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

In Part One of this three-part series, I introduced the issue of Russian support for separatism in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus as a strategy to combat perceived encirclement by Western-dominated European organizations, notably the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In Part Two, I examine one 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. In Part Three, I will explore the second variable in this analysis: geography. In Part Three, I will also assesses the likelihood of further escalation of Russian support for separatism in Ukraine and Georgia and conclude by looking ahead to the future of Russian security policy in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Part Two of the series is below. Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue

 

Variable One: Time

Temporally, Russian support for separatist violence and rebellion is readily identifiable within policies of integration and enlargement policies in both European organizations. Escalations in conflicts riving each of the three aforementioned aspirant EU/NATO members can be found to have strong association to timelines for events such as EU Association Agreements and NATO integration benchmarks. NATO joint military drills in all three states and the announcement of new bases planned for 2015 have ratcheted up the tension between the West and Russia. These strategies and policy goals have been received by Moscow as provocations. Consequently, these plans have compelled Russian officials to use Russian military power in order to impede further integration.

In January 2015, NATO officials announced a plan to open a training center in Georgia.  Alliance officials have been noticeably open about their intentions, even stating publicly that the training center planned for a facility in Georgia is in support of integration efforts:

“According to the NATO deputy secretary general, the opening of the Training and Evaluation Center is an important step because it ‘will demonstrate NATO’s commitment to deepen the partnership with Georgia and a confirmation of the high level of the Georgian armed forces.’ Vershbow said that Georgian forces “have shown their high level in joint operations, including Afghanistan.” According to the official, “By opening the joint center, we would like to move our relationship with Georgia to a new level” (Interpressnews, January 26). Moreover, ‘[a]ll the tools are in place to help Georgia to move forward with its NATO aspirations’ (Nato.int, January 30). (Menabde, The Jamestown Foundation, February 4, 2015)

Map photo courtesy of Nordwestern and Wikimedia Commons.

Map photo courtesy of Nordwestern and Wikimedia Commons.

The training center is seen as a provocation by Moscow for two reasons. First, it represents further acknowledgement of NATO policy to enlarge beyond Eastern Europe and into the post Soviet space. This announcement came after years of repeated public admonitions by Russian officials that by pursuing enlargement of the EU and NATO into the post Soviet space the European community and its allies risked violating what Moscow considers its sphere of influence. Second, the training center is scheduled for opening while Moscow is involved in warfare in another former Soviet republic. Even as Russian support and participation in the war in Eastern Ukraine remains unacknowledged, officials in NATO are aware of Russian military participation beyond the borders of the Russian Federation. Consequently, the announcement of a planned training center in Georgia is viewed by Moscow as a threat to the security interests of the Russian Federation. In response, the Russian government has reflected a willingness to signal its opposition through a series of military exercises, specifically in the South Caucasus.

Historically, Russian military action has coincided with planned enlargement of the EU and NATO into Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. There are two cases in which is this is most apparent: Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. In both of these instances, Russia moved militarily to prevent the smooth accession of former Soviet republics into Western organizations. Both incidents are instrumental in understanding the purpose behind the aggressive policies of the Russian government towards the separatist regions and the interventionist military action undertaken in support of those policies.

 

Georgia

In Georgia, pursuit of NATO membership under the leadership of President Mikheil Saakashvili dominated the national security agenda of the government. Following the Rose Revolution in 2003, the Georgian government moved to re-conceptualize the country’s security goals. In doing so, Georgia’s defense and national security priorities were reorganized in an effort to smoothly transition the country from a post-Soviet environment of economic and political disarray into an attractive candidate state for membership in NATO. To accomplish this transition, the Saakashvili government pursued two important goals: military modernization and a resolution to the territorial conflicts riving the two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the rule of the national government in Tbilisi.

Major NATO affiliations in Europe map courtesy of Patrick and Wikimedia Commons. Map to show current affiliations of European Countries with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Several NATO Member areas not included in the map, such as the United States, Canada, Greenland, and French Guiana. Based off of NATO_enlargement.svg but without noting the two "Intensified Dialogue" countries, Ukraine and Georgia. Blue: EU Light Blue: MAP countries Yellow: Partners to NATO, prospective candidates

Major NATO affiliations in Europe map courtesy of Patrick and Wikimedia Commons.
Map to show current affiliations of European Countries with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Several NATO Member areas not included in the map, such as the United States, Canada, Greenland, and French Guiana. 
Blue: EU
Light Blue: MAP countries
Yellow: Partners to NATO, prospective candidates

The modernization of Georgia’s military had unintended but aggravating consequences for the country’s relations with Russia. The Tbilisi government pursued these new national security priorities in order to ensure that Georgia sustained a modernized, trained, and equipped military that was capable of defending its territory against both external and internal threats. As Georgia’s military modernization process attracted the support of countries such as the United States and its allies in Europe, Georgia intensified its cooperation by committing military personnel and equipment to the effort many of those countries were waging in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, officials in Moscow were increasingly aware of the influence that the Western countries were acquiring in the South Caucasus through Georgia. Moscow became resigned to the purpose behind the Saakashvili regime’s re-prioritization: NATO membership and the security umbrella of the Western security alliance. Given Moscow’s own security priorities, Russian strategists saw the tradeoff as a zero sum game: any increase in Western integration of states in the post Soviet space not only ran against Russia’s own security interests but represented a threat to the security of the future of the Russian Federation itself.

An important contextual component in this particular analysis is the simultaneous war being waged in Chechnya. While the open warfare that had characterized both the first Chechen war in 1994-1996 had waned, Russian military and counterterrorism operations continued in both Chechnya and its Northern Caucasus neighbor, Dagestan. Saakashvili’s government pursued integration into NATO in order to place the weak Georgian state firmly under the security umbrella of the Atlantic Alliance. It was assessed that membership in NATO was the strongest possible deterrent against potentially aggressive Russian military action. Georgian officials believed that Moscow would continue to focus on shaping government policies in the South Caucasus out of concern for security along the borders of the Russian Federation’s southern flank. This was partially due to continued insecurity over the stability of the Northern Caucasus in the wake of conflicts in Chechnya and Dagestan.

In the ultimate evaluation, strategists in Russia considered that any inclusion of a state in the Caucasus, represented most overtly by Georgia, to the NATO alliance was part of an effort by the Western security alliance to encircle Russia. The timing of these factors is important to note. As Russia emerged from the economic collapse that resulted from the creation of the Russian Federation and the collapse of the Soviet Union, many officials in the Federation assessed that the West would seek to take full advantage of the moment of weakness in Russia’s history to encircle it and mitigate the inevitable return of the Russian state as a challenger to European and American dominance of the post Soviet space.

Throughout the period between the election of Saakashvili in 2004 and the war of August 2008, Georgia pursued military modernization in earnest. As this process unfolded and evolved, it became clear that the United States was a primary driver in the effort to modernize both the capabilities of the Georgian military and its equipment. This close interaction between the regime of President Saakashvili and the government of the U.S. became an increasingly important concern for the Kremlin, at the time headed by President Dmitry Medvedev with former President Vladimir Putin in the role of Prime Minister. The U.S. had focused on provisioning of improved military hardware and equipment as a means to induce modernization in the Georgian army:

“Apart from training, Georgia also received foreign assistance in the form of arms and equipment. The United States donated scores of trucks and 10 Bell UH-1H helicopters (four of them were to be cannibalized for parts). Another two helicopters of the same type were received from Turkey. Ukraine gave 10 L-29 trainer jets and the Tbilisi fast attack craft-missile (Project 206MR). On the whole, the Georgian army had begun to improve under Shevardnadze- but that process continued at a much greater pace following the arrival of Saakashvili.” (Vyacheslav Tseluiko, “Georgian Army Reform under Saakashvili Prior to the 2008 Five Day War”, The Tanks of August {Moscow: Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010}, 10.)

The donation of this hardware helped the Georgian army modernize. However, for the Russian government, another byproduct of the provisioning of American-made hardware was the improvement it reflected both in capability and, even more importantly, in interoperability with the predominant military of the Atlantic Alliance.

The evolution of the Georgian army outfitted with Russian-made equipment to one that was increasingly using American-made products meant a more seamless integration of Georgian military command and control with that of NATO. This was an important factor in sowing apprehension about Georgia’s growing integration efforts with the European community. For the Russian government, these events represented encroachment of the West into its sphere of influence and an intensified threat to the security of the Russian Federation along its southern flank. In response, Russian strategists began efforts designed to deter the Georgian government from pursuing further military and political integration with European and American-led organizations as well as plan for potential military action should deterrence fail. During the spring and summer of 2008, Russian officials concluded that deterrence had either failed or was an insufficient strategy by which to address what they perceived as an intensifying threat of NATO enlargement into the South Caucasus.

An important aspect of Russian analysis of the integration of Georgia is the seeming insurmountable obstacle membership of a state in the post Soviet space in the Atlantic Alliance represents for Russian national security strategy. Once fully integrated as a member of NATO, a state is fully under the protection of the entire membership structure. Any attack on the country is rendered an attack on all states through Article V, which states:

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”  (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Article 5)

In late 2014, the Russian government agreed to bilateral integration treaties with both of Georgia’s breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In codifying the cooperation between the two breakaways and Moscow, the Russian government further rived the Georgian national government in Tbilisi from its ambitions to reintegrate both breakaways.

In February 2015, the Russian military reflected a possible escalation of its assertiveness in the South Caucasus by conducting a series of military exercises in Armenia. Armen Grigoryan noted:

Indeed, Russian troops stationed in Armenia have been involved in a wide series of military exercises in recent weeks. In February, Southern MD intelligence divisions started month-long exercises aiming to practice operations in mountainous areas located more than 2,000 meters above sea level (RIA Novosti, February 5). These training drills were followed by intensive military truck drivers’ exercises, including 300-kilometer rides along mountainous terrain (RIA Novosti, March 5), engineer corps exercises (Gazeta.ru, March 10), MiG-29 flight exercises (Regnum.ru, March 13), drills involving a second military intelligence group (Gazeta.ru, March 17), as well as artillery training, including BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers (RIA Novosti, March 18). It is worth pointing out that, compared to the 300-kilometer training rides practiced by Russian soldiers, the distance from the Russian military base in Gyumri to Georgia’s border—not to mention the distance from South Ossetia to Tbilisi—is less than 50 kilometers. (Grigoryan, The Jamestown Foundation. April 2, 2015)

These exercises reflect a similar pattern to the one displayed by the Russian military prior to the invasion of Georgia by Russia in 2008. Called “Caucasus Frontier 2008”, these Russian military exercises took place in July, just a month prior to the invasion of Georgia and the war that resulted. They were held in the North Caucasus throughout the regions of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, and Karachay-Cherkessia.

Given the context of the recent NATO announcement of the training center to be established in Vaziani, it is possible that these recent military exercises in Armenia are prologue to military action in Georgia. More so, they represent signaling that Moscow is prepared to re-assert itself in the region. In particular, the NATO training center is a potential catalyst for Russian military action in Georgia:

All things considered Russia has responded with relative equanimity to the news of the new NATO facility in Georgia. But Moscow naturally objects; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained last month in a meeting with his de facto South Ossetian counterpart David Sanakoyev about “the non-stop process to drag Georgia into NATO… Naturally, if these measures start to take practical shape – evidently, this process has already begun – we will take measures to prevent negative effects of these developments.” (Kucera, EurasiaNet.org. March 13, 2015)

As the war in Ukraine rages and Russian military support appears to continue unabated by ceasefire agreements and attrition concerns, it becomes more likely that Russian strategists would consider the timeframe for ensuring that the Georgian government’s agreement with NATO to allow a training center on Georgian soil is constraining possible Russian courses of action. Given the recent integration agreement that Russia signed with South Ossetia and the Georgian breakaway’s apparent support for reunification with its northern neighbor, annexation of South Ossetia is increasingly likely. It is possible that the recent military exercises in Armenia are for this expressed purpose.

 

Ukraine

The time variable is also evident in the case of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. In late 2013, demonstrations in Ukraine led to the ouster of then President Viktor Yanukovych. The subsequent Euromaidan and the annexation of Ukrainian territory Crimea by the Russian Federation led to widespread condemnation of the Russian government. Later, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the deaths of 298 passengers exacerbated the conflict between Russia and the West.

EU Countries that ratified Association Agreement with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine courtesy of Giorgi Balakhadze and Wikimedia Commons. EU Countries that ratified Association Agreement with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine Purple: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Blue: EU Countries that ratified Association Agreement with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Green:  EU Countries that not yet ratified Association Agreement with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

EU Countries that ratified Association Agreement with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine courtesy of Giorgi Balakhadze and Wikimedia Commons.
EU Countries that ratified Association Agreement with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine
Purple: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Blue: EU Countries that ratified Association Agreement with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
Green: EU Countries that not yet ratified Association Agreement with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The European community, along with its allies in the United States and Canada, levied sanctions on the Russian Federation, targeting both Russian officials and private industry leaders. Throughout the rest of 2014 and into 2015, a collapse of energy prices (notably, oil) and the resulting devaluation of the Russian national currency did little to compel the administration of Russian President Putin to divorce Russia from the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Multiple rounds of ceasefire talks in Minsk, Belarus resulted in temporary halts in fighting but ultimately did little to resolve the ongoing conflict in the Eastern European country. However, the Ukrainian government’s apparent pursuit of an Association Agreement with the EU was a major catalyst for the rebellion in the eastern regions of the country, an insurrection supported with unacknowledged but readily apparent military and intelligence support of the Russian government.

As Yanukovych considered the Association Agreement, he was caught in a geopolitical tug-of-war: integration with the Western-dominated EU or continued client state status with Ukraine’s main energy provider, Russia. Ultimately, Yanukovych was ousted by a popular Ukrainian uprising after his refusal to acquiesce to signing the Association Agreement with the EU. This, in effect, catalyzed Russian military action.

With the loss of Yanukovych in Kiev, Moscow became alarmed at the sudden shift of the Ukrainian government towards Western Europe. On March 21, 2014, concurrent with Russia’s official annexation of Crimea, the successor Kiev government signed an agreement with the EU to strengthen economic ties.

“The EU Association Agreement with Ukraine is designed to give the country’s interim leadership under PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk economic and political support.” (“Ukraine Crisis: EU Signs Association Deal”, BBC News Online, March 21, 2014)

This inspired Russia’s cultivation of rebellion in Eastern Ukraine and ultimately led to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. These two later events constituted a geopolitical victory for Russian strategists: the annexation of Crimea ensured Russia’s continued access to the Black Sea through its large naval base in Sevastopol and the war in Eastern Ukraine destabilized the entire country, theoretically impeding accession to both NATO and the EU.

Until Russia annexed Crimea, the situation on the peninsula had played out according to a familiar script: Moscow opportunistically fans ethnic tensions and applies limited force at a moment of political uncertainty, before endorsing territorial revisions that allow it to retain a foothold in the contested region. With annexation, however, Russia departed from these old tactics and significantly raised the stakes. Russia’s willingness to go further in Crimea than in the earlier cases appears driven both by Ukraine’s strategic importance to Russia and by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s newfound willingness to ratchet up his confrontation with a West that Russian elites increasingly see as hypocritical and antagonistic to their interests.

Internal conflicts (and the political instability that accompanies them) are obstacles to accession in both countries. Ongoing Russian support for the conflict, ensuring that the war continues, acts as an impediment to Ukrainian integration to Western Europe and serves Russian security strategy by avoiding encirclement on the Russian Federation’s western flank. Later, as the war grew in intensity and Russian military support became apparent to even casual observers, incidents such as the downing of the Malaysian airliner and offensives in Mariupol further calcified Russian support for the separatists, ensuring that the conflict would continue to sow instability in financially ravaged Ukraine.

In retrospect, an analysis to determine the ultimate catalyst of the conflict in Ukraine must begin with the period that led to the ousting of Ukrainian President Yanukovych. Evidence exists to support the assessment that talks between the EU and the government in Kiev that resulted in Euromaidan catalyzed Russian action in Eastern Ukraine. While the integration of Ukraine into Western organizations does not excuse Russian violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the timing of Russian military action is strongly associated with the Association Agreement. On June 27, 2014, the Ukrainian government codified its intent to integrate to the Western-dominated organization by officially signing an Association Agreement the same day that the governments of Moldova and Georgia signed their own respective agreements with the EU.

The timeline of Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine demonstrates clearly that Moscow’s intent is to exacerbate tensions between the separatists and the national government at key moments that coincide with integration benchmarks. For accession efforts to the EU and NATO, that intensified conflict and instability represent impediments to membership for the two countries and effectively obstruct the efforts of the governments to integrate into Western political and security structures. As a result, Russian support for the separatists strengthens Russian national security interests along its periphery in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

In Part Three I will examine the second variable in this analysis: geography. Finally, I will assesses the likelihood of further escalation of Russian support for separatism in Ukraine and Georgia and conclude by looking ahead to the future of Russian security policy in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

(Featured photo courtesy of NASA {2002})

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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 Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.