Moldova, Then Georgia, Now Ukraine: How Russia Built “Bridgeheads in Post-Soviet Space”

Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway Ukrainian territory has drawn comparisons with previous Russian operations aimed at countering Western influence and enhancing its strategic depth in the former Soviet bloc.

After months of denying plans to invade Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian “peacekeepers” into the country’s breakaway territories of Donetsk and Luhansk on Tuesday, recognizing the two eastern entities – which were captured and occupied by Russian-backed rebels in 2014 – as independent republics. Kiev.

Despite the peculiarities of the Ukraine crisis, analysts were quick to note that Putin’s move fits a modern pattern in Russian military operations, aiming to subdue the neighbors and thwart their aspirations to the West – in the process of halting any further NATO expansion eastward.

The Kremlin has long used so-called “frozen conflicts” to expand its influence beyond Russia’s borders. Over the past three decades, it has supported a pro-Russian regime in the breakaway region of Moldova’s Transnistria. In 2008, it launched a traditional invasion of Georgia in support of separatist governments in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two provinces with large Russian-speaking populations. Six years later, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and began supporting a pro-Russian separatist rebellion in the Donbass.

Locations of the Russian forces. © France 24 In each case, fears of moving away from the Russian sphere of influence precipitated Moscow’s actions, while the presence of the ethnic Russian population provided an excuse for the Kremlin to intervene as the protector. The same reasoning was in effect during Putin’s pessimistic speech late Monday, in which he claimed, without evidence, that Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens were being subjected to “genocide.”

Putin’s playbook

Putin’s latest brazen move comes after months of tumultuous tensions during which the Russian leader has amassed a formidable army along Ukraine’s border while keeping the world guessing. In the end, the timing of his move may have been determined by another stranger parallel to the Georgian conflict – and this is unjustified.

In 2008, at the beginning of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, Russia’s war with Georgia broke out, much to the chagrin of Chinese officials. To avoid angering China again, this time Putin waited until after the closing ceremony of the Winter Games, also in Beijing, before striking again in Ukraine.

Putin’s move was a déjà vu for Georgians still reeling from their country’s painful defeat at the hands of Russia. This was not surprising to Professor Emil Avdaliani of the European University in Tbilisi and Georgian Research Centre, Geocase.

“In Georgia, many of us were expecting recognition of the two separatist entities in the Donbass. It has been clear over the past year or so,” Avdaliani told France 24. “Moscow has increased its funding of the entities by providing Russian passports and secretly increasing its military presence,” Avdaliani told France 24. Putin’s decision is a logical consequence of the process.”

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Avdaliani added that the Russian moves followed the “playbook,” “creating or strengthening separatist movements in order to prevent a neighbor from drifting toward Western institutions.”

Defending Russia’s “near neighbourhood”

With their large ethnic minorities moving across borders before and during the Soviet era, countries aligned on Russia’s western edge provided fertile ground for the emergence and exacerbation of conflicts. According to Moscow’s account, such conflicts are rooted in its legitimate claim to its sphere of influence and its duty to protect the Russian race from foreign aggression.

said Niccolo Vasula, an expert on Russian military strategy at the University of Birmingham in Britain.

“Russia has always been concerned about foreign penetration – not only in terms of military involvement and political engagement but also in terms of culture,” Vassula told France 24. He referred to the so-called “color revolutions” that brought pro-Western governments to power. in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) – which the Kremlin considered “tools of the West to drive those countries away from Russia”.

This rationale is supported by the continued Russian presence in the breakaway province of Transnistria in Moldova, where attempts to impose the Romanian language at the beginning of the 1990s were met with stiff resistance by the region’s Russian-speaking population. The same concept – protecting the Russians – would later give Putin a blueprint to justify intervention in Georgia and Ukraine.

While Russia did not recognize Transnistria’s independence, it “has weakened Moldova’s sovereignty and froze its Western integration over the past twenty-five years,” writes Eric J. Grossman in US Army War College Quarterly. “This uncertainty has trapped Moldova in a geopolitical gray area between East and West and forced it to act as a vehicle for corruption and money laundering in Russia.”

‘gray area’

Both Georgia and Ukraine are now in danger of being dragged into the same geopolitical “grey zone,” sandwiched between their hopes of one day joining a military NATO and the knowledge that Russia will not let them go. As for the separatist entities, recognized only by Russia, their fate depends entirely on Moscow.

“These entities cannot survive on their own, but their fragility is actually a plus from the Russian perspective, because it brings them closer to Russia,” Vasula said. “They will not be able to survive without Moscow’s help, and this, in turn, justifies Russia’s continued presence on the ground.”

Recognizing the “republics” of Donbass, Moscow meticulously adhered to the tried and tested playbook, reproducing the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance it had previously signed with the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. . The ability of these entities to thrive is of little concern to Russia when compared to the overall strategic picture, Vasula said.

“Moscow will provide financial and logistical assistance, but in the end it is nothing more than just tools to achieve Russia’s strategic goals,” he explained. “It’s all about using them as bridgeheads in the post-Soviet space – tools for controlling the situation on Earth.”

A price worth paying

It is not yet clear how much control Russia can wield, with critics pointing out that Putin’s actions have intensified anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine and Georgia. As Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili said recently, her country understands “well how the Ukrainian people feel today (…). This is the solidarity of a country that has already suffered and continues to suffer from occupation.”

Avdaliani said Russia may have achieved its short-term goals, but it has “lost prestige and soft power.” Few in Ukraine or Georgia would consider switching to Russia in geopolitical terms. I think that in the long run, Russia squandered the advantages that it had retained even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

But for Kremlin strategists, resentment of Moscow is a price worth paying for ensuring that NATO expansion is stopped in its tracks.

“It is true that the Russian course of action since 2014 has angered Ukrainian public opinion and legitimized Kiev’s anti-Russian stance,” Vasula said. But the government itself in Kiev is well aware of the fact that Russia can decide or strongly influence its political decisions. No matter how anti-Russian Russia may be, they must take into account Moscow’s attitudes and actions. ”

From a Western perspective, Russia’s aggressive strategy has come at an obvious cost to Moscow, in the form of severe sanctions – set to become even more severe – and relations deteriorating sharply with an angry and stressed Western front.

“On the other hand, if we base our assessment on Moscow’s stated objectives, which means maintaining Russian control – or at least influence – over those designated areas, we can say that the Russian strategy has been successful,” Vasula warned. Of course we could have responded once that neither Georgia nor Ukraine had surrendered to join NATO. But, in reality, NATO membership is no longer a viable option. Whatever Georgia and Ukraine want to join NATO, they simply cannot.”

Vassula added that the same logic applies to the West: “On paper, the Western powers decide who will join NATO. But in practice, they cannot ignore Russia.”

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