As Russia continues to exacerbate tensions in Eastern Ukraine, openly transporting resources in the form of military supplies to rebel contingents and funneling funding to established proxy regimes and operational commands inside Donbas, an interesting byproduct of the conflict is emerging throughout the rest of the post-Soviet space.
In part one of this series, I examine the way ahead as Moscow re-examines the costs in continuing to provide unofficial support for insurgent elements in Donbas, and the benefit of duplicating the strategy implemented in Eastern Ukraine in similar regions where fissures between the national government and the local separatist element regime are characterized by their nature as easily influenced by external interference. Russian support for separatist campaigns in Moldova and Georgia could theoretically tip the balance between a tenuous peace with the capitals in Chisinau and Tbilisi and an insurrection exploding into open warfare and secessionist violence.
Reflections of Russian interference similar to what catalyzed the war in Donbas have been visible recently in the Caucasus, specifically in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has pursued a joint military agreement and an integration of foreign policies with Abkhazia, the separatist republic and ‘frozen conflict’ in northwest Georgia.
In South Ossetia, Georgia’s other breakaway region, Russia invested $400 million to re-open the Roki Tunnel. The tunnel, a key route for Russian military forces in their invasion of the breakaway region during the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, re-establishes a key line of communication linking Russian military and intelligence elements in the North Caucasus with their sympathizers in South Ossetia. Rumors of annexation and accession of South Ossetia to the Russian Federation are rife on both sides of the border separating the breakaway region and Russia.
Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and following consistent and uninterrupted efforts by the European Union to integrate states of the former Warsaw Pact and republics of the former Soviet Union permanently into the European community, we are now observing an epochal change in the structure of states and the establishment of borders and ruling regimes throughout Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. These changes and Moscow’s willingness to leverage separatist campaigns such as those in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia to foment support for renewed campaigns of secession are a dangerous hallmark of a resurgent Russia and an imperialist foreign policy.
In Central Asia, Russian strategy has more closely resembled a political co-opting of national governments, working to ensure convergence of national priorities with those established in Moscow. This co-opting has more often taken the form of integration to a customs union and, launching January 1, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Moscow’s vision for the EEU is as a Eurasian balance to the European Union, comprised of the former Soviet republics occupying Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
By pressuring regimes in Minsk, Astana, and Yerevan (as well as Bishkek) to join the EEU, Moscow seeks to burgeon Russian national interests and provide support for the assertive foreign policy of Russian President Vladamir Putin. The purpose of pursuing increased influence over the regimes in the post-Soviet space is to co-opt the national priorities of each individual state, circumventing each government’s effort to create distance between itself and the Russian government, while effectively dominating the foreign-policy goals of each state to converge with those of Moscow. The Kremlin’s control over the national and trade policies in the capitals of the former Soviet republics ensures Russia’s policies will be supported in key geopolitical areas throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The Road(s) Ahead
Following efforts to integrate states such as Romania and the Baltic countries into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russian policy-makers have pivoted their foreign-policy goals and strategies to include increasing the Kremlin’s level of influence over strategic locations such as Ukraine and Moldova. In the wake of the Donbas conflict, Russian strategists have accepted that their policy of aggression and interference in Eastern Europe puts them at an important crossroads with two distinct paths by which future Russian involvement can be assessed:
Scenario one: Moscow assesses a net gain in having catalyzed a fissure separating Donbas from the national government in Kiev, ‘freezes’ the conflict for the near-term (sustains logistical, military, and intelligence support for rebel elements), and concludes that spreading separatist conflict in Eastern Europe fails to serve policy goals.
In this scenario, the nominal strategic gains Moscow has achieved by destabilizing Eastern Ukraine include effectively impeding Kiev’s effort to integrate into European community via the EU and/or NATO in the next few years. This scenario assumes that the outlined mission in embarking to provide clandestine support to insurrectionist elements was limited to Ukraine and was narrowly targeted specifically to prevent Ukraine from permanently joining the EU and NATO.
This scenario is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. Policy makers and strategists in Moscow largely view the destablization of Ukraine and its seeming inability to pursue integration into the EU and NATO as a dramatic success. Further, the destabilization of Donbas should be viewed within the larger context of Moscow’s strategic vision for the post-Soviet space as a whole. The resurgence of Russian imperialism has as its primary focus the permanent integration of the regimes of the former Soviet republics within the structure of Russian foreign policy priority management.
This assertion is evident in the joint military agreement that Moscow is pursuing with Abkhazia and the integration of the EEU member states. Specifically, the EEU member states will find their national strategic interests mirroring the economic and geopolitical goals of the regime in Moscow. In this regard, the targeting of separatist movements in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea are harbingers for what Moscow will spread to Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia
In dominating the governments of the former Soviet republics, Moscow pursues a policy that co-opts the national priorities of the regimes in the capitals of the independent states, ensuring that national policies in those states conflate with and serve to burgeon the national interests of Russia. Scenario one is unlikely largely because Kremlin strategists believe that they can duplicate the success of fomenting conflict in Donbas in places such as Moldova and Georgia where there are large numbers of ethnic Russians and greater support for closer ties with Moscow.
Scenario two: Moscow assesses a success in freezing Donbas and identifies an opportunity to capitalize on the gain and ride the initiative to significantly intensified influence in Eastern Europe as a whole.
In this scenario, Russian military and intelligence elements would spread the battlefield, interloping in other tenuously stabile areas such as Transnistria and Găgăuzia in Moldvoa and into Russia’s southern flank to the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
This scenario is much more likely to appeal to strategists in Moscow, specifically in the intelligence services and the military. The successful embedding and integration of Russian intelligence and military personnel in fomenting the dissent and sparking the shooting war in Donbas has more than likely enticed leaders in the Kremlin to pursue similar tracts of action throughout the post-Soviet space.
Policymakers also likely view the failure of Western regimes such as NATO to prevent the annexation of Crimea as a solid assessment of what the West views as strategic necessities; while Ukraine is now highly unstable, NATO has not committed troops or pledged military support for Kiev in battling the insurgency in Donbas. Moscow has read this as an opportunity to re-establish dominance and re-assert its influence over former Soviet republics from Moldova and Georgia to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.
The Way Ahead
The upcoming launch of the EEU and its recent integration of Armenia to the founding member states of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan signals a significant resurgence of Russian influence over the post-Soviet space in both Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In subsequent articles in this series, I will analyze just where Moscow will apply pressure next, how interference will be intensified to influence capitals from Chisinau to Dushanbe, and why this progression and evolution in Russian policy towards its near-abroad matters for the future of United States foreign policy. I will analyze Russian interference in Eastern Europe, assess where the next conflicts will flare up, and how Russia will seek to expand its influence over the post-Soviet states of Central Asia.
The way ahead is likely to include violent conflict and the results could be disastrous for the future of development and democracy in former Soviet states. Authoritarian regimes in places such as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan will soon come under intensified pressure to support the Kremlin’s pursuit of a resurgent imperialist Russian foreign policy. Russian strategists have already begun to leverage the disastrous success of their war in Donbas in pursuing similar gains throughout the post-Soviet space.
In part two, I will analyze the impact of Russian policy regionally: Eastern Europe and Central Asia. You can find additional background on strategic points of geopolitical value along the line of demarcation separating the West and Russia in my Fracture Points series both here at SOFREP and at Foreign Intrigue:
- Fracture Points (Eastern Europe) at Foreign Intrigue
- Fracture Points (Eastern Europe) Part Two at Foreign Intrigue
- Russia and the West: Fracture Points (Abkhazia) at Foreign Intrigue
- Ukraine, Russia, and the West: Ahead and Beyond at Foreign Intrigue
- Russia and the West: Fracture Points (South Ossetia) at SOFREP
- Presidential Election in Abkhazia and the Marginalization of Minorities at SOFREP
- Abkhazia: The Next Crimea? at SOFREP
(Featured Image Courtesy: Army-News.RU)