Russia has stoked, managed and supported many pro-Russian separatist conflicts in the post-Soviet space. Although having ethnic aspects, these conflicts are in fact geopolitical in nature and utilised by Moscow to prevent the Euro-Atlantic integration of countries to its west and south, notably Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. The leveraging of these separatist conflicts for geopolitical gain has become a key element of Moscow’s strategic calculus.
Russia’s policy towards these conflicts has been conditioned by various factors, such as the influence of regional powers, particularly Turkey and Iran, military calculations, and fluctuating bilateral ties with states neighbouring Russia (Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan). Although it is difficult to see the emergence of a clear Russian strategy in the 1990s and early 2000s towards these conflicts, by early 2022 (as evidenced by Russia officially recognising[↗] the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic [DPR] and Luhansk People’s Republic [LPR] as a prelude to its renewed offensive against Ukraine), it is clear that the stoking and management of them has turned into a key part of Russia’s grand strategy.
Short term successes
The Russian political elite understood that the nations of the South Caucasus would eventually turn to Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union due to historical enmities and Russia’s low economic appeal. The same was anticipated to happen to Russia’s west with Moldova and Ukraine, as their proximity to Europe and historical ties to the region left them particularly sensitive to the allure of further Euro-Atlantic integration. A geopolitical tussle was bound to ensue.
Russia’s strategy is intrinsically linked to this contest between Russia and free and open nations – particularly those of Europe – over the political, economic, and military future of these territories that border Russia to its west and south. As many of these states seek membership into the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Russia endeavours to pull them back under its influence by deterring their membership through military coercion and the instigation of separatism, whilst simultaneously attempting to expand regional groupings where it has power to incorporate them, such as the Eurasian Economic Union.
So far, this strategy has produced tangible results through stalling the enlargement of the EU and NATO into the wider Black Sea region, notably Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. However, Russia is now facing a range of long-term challenges in managing the various seperatist conflicts and territories it helped establish – its seperatist ‘empire’. These stem from geographic factors, Russia’s economic support to them, the international legitimacy of these territories, and the continued aspiration for greater Euro-Atlantic integration evident in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Long term challenges
First is the challenge posed by geography. In the early years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia only had to oversee separatist conflicts in small and impoverished Georgia and Moldova. Now, however, the Kremlin has to manage a range of geographically dispersed territories from Transnistria to Nagorno-Karabakh that rely heavily on Russia for stability, particularly through its military presence. These territories are often difficult to reach, and their societies politically unstable. Transnistria has been an especially interesting case since 2014, when Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea created logistical issues that made it increasingly difficult to reach the territory.
Second is the economic woes, in which Russia has failed to come up with a long-term strategy to address. Creating a single economic union with the separatist territories is not possible, and real economic benefits are hard to foster in societies so unstable and consumed by armed conflict. The poor financial infrastructure of these territories further hinders Russia’s financial involvement.
Furthermore, there is inherent fragility in the economic relationship between Russia and the separatist territories it supports due to their economic over-reliance on Russia. The effect of Covid-19 on the territory of Abkhazia encapsulates this well. The tourist industry – which accounts[↗] for nearly one-third of gross domestic product and is dominated by Russian visitors – was decimated, and Abkhaz leaders found it harder to extract necessary finances from their superiors in the Kremlin, who were also trying to manage the ramifications of a global pandemic. This has led to a budgetary crisis and the rekindling[↗] of conversations in Abkhazia about possible economic rapprochement with Tbilisi.
Then there is the effect of the sanctions imposed[↗] on Russia following its renewed invasion of Ukraine. Although not bringing the war to a halt in the short-term, the sanctions will hinder Russia’s economic and industrial potential in the long-term. Indeed, its economy is set to see its biggest contraction[↗] in decades and the apparent stability of the ruble has been cautioned as illusory[↗]. This will have a significant impact on the separatist territories’ ability to build a viable economy and retain a semblance of economic independence from Russia.
Another problem for Moscow and its separatist ‘empire’ is the lack of international legitimacy afforded to these territories. In the case of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, only Russia, Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru have given them formal recognition. Other states will now be even less likely to recognise them, as well as the DPR, LPR and Transnistria, as a result of Russia’s tarnished image stemming from its renewed aggression against Ukraine. The legality and legitimacy of these territories that Russia has previously stressed is now in shambles.
Taking a long term view, it seems that Russia’s strategy to stop the Euro-Atlantic integration of the post-Soviet space has not yielded the expected results. While it is true that Moscow has deterred some of its neighbours from joining the EU and NATO, its gamble that fuelling and supporting pro-Russian separatist conflicts would undermine the pro-European resolve of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. As the required finances and military support becomes ever more demanding, Moscow may find itself overstretched, and its separatist ‘empire’ collapsing.
Emil Avdaliani is a professor at European University and the Director of Middle East Studies at Georgian think-tank, Geocase.
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