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.