Russia and Frozen Conflicts: Security and Strategy (Part Three)

Below is Part Three of this series on Russian security strategy in support of separatists in the conflict zones of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

In Part One, I introduced the overarching purpose of the series, an explanatory analysis of Russian support for separatism in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.  In Part TwoI examined the first of two variables that will demonstrates a temporal linkage between efforts by the two Western-dominated European organizations and Russia’s escalation of support for separatism in the prospective member states: time. In my conclusion below, I explore the second variable in this analysis: geography. To conclude, I assesses the likelihood of further escalation of Russian support for separatism in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue



The second variable in this analysis of Russian policy towards the frozen conflicts is geography.  Historically, strategists in Moscow have sought to ensure geographic barriers to land-based invasions by European powers. In the last few centuries, invasions from Europe have exploited gaps in terrain and used geographic advantages of plateaus and flat lands to pierce the borders of Russia and attack the underbelly of the country. Both Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany very nearly succeeded in their efforts to fracture the Russian state.

In this analysis, acknowledged and unacknowledged support of separatist movements supports the assessment that Russian military and intelligence support and intervention into separatist conflicts in the post Soviet space is strongly associated with Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Notably, no similar policy exists in post-Soviet Central Asia, far from Russia’s Western geopolitical concerns. More than two decades have passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation. In that time, civil wars in Tajikistan, ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan (notably, in Osh between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz), and separatism in Uzbekistan (Karakalpakstan) have had at least a peripheral effect upon Russian security policy in Central Asia. However, strategists in Moscow have never practically pursued any course of action that manifested itself in support of any anti-government or separatist movements that could have resulted in regime change or a frozen conflict in the states of Central Asia.

It is therefore assessed with high confidence that Russian support for the so-called frozen conflicts of Europe and the Caucasus are manifestations of a realist-based pursuit of effective but pragmatic security policy derived from hard national interest. It is no coincidence that Russian interventionist policy, manifested in military action outside the borders of the Russian Federation, is associated strongly with just two countries. Russian military intervention in Georgia and unacknowledged but no less obvious Russian military support for rebels in Eastern Ukraine represent the practical application of a Russian national security strategy that focuses on impeding accession of former Soviet republics to Western alliances. In this respect, the military action in both Georgia in 2008 and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine represent a practical application of a Russian security strategy that is simultaneously offensive and defensive.

Ukraine and Georgia courtesy of Nordwestern and Wikimedia Commons.

Ukraine and Georgia courtesy of Nordwestern and Wikimedia Commons.

First, the actions are taken proactively in context of the countries’ aspirations to accede to Western-led alliances. Intervention into Georgia, characterized by Russian officials as a peacekeeping mission, was intended to prevent the resolving of territorial disputes and border conflicts that impede any aspirant country’s accession to NATO. By exacerbating the tensions between Tbilisi and its breakaway separatist regions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian strategists achieved a victory in ensuring that the insurrectionist campaigns would remain unresolved. As Giorgi Lomsadze writes:

“The move fits in with the trend of the changing political order in the post-Soviet space, with countries and regions pulling in opposite directions of associating with the European Union or Russia.” (Lomsadze, November 24, 2014., November 24, 2014)

Coupled with Georgia’s inability to authoritatively both defend and control its borders, Russia’s move to ensure that the conflicts in the two breakaway regions would remain unresolved effectively hinders Georgian accession to NATO in the short term. It is possible that officials in Moscow anticipated the possibility that strongly pro-Western President Saakashvili would be defeated for re-election and that a less vociferously pro-Western replacement could be engaged on key matters of Russian security interests. Saakashvili’s effective removal became reality when his United National Movement Party (UNM) was defeated in snap parliamentary elections in October 2012. Saakashvili left office in November 2013, succeeded by Giorgi Margvelashvili.


Russia’s Security Goals

It is important to underline the security interests served by Moscow’s support for separatism in the post Soviet space. As examined earlier, the time and geography are important variables that can demonstrate that Russian support for separatism in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus is also observable as a defensive act by the Russian government. While I have also noted an offensive pillar to the strategy, the context of analyzing when and where Russia has committed military and intelligence support for separatist conflict supports an assessment that the support is a defensive action. Largely, support for separatism impedes the expansion and enlargement of the European community into the post Soviet space, creating obstacles to Europe’s efforts to integrate former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. This policy is in support of efforts by Moscow to avoid encirclement by the West.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway territories of Georgia. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations)

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway territories of Georgia. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations)

By pursuing an overarching strategy of freezing conflicts along its western and southwestern periphery, Russian policy constitutes a counteroffensive against US and European efforts to undermine and defeat Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. In this respect, Russian support for separatism in Moldova, Georgia, and, most recently, Ukraine amounts to a policy founded upon a preventative strategy. As a result, NATO and EU enlargement have had certain unintended consequences, namely the entrenchment of geopolitical conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, as well as the start of an entirely new conflict in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea.

Many analysts also now anticipate the potential annexation of South Ossetia. The Georgian breakaway territory recently codified its intent to integrate more fully with the Russian Federation and is anticipated as a likely target of Russian annexation.

The unipolar moment following the breakup of the Soviet Union emboldened the Europe and the United States to seek to ensure lasting stability in the post-Soviet space by promoting the integration of the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe into the European community. Through integration with international security organizations such as NATO, the U.S. and Europe have sought to ensure the security of states and expand the territorial boundaries of Europe’s only effective joint military structure.  Through the economic and political structures of the EU, the West has pursued a policy of integration that seeks to ensure lasting representative governance through policy reforms and integration into a currency and customs system.

Policy reforms, outlined in each prospective member’s Association Agreement, are intended to ensure the cultivation of government institutions that inspire national economic vitality, sound military defense capabilities, and democratic structures that protect basic freedoms such as freedom of the press and independent judiciaries. This process is intended to ensure long lasting relationships with each country that culminate in their permanent integration — not only with the EU but also NATO, which has no official path toward membership but generally considers disqualifying problems to include border conflicts with other states, unresolved internal territorial conflicts, and insufficient military capability for defense of the country.

Topographical map of Russia and Europe courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Topographical map of Russia and Europe courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The continued enlargement of Western organizations and the integration of former Soviet republics is perceived by many Russian officials as counter to the security interests of the Russian Federation. For Russian strategists, the assimilation of these former Soviet republics into European-dominated organizations such as NATO and the EU represents an epochal change in the post-Cold War security landscape. The pursuit of all three countries by the European community presents a complex and unavoidable set of security concerns that derive entirely from the perceived threat of NATO and EU enlargement on the borders of the Russian Federation.

In response to these security concerns, the Russian government has pursued policies to foment dissent and support separatist movements. These strategic points of pressure reflect the overarching Russian security strategy of ensuring buffer space between the borders of the Russian Federation and Europe. As a consequence, Russian policy toward the separatist campaigns can be seen as derived of pragmatic Realism, the intent being to defend Russian interests in its near abroad against perceived encroachment by geopolitical adversaries that are hostile to Russian national interests.

The exacerbation and permanency of the conflicts serve Russia’s strategic interest as they form a bulwark against NATO and EU interests, while deflecting attempts to bring about permanent change within Russia’s own regime. The governments of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have all signaled their intent to achieve full integration into the European community by aggressively pursuing Association Agreements with the EU and implementing reforms that would allow for the modernization of their militaries, the resolution of internal conflicts, and an increase in government capacity to defend against external threats. By fomenting opposition to governments in Kiev, Chisinau, and Tbilisi, Moscow has effectively undermined the efforts of all three countries to achieve integration and join in a bloc, represented by NATO and the EU, which Moscow perceives to be anti-Russian.

As each of the secessionist conflicts remain unresolved, they serve as an inhibitor to each country’s aspirations of joining NATO and the EU. As Russian strategy has grown increasingly focused upon the encroachment of both organizations to its western and southwestern borders, Moscow has exerted a greater amount of pressure to ensure instability. The Kremlin has applied different strategies to each conflict, exacerbating fissures at opportune moments.

By sustaining internal conflict in countries aspiring to membership in NATO and the EU, Russian policy aims for the creation of a bulwark of instability against the further integration of former Soviet republics into the European community. By aggressively pursuing strategies that ensure long-term logistical and materiel support for secessionist movements, Russian policy effectively combats the enlargement plans of the two organizations. As tension mounts between Russia and the West, observers can anticipate that Russian national policy will remain supportive of fracturing those states on its periphery that would integrate with the West and threaten encirclement of the Russian Federation.



Moscow’s support of separatist conflicts along the western and southwestern periphery of the Russian Federation is derived almost entirely of national security concerns over the encroachment of NATO and the EU. This is evident through thorough temporal and geographical analysis. Given the recent history of Russian security strategy, demonstrated most starkly in the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and support for insurgents in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian policy towards NATO and EU aspirant states in the post Soviet space will remain unchanged in the near term. How will the most recent rounds of separatist conflict impact Russian international standing? Brian Whitmore, writing for The Atlantic, believes it could lead to further isolation.

“This time, the mask would be off and Moscow wouldn’t be able to pursue its goals by stealth. Setting up a frozen conflict in Donbas would intensify Russia’s conflict with the West, lead to even more crippling sanctions, and Moscow’s deeper isolation.” (Whitmore, The Atlantic, August 28, 2014)

It is likely that officials in Moscow will continue to pursue policies that support separatist movements and groups in geopolitically important areas. As the EU and NATO reflect no signs of halting efforts to integrate the states of the post-Soviet space into a Western Europe-dominated political, economic, and security communities, Russia’s policy is unlikely to change in the near term. In the context of Russian military action in both Georgia and Ukraine, Russian security policy goals have been achieved; no accession of Georgia or Ukraine to NATO or the EU has been achieved.

Based on analysis of recent Russian interventionist policies in Ukraine and Georgia, anticipating the application of these strategies in Moldova, and assessing the likelihood that NATO and the EU will continue their efforts to integrate the three countries, it is likely that Russia will continue facilitating the instability in separatist regions. This assessment arises as a result of the beneficial outcomes that instability sowed of the insurrections in Georgia and Ukraine have for impeding accession to the Western organizations.

From the perspective of Russian strategists, these policies are in furtherance of refined and targeted national security goals: impeding NATO and EU enlargement into the post Soviet space of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus and the resulting encirclement of the Russian Federation. By impeding the accession of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia to the EU and NATO, Russian security interest is served through a policy of support for the separatist groups battling for autonomy from national capitals. Russian strategists continue to assess that these frozen conflicts ensure the state a defense against further encroachment by the European community.

(Featured photo: Geopolitcs of South Russia, according with the CIA facts books, {without arrows and red star} courtesy of Spiridon Ion Cepleanu and Wikimedia Commons)

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here:


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