Leader of Russian-occupied Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov has instructed defense chief Ibragim Gasseev to assess combat readiness of weaponry, equipment and “defense ministry” personnel amid the possibility of “provocations” from Tbilisi, Tskhinvali-based RES agency reports.
In Bibilov’s opinion, the review is necessary amid an escalation of tensions around Ukraine, with the Kremlin-backed ‘president’ going on to claim on February 16 that Tbilisi “may well try to conduct provocations on this front.”
While military chief Gasseev has said S. Ossetian troops are in combat readiness, Bibilov has set February 24 as the date of an official review, also aimed at informing the public if “the armed forces are ready for provocations, to repulse aggression or not.”
While there is a scarcity of reliable information available on the number of S. Ossetian military capacity, Russian media estimates that Tskhinvali could be maintaining around 1,200 active servicemen.
Tbilisi asserts that excess Russian-led military drills in the occupied regions turn them, “especially South Ossetia, with its current mere population [of] 20,000, into nothing more than an extended [Russian] military base.”
The S. Ossetian forces are largely integrated into the Russian military command chain as per 2017 military deal with Moscow. Parts of the Tskhinvali detachments are joined with Russia’s 4th military base in the region, while the number of remaining forces is agreed with the Kremlin.
The review of combat readiness also comes as the occupied region braces for “presidential elections” of April 10.
Bibilov, running for re-election, has grown dissatisfied with “defense minister” Gasseev over his bid to contend the position in the vote, reprimanding the military chief on February 16 over his absence from a cabinet meeting for campaigning reasons. “Elections are elections, and work is work,” RFE/RL’s Russian-language Ekho Kavkaza cited Bibilov as saying.
Georgian Experts Weigh In
Georgian experts, in conversation with Civil.ge, have largely argued Bibilov’s order is meant as a power move and a PR stunt amid the upcoming vote. But considering the Russian military buildup and tensions around Ukraine, they stress the need for Tbilisi to keep vigilance.
Paata Zakareishvili, former Reconciliation Minister, says the reasoning behind Bibilov’s decision is largely “trivial,” coming in response to Gasseev’s unexpected bid for Tskhinvali leadership.
Zakareishvili believes that Tskhinvali leader is angered by “defense minister” is campaigning as his competitor instead of “tending to the army,” thus giving the order to carry out a combat readiness review.
Zakareishvili, a long-time observer of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, further asserts that “serious [combat] readiness measures could be lurking behind the trivial reason” as the Russian military could be planning to carry out maneuvers in the occupied region.
Former Defense Minister, Tinatin Khidasheli also believes that Bibilov’s order is connected to the upcoming vote, being an attempt to portray himself as a leader looking after the region’s security.
Albeit arguing the move is not alarming for Tbilisi, Khidasheli suggests that Bibilov’s next step could be to ask Moscow for enhanced defense mechanisms, which could then be considered a provocation against the central Georgian Government.
Civil.ge has contacted Defense and Foreign Ministries and will publish their response if provided. The State Security Service of Georgia has declined to comment on the matter.