The Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a treaty with the leader of South Ossetia calling for almost complete integration on the one year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
A smiling Mr Putin and Leonid Tibilov were pictured shaking hands after exchanging documents following a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on Wednesday.
South Ossetia, a hotly contested region with a population of just 50,000, broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed.
Russia effectively gained complete control over it and a second breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, after a brief war against Georgia in 2008.
The treaty gives control over borders to Russia, as well as formal control over the region’s economy and armed forces, leading Putin’s critics to claim such a move opens a path for him to annex the region.
In his announcement, Putin claimed this would create a “joint defence and security zone” between South Ossetia and Russia and would keep border crossings open “for our citizens”.
It follows a similar agreement signed last year between Russia and Abkhazia which, like South Ossetia, also depends on subsidies from Russia.
The treaty means South Ossetia will receive 9 billion roubles (£101 million in sterling) in aid over three years, according to Deutsche Welle, ontop of the 43 billion roubles it has already received in recent years.
However, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili denounced the signing as a "destructive" move against his nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity which he said would only serve to exacerbate tensions even further.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry blasted the signing ceremony as "intentional provocation”.
The treaty was also denounced by the US, the EU and Nato, with the US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki later announcing Washington would refuse to recognise the agreement.
"The regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are integral parts of Georgia and we continue to support Georgia's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity," she said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg blasted the treaty for “blatantly” contradicting international law and Russia’s international commitments.
Putin formally annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine amid a growing crisis in the country on 18 March 2014.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press
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