Foreign Intrigue presents a three-part series on Russian support for separatism in the so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.
In this series, I will explain why the Russian strategy of support for separatist groups in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus serves Russian strategic security interests. This is not an argument piece, nor is it to be misinterpreted as advocacy for the current Russian national security policy. Rather, this is an explanatory work that examines the Realist-based interest that Russian policy makers have in supporting separatism in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. In particular, I will analyze Russian military and intelligence support for separatist campaigns in Eastern Ukraine and the breakaway regions of Georgia. In addition, I will touch lightly upon the issue of historical Russian support for separatism in Transnistria and Moldova. Rather than argue whether the current Russian strategy is an acceptable response or is simply an act of aggression, this series explores whether Moscow’s support for separatist campaigns serves a strategic security interest. In arguing that it does, I present evidence that demonstrates a temporal and geographic linkage between Russian acts of aggressive support for fomenting violence in Donbass, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia and integration efforts of the Western-dominated organizations of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In Part One below, I introduce the series and look ahead to an analysis of Russian support for separatism in Ukraine and Georgia. Thank you for reading.
Over the course of 15 years, the Russian government has reflected a reinvigorated effort to improve the country’s international posture through a substantially more aggressive and assertive foreign policy. One of the ways in which this assertiveness has become more evident is through Russian support for separatist conflicts in the post Soviet space of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Specifically, the interventionist actions carried out by Russia are not easily explained easily as aggressive, expansionist, or imperialistic without the context of Russian national security policy, objectives, and the threats to both. The policies that codify the support for separatist campaigns are focused, targeted, and have at their center the furtherance of national security objectives and the protection of Russian national security interests.
After the eruption of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014, many Western observers, analysts, and strategists suggested that Russian foreign policy circles had been overrun by Russian strategists advancing revanchist policies in support of an aggressive campaign to return the country to great power status. While Russia has reflected a renewed and reinvigorated strategic foundation, the shift of Russian policy towards support of separatism in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus is not easily explained through assessments of naked aggression.
Though Russia’s support for the rebels in Donbas remains unacknowledged by Moscow, the international community’s acceptance of Russian interference in the conflict has led to a near pariah status for the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The conflict in Ukraine has once again catalyzed criticism of Russian interference in the post Soviet space and has revitalized international condemnation of aggressive Russian foreign policy that had somewhat waned following the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008.
In order to understand Russian national security interests, it is important to analyze Russian support for the unresolved territorial conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus as a response. Russian strategists observe the enlargement of Western alliances and organizations into the post Soviet space of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus within the context of threats to the national security of the Russian Federation.
While influential Russian officials in the current government certainly aspire to return Russia to great power status, the true drivers of Russian support for territorial conflicts in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not necessarily conflate with more generic arguments of Russian imperialist aggression. Often, the arguments that Russian support for the rebellions in the separatist regions of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus are reduced to generalized assessments of revanchist, expansionist imperialism. This analysis often emerges in the form of assessments concluding that Russia’s pursuit of great power status in the international system. In this series, I will argue that these are shallow explanations for a complicated and multi-dimensional conflict between Russia and a Western alliance comprised of the United States, the European community, and their allies. Many analysts have attributed Russia’s support for separatist conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus to revanchist motivations without contextualizing the ultimate security and policy goals of that support constitutes shallow and uncomplicated analysis.
In this three-part series, I will argue that Russian support for conflicts in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia is a targeted campaign to ward off encroachment by the Western alliance of the U.S., the European Union (EU), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). I will examine the history of the conflicts, outline Russian support for the rebellions in each country, and assess the political and security goals that Russian strategists intend to achieve by intervening in the sovereign affairs of the three aforementioned former Soviet republics. I will focus on two case studies: Georgia and Ukraine. I will present additional analysis on separatism in Moldova as context. Finally, I will offer an assessment of what type of security environment is likely to emerge as a result of Russia’s support for separatist conflicts in all three former Soviet republics.
Eastern Ukraine and Georgia have been the most obvious examples of Russian interventionist policy in the post Soviet period. Recently, Moldova has become an increasing concern as it pursues an Association Agreement for a path to EU membership and overt military modernization efforts. The military modernization campaign is especially notable given the support rendered to Moldova’s efforts by Western countries such as the United States. This campaign in particular further substantiates assessments of broader use of interventionist policies by Moscow.
While rising powers will similarly seek to influence (and dominate) the political affairs and national policies of their neighbors for purposes of ensuring support for national policy, there is a more pragmatic reason that underscores Russian support for separatist conflict. Revanchist policy strategy plays a role but I argue it is not at the center of the Kremlin’s policies supporting separatism in the states along its western and southwestern periphery. In a piece for The National Interest in 2014, this idea was elaborated upon:
Support for the so-called frozen conflicts is rooted in hard Russian national security interest. Frozen conflicts are entrenched separatist battles in the post Soviet space. Denis Corboy, William Harrison Courtney, and Kenneth Yalowitz write “’Frozen conflicts’ describe places where fighting took place and has come to an end, yet no overall political solution, such as a peace treaty, has been reached.” (Corboy, Denis, William Harrison Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz, The National Interest, November 6, 2014)
This particular Russian national security policy has been underlined in the past year by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the protracted conflict in Donbas. As noted, many observers and analysts tend to reduce their understanding the conflicts and their origins to an overarching hypothesis that ‘Russian imperialism’ drives Russia’s support for separatism in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. That analysis is myopic. Attributing Russian investment of military power in the conflicts of Donbas, Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia to a revanchist Russian foreign policy based on Muscovite domination and a return to an historical trend of imperialism is insufficient to explain the current state of conflict and Russian policy.
Any examination of the purpose behind Russian interventionist strategy in the aforementioned regions must explore the costs and benefits for Russian national security interests. In particular, how are Russian security interests served by the application of military power to separatist conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus? The most straightforward explanation is rooted in hard national interest. Further, a more nuanced explanation demonstrates that Russia’s policies in the separatist regions are both offensive and a defensive in character. Offensively, they seek to re-assert Kremlin influence over the national policies in the separatist states. Defensively, the conflicts impede the former Soviet republics’ abilities to integrate to Western dominated alliances, specifically EU and the NATO. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, both organizations have pursued policies of enlargement into the post Soviet space that have been repeatedly assessed by Russian strategists as ultimately ending in encirclement of the Russian Federation.
There are timelines of events specific to the accession of states in the post Soviet space to the EU and NATO that provide benchmarks which, in the context of analyzing Russia’s support for insurrections in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, strongly support assessments that Russian intervention into separatist regions in the former Soviet states is based in ensuring that they fail to meet qualifications for member state status. In asserting that the frozen conflicts are a byproduct of a Russian fear of EU and NATO enlargement, two separate but equally important variables prove the validity of the hypothesis: time and geography.
The timing also demonstrates this point. While the strategy of supporting conflicts in former Soviet republics has existed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation, it was only after iterations of NATO and EU enlargement that integrated former Warsaw Pact states and Soviet republics that the Kremlin earnestly pursued such policies. In the years following the NATO-led mission to prevent genocide in Kosovo, Russian policy under President Vladimir Putin has reflected a more calculated and targeted effort to agitate insurrectionist campaigns in the aforementioned areas. Indeed, Russian strategy in fomenting and supporting separatist movements and insurrectionist conflicts is directly associated with waves of NATO and EU enlargement. As one follows along the timeline of Moscow’s support for agitation of the conflicts in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, identifiable increases in Russian support are correlated strongly with benchmarks in integration paths to both NATO and the EU.
The geography of the frozen conflicts substantiates the assessment that Russian policy on this issue is a direct result of the perceived encroachment by NATO and the EU. Geographically, the invisible line connecting each of the separatist territories forms an arc along Russia’s western and southwestern border.
In this respect, the term frozen conflict is somewhat of a misnomer. Russian policy to foment opposition in the separatist regions of Donbas, Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia has, at its core, the intent of keeping the conflicts simmering. While the conflicts remain frozen, impervious to external forces of dispute resolution, these strategic rivalries are in fact kept at a modicum of low fidelity warfare; each ruling capital is prevented from authoritatively asserting territorial control over each region.
In Part Two, I will look at two case studies: Ukraine and Georgia. In doing so, I will explain why Russian support for separatism in both countries is closely linked to temporal and geographic variables. These two variables reflect that Russian policy is a response to the efforts of the EU and NATO to integrate the two former Soviet republics into the structures of the Western-dominated organizations.
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