, Russia has leveraged against Georgia through hard and soft power means.

Hard power is the ability to influence behavior through military and economic coercion, while soft power emphasizes persuasion through attraction [3]. The Kremlin has used both to effectively sever bilateral relations of Georgia and its de facto regions. Russia’s ability to keep twenty percent of Georgian territory under a patron-client relationship denigrates Georgian aspirations for European Union and NATO integration. Similarly, the playbook used in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is being applied in Eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels, supported by Russian military aid, have established an area for Russian hard and soft power to operate. While the conflict in the Donbass is still ongoing, one must go back to the 2008 Georgian-Russian war over South Ossetia to understand contemporary power relations in the South Caucasus.

In August of 2008, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili initiated a military incursion into South Ossetia following skirmishes between Georgian police and South Ossetian/Russian border patrol [4]. When the Georgian army entered Tskhinvali, Russia intervened pushing Georgian forces to the outskirts of Tbilisi. Through the diplomatic intervention of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, however, the Russians agreed to pull back forces to pre-conflict boundaries. Consequently, the 2008 war cemented Russia’s role as guarantor of South Ossetian and Abkhazian security, and provided the impetus for Russia to recognize both as independent nations [5].

Hard and Soft Power in South Ossetia

Russian forces in South Ossetia totaled around 500 peacekeepers before 2008 [6]. After the war, it rose to 2,000 Russian troops, including a land guarantee for the 4th military base of the Russian army for 99 years, lease-free [7]. Currently, there is an estimated 3,500 Russian soldiers based permanently in South Ossetia, with an additional 1,500 FSB agents patrolling the border [8].  Out of a population of 30,000, nearly a seventh are Russian security personnel, a highly disproportionate number in comparison to other regions [9]. Continuing this trend, Vladimir Putin instructed his liaisons on March 14th to conclude an agreement absorbing certain South Ossetian army units into the command and control structure of the Russian defense establishment [10]. Russia has also monopolized South Ossetian border security. FSB border guards have moved the administrative boundary fence further into sovereign Georgian territory, violating international law [11]. While not an overt military threat, it paralyzes Georgia’s behavior because although it does not want to engage in conflict with Russia again,  it has a domestic duty to protect its citizens from such blatant encroachment.

From a soft power perspective, Vladimir Putin and South Ossetia President Leonid Tibilov signed a treaty in 2015 that virtually eliminated South Ossetian re-integration into Georgia. The agreement abolished the border between Russia and South Ossetia, creating a unified zone for customs, travel, and trade [12]. This coordinates with Russia’s 2002 policy of ‘passportization’ in South Ossetia, where nearly all inhabitants hold Russian passports. South Ossetians are expected to hold a referendum after the 2017 presidential elections on Russian incorporation, something that will elicit a Georgian and international response. Ultimately, Russia and South Ossetia are intertwined politically, culturally, and militarily, yielding a relationship many degrees removed from Georgian influence.

Hard and Soft Power in Abkhazia

Just as in South Ossetia, Russia has similar hard power arrangements with Abkhazia. For example, a post-Five Day War agreement was signed, guaranteeing a 49-year presence of the 7th Russian military base in Gudauta, which supports about 3,500 troops and an additional contingent of FSB border patrol [13]. In 2015, an agreement of ‘alliance and strategic partnership’ created a joint Russian-Abkhaz military force subordinate to the Russian Defense ministry in times of war. Economically, the deal promised $270M (USD) in subsidies over three years, as well as provisions equating Abkhazian public sector pensions, healthcare, and salaries with those of Russia’s Southern Federal District [14]. A similar policy of ‘passportization’ was implemented in Abkhazia, giving its citizens the right of travel to Russia.

Abkhazia’s domestic politics are more autonomous from Russia than those of South Ossetia, even though Russia is Abkhazia’s patron. This was exemplified by a draft bill granting foreigners, thereby Russians, the right to purchase property in Abkhazia. After Abkhazian parliamentarian Almas Jopua proposed a moratorium on sales in opposition, he was targeted by a car bomb rumored to be carried out by Russian security services [15]. The bombing galvanized the public, and the initial draft-bill was withdrawn. This is one example of Abkhazian nationalism working against Russian-supported soft power legislation. However, the entrenchment of Russian FSB agents and armed forces dictates decision-making in matters of security for the Abkhazian government.

Another Frozen Conflict?

In Luhansk and Donetsk, pro-Russian rebels have carved out a space that not only violates Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but produces economic and political costs that make it difficult for Kiev to resolve the conflict and improve governance [16]. Georgia is in a similar situation, though the government has implemented viable reforms against corruption, more so than Ukraine. For Georgia, the recent EU decision to grant Georgia visa-free travel to the Schengen zone has been used to promote re-integration. Current Georgian president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, expressed that the ruling extended to the occupied territories, giving Abkhazians and South Ossetians an opportunity to travel to Europe [17].  Despite the decision, Russian hard power will continue to be enmeshed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for the foreseeable future, forcing the Georgian government to use soft power mechanisms, similar to EU integration and living standards, in order to entice Abkhazia or South Ossetia back into the fold; however unlikely it may be.


[1] Welt, Cory, and Samuel Charap. “The Georgia conflicts: What you need to know.” A More Proactive U.S. Approach to the Georgia Conflicts. Center for American Progress, 15 Feb. 2011. Web. March 2016

[2] Anderson, Kenneth, and Louis Hammond. “GEORGIA/ABKHAZIA: VIOLATIONS OF THE LAWS OF WAR AND RUSSIA’S ROLE IN THE CONFLICT.” Human Rights Watch. N.p., Mar. 1995. Web. Mar. 2017.

[3] Wilson, Earnest J., III. “Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power.” Annals of the American       

Academy of Political and Social Science (2008): p. 114 Web. March 2017

[4] Schwirtz, Michael, CJ Chivers, and Anne Barnard. “Russia and Georgia Clash Over Separatist Region.” New York Times. N.p., 8 Aug. 2008. Web. Mar. 2017.

[5] Nichol, Jim. “Russia Georgia Conflict in August 2008: Context and Implications for U.S. Interests.” Congressional Research Service. N.p., 3 Mar. 2009. Web. Mar. 2017.

[6] Charap, Samuel, and Cory Welt. “The Georgia conflicts: What you need to know.” A More Proactive U.S. Approach to the Georgia Conflicts. Center For American Progress, 15 Feb. 2011. Web. Mar. 2017.

[7] Kochieva, Fatima. “The Ossetian neverendum.” Russia in the Grey Zones. European Council on Foreign Relations, 1 Sept. 2016. Web. Mar. 2017.

[8] Saari, Sinikukka. “FIIA Comment – The New Alliance and Integration Treaty between Russia and South Ossetia: When does integration turn into annexation?” The Finnish institute of International Affairs. N.p., Mar. 2015. Web. Mar. 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Moscow moves to absorb rebel Georgian region’s military.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 14 Mar. 2017. Web. Mar. 2017.

[11] McLaughlin, Erin, and Sebastian Shukla. “Returning home to find your house in a ‘different  country'” CNN Europe. Cable News Network, 10 Jan. 2017. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

[12] Saari, Sinikukka. “FIIA Comment – The New Alliance and Integration Treaty between Russia and South Ossetia: When does integration turn into annexation?” The Finnish institute of International Affairs. N.p., Mar. 2015. Web. Mar. 2017.

[13] Kucera, Johsua. “ICG: Russian Military Settling In For Long Haul In Abkhazia.” N.p., 10 Apr. 2013. Web. Mar. 2017.

[14] Farchy, J. “Vladimir Putin signs treaty with Abkhazia and puts Tbilisi on edge.” Financial Times. N.p., Nov. 2014. Web. Mar. 2017.

[15] Achba, Astamur. “Abkhazia – Russia’s tight embrace.” European Council on Foreign Relations. N.p., 01 Sept. 2016. Web. Mar. 2017.

[16] Orttung, Christopher Walker Robert. “Putin’s Frozen Conflicts.” Foreign Policy. N.p., Feb. 2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

[17] Georgia, Civil. “European Union Grants Visa Free Regime to Georgia.” Civil.Ge. N.p., 2 Feb. 2017. Web. Mar. 2017.

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About the Author 

Eric Jackson holds a B.A. in political science from Nebraska Wesleyan University. His research interests include e-democracy, open data, and geopolitics in the South Caucasus region.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.


This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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