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.

Emil Avdaliani

Professor at European University

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Passportization Ensures Role of Russia in Societies of Occupied Territories

Photo By 112.international

Introduction

From September 17 to 19, the Russian Federation held elections for the 450 seats of the State Duma. While the focus of many media outlets and research organizations is on election fraud, with claims of up to 14 million fraudulent votes for the ruling United Russia party, or suppression of protests following the election, the International Conflict Resolution Center is instead turning its focus towards occupied the occupied territories of Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

As a result of passportization initiatives, large portions of the populations living in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, Abkhazia, South Ossetia/Tskhinvali, and Transnistria participated in these legislative elections. United Russia’s popularity has declined due to poor domestic economic conditions, prompting the government to issue passports to those residing in occupied territories in the hope of gaining votes in exchange for ‘recognition’ of occupying regimes.

Voting in the Occupied Territories of Ukraine

On April 24, 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to simplify the process of granting citizenship to residents of “certain areas of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.” Through this process, residents of these regions of Ukraine were able to receive Russian passports in less than three months from the time of application, notably granting them the right to vote in Russian elections.

Beginning in June 2021, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) noted that “the forcible naturalization of Ukrainians has been accelerating as the invaders seek to have residents of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions cast their ballots in September.” According to the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Rostov region of Russia Oleg Agarkov, nearly 640,000 Russian passports were issued to residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, indicating a mass effort for the ruling United Russia party to win additional votes to maintain their majority.

In order to ensure the participation of the more than 640,000 passport holders in the election, the authorities of the regime occupying the Donetsk region organized 825 busses and 12 trains, free of charge, to provide transportation for Russian citizens to polling stations in the neighboring Rostov region of Russia.

Regarding the elections, several international powers came to support Ukraine in its statements that the elections violated international law. Turkey, the first country to join Ukraine’s ‘Crimea Platform’ event, has voiced its opposition to Russia’s occupation, in part due to the actions that have been taken against Crimean Tatars, a Turkic group native to the Crimean Peninsula that has been discriminated by Russian authorities. According to Tanju Bilgiç, spokesperson for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the State Duma elections have “no legal validity for Turkey.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price echoed Turkey’s remarks, noting that the United States “[does] not recognize holding elections for the Russian Duma on sovereign Ukrainian territory.” The European Union issued a similar statement, stating that the E.U. “does not recognize the so-called elections held in the occupied Crimean peninsula.”

Voting in the Occupied Territories of Georgia

Passportization in Georgia’s occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali began several years before the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and in fact, contributed to some residents’ willingness to participate in separatist activity. For example, in 2002 before the Russian Federation changed its regulations on citizenship, 150,000 residents in Abkhazia applied for Russian passports, bringing the total number of residents of the region holding Russian passports to 200,000. Following the 2008 war, Russia stopped issuing passports to residents of occupied Abkhazia as the Russian Federation recognized Abkhazia as a separate ‘state.’

On September 20, the Russian Embassy in Abkhazia reported that 13,000 residents of Abkhazia holding Russian passports participated in the elections. The Russian Embassy in Tskhinvali reported that 3,500 votes had been cast in an early voting period in the territory. More than 90% of the population of South Ossetia/Tskhinvali, which is estimated to be around 50,000 people, hold Russian passports and are therefore eligible to vote. By the end of the regular election dates, South Ossetia/Tskhinvali had an estimated turnout of over 11,000.

In response to holding elections on occupied territory, the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement condemning the elections, referring to them as “another destructive step against Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity that grossly violates the fundamental norms of international law and fully disregards the UN Charter and Helsinki Final Act.”

Voting in Transnistria, Moldova’s Occupied Territory

Moldova’s occupied territory of Transnistria has an estimated population of 469,000 (as of 2018), and as of 2019, more than 220,000 of these residents hold Russian passports.

Between September 17 and 19, 27 polling stations were opened in the occupied region for the Russian Duma elections, and according to the Supreme Council of the PMR (the government in control of the territory), 59,233 Pridnestrovians (the term Transnistria uses for residents of the territory) with Russian citizenship cast their ballots.

Prior to the election, the leader of the government in control of Transnistria, Vadim Krasnoselski, issued a statement urging the public to vote “because despite all the difficulties, Russia does not forget Transnistria and helps it as much as possible.”

In comparison to the 59,000 votes cast in the most recent State Duma elections, it was reported that just under 29,000 residents of Transnistria voted in Moldova’s recent parliamentary elections.

Unlike Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova’s pushback to foreign elections on its territory have been weak. Moldova’s reaction was made in a comment issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Office. As noted by Vladimir Socor of Jamestown Foundation, this “is the lowest level at which the Foreign Ministry can express a reaction.” He also noted that “it was not a diplomatic note” and “the Russian ambassador was not summoned to Chisinau to give an explanation to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Conclusion

The total number of votes counted in the 2021 Russian legislative elections equaled 109,204,662. Thus, the number of votes coming from residents occupied territories is not significant in terms of swaying the national results, however, the inclusion of these votes with districts of Russia proper can contribute to the victory of United Russia, as this was the party that offered these occupied territories ‘recognition.’

What is perhaps more troubling is the continued development of social ties between the people of Russia and those residing in the occupied territories. Allowing participation in elections, distributing pensions, and issuing travel documents only contributes to the integration of occupied territories within the Russian Federation. Resolving these frozen conflicts will only become more difficult with time as the societies and their occupied territories diverge further.

The international community has condemned these elections and has issued statements supporting territorial integrity, but additional action is needed. Russia must be pressured into compliance with agreements signed with international organizations, beginning with the withdrawal of its military from Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Georgian territory.

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Great Power Competition Defines the Ukrainian Question, and Only Great Power Diplomacy can Provide an Answer

Photo by censor.net

Starting on June 28, Ukraine and the United States launched the Sea Breeze 2021 exercise. This annual exercise, which ended on July 10, consists of 32 countries and is the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its start in 1997. Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, has already described the exercises as a “provocative muscle-flexing game,” with the Kremlin testing advanced air-defense systems (including S-400 and Pantsir surface-to-air missiles) in the occupied Crimean Peninsula while deploying 20 warplanes and helicopters.

Moscow’s protestations against Sea Breeze hotly follows Russian harassment of the British Royal Navy’s destroyer HMS Defender on June 23 and the Dutch guided-missile frigate HNLMS Evertsen on June 24 off the Crimean coast. The HMS Defender deliberately sailed within 12 miles of Crimea’s Cape Fiolent, on its way to the Georgian port of Batumi, supporting the internationally recognized sovereignty of Ukraine over Crimea and its territorial waters. Russia responded by harrying the Defender with coastal ships and dropping bombs in its path, while staging mock aerial attacks against the Evertsen.

This comes amidst a general confrontational period in Western-Russian relations that began with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, drastically deteriorated following revelations of Russian disinformation campaigns and meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and came to a head during Moscow’s buildup of 110,000 troops along the Ukrainian border in April 2021. The troop buildup itself represented another step Russia has taken to establish hegemony over the Black Sea. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Moscow has worked to supplement its Black Sea Fleet with coastal defense and area-denial systems stretching from occupied Crimea to Abkhazia, an territory internationally recognized as part of Georgia but operated by government supported by Moscow.

In Crimea, the Kremlin has deployed missile batteries that allow Russia to strike at vessels as far away as the Dardanelles Strait. Although Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia would withdraw the 110,000 troops it deployed in Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern border by May 1, Moscow has only withdrawn 10,000. The Kremlin has also secured control over the Sea of Azov by building its naval presence and constructing a bridge across the Kerch Strait which separates the Azov and Black Seas. Meanwhile, Russian-led forces in Ukraine’s Donbas break the ceasefire daily in a conflict that has taken over 14,000 Ukrainian lives.

Ukraine’s undeclared war with Russia over the Donbas and Crimea is, unfortunately, tied directly to the geopolitical environment of the Black Sea; the sea itself is a battlefield in a new era of great power competition. It is important to understand this because Russia’s President Vladimir Putin does not have the luxury of deriving legitimacy from the pursuit of Communism like his Soviet predecessors. By stealing Russia’s national wealth for himself and his cronies, he has tied his regime’s legitimacy to Russia’s success in great power competition. Thus, for Putin, regime survival is maintained geopolitical victories such as establishing Russia once more as a Black Sea hegemon, implanting Russia into distant conflicts like Burma, Libya, and Syria, and preserving his authoritarian ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

At the center is Ukraine. Waiting for the implosion of the Putin regime, which is by no means certain, is not a responsible course of action. The best path to recover Ukraine’s territory and preserve its sovereignty is through negotiation, but through strength. A first step to demonstrate the seriousness of the West would be to step up freedom of navigation operations through Ukraine’s Crimean waters and expand them to include voyages into Ukraine’s waters in the Sea of Azov.

Any further negotiations for Ukraine must account for its interests; such requirements at minimum would involve a track dedicated to the restoration of the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine. The ineffective Normandy Format dedicated to a negotiated resolution to the Donbas conflict, and is chaired by Berlin, Kyiv, Moscow, and Paris must be dissolved and remade to include Ankara, London, and Washington, with Bucharest, Tbilisi, and Warsaw as observers. Further, Moscow will need to officially recognize Kyiv’s legitimacy in the occupied Donbas territories. Russia will also need to rein in the domestic hacker groups that have targeted Western infrastructure, such as the Colonial Pipeline ransomware hack.

Until such a diplomatic restructuring occurs, the West must continue to help Ukraine develop resilience against incremental Russian interference with Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, even if this help is likewise incremental in the defense and economic sectors


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Russia Reinforces Black Sea Navy with Caspian Warships

On April 6, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian Federation would hold 4,018 military exercises in all military districts during the month of April. The Southern Military District (SMD) which is responsible for the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Caspian regions of Russia, announced the drills would involve around 15,000 military personnel. The actual deployment has reached 80,000 troops, including artillery and tanks, with 40,000 stationed in Crimea and the other 40,000 along the northern and eastern Ukrainian border. 

The Kremlin then announced on April 8 artillery boats and amphibious landing craft from the Caspian Flotilla would join the Black Sea Fleet for naval exercises. Fifteen ships have been dispatched with marines, and are sailing through the deteriorating Volga-Don Canal which connects the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov. Russia has also engaged in GPS jamming of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring mission.

This has prompted extreme concern in Kyiv, Washington, and other Western and NATO capitals. Washington has so far dispatched two ships to the Black Sea to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine. While the Kremlin maintains the troops are deployed for exercises only, March has seen mass violations of the ceasefire by the Russian-backed separatists, with 28 Ukrainian casualties since January.

Russian media has also ramped up its propaganda against Ukraine, warning that if Moscow sees human rights violationslike the Srebrenica Massacre (referring to the Serbian massacre of 8,000 Bosniak Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica during the 1995 Bosnian War), Russia would have no choice but to intervene to save Russian citizens. Russian President Putin’s point man for Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, said that if such an escalation occurs, Russia would shoot Ukraine “not…in the leg, but in the face.”

The ships from the Caspian Flotilla being deployed are precisely the ships Russia would use for an amphibious invasion of Ukraine. The convoy, according to videos of the ships, seems to comprise of Serna-class amphibious landing craft and Smel-class artillery boats.

The Serna-class amphibious vessel is 84-feet long and displaces 100 tons with a full combat load. The Serna can either carry one T-72/T-90 or T-80 main battle tank, two BTR-80 wheeled armored carriers, or up to 92 troops. The Shmel, which displaces about 71 tons, has a primary armament of a 76mm D-56TS gun on its bow, and two 25mm cannons on the stern. The Shmel is designed especially for coastal bombardment and is capable of laying sea mines.

While the Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet both fall within the jurisdiction of the SMD, troops have been deployed to the region from well without its jurisdiction. Convoys of troops and hardware have journeyed to the Ukrainian border from Siberia  and the 76th Air Assault Division based in Pskov was deployed to Feodosia in Crimea. The last time the 76th Air Assault Division was deployed to the SMD, they took part in the amphibious assault on Abkhazia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.  

As always, it is difficult to ascertain the true intentions of the Kremlin. This is because the Russian leadership makes sure never to reveal their true objectives. This policy brings Moscow two primary benefits: it prevents a coherent response from its adversaries who have to spend time preparing for numerous contingencies, and it lets Russia select the least costly option without losing face. 

Russia could simply be sending a message as Ukraine continues to call for NATO membership, demonstrating what Russia is capable of doing to Ukraine. The very lack of secrecy behind these troop deployments gives credence to the idea that this is a shakedown. However, the current troop deployments are even larger than those used to invade Crimea in 2014. Russia could be preparing to seize Mariupol, finalizing its total control of the Sea of Azov and establish a land bridge to Crimea. This would also allow Russia to restore the freshwater flow to Crimea; Ukraine has dammed the North Crimean Canal that provided the peninsula with between 85-90 percent of its freshwater. Alternatively, Russia might attempt to seize all of Ukraine’s Black Sea littoral. This would also connect Transnistria, occupied by Russia and effectively detached from Moldova since 1992, to the Russian mainland.

If Russia believes that the West will not respond to a Russian invasion, then the invasion will come. The United States must rally its allies around Kyiv and show Russia that not only does Ukraine have the firm support of the West and NATO, but that real, actionable consequences would follow an invasion. The principles of freedom and self-determination are being tested. The West must decide whether these principles are something we wish to keep. 

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Russian Passportization Poses Long-term Threat to Ukrainian Sovereignty

A major component of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy is ‘passportization.’ Passportization is Russia’s policy of offering passports (and citizenship) to residents of occupied territories. In conjunction with the Kremlin’s tactics of sustained disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks, passportization allows Moscow to wage war without risking its own soldiers.

This policy, in combination with Russian disinformation and cyber-attacks fits within an old Soviet strategy of ‘reflexive control.’ Reflexive control is a method in which a (typically weaker) party can influence a partner or opponent into unwittingly choosing bad options by influencing perceptions. From the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin has hidden its true goals from the public; this follows a strategy of reflexive control as Moscow can portray the attainment of actual goals as victory, deny failures, and above all prevent a coherent response from its adversaries.

Thus, in the first year of the conflict, President Putin began speaking of ‘Novorossiya,’ a Russian imperial inventioncomprising the southern third of Ukraine’s territory which holds 45 percent of its population. At the time, the Kremlin likely desired to use the illegitimate Donetsk and Luhansk Republics in the Donbas as a launching pad to create a puppet Russian state across the widely Russian-speaking ‘Novorossiya’ which would link Russian-occupied Transnistria and Crimea with Russia proper. This plan failed when Ukraine secured the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov from Russian-backed separatist forces in mid-2014. Following this defeat, the Kremlin quietly dropped the notion of ‘Novorossiya’ and it was as if the plan never existed.

As President Putin’s dreams of Novorossiya vanished, the Kremlin quietly transformed the crisis into another frozen conflict. Russia’s overall objective, like its policies elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, is to prevent these countries from pursuing integrative policies with the West, or at least separation from Russia. Passportization allows Russia to effectively disrupt integration under the guise of humanitarian assistance. It also provides Russia an opportunity to address its demographic woes as well as provide means of influence in target countries.

In 2019, Russian deaths exceeded births by 316,000. According to some estimates by the United Nations, the Russian population may well contract from a 2020 population of 146.7 million to between 135.8 and 124.6 million by 2050. For Moscow, Ukrainians provide a fellow Slavic population with close historic, linguistic, and religious links that can easily integrate into Russian society and revitalize Russia’s declining population. In part, passportization helps ameliorate Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis by siphoning off other countries’ citizenry.

This passportization policy also enables the Kremlin to meddle with the internal affairs of a country. The most obvious form this takes is by providing the Kremlin a casus belli. Prior to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Russia had flooded Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russian passports. When Georgian Prime Minister Mikheil Saakashvili moved to reassert government control over the renegade South Ossetia, Russia responded with invasion, claiming it was defending Russian citizens. 

Moscow has, supposedly for humanitarian reasons, provided over 441,000 Russian passports in the occupied Donbas territories, and facilitated the issuance of over 1.2 million Luhansk and Donetsk passports. And in 2019, President Putin fast-tracked naturalization for any Ukrainian who lived or lives in Ukraine’s east, who works in Russia, and any Ukrainian who was born in Crimea but left prior to the annexation, as well as their families. In the spring of 2020, Russia passed an amendment nullifying restrictions on dual citizenship for Moldovan, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Kazakhstani citizens applying for a Russian passport. 

Russia’s passportization of the Donbas allows it to prepare for two contingencies. The first is to engage openly in war on behalf of its newly minted citizens should Ukraine launch a fresh, Western-backed offensive. The second is to give up the provinces back to Kyiv as poison pills. While Russia’s campaign has bolstered anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, Moscow’s information campaign in the Donbas has painted Ukraine as a gang of fascists. A reincorporated Donbas will thus function as a Ukrainian pressure point for Russia.

By inserting a pro-Russian population into Ukraine, Russia can create a time bomb that could provide Russia a dishonest justification to seize ‘Novorossiya,’ or at least keep Ukraine within Moscow’s orbit. One way that Kyiv can nullify this issue is by providing comprehensive services and assistance to the people in the occupied territories if and when they are recovered. Such assistance would combat Russia’s plans in two ways – it would diminish incentives for Ukrainians to work in Russia as well as show them that Kyiv is not the fascist junta portrayed by the Kremlin. However, for this to work, the West must provide both political and economic support to Kyiv, even after territorial reunification.  

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Moscow Steps Up Russification Campaign Against Tatarstan

On February 3rd, the non-profit All-Tatar Public Center’s chairman Farit Zakiyev began a hunger strike after Russian prosecutors labeled his cultural organization as extremist. On February 9th, a Russian court in Tatarstan’s city of Naberezhnye Chelny charged the Tatar writer and activist, Fauzia Bairamova, with inciting secession in a speech and ordered her to pay a fine of 30,000 rubles, or 400 dollars. Ms. Bairamova said her speech, written in Tatar, was mistranslated into Russian and pled not guilty. These actions are the Kremlin’s latest attacks on Tatar, and minority rights in Russia. 

Tatarstan, with its complex imperial history and, presents a special interest for Russian authorities. Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital, was the last seat of the Golden Horde which ruled Russia from the 13th to 15th centuries. Prosperous in the latter days of the Russian Empire, the Soviets sought to dilute their autonomy by drawing borders of making Tatars a minority in their eponymous republic. The Tatars, numbering 5.3 million (four percent of the Russian population) and the second largest ethnic group in Russia today, only gained a majority in Tatarstan in 2002. 

However, the Tatars were able to gain significant autonomy during the breakup of the Soviet Union when Moscow held a significantly weaker hand than it does today. At the time, a referendum revealed 61.4 percent of the population agreed Tatarstan was a sovereign state. While Chechnya chose secession and war, Tatarstan opted for greater autonomy within the new Russian Federation by signing a treaty with Moscow in 1994. The result was the Tatar Republic within the Russian Federation, which had jurisdiction over management of its natural resources, tax collection, judiciary, and even foreign economic relations. 

The power dynamic shifted when Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power. In 2002, President Putin signed a law enforcing the usage of the Cyrillic over the Latin alphabet (Tatarstan switched to the Latin script in 1999). While Kremlin renewed the 1994 treaty in 2005, Moscow also eliminated Tatar laws that contradicted federal law, and the ethnic composition of the Tatarstan legislature was changed at the expense of the Tatars. 

After the treaty renewal, President Putin continued to promote Russian culture over local ethnicities. In 2008, the Duma required high school exams to be conducted in Russian, leading to minority languages, like Tatar, being replaced by Russian as the language of instruction. In 2017, President Putin let lapse the treaty between Moscow and Kazan. This coincided with his declaration that it is “unacceptable to force a man to learn a language not his own,” or rather, to make a Russian learn a minority language. While previously ethnic mandated education to be conducted in the local language, the Russian federal government started pressuring local governments to abolish the local language requirements in the ethnic republics.

In October 2017, government prosecutors investigated Tatar schools to see if compulsory Tatar lessons had indeed been abolished. Prior to this, Tatar law required schools to teach in Tatar for six hours a week. The government followed the assault in February 2020, when they ordered school officials to halve the hours of optional lessons in Tatar from four hours a week to two. 

Religion may now be the last bastion of Tatar culture. Mosques have begun teaching courses on Tatar language and culture, even switching their services from Russian to Tatar. Kamil Samigullin, the Chief Mufti of Tatarstan, noted that while religion is indeed separate from the state, it is tied to the soul of the Tatar people. 

This synergy of Tatar culture and Islam is not new. In the 19th century, the Volga Tatars entered a cultural renaissance in which the elites embraced a trade-oriented version of Islam, creating a merchant class and intellectual movement similar to the Jewish Bund. The Tsars even sent these merchants out to the empire’s Muslim provinces to spread their interpretation of Islam. With this history, it is reasonable to expect a peaceful interaction between culture and faith in Tatarstan.

Moscow’s attack on ethnic minorities has been seen before; it has attempted forcible assimilation for centuries, stopping when it met local resistance. And the further centralization of the Russian center over the ethnic others by Putin fits with his psychology, given his fear of another fragmentation along ethnic lines like that of the Soviet Union. However, the center will only find instability, not security, if it continues pushing russification on Tatarstan and the other ethnic territories.  

Image Source: TSAR Voyages

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Zelenskyy’s “Boldest Move” Yet: Why Ukraine Banned Three Pro-Russian Channels

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a five-year ban on three pro-Russian channels on February 2nd. Although the United States embassy and Ukrainian journalists welcomed this move, the ban carries greater domestic and geopolitical implications.

Zelenskyy sanctioned channels 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and Zik TV following a decision made by the National Security and Defense Council. The Council advised the termination of broadcasting licensing for three channels legally belonging to Taras Kozak, a member of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform For Life (OPZZh) party. Kozak, who owns two houses in annexed Crimea, is linked to the alleged owner of the three channels, Viktor Medvedchuk. Medvedchuk is a Ukrainian oligarch, the head OPZZh’s political council, and has personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The pro-Kremlin politician denies any media ownership in Ukraine.

The Minister of Culture and Information Policy, Oleksandr Tkachenko further called on YouTube to remove the joint “Stop Censorship of 112 Ukraine, NewsOne and ZIK TV” channel. Roman Lozinsky, a member of the Holos party pushed for the exclusion of politicians, journalists, and cameramen affiliated with the banned channels. 

112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK TV continue to have a large online presence, where they equate Zelenskyy’s decision to ban them with the kind of media censorship seen in North Korea. The channels accused the Ukrainian government of restricting freedom of the press and violating journalists’ constitutional rights. Russian Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe Ivan Soltanovsky criticized Ukrainians and Latvians, the latter banning five Russian channels back on February 1st, for “mass human rights violations.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the Ukrainian decision, and the West’s subsequent support, as hypocritical, and in contradiction with international norms regarding freedom of press.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell expressed concern for Ukraine’s abrupt termination of the channels. He noted that although Ukraine is defending its “territorial integrity and national security” against Russian “manipulation,” the act might have negative repercussions on freedom in Ukrainian media.

In a joint statement, Ukrainian civil society organizations said Ukraine did not violate press rights, citing the Office of the President of Ukraine’s information about the foreign financing of the channels. The press release accused the channels of using anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western rhetoric, supporting Russian aggression in Donbas, unlawfully firing journalists with different political views, and being a political platform for OPZZh.

Unlike the EU, the U.S. Embassy publicly backed Ukraine stating that those efforts are justified given “Russia’s malign influence” over Ukrainian media.

Starting in 2014, Ukraine has embraced a “cultural revival” trajectory as a form of national security. For example, radio stations adopted a Ukrainian-language quota, which boosted the Ukrainian music industry. In August 2014, Ukraine banned 14 Russian television channels such as Russia Today and Life News. The Russian Foreign Ministry also has issued a statement noting that the West and Ukraine blatantly support censorship. Furthermore, Ukraine terminated the broadcast of Russian opposition channel Dozhd (TV Rain) following their remarks on Russian legal possession of Crimea.

Atlantic Council Nonresident Fellow Taras Kuzio highlights that the ban of three channels was significant for Ukrainian national sovereignty as OPZZh has growing ratings. Kuzio notes that Zelenskyy’s ban came at a perfect time when the U.S. President Joe Biden began to shape his foreign policies. Appealing to the U.S. could secure more financial or military support for Ukraine.  

Moldova is a prime example of why Russian channels pose a political threat in Eastern European countries. Moldova’s ex-President Igor Dodon, like Ukrainian Taras Kozak, was allegedly closely affiliated with Accent TV. The television network allowed for broadcasting Russia’s main channel, Perviy Kanal. Russian channels are preferred among 31 percent of Moldovans, which imposes foreign influence over Moldovan elections.

112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and Zik TV censor anti-Kremlin news making them not a reliable source of information. The Institute of Mass Media in Ukraine (IMI) found that alleged Medvedchuk channels refrained from covering Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s investigation into his poisoners. A similar approach was echoed by Kremlin-sponsored channels. 

112 Ukraine could be potentially destabilizing for Ukrainian image in the West. The channel’s website is among the first English-language news outlets that appear when searching for “Ukraine news.” Therefore, their narratives can affect both eastern regions of Ukraine and the public abroad. 

112 Ukraine online publication also has a limited number of ads and no subscriptions. Its ad-free platform may signify that the channel obtains financial support from other sources. Ukraine will have to prove that the channels received Russian funding from abroad to invalidate claims of censorship and violations of freedom of the press.


Many publications claim that the termination of the three channels in addition to Zelenskyy’s recent Axios interview, where he rhetorically asks Biden why Ukraine is still not part of NATO, signifies a bold move towards the West. His traditionally centrist position, interested in normalizing relations with Russia, has won him overwhelming support across the country. However, it is important to note that “nationalist” ex-President Petro Poroshenko did not ban these TV stations, perhaps fearing the damage to his presidential ratings. Presidential elections in 2024 may reflect what Zelensky’s recent switch in alignment might imply for his reelection.

Image Source: DW

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Ukraine’s Criminal Investigation into U.S. Election Interference Latest in Russian Disinformation Saga

Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office announced on January 28 that Ukraine has begun a criminal investigation into attempts to interfere with the American 2020 presidential election. The announcement comes following the State Department’s January 11 sanctions on Ukrainian individuals and organizations; among them Ukrainian Parliamentarian (and member of President Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People Party) Oleksandr Dubinsky. The targeted individuals and organizations were sanctioned for their roles in interfering with the 2020 U.S. presidential election, especially in attempting to find or create compromising material, kompromat, on Hunter Biden, son of President Biden. While Mr. Dubinsky denies wrongdoing, the Servant of the People Party voted on February 2 to expel Mr. Dubinsky from its ranks.

The investigation launched by Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation is the latest chapter of Russia’s disinformation campaign against the United States and Europe; a saga in which Ukraine features prominently. The narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, is responsible for the disinformation campaign and election interference is itself a goal of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy. 

Former senior White House official Dr. Fiona Hill testified to this in November 2019 during the House Impeachment hearings. The U.S. intelligence community has largely agreed with Dr. Hill’s assessment, stating that Russia has engaged in a years-long attempt to frame Ukraine for its hacking of the 2016 elections and subsequent disinformation and election interference. This strategy of falsely accusing other groups and countries of doing what it itself had done fits within Russia’s history, dating from the earliest days of the Soviet Union. 

While Russia is the primary disinformation peddler, Ukrainians too have been involved in the disinformation campaigns against the West. But those who did, like the Ukrainian-born oligarch Oleg Deripaska, almost always have close ties to Russian President Putin and the Kremlin. Beyond Mr. Deripaska (who held close ties with Paul Manafort) and Mr. Dubinsky, the other major Ukrainian figure involved in U.S. election interference is Andrii Derkach, a close associate of Rudy Giuliani. In September 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Mr. Derkach for attempting to interfere with the 2020 election, describing him as a decade-long Russian agent within Ukraine. Like Mr. Dubinsky, Mr. Derkach also attempted to find kompromat on Hunter Biden.

The majority of Russian social and regular media disinformation comes from Russia in the guise of Moscow-based think tanks such as Katehon and news organizations like RT and Tass. However, Russia has used the conflicts it created in Ukraine to create additional fake news proxies. Among the most prominent organizations was News Front, which according to the U.S. State Department is a Crimea-based disinformation outlet that had ties to the Kremlin and Russian security services. The organization was registered with Roskomnadzor (Russia’s governmental body that oversees mass media) in June 2015. Operating with multiple languages, the organization trafficked disinformation and conspiracy theories ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic being a U.S. bioweapon to Ukraine becoming a colony of the International Monetary Fund. Due to widespread disinformation practices, Twitter banned the organization’s accounts and Facebook took down all but three of its pages. 

Russia only gains from U.S. officials and Western populations seeing Ukraine as the source of the disinformation campaign. The most obvious benefit is that the blame is deflected from Russia onto Ukraine, with Kyiv appearing at best as unable to control nefarious oligarchic forces within its borders and at worst as an enemy of the West. 

Another benefit is cultural. President Putin and other Russian nationalists have long argued that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian (or, for that matter, Belarusian) people distinct from the Russian nation. For the Russian nationalists both in and out of the Russian government, Ukraine belongs to the ‘Russian World.’ From the Kremlin towers, they see the dispute with Kyiv as a domestic, not an international, matter. By clothing Russian disinformation in Ukrainian garb, Moscow subtly influences Western audiences into believing this ‘Russian World’ narrative, where Ukraine aligns with Moscow, instead of pursuing a path towards Euro-Atlantic integration. 

As Kyiv investigates Ukrainian sources of interference in the U.S. 2020 presidential election, it is important to guard against Russian attempts to use this investigation to deflect blame. But even more importantly, the United States needs to bolster its own defenses against misinformation and resecure the election process.

Image Source: NBC News

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The Heroes of the People: Navalny and Tsikhanouskaya

After a globally known incident of the poisoning of Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August of 2020 with the nerve agent Novichok and his survival, Navalny has been in the center of attention. He has blamed the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin along with Russia’s FSB for his poisoning. Upon his arrival in Russia on January 17th he was detained at the border and placed in a detention center in Moscow. A few days later his team published a YouTube video on his channel titled “A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe” which caused mass protests across Russia in support of Navalny’s investigation. 

Belarus, Russia’s Soviet brother has been in turmoil since August, when President Alexander Lukashenko, who’s been claimed as a dictator for being in power for 26 years held another round of unfair elections that kept his regime alive. The protests became of international recognition because of OMON’s (Belarus’ riot police) ill-treatment of protestors by torture and detention at. The protests have continued for about five months but have reduced in size due to winter conditions and the brutal oppression of the riot police. 

It is widely known the Lukashenko and Putin have been very close allies with occasional disagreements that are always quickly forgotten about. But in terms of leadership many people compare them to be alike. Both have been in power for many years, both have held unfair elections, and both have opposition that has been scared to speak out or has been silenced by oppression. This was both the case with Navalny and Tsikhanouskaya.

Tsikhanouskaya was put out as an opposition leader soon after her husband, Sergei , a Belarusian activist, spoke out against Lukashenko and was arrested due to his announcement of wanting to partake in the 2020 Presidential Elections. After his arrest, Tsikhanouskaya decided to run in the elections in order to bring the people of Belarus closer together and have a voice against the regime. This ended with her having to flee the country after falsified election results in favor of Lukashenko. The European Union and the United States have both supported Tsikhanouskaya and have not recognized these results. In result, Belarus broke out in protests, citing that Tsikhanouskaya is their rightfully chosen leader. 

Navalny, who was poisoned using a chemical weapon that Russia has claimed it no longer has, has blamed Putin and the FSB for this doing. Investigations have been opened, but no verdict has been reached. After the failed assassination attempt and his recovery in Germany, Navalny still wanted to return to Russia. He was detained at passport control upon entry to Russia. The basis of his arrest was leaving the country on a previous probation, even though he was in a coma when he was transported to Germany and did not have a say. A few days after the arrest, his team released a documentary about Putin and a castle he built with bribes on the Black Sea near Gelendzhik. The video has accumulated about 80 million views on YouTube and has caused mass protests around Russia at the end of January. 

Russia and Belarus have been so close in their regimes over the last twenty years and have recently seen the largest protestions in the 21st century. Navalny and Tsikhanouskaya are both trying to lead their countries to a democracy. Even with Navalny’s detention, his non-governmental organization, Anti-Corruption Foundation, have managed to lead theseprotests through-out the country. Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in Europe, still leads and organizes protests from outside the borders of Belarus. Both protests have grasped much attention due to  OMON, the riot police, that exists in both Russia and Belarus, and has demonstrated brutality and torture towards the citizens. The leaders of the two countries have also stated that both Navalny and Tsikhanouskaya are funded by the Western leaders in order to spread the west’s influence in a form of propaganda. Both leaders are denying that their citizens have any basis for negativity towards their regimes and wanting change. 

The similarity that both situations face is credited towards the opposition leaders: Navalny and Tsikhanouskaya. The citizens have found a unification of their countries in the form of these people. When the citizens see that these leaders are there and they place this information for the whole world to see, the people are no longer scared to go out and make their mind be heard. The people found faces that represent themselves, but also have the platform to make their voices heard at the governmental and regime levels. It is because of these two leaders that the countries were able to mobilize such large protests. 

Image Source: Atlantic Council

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Why Ukraine Is Silent on Detention of Vocal Russian Activist

On August 20, 2020, Alexei Navalny, known by many as an anti-corruption activist, became violently ill during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. He was taken to a hospital in Omsk after an emergency landing, put into a coma, and evacuated to a hospital in Berlin, Germany for treatment. Several laboratories, including facilities in Sweden and France, confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. 

After spending several months recovering in Germany, Navalny launched an Internet-expose of his alleged poisoners by calling one of the FSB operatives. Soon after, Navalny returned to Moscow where he was detained upon arrival at the Sheremetyevo International Airport. Navalny was charged in absentia for having broken the terms of a prior suspended prison sentence, which he describes as politically motivated. 

Six days after Navalny’s most recent arrests, thousands of protesters across 11 time zones took to the street to show their support. State media warned of heavy police presence and advised protesters to stay away. Protests were organized in the Far East, across Siberia, and in Russia’s most populous cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. By the end of the day on January 23, more than 3,000 arrests were made in more than 100 cities across Russia, according to OVD-Info activist group, making the demonstrations the largest public display of opposition to authorities in several years. 

Navalny began his political career by joining the liberal opposition party Yabloko. The party dismissed him for his participation in the anti-Putin Russian March in 2007 and for controversial anti-immigration views. Navalny also unexpectedly secured 27 percent of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayor elections against a pro-Kremlin candidate equipt with the backing of state media. He founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation and launched several journalistic investigations on the Russian government. The opposition leader is largely present online as he is deplatformed on all traditional media outlets.

While Navalny is widely referred to as an opposition leader in Russia and hailed by the West for his dedication to anti-corruption efforts against Kremlin authorities, his stance does not equate to a pro-western outlook.

Neighboring Ukrainians are hesitant to take the streets in defense of Navalny. The opposition leader often undermined cultural differences between Russians and Ukrainians, referring to two nations as “one people.” Following Putin’s annexation of Crimea, in an interview where he was asked what he would do as President, Navalny announced that he would not return the peninsula to Ukraine. When the Ukrainian Orthodox Church separated from the Russian Orthodox Church, Navalny criticized Putin for not preserving the 300-year-old Russian history, rather than praising Ukraine for exercising its national rights. Beyond Ukraine, Navalny has expressed support for the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 War. 

The Institute of Mass Media in Ukraine (IMI) also found that many large Ukrainian outlets such as 112.ua, 5.ua, and Intefax refrained from reporting on Navalny’s poisoning investigation. IMI alleges that Russia-backed channels in Ukraine were prohibited from airing Putin’s involvement in the attempted murder. IMI interprets the silence on independent and nationalist Ukrainian channels regarding Navalny as news about “just another Kremlin opponent.” In other words, Ukrainians are either too accustomed to bad news about Russian opposition leaders or Navalny’s figure is not as significant to Ukraine’s struggle against Russian interference and occupation of Crimea.

Some Ukrainian officials warn that Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment can distract the international community from his backing of Russian imperialist approach in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. However, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba encouraged the international community to take a harsh stance against Putin’s regimes. 

On January 26th, the U.S. President Joe Biden discussed Navalny’s poisoning and subsequent arrest in his first phone call with the Kremlin. Although no details of the conversation are available to the public, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reaffirmed Biden’s interest in holding a firm stance against Russia.


Similarly, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the Navalny incident of February 4-6. On top of Navalny’s detainment, Borrell seeks to discuss Russia’s actions against Ukraine. Navalny’s case, alongside the change in the American administration, could bring further exposure to the issue of Ukrainian national sovereignty, despite Ukraine’s silence on the politics of Navalny’s detainment.

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Russia Appoints New Special Envoy for Border Demarcation, Heightening Tensions with Georgia

On January 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a Presidential Decree on the topic of demarcation of the state border between Russia and its neighboring states. The decree focuses on establishing borders between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, reigniting frustration from the Georgian side on Russia’s continued involvement in supporting de-facto states that fall within Georgia’s internationally-recognized borders.  

In the decree, Russia named Mikhail Petrakov as the new Special Envoy for Demarcation and Delimitation of Borders. Petrakov also serves as the head of a Russian delegation responsible for engaging in multilateral talks with countries of the Caspian region. The post was previously manned by Igor Bratchikov, who entered the role under a Presidential Decree that took effect on August 25, 2012.   

The January 2021 decree states that Petrakov “will be tasked with delimiting and demarcating the state border of the Russian Federation with Abkhazia, Georgia, and South Ossetia.” The announcement of Petrakov’s appointment immediately incited a response from the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Georgia affirmed that any demarcation of state borders will not be considered until Russia de-occupies Georgian territory and reverses its recognition of the ‘independence’ of the occupied territories that was announced in 2008.   

On January 4, Nikoloz Samkharadze, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, echoed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement that Georgia will not establish any borders until Georgian authorities regain control over Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Samkharadze also stated that “international law is on our side.”  

Due to the coronavirus pandemic that emerged in the South Caucasus region in early 2020, the lines of communication used by Russia and Georgia to discuss the issues of territorial occupation were interrupted. The Geneva International Discussions, launched in October 2008, are the only platform for the parties of the Russo-Georgia war to discuss humanitarian and security issues. 

The 51st session of the Geneva International Discussions was originally scheduled to take place on March 31 and April 1, 2020. In light of the global health crisis, the talks were initially postponed to October 6-7, 2020. However, the Russian delegation backed out the discussions, citing concerns over face-to-face meetings during a pandemic. The 51st session ultimately took place on December 10-11, 2020, marking the first and only round of discussions in 2020.  

With a full year elapsing between the 50th and 51st sessions of the discussions, the consequences of a lack of dialogue could be clearly observed.  

Historically, freedom of movement between Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia has been affected by sporadic border closures and frequent changes in policy. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, movement has faced further restrictions. 

On March 11, 2020, Abkhaz officials announced that beginning on March 14, the Enguri Bridge Crossing Point, the only link between Georgia and Abkhazia, would be closed indefinitely to curb the spread of COVID-19. After more than two months, Abkhaz authorities opened the Enguri Bridge crossing for one day on May 26 with the purpose of allowing residents of Abkhazia who traveled to the Tbilisi-controlled areas for medical treatment to return.  

By June 21, Abkhaz authorities announced another temporary opening of the Enguri Bridge. The opening was planned for June 22-24 to serve as a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to allow Abkhaz residents to return from Georgia proper. Following this three-day window, the only linkage between Abkhazia and territory controlled by Tbilisi was once again severed. Two additional ‘humanitarian corridors’ were opened from August 5-9 and December 3-10. The December opening faced widespread criticism from Abkhaz residents. Residents were only permitted to exit Abkhazia, and residents seeking to visit relatives in Georgia proper or seek medical care were unsure if they would be able to return to their homes after exiting Abkhazia.  

The situation in South Ossetia, Georgia’s other region occupied by Russian-backed forces, was even more dire. In early 2020 amidst the initial spread of the coronavirus, South Ossetia closed its borders with both Georgia and Russia. Initially, the only connection between South Ossetia and the outside world was through freight transportation between North and South Ossetia. Despite the attempts to isolate itself, South Ossetia’s hospitals quickly became overwhelmed, and authorities were forced to call upon Russia to establish a mobile military field hospital. By December, the Russian Armed Forces closed the temporary hospital facility and withdrew from Tskhinvali.  

Limitations on the freedom of movement between Georgia and its occupied territories as well as the repeated postponing of dialogues between Tbilisi and occupying forces led to heightened tensions on border issues in 2020. Russia’s announcement of a new Special Envoy for border demarcation does not positively contribute to the situation, both at the diplomatic level and with the on-the-ground situation.  

It has been recommended that Georgia could promote further engagement with the occupied regions by offering additional medical assistance during the pandemic, but it is uncertain how this would be perceived by occupying authorities. In December 2020, the Georgian government delivered 10,000 doses of surplus flu vaccines to Abkhazia for use by high risk groups. However, earlier this month, as wildfires raged across western Georgia and Abkhazia, Georgian authorities volunteered to provide support, including the use of helicopters, to extinguish the fires, but Abkhaz authorities rejected the offer.   

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