MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday ordered his officials to seal an agreement which will, in effect, incorporate the armed forces of Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region into the Russian military's command structure.
Georgia condemned the move, which is likely to spark accusations from its Western allies that the Kremlin is absorbing the breakaway region into Russia by stealth, even though under international law it is part of Georgia's sovereign territory.
Moscow has de facto controlled South Ossetia, a sliver of mainly mountainous land in the northeast of Georgia, for years. But it has, on paper at least, treated South Ossetia as a separate state, not part of Russia.
According to the text of the draft agreement that Putin ordered his officials to conclude, the separatists will adopt new operating procedures for their armed forces which will be subject to approval by Moscow, and the forces' structure and objectives will be determined in agreement with Russia.
The agreement also states that members of the South Ossetian armed forces can transfer to serve as Russian soldiers on a Russian military base in South Ossetia. The separatists will shrink their own armed forces by the number of servicemen employed at the Russian base.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin issued an order signed by Putin instructing the Russian defence and foreign ministries to work with the separatists to conclude and sign the agreement.
Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze said in a statement: "Any agreement between the Russian Federation and de-facto leadership (of South Ossetia) is illegitimate."
"Such steps are not aimed at protecting peace and are impeding peaceful process, which is necessary for the conflict resolution," he said.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in a war. In August 2008, Russia sent in troops, saying it was protecting civilians in South Ossetia from attack by Georgian forces.
Georgia, backed by the United States and European Union, said the Russian operation was a naked land grab.
After a brief war, Russia recognised South Ossetia as an independent state. Only a handful of other states recognise it as a state.
Russia's critics say the war in South Ossetia was a dress rehearsal by Russia for its annexation in 2014 of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula, and its support for separatist fighters in the eastern Ukrainian Donbass region.
(Reporting by Katya Golubkova; Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze; Writing by Maria Tsvetkova and Christian Lowe; Editing by Alison Williams)