Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his government to conclude an agreement to effectively incorporate the military of Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region into the Russian armed forces' command structure.
The order, issued by the Kremlin on March 14, comes a day after the Russian government published a draft agreement paving the way for separatists in South Ossetia to serve as contract soldiers in the Russian military.
The move was quickly denounced by Tbilisi, which said that "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," Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze said in a statement.
Russia has long held a strong influence on South Ossetia, a mountainous region in northeastern Georgia, and stepped up its control after fighting a five-day war with Tbilisi in 2008.
The text of the draft agreement provides for the separatists to switch to new operating procedures for their armed forces which will be subject to approval by Moscow. It says the forces' structure and objectives will be determined in agreement with Russia.
It also states that South Ossetian military personnel can transfer to serve as Russian soldiers on a Russian military base in the region.
The Kremlin order signed by Putin instructs his defense and foreign ministries to work with the separatists to conclude and sign the agreement.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in a 1991-1992 war in which an estimated 2,000 people were killed.
Russia sent in tanks, troops, and warplanes in August 2008, ostensibly to protect of civilians in South Ossetia from what Moscow described as an attack by Georgian forces.
Georgia said the Russian military intervention was an invasion of its territory, and the United States and the European Union have backed Tbilisi politically in the standoff.
After the brief 2008 war, Russia recognized South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia, as independent countries. Only a handful of governments have followed suit.
Moscow maintains thousands of troops in both regions, in deployments that NATO and Western governments say violate the EU-brokered deal that ended the fighting.
With reporting by Reuters and Interfax