Russia and Frozen Conflicts: Security and Strategy (Complete Series)

Earlier, Foreign Intrigue published a three-part series examining the causes and effects of Russian policy with regard to the so-called “frozen conflicts” of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. We have condensed that series into a single article.

In the series, I examined Russia’s strategy of support for separatist groups in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus and asserted that Russia’s policies with regard to these regions serve 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 analyzed Russian military and intelligence support for separatist campaigns in Eastern Ukraine and the breakaway regions of Georgia. In addition, I touched 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, the series explored whether Moscow’s support for separatist campaigns serves a strategic security interest. In arguing that it does, I presented 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).

The series has been condensed below. Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue

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 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 is the motivation and driver. 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.

 

Background

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.

Map of Russia and Eastern Europe overlaid by flags, courtesy of Дмитрий-5-Аверин and Wikimedia Commons.

Map of Russia and Eastern Europe overlaid by flags, courtesy of Дмитрий-5-Аверин and Wikimedia Commons.

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.

 

(Part Two)

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.

 

(Part Three)

Geography

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. EurasiaNet.org, 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.

 

Conclusion

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: Topographical map of Russia and Europe courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency)

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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.

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