What next in Russia’s “near abroad”?
The Ethnic Conflict Information Centre identifies possible scenarios
Ukraine’s modern history has been dominated by its struggle for national identity and self-determination in the face of aggression and outright occupation from its bigger Russian neighbour. Since independence from the USSR in 1991, Ukraine has periodically challenged Russian geo-military ambitions, for example through the denial of Ukrainian airspace for Russian reinforcements to Kosovo, support for Moldova in its dispute with Moscow over the breakaway region of Transnistria, carrying out joint exercises with NATO, and floating the possibility of both EU and NATO membership. Even before the dramatic escalation of hostilities between the two countries that occurred in 2014, Russia in turn had regularly threatened Ukraine with potentially crippling energy and other economic sanctions.
Both Moscow and Brussels have sought to interfere in Ukrainian elections, the results of which have oscillated between broadly ‘pro-Russian’ and ‘pro-Western’ outcomes. 2004 saw the ‘Orange Revolution’ in which the ‘pro-Western’ Viktor Yushchenko triumphed over Viktor Yanukovych in the back-and-forth battle for the Ukrainian presidency. In a dangerous and significant pointer to the future, the Orange Revolution showed a widening political division between the nationalist west of the country, and the more Russophile east and south, including the Crimean peninsula. In Ukraine’s December 2004 poll, electorates in south and east Ukraine voted solidly for Viktor Yanukovych, and this trend was repeated in the 2010 election, in which Yanukovych regained the presidency.
Despite his perceived pro-Russian bias, Yanukovych initially favoured closer relations with the EU, agreeing an association agreement with Brussels that would secure EU funding on the condition of major reforms to Ukraine’s economy and political structures. Later, however, Yanukovych dramatically reversed course, refused to sign the EU association deal, and in 2014 agreed instead a treaty and a multi-billion dollar loan arrangement with Russia.
The consequences are now well known. In a more violent re-run of the Orange Revolution – the so-called Euromaidan Revolution – Yanukovych was driven from office. In the ensuing confusion, Russia annexed Crimea, and full-scale conflict erupted in parts of eastern Ukraine. Accusing Moscow of open aggression against a sovereign European state, the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia – and Russo-Western relations crashed to a new post-Cold War low.
Such, broadly, are the facts. Further interpretation rapidly becomes mired in the conflicting narratives of the two sides. This divergence is in itself significant, illustrating as it does the extent to which the West has failed to understand what motivates Russia, how Moscow interprets regional developments, and, by extension, what practical limits may exist on Western geopolitical ambitions.
The 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan uprising are, in fact, viewed by Russia and the West in almost mirror images. For the West, Russia’s interference in Ukrainian political life, including an attempt to poison Yushchenko (leaving him visibly scarred) clearly revealed the work of the Russian FSB, successor to the KGB. For the Russians both the mass Orange demonstrations and the Euromaidan “coup d’etat” (as Moscow termed it) were patently the work of American and EU interests.
Similarly, Russia places a wholly different interpretation on its annexation of Crimea to that offered by Western governments. The Russians point to Crimea’s Russian majority population, the fact that it has been Russian throughout most of its history, and that it was actually part of the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic until 1954, when jurisdiction was transferred to Ukraine. This move, uncontroversial while the USSR existed, meant that, upon the collapse of the Soviet system, Crimea became a part of Ukraine despite its Russian history and ethnic majority. For most Russians, therefore, the reunification of Crimea with Russia was simply the rectification of a Soviet-era internal border, and one that carried the overwhelming endorsement of the people of the peninsula.
Understanding Russian actions in Ukraine does not make them excusable, but it does make them explicable and – more importantly – predictable. Yet the failure of the West to understand, let alone accommodate, Russia’s interests and worldview is all the more revealing because the West was given a clear warning, back in 2008, of the limits of Russian tolerances of US and EU encroachment into its ‘near abroad’. In that year, Georgia, buoyed up by the rhetorical support of its friends in Brussels and Washington, was prompted to a recklessness that led to disaster. In August 2008, the Georgians attempted to forcibly seize the city of Tskhinvali, capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Russia, in a clearly pre-planned countermove, acted massively and decisively against the Georgians, and within a matter of hours had driven them out of South Ossetian territory entirely. By 10 August the Russians were moving into Georgia proper, occupying the city of Gori (incidentally the birthplace of Stalin) and threatening the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
In making such a bold move, the Russians calculated that the United States, bogged down with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, would be incapable of effective intervention. (One can reasonably assume the possibility of any effective European Union reaction did not weigh too heavily on the minds of Kremlin planners.) In this, Moscow proved entirely correct. Faced with complete military collapse and the possibility of wholesale Russian occupation, and perceiving no possibility of foreign intervention or re-supply, Georgia sued for peace, under terms dictated by the Kremlin but agreed nominally under the brokerage of France, which was then holding the Presidency of the European Union. Moscow then went on to formally recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second breakaway region, as independent states.
The Russian attack on Georgia was a primarily a “war of demonstration.” It was intended to prove three things to Washington and Brussels. First, that the Russian army was back in business after its precipitous decline in the 1990s. Secondly, that Western snubs, such as the recognition of Kosovo over Russian objections, would have their consequences. Thirdly, that the further eastern encroachment of NATO and the EU into the Russian sphere of influence, into Ukraine for instance, would be resisted.
Clearly, these messages, specifically the third, were lost on the West, which largely blundered on with ‘business as usual’ with regards to Ukraine.
So, what, or rather where, next? One potential flashpoint to watch is Moldova where, as in Ukraine, corruption has long been entrenched in government and the question of whether the country should look east or west for its future has dominated general elections. Currently, pro-EU elements are in the ascendency, and at the November 2013 summit in Vilnius, Moldova signed up to a keynote Association and Free Trade agreement with the EU. This was the same summit that led to the Ukraine crisis when then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a similar agreement.
Furthermore, in an echo of Georgia, Moldova has its very own Russian-dominated breakaway state, Transnistria, whose rulers have on occasion indicated an enthusiasm for joining the Russian Federation, and which has a useful in-country contingent of Russian ‘peacekeeping’ troops. Another flashpoint could be the autonomous region of Gagauzia, in the south of the country. The Gagauzians are a Turkic people with pro-Russian sentiments. In 2014 a local referendum overwhelmingly supported closer links with Russia and called for Gagauzian independence should Moldova join the EU, while gubernatorial elections in March 2015 saw the election of a strongly pro-Moscow candidate. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov has said that Moldova’s signing of the EU Association agreement meant Russia needed to do more to support potentially dissident regions such as Gagauzia. Russia imposed a ban on Moldovan agricultural exports in the aftermath of the Moldova/EU agreement – but pointedly excluded Gagauzia from the embargo.
Moldova’s parliamentary elections in November 2014 resulted in victory for a pro-EU coalition. However, the largest single party, with over 20% of the vote, was the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova – a markedly pro-Moscow party whose leader enjoyed a well-publicized meeting with Putin during the election campaign and which is committed to binning the Association and Free Trade agreement. A fatal fracturing of Moldova’s already delicate political structure could easily occur if, for example, overtures towards full EU membership were to be made either by the Moldovan government or by Brussels. Given the EU’s propensity for hoovering up any country that falls into its sphere of influence, the precedents for Brussels displaying the subtlety to manage the complex situation that would result are not encouraging. Equally, it would not be hard to see Russia enthusiastically seizing any opportunity to make mischief in Transnistria and/or Gagauzia.
An even more dangerous set of scenarios would see Russia stirring up trouble in the Baltic. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are members both of NATO and the EU, so this would represent a very significant escalation. Although ‘probing’ and ‘nuisance’ attacks are possible it remains highly unlikely that Russia would deliberately provoke a full-scale shooting match with NATO. But there are tangible dangers of an accidental war being ignited.
Short of overt armed conflict, Russia could provoke or exploit unrest amongst the Baltic’s Russian minorities. Should riots or paramilitary activities by Russian activists overwhelm the local authorities, as is quite likely, the only remaining recourse would be to use NATO forces in some kind of policing or peacekeeping role. This would place them in the invidious position of being portrayed as aggressors against a civilian population – a propaganda gift to the Kremlin.
Cyber attacks are also likely. Indeed, Estonia has already been the victim of at least one sustained cyber attack that many – not least the Estonian Government – believe Russia was responsible for. As all three Baltic States are members of the Eurozone, cyber terrorism against their financial infrastructures could have consequences well beyond their borders.
The advantage for Russia of this tactic is that it stops short of physical violence, and culpability is very difficult to prove. However, it would still be a very risky game to play. As NATO members, the Baltic States have the right to invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty, by which an attack on one member is to be regarded as an act of war against all members of the alliance. The only time Article 5 has been invoked was by the USA in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. So a precedent – indeed, the only precedent – for Article 5 to be used exists in circumstances where the attack was unconventional and not directly involving a hostile nation state. It is not too far a reach, therefore, to see Estonia, say, successfully invoking Article 5 as a casus belli in response to a Russian-based cyber attack.
In assessing whether any Russian leader would seriously risk armed conflict with NATO it is necessary to bear in mind that the cards are not by any means all in the Kremlin’s hand. Although regionally formidable, there are serious doubts as to the training, logistical and technical proficiency of the Russian Army and whether it could really stand up to a fully engaged America. Longer term, the broader geopolitical and economic prospects for Russia are not particularly encouraging either. Responsible for two-thirds of export earnings and half of all tax returns, the Russian petrochemical industry is both a strength and a weakness. In the current climate of depressed oil prices, Russia seems increasingly vulnerable. At the beginning of 2015, the Russian economy looked like it was in freefall, battered by Western sanctions, a collapse in the value of the rouble, rocketing interest rates, and a crippling fall in petrochemical revenues.
The Russian people’s capacity for the stoic acceptance of suffering is proverbial, particularly when its patriotic instincts are engaged. But it may not be limitless, and unlike in the days of Stalin and the Great Patriotic War, there is now a class of influential Russians well acquainted with the delights of Western consumerism. Should the members of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs – the “oligarch’s club” – start to feel the pinch this will have much more impact on President Putin’s policies than bombast from Western leaders. Of course, the counter argument exists that Putin may be provoked to military adventurism precisely because Russia’s economy is weak and, like Argentinian President Kirchner vis-à-vis the Falklands, he needs a external scapegoat and rallying point to deflect domestic discontent.
In Soviet times, Russia, as the core Soviet republic, benefited from not one but two rings of buffer states – the outer Soviet Republics themselves, and the Central and Eastern European ‘satellite’ states, which were integrated into one military bloc through the Warsaw Pact. Soviet armed forces, the product of a much higher proportion of GDP expenditure than is now possible even under Putin’s re-arming of Russia, were capable of global reach. Furthermore, for all its vileness, Communism was an exportable commodity, not least among influential liberal elites in Western Europe and North America; Russian chauvinism has a much more limited appeal. In short, Russia does not enjoy many of the power projection advantages possessed by the old Soviet Union. The question may therefore be asked how, if Russia really is intent on a second Cold War, she believes she would fare any better than the USSR?
Although the possibility of a new Cold War is now raised openly in certain Western circles, the question may be a false one. It is quite possible that the Kremlin holds an entirely realistic evaluation of modern Russia’s strengths and weaknesses. Vladimir Putin may genuinely have no global superpower ambitions – but he does demand that Russia be taken seriously in the European and Eurasian theatres.
Ethnic Conflict Information Centre, April 2015