Russia’s Move in Ukraine: Will it Backfire for other Separatist Entities?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated, not solved Russia’s strategic aims. Moscow’s decision to recognize two separatist entities, in eastern Ukraine, will further limit other similar separatist territories’ claim for independence.

Russia has never been especially creative in its approach to the neighboring countries. Simple, standard, but ruthless position on dominating the neighborhood has been driving Moscow for decades since the end of the Soviet Union.

With Ukraine, it hits a new level. The “Putin Doctrine”, if we might assume such a thing exists, is not about cleverly-thought strategic thinking which would be gradually bringing geopolitical benefits to build upon and present Russia as a reliable and responsible power in Eurasia or globally. Rather the “doctrine” is a deeply idiosyncratic approach to the history of Russia and that of its neighbors. More dangerously, this idiosyncrasy is deeply rooted in the Russian nationalism that what the Soviet Union covered territorially is actually Russia whether it is the Caucasus, Central Asia or Ukraine – the regions which have never been historic Russia. This understanding of history serves as a cover for an offensive foreign policy. If not for the imposition of direct political control, then Moscow considers the neighborhood as a sphere of its exclusive influence. Other powers’ interests and involvement will be tolerated but only with significant limits (primarily on military and deeper economic cooperation).

On February 21st Russia recognized the independence of separatist Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics. Similarities with what Moscow did in Georgia are palpable. Back in 2008 Russia invaded its southern neighbor and recognized Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region (often incorrectly called South Ossetia) as independent. But similarities with Ukraine end here. While in Georgia Russia managed to shrug off the threat of Western sanctions and the collective West overall was highly hesitant to rupture ties with Russia, Moscow claimed victory both on the military front and diplomatically. Moreover, with Tbilisi remaining antagonistic toward Moscow, strategically Georgia did not pose any serious threat to Russia. The country’s small size, poor economy, and limited military capabilities plus the occupation of two separatist regions essentially stripped Tbilisi of ambitions to regain the territories and successfully complete its pro-Western drive. The hesitancy and in many cases dangerous complacency of the West also undermined Georgia’s chances.

With Ukraine, it is strikingly different. Russia essentially re-invaded the country by moving its troops into Donbas. But with this Moscow’s strategic dilemmas are not solved, but rather even exacerbated. First, with Georgia serving as an example, the West now is in no doubt as to what Russian military moves amount to. Second, in the period when the West experiences internal troubles and even divisions, the Russian threat actually helps solidify the Trans-Atlantic community. The Biden administration so far has managed to build a resilient foreign policy by closely cooperating with its European and Asian partners – the lack of which was so tangibly visible in the Trump presidency. We might be witnessing a reversal of systemic troubles in the liberal order. The decline in cooperation between the Western partners might be replaced by a re-invigorated push from Brussels, London, and Washington to confront Russia in unison. Russian actions also bolster the idea of NATO. Voices questioning the alliance will be heard less often, while the need to strengthen the eastern flank will be more evident.

Furthermore, Putin is also seeing that his military incursion does not guarantee Kyiv will be stopping acquiring necessary arms for effective defense or abstaining from cooperation with foreign militaries. Russian leaders thus face a different level of challenge from what they have seen in Georgia. Greater geographic space and a bigger, much well-equipped, and organized military allow Ukraine to withstand Russian aggression more resolutely.

With its troops now in Donbas Moscow still sees Ukraine as an unfinished business. It has either pushed forward with this initial success regardless of what grave sanctions the collective West might impose or decreased pressure to solidify its position. The latter will have to be only temporary as in the longer-term Ukraine will be drifting more forcefully to the West. And this does not necessarily mean NATO/EU granting membership. A range of different cooperation modes could be introduced between Kyiv and the West to complement NATO’s inability to extend eastward.

What Moscow’s recognition of two separatist entities mean more broadly for Russia’s sprawling “separatist empire” is a further decline of Abkhazia’s and Tskhinvali’s to garner wider international recognition. With only several states (such as Syria, Nauru, and others) recognizing Georgia’s sovereign territories as independent, Russia’s recent decision over eastern Ukraine further undermines any remnants of legitimacy it or its dependent separatist entities could argue for. Recognition of separatist lands is now firmly viewed by the world as a geopolitical tool for Moscow rather than a decision based on morality and sincere sentiments towards Ossetians and Abkhazians. Hardly likely that any state beyond perhaps Syria and possibly Belarus will be willing to recognize four separatist entities simultaneously – the decision will likely incur sanctions from US and EU.

Thus, in the longer run Moscow may have buried Abkhazia’s and Tskhinvali region’s chances for recognition— making a “separatist empire” a hollow entity indeed. Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at Georgian think-tank, Geocase.

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Tensions Around Ukraine Blur Russia’s Objectives and Advancements

Russia is content to cause anxiety and misdirection around Ukraine. It does so to obfuscate its more silent and, in a way, more successful foreign policy moves in Belarus and Central Asia. Under particular focus is the South Caucasus, where Moscow eagerly pushes for a new order.

Russia has been building up its forces of nearly 100,000 servicemembers along its border with Ukraine for the third consecutive month. This follows a previous similar, albeit less threatening, concentration in the first half of 2021. The pattern is now firmly established. Exerting pressure on Ukraine is a part of a broader strategic thinking driving Moscow’s foreign policy toward the West: change the existing security architecture in the wider Black Sea region and force the recognition of Moscow’s exclusive sphere of influence and the emergence of the so-called Russian, more chaotic, hierarchical order.

This has generated a spree of analyses and discussion on whether Russia plans to attack Ukraine to a greater degree than its current occupation of the Donbas region. Arguments on both sides are powerful, but the reality could be that Moscow has not decided yet which course to follow. In fact, Moscow might even have been peddling the “invasion idea” to create chaos, disruption and divisions among the Western allies. It succeeded in a way. Fractures within the trans-Atlantic community are palpable, though it should also be mentioned they could have been much bigger. Moreover, Ukraine and the new security arrangement proposed by Russia could be of a far bigger scope. China watches closely. It might not use Russia’s potential military moves around Ukraine to resolve its Taiwan problem, but Beijing will at least be happy seeing the West squabbling with Moscow over the lands far away from the Indo-Pacific and the South-China Sea in particular. America’s distraction is China’s win.

But again, this grand strategic thinking from Russia’s side might be more about blurring what the Kremlin is realistically aiming at. First, while all are paying attention to Ukraine, Russia has essentially transformed Belarus into launching pad for its future military operations. Moscow thus concluded the long-drawn process of finally and unequivocally attaching its western neighbor into its orbit. Military activities around Ukraine also conceal how Russia has effectively strengthened its position in Central Asia following the unrest in Kazakhstan. These two countries’ leaderships are now extremely beholden to Moscow, a reality which will have tremendous ramifications for their respective foreign policies.

Moreover, less attention is paid to advances Russia has made in the South Caucasus, another flashpoint between Moscow and the West. The 3+3 platform has been inaugurated. The initiative involving all the South Caucasus states and the region’s three larger neighboring players – Iran, Russia, and Turkey – aims at producing a different geopolitical order. Diminution of the West or even its total exclusion is what is being pursued by Moscow and Tehran. Ankara’s position is more nuanced as it needs the West to balance Russia, but not as much as to cause troubles to its position in the Black Sea and the South Caucasus.

Georgia is notably against participation in the platform because of Moscow’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And this makes Tbilisi even more vulnerable to Russian moves. Many forget that Russia’s demands addressed at the US and NATO talks involve Georgia too. Its pursuit of NATO membership, though unrealistic at the moment, is a cause for concern in Moscow. In more congenial times this “unrealistic” policy might actually evolve into something serious, and this is what bothers the Kremlin. Counter measures should be taken. Involving Tbilisi in the web of 3+3 platform is one way.

Another component is military pressure. Indeed, acting under the guise of growing tensions around Ukraine, it is easier to make moves in Georgia’s separatist territories. For instance, in South Ossetia, Russian guards are advancing fences deeper into the Georgian territory. The so-called “borderization” process is in full swing. Villages and cemeteries are being carved out, and the population has to leave or face physical troubles.

Perhaps this explains a careful foreign policy pursued by Georgia in relation to the tensions around Ukraine. For many this is (rightfully) an abandonment of principles of true friendship with Ukraine, and for others, it is more about realpolitik and the fear of potential Russian repercussions. Either way the attention which should be paid to the South Caucasus and Georgia as the West’s most trusted partner in the region is lacking.

This is where Moscow wins big. Managed chaos is what Russia feeds on. Perhaps other large powers act in the same manner. Perhaps not. But the trend is that Moscow has perfected these tools over the past couple of decades. Its responses to the challenges vary and range from hard military interventions to softer operations as the one in Kazakhstan.

In the end, the drama around Ukraine might end peacefully, but it is Russia’s moves on other fronts which are more portentous and that require proper analysis. This makes Georgia all the more vulnerable.

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Defusing New Tensions Around Ukraine

A mixture of military and economic measures will serve as an effective measure to prevent Russia imposing its vision on Ukraine. The policy should be subtle and swift, while the alternative risks bringing greater projection of Russian power.

It is clear that Ukraine is back on Russia’s agenda. Military moves near Ukraine’s eastern border have made many believe that Russia is about to invade Ukraine. This could be true or turn out to be a complete fallacy – either way Moscow has used these measures to manipulate the West, frighten Kyiv and extort additional benefits. Some have also suggested that Russia would abstain from military actions if rewarded properly – for instance, through the federalization of Ukraine. The problem with this understanding is that it misses a larger picture, where Russia has set the scene for greater pressure against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev penned pieces where an overall approach to Ukraine is presented: Ukraine cannot act independently and essentially exist without Russia’s approval. There is also a sense of urgency in Russia’s actions. All factors point to the conclusion that even if the Kremlin is provided with meaningful concessions, in the longer run, Moscow is unlikely to reduce pressure on its Western neighbor. The demanded federalization will be used as a pretext for, if not dismantling Ukraine, certainly weakening it to the level of near complete inner inefficiency.

A much wider context is also important. Moscow is seeing a window of opportunity. Global shifts where a multipolar world order is on the rise and where the U.S. is increasingly centered on China presents the Kremlin with significant room for maneuver. If there is a potential China-Russia cooperation the collective West should be most worried about, it is Beijing and Moscow aligning their policies around Taiwan and Ukraine. Pressure on one front is likely to serve as a catalyst for tensions in another. Potential coordination could be deadly as the U.S. will be unable to contain the two powers simultaneously.

Ways to Diffuse Tensions

An all-out U.S. military commitment to Ukraine is considered risky and unlikely unless Washington does see Ukraine as a part of its defense perimeter. Echoing this thinking, Joe Biden’s recent statements have indicated that Ukraine would not be seeing American troops on the ground even if Russia invades.

What could be helpful then is a more nuanced policy. An effective deterrent should be based on what the U.S. pursues elsewhere in Eurasia. Washington could realistically help build a web of partnerships between the Black Sea states and potentially, perhaps, Poland to help Ukraine. The U.S. could act as an external anchor. It does this with AUKUS and the Quad, and is likely to increasingly rely upon allies and partners rather than direct military involvement. It would still require a considerable U.S. commitment, but it would nevertheless be smaller than what defending Ukraine unilaterally would involve.

The policy of deterring Russia should consist of several pillars. One of them is encouraging Turkey-Ukraine military and political cooperation. This in itself means Washington should be intent on improving its faltering ties with Ankara. It would give a freer access to the US military in the wider Black Sea region. Encouraging Turkey-Ukraine military cooperation with some elements of US involvement can be a cornerstone for building capabilities serving as blockage against Russia. The policy could be especially effective since Turkey and Ukraine have already entered a fruitful cooperation. The Turkish company Baykar Defense will build a plant for the production of Bayraktar TB2 drones in Ukraine. The cooperation also involves constructing a center for their testing, maintenance, and personnel training.

It could be more troublesome for Russia if Turkey and Ukraine decide to work on advancing naval cooperation as both loath Russian moves which overturned the balance of power in the Black Sea following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Though considered unrealistic several months ago, Turkey could indeed play a vital role in making Russia see graver military consequences in case a major military move is made by Russia. Indeed, as the recent use of Turkish drones in eastern Ukraine against Russian military technologies showed, Moscow fears seeing Turkish technologies used near its borders.

Yet ultimately without a certain U.S. military support it would be impossible to deter Russia. Ideally some sort of gradual increase of military cooperation with Ukraine should take place. This might not be as large as causing outright fears in Moscow about a prompt change in the balance of power. But rather a phased policy should be implemented where consistency will play a major role in gradually changing the military situation on the ground.

The U.S. could consider sending lightweight Stingers, air defense systems, or the Iron Dome defense system. Washington could also think about sending the military equipment which was initially earmarked for Afghanistan. But perhaps consistent efforts in providing training to Ukrainian forces is what matters most in the potential conflict in the plains of eastern Ukraine.

Yet even the suggested military measures and the creation of regional grouping might not be enough. The West should be utilizing a powerful economic tool too. The threat of imposing harsher sanctions on Russia is a powerful mean for limiting or even altogether deterring the Russian military moves.

Russia plays a long game around Ukraine and the West, and the U.S. in particular should be doing the same. Changing the military balance on the ground overnight in favor of Ukraine is both daunting and extremely risky. But a mixture of economic, low- to mid-level military measures and diplomatic support will make significant changes in the longer term. This is what Russia fears most, and the West should be playing this card.

Image Source: Eurasia Review

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In the South Caucasus, the Railway Revival Project Remains Elusive

Recent escalations between Armenia and Azerbaijan diminish the real willingness of both sides to find a long-lasting solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, blaming solely Baku and Yerevan might not be entirely correct. Russia is lurking behind the overall process. Moscow’s illiberal peacemaking agenda undermines what leaders saw possible following the 2020 second Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Armenia and Azerbaijan were about to sign a range of agreements in November under Russian mediation. It followed seemingly positive statements made by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on October 15, who agreed to the opening of a railway from Azerbaijan to the Nakhchivan exclave and further on to Turkey via Armenia’s southernmost region of Syunik. In exchange, Armenia would have a railway link to Russia and Iran through Azerbaijan’s territory. This seemed to be a good bargain for Baku and especially beneficial to Armenia, which could end its notorious geo-economic isolation. Sandwiched between its two historical rivals, Turkey and Azerbaijan, and with open borders only with Georgia and Iran, the opening could be a historical development in Armenia’s post-Soviet period.

Yet again, something went wrong, and Russia’s position has been decisive. With the collective West sidelined, Moscow is now a sole arbiter of the conflict. But building a long-term, peaceful solution is easier said than done. Lack of actual military and economic tools could be a significant hindrance. In Russia’s case, however, it is the geopolitical component of its peace-building initiative which ruins the prospects. Indeed, constructing a long-term peace requires genuine political willingness, prestige, and a record of unblemished leadership. When Russia negotiated a ceasefire agreement in November 2020 following the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, optimism rose that a revival of former transportation links and economic cooperation might decrease tensions and ultimately lead to sustainable peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This, in turn, should have led to a more prosperous South Caucasus. However, continual skirmishes, as the latest round which led to a high number of deaths, work against this expectation.

This further lessens the declining level of trust between the two warring sides and creates a more chaotic security environment in the region overall. The net result is yet another postponement of the railroad revival project. Moreover, even if meaningful progress (actual opening of the railways) on the issue is eventually reached, a smooth operation of the new connectivity routes will be doubtful.

This lack of trust highlights deeper deficiencies related to the attempted conflict resolution. Russia’s illiberal peacebuilding methods fail to produce real security, largely because the Kremlin is suspected to have little or no interest at all in real peace and instead, prioritizes its own geopolitical interests.

Adherence to a peace agreement would negate the instability Russia wants to operationalize. The continuous tensions between the two countries make Russia the winner. For instance, unable to resist the Azerbaijani army, the Armenian government has approached the Russian side to increase the military and security cooperation, and even extend the Russian military presence in several other points beyond where Russian troops are located at.

The lack of genuine peacebuilding intentions also generates the troubles in Russia-Azerbaijan relations. Although victorious in the war, Azerbaijan’s political elites fear a continuous Russian military presence on Azeri soil beyond 2025, when the first term of the peacekeeping mission officially ends. Indeed, the likely extension of Russia’s military presence would drive Azerbaijan further into Turkey’s embrace. Both countries have been allies for decades, but this reached a qualitatively new level with the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war when Turkish military assistance was considered key. To offset Russian influence, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed the Shusha Declaration in June 2021. The two sides pledged to defend each other in case of an attack on either party. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even mooted a possible future Turkish base in the country.

As Russia increases its influence, Turkey will increase its willingness to support Azerbaijan. The age of exclusive Russian geopolitical domination in the South Caucasus is coming to an end, and this could explain why the revival of the railways has failed so far and is likely to in the future. Opening the region up does not really advance Russian geopolitical goals, which are better served with Armenia solely connected to Russia via Georgia, while denying Azerbaijan a direct line with Turkey.

For Russia, a pure geopolitical calculus could be a real motivator behind Russia’s present policies in the South Caucasus. Indeed, neutralizing the blocking potential of the Caucasus mountains has been at the heart of Russia’s military efforts. But the geopolitical component brings about troubles in Russia’s overall strategic calculus. It generates tensions not only with Azerbaijan, which is increasingly fearful of Moscow’s intentions, but even with its close ally, Armenia. When the latest flare-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan took place, Yerevan once again witnessed a rather distanced Moscow. For the latter, the allied ties with Armenia take no precedence over Azerbaijan-Russia relations. Thus, the geopolitical ingredient helps Russia navigate the conflict, be a major powerbroker, but it in no way secures a long-term peace in the South Caucasus.

Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University.

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A New Order in the South Caucasus

This November marks one year since the end of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. Since the signing of the trilateral agreement, which ended the hostilities in 2020, the pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus has been staggering. The post-war period initiated several major geopolitical trends and accentuated others which had been long emerging in the region.

The Changing Western Stance

First, the war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been decidedly trumped by the Russian alternative. Moscow is suspected of not looking to resolve (it rarely, if ever, pursued peace efforts in other territorial conflicts) the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Instead, the Kremlin is seeking to freeze it under its close watch in an attempt to retain tools of influence over Armenia and increasingly Turkey-leaning Azerbaijan.

The West’s inability to play a proactive role toward fluid geopolitical circumstances in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its long-term commitment to engage the region and help resolve the separatist conflicts. The second Nagorno-Karabakh war was, in a way, an upshot of the West’s declining engagement in the region which started from 2010s, but accelerated in the past several years. The US has been looking elsewhere – the Indo-Pacific region is now a primary theater of activity with Washington. The EU has been hobbled by internal differences, and the fear of troubling already tense ties with Russia weigh significantly upon policymakers in Brussels.

Growing Western unwillingness to engage the region more extensively is also reflective of the troubles within the liberal order. In a way, the Russian peacemaking tradition and the West’s inadequate position in the South Caucasus tell crucial details of the changing the global system where such formats as the Minsk Group gradually lose relevance. Instead, the age of great power competition has returned to the region.

Indeed, Turkey and Russia’s recent push (together with Iran’s blessing) to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, plus Russia, Turkey and Iran highlights the changes in the international system. The application of balance of power ideas is back in the game and the Eurasian trio is thus trying to build a new order, which I called elsewhere as the hierarchical order. Iran, Russia, and Turkey will try to build a closed regional cooperation model from the Black Sea to the Caspian basin. If implemented, the West will be absent from this arrangement and the tools of leverage it still holds could be further eroded.

Yet another critical change which followed the 2020 war is that the collective West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity. Rather, a diversified foreign policy should be applied reflecting the existing realities on the ground. The EU, for instance, should be more geopolitical in its approach to adjust to the ever-more fractured nature of the South Caucasus.

The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel the local, small, and geopolitically weak actors toward diversifying their foreign ties – one could call it a “rebalancing.” For instance, Georgia’s inability to ascend to the EU and NATO could be complemented with constructing closer ties with Eurasia’s emerging economic and geopolitical powers. This nuanced foreign policy change could be reflective of similar processes which take place in Ukraine and even Turkey, both of which are seeking closer ties with China.

The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East. Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the powers around it. In a way, this re-emergence of close contacts between the South Caucasus and the Middle East is a return to normalcy which was disrupted in early 19th century by Russian annexation of the South Caucasus. Indeed, in pure geographic terms the region is better connected to Turkey and Iran than to Russia with which it shares an impassable Caucasus range.

Iran Battling to Retain its Role

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Ankara or Moscow. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence for Tehran, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts various Persian empires had with the South Caucasus.

The second Nagorno-Karabakh war changed Iran’s calculus in the region. The results showed Tehran’s interests were unheeded, while Turkish influence grew exponentially. Thus, Iran now has to adjust to the radically changed geopolitical landscape. Perhaps its recent escalation with Azerbaijan betrays the Islamic Republic’s concerns about its weakening position in the South Caucasus.

Yet there is little Iran can realistically do to meaningfully boost its position in the region. The South Caucasus will certainly feature higher in Tehran’s foreign policy agenda than before. Perhaps closer cooperation with Russia will also follow as both countries loath growing Turkish influence. Iran can also support Armenia in its efforts to contain the triumphant Azerbaijan.

Strategic changes on the ground bring about the necessity in Tehran to adopt a different foreign policy outlook. A more robust foreign policy toward the South Caucasus would nevertheless require greater financial and military attention to the region – resources a cash-stripped and sanctioned Islamic Republic lacks.

Armenia’s Unfavorable Position

The period since the end of the war also highlighted the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s democratic states. Take Armenia: its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be even more dependent on Russia, which augurs badly for an aspiring liberal democracy.

With incompatibility between an aspiring democracy with a powerful illiberal country such as Russia, the Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.

The war also put an end to any real hopes of Armenia implementing a multi-vector foreign policy. Even prior to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers, but Russian influence had begun to increase.

The 2020 war obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come. Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia will be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives. With no practical foreign policy diversification options, the three South Caucasus states are now further divided by larger regional powers, accelerating the fracturing of the region.

Looking Ahead

Much of how the things will shape up in the future around the South Caucasus will depend on Iran, Russia, and Turkey, but how the US approaches the region will be no less crucial. The collective West will have to come to a certain understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region. After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided.

Delay in reconsideration of the US policy could spell disaster for remaining Western influence in the South Caucasus. Georgia, which serves for the West as a door to the Caspian basin and on to Central Asia, could be the biggest loser if Washington shifts its foreign policy away from the region. A deeper engagement in economic and security cooperation is preferable, which would be an effective tool for preventing an alternative, Russian model of dominating the region.

Along with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan too will face the lack of foreign policy options if the West’s unwillingness to commit to the region continues to grow. The reality could be the closing off of the region, the development of a 3+3 platform, decline of democratic principles, and the eventual spread of illiberalism.

Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University.

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The Limits of Russia’s “Separatist Empire”

Photo By 123.ru

An important part of Russia’s grand strategy since the 1990s has been the use of separatist conflicts across the post-Soviet space for geopolitical aims. Moscow’s competition with the West over the borderlands – i.e., the regions that adjoin Russia from the west and south – has involved keeping Moldova, Ukraine and the South Caucasus from joining the West through deliberate stoking of separatist conflicts. This policy has been successful so far, as the EU and NATO have refrained from extending membership to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. However, over the past several years Russia has started to face long-term problems: financing the separatist territories; attaining wider recognition for the separatist regions; inability to reverse the pro-Western course of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine; and the failure to produce a long-term political or economic development vision for the unrecognized territories.

Russia’s policy towards the conflicts in the post-Soviet space has been conditioned by various factors ranging from Moscow’s relations with the West, Turkey and Iran, pure military calculations, as well as ups and downs in bilateral ties with specific neighboring countries. Though it has been hard to see the emergence of a veritable Russian strategy in the 1990s and early 2000s towards the territorial conflicts, by 2020 (as evidenced by the second Nagorno-Karabakh war results) it could be argued with some certainty that a purposeful use and subsequent management of separatist conflict zones across the post-Soviet space has turned into an important part of Russia’s grand strategy toward the Eurasian landmass.

The emergence of the strategy is also closely related to the ongoing geopolitical competitition Russia has with the West over the borderlands – i.e., the regions that border on Russia from the west and south. The rivalry is manifested in the expansion of Western institutions such as the Eastern Partnership and NATO into Eastern Europe and as a countermeasure, Russian efforts to build the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with the aim to engulf what once constituted the Soviet territory. Therefore, maintaining the buffer states around Russia has been a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against the West’s eastward projection of military and economic influence. The emergence of the Russian strategy toward the separatist conflicts has also been conditioned by the arising constraints as an effective countermeasure against the neighboring states’ westward geopolitical inclinations. The Russian political elite knew that because of the countries’ low economic attractiveness, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe and the US. The same was likely to occur with Moldova and Ukraine on Russia’s western frontier, as their geographical proximity to and historical interconnections with the West render them especially willing to pursue pro-Western foreign policy.

To prevent Western economic and military penetration and the pro-Western foreign policy vector in the neighboring states, the Kremlin has on many cases deliberately fomented various separatist conflicts. This policy has proved successful so far. The EU and NATO refrained from extending membership to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova because Russian military presence in those countries serves as the biggest obstacle for the West’s institutional expansion.

However, Russia now faces a major problem: it has so far failed to produce a long-term vision for the separatist regions. Creating a unified economic space with the separatist territories is not an option as usually little economic benefit is expected. Even if in some cases benefits still could be harnessed, the territories’ poor infrastructure prevents active Russian involvement. Additionally, local political elites are often sensitive to Russian domination. For instance, Abkhazia has for decades resisted Russian businesses from buying the local lands. Moscow understands that more financing has to be dedicated to the regions, whose populations could otherwise turn increasingly disenchanted with hopes they pinned on Russia. Indeed, the system is difficult to navigate for Russia since while in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts only in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, Moscow’s responsibilities increased significantly by late 2020 with separatist Donbas and now Nagorno-Karabakh conflict added to its strategy. One could also add Syria to the list. The latter’s inclusion might be surprising, but considering the level of Russian influence there and the stripping away of many of Damascus’s international contacts, the war-torn country is essentially now fully dependent on Russia security-wise.

This means that at a time when economic problems resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Western sanctions, and the lack of reforms are looming large on the Russian home front, Moscow has to pour yet more money into multiple separatist actors spread across the former Soviet space, as well as Syria. Moscow’s broader strategy of managing separatist conflicts is therefore under increasing financial stress. For instance, recently it was announed that Russia plans to spend a whopping $12 billion in the next 3 years for separatist territories in Ukraine.

It is more and more difficult for the Kremlin to maneuver across so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, actors in the conflict zones try to play their own game independently from Moscow and the latter has to closely monitor any deviations lest it harms the Kremlin’s strategic calculus. This often happened in Abkhazia when, for instance, in early 2020 Raul Khadjimba resigned not without Russian interference or in Donbas, where occasional infighting as in 2015 and 2018 among rebel groups takes place.

Apart from internal differences, the geographic dispersal of those conflicts also creates difficulties for Russia’s projection of power. Geopolitical trends indicate that Russia’s long-term strategy to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is losing its rigor. While it is true that Moscow for the moment stopped its neighbors from joining the EU and NATO, its gamble that those separatist regions would undermine the pro-Western resolve of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed.

Apart from a failure to preclude pro-Western sentiments among the neighboring states, economic components also indicate Moscow has been less successful. Western economic expansion via the Eastern Partnership and other programs is proving to be more efficient.

Nor can the Russian leadership entice states around the world to recognize the independence of breakaway entities. For instance, in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, only Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru have extended recognition.

Russia lacks any long-term economic vision for the breakaway territories. Dire economic straits have inevitably caused populations to flee toward abundant medical, trade, and educational possibilities other countries provide. Usually these are territories from which the separatist forces initially tried to break away. Abkhazians try to use benefits provided by Tbilisi, so do the Ossetians, which once again highlights the fact that the Kremlin has failed to transform those entities into secure and economically stable lands. Crime levels as well as high-level corruption and active black markets have been on an upward trajectory, which undermines the effectiveness of financial largesse Moscow has to provide on a regular basis.

Thus a long term perspective for Russia’s “separatist empire” is not promising. Moscow is outspending the benefits it potentially can reap from poor and insecure separatist regions. Its military presence in those lands with the latest example of the dispatch of peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh highlights weaknesses in Moscow’s foreign policy – dependence on the military element in formulating the foreign policy is becoming palpable.

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