Moscow’s recognition of breakaway Ukrainian territories has prompted comparisons with past Russian operations aimed at countering Western influence and bolstering its strategic depth in the former Soviet bloc.
After months of denying plans to invade Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian “peacekeeping” troops into the country’s separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk on Tuesday, recognising the two eastern entities – which Russian-backed rebels seized and occupied in 2014 – as republics independent of Kyiv.
Despite the specificities of the Ukrainian crisis, analysts were quick to note that Putin’s move fitted a recent pattern in Russian military operations, aimed at cowing neighbours into submission and thwarting their westward aspirations – in the process halting any further eastward expansion of NATO.
The Kremlin has long used so-called “frozen conflicts” to extend its reach beyond Russian borders. For the past three decades, it has backed a pro-Russian regime in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria. In 2008, it launched a conventional 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 an insurgency of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas.
In each case, fears of a drift away from Russia’s sphere of influence precipitated Moscow’s actions, while the presence of ethnic Russian populations provided the Kremlin with a pretext to step in as the protector. The same logic was at play during Putin's rambling speech late on Monday, in which he claimed, without evidence, that Ukraine's Russian-speaking citizens were being subjected to "genocide".
Putin's latest brazen move follows months of seesawing tensions during which the Russian president amassed a formidable army along Ukraine's borders while keeping the world guessing. In the end, the timing of his move may well have been determined by another, bizarre parallel with the Georgian conflict – this one fortuitous.
In 2008, Russia’s war with Georgia erupted at the start of the Beijing Summer Olympics, much to the chagrin of Chinese officials. To avoid upsetting China once more, Putin has this time waited until after the Winter Games’ closing ceremony, also in Beijing, before striking again in Ukraine.
Putin’s move signalled an eerie déjà vu for Georgians still reeling from their country’s bruising defeat at the hands of Russia. It came as little surprise to Professor Emil Avdaliani of the European University in Tbilissi and the Georgian think-tank, Geocase.
“In Georgia, many of us were expecting the recognition of Donbas' two separatist entities. It was obvious for the past year or so,” Avdaliani told FRANCE 24. “Moscow has been increasing its financing of the entities, providing Russian passports and clandestinely increasing its military presence. Putin's decision is a logical conclusion to the process.”
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Russia’s moves followed “an established playbook”, Avdaliani added, “creating or fostering separatist movements in order to preclude a neighbour from drifting towards Western institutions”.
Defending Russia’s ‘near-abroad’
With their large ethnic minorities shuffled across borders before and during Soviet times, countries lining Russia’s western rim have offered fertile terrain for conflicts to emerge and fester. According to Moscow’s narrative, such conflicts are rooted in its rightful claim to a sphere of influence and its duty to protect ethnic Russians from foreign aggression.
“Russia perceives itself as entitled to a historical sphere of influence, the so-called 'near-abroad', and doesn’t allow anyone else to infringe on it,” said Nicoló Fasola, an expert in Russian military strategy at the University of Birmingham in Britain.
“Russia is always anxious about foreign penetration – not only in terms of military involvement and political engagement but also in cultural terms,” Fasola told FRANCE 24. He pointed to the so-called “colour revolutions” that brought pro-Western governments to power in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) – and which the Kremlin perceived as “instruments of the West to drive those countries away from Russia”.
That rationale underpins Russia’s continued presence in Moldova’s breakaway province of Transnistria, where attempts to impose the Romanian language at the start of the 1990s were fiercely resisted by the region’s mainly Russian-speaking population. The same concept – protecting ethnic Russians – would later give Putin a blueprint to justify interventions in Georgia and Ukraine.
While Russia has stopped short of recognising Transnistria’s independence, it “has weakened Moldovan sovereignty and frozen its western integration for the past 25 years”, Eric J. Grossman writes in the US Army War College Quarterly. “This uncertainty has served to trap Moldova in a geopolitical gray zone between East and West and forced it to act as a vehicle for Russian corruption and money laundering.”
Both Georgia and Ukraine are now in danger of being sucked into the same geopolitical “gray zone”, cornered in between their hopes of one day joining the NATO military alliance and the knowledge that Russia won’t let them go. As for their respective separatist entities, recognised only by Russia, their fate is entirely dependent on Moscow.
“Those entities could not survive by themselves, but their fragility is actually a plus from the Russian perspective, because it ties them closer to Russia,” said Fasola. “They would be unable to survive without Moscow’s help, in turn justifying Russia’s continued presence on the ground.”
In recognising the two “republics” of the Donbas, Moscow has stuck meticulously to its tried-and-tested playbook, reproducing, word for word, the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance it had previously signed with Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Whether those entities can prosper is a minor concern for Russia when compared with the overall strategic picture, said Fasola.
“Moscow will provide financial and logistical help but, at the end of the day, they are no more than tools for the achievement of Russia’s strategic goals,” he explained. “It's all about using them as bridgeheads into the post-Soviet space – instruments to control the situation on the ground.”
A price worth paying
Just how much control Russia can exert remains to be seen, with critics noting that Putin’s actions have hardened anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine and Georgia. As Georgia’s President Salome Zurabishvili recently said, her country understands "very well what the people of Ukraine feel today (…). This is solidarity from a country that has already suffered and is still suffering from occupation."
Russia may have attained its short-term objectives, but it has “lost prestige and soft power”, said Avdaliani. “Few in Ukraine or Georgia would think about turning to Russia geopolitically. I think in the longer run Russia has squandered the advantages it held even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
For the Kremlin’s strategists, however, resentment against Moscow is a price worth paying to ensure NATO’s expansion is halted in its tracks.
“It is true that Russia’s course of action since 2014 has angered the Ukrainian public and legitimised Kyiv’s anti-Russian posture,” said Fasola. “But the same government in Kyiv is well aware of the fact that Russia can decide or at least strongly influence its political decisions. However much anti-Russian they might be, they have to take into account Moscow’s positions and actions.”
From a Western perspective, Russia’s aggressive strategy has come at a clear cost for Moscow, in the shape of steep sanctions – which are set to get steeper – and sharply deteriorated relations with an outraged and compact Western front.
“On the other hand, if we base our assessment on Moscow’s stated goals, meaning the maintenance of Russian control – or at least influence – over those specific regions, then we can say that the Russian strategy has been successful,” Fasola cautioned. “Of course once could counter that neither Georgia nor Ukraine have given up on joining NATO. But, de facto, NATO membership is no longer a viable option. However much Georgia and Ukraine want to join NATO, they simply cannot.”
The same reasoning applies to the West, Fasola added: “On paper, Western powers decide who joins NATO. But in practice, they cannot ignore Russia.”