The Russian Grand Strategy

In recent weeks, interesting political and military developments have been taking place in the breakaway territories across the former Soviet Union. Military escalation in east Ukraine, continuing “border” movements in South Ossetia, and the coordinated actions of Kiev and Chisinau in Transnistria to strangle the Russian presence there, are good tools for Moscow to control the behavior of those countries trying to join the EU/NATO. However, it remains doubtful how successful Russia can be at pulling the strings in so many “theaters,” particularly as acting simultaneously on several fronts is so complicated militarily as well as financially.

Exercising the Grand Strategy

If Russia has a grand strategy in its foreign policy realm, it certainly involves the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed the biggest geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost such large portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But keeping 11 buffer states around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western influence. Politicians in Russia clearly saw that because of Russia’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier in Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections.

And it can be rightly said that Russia has been quite successful in fomenting and managing Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and east Ukraine conflicts in the last 25 years. From Moscow’s perspective, through these conflicts Moldova’s, Georgia’s and Ukraine’s pro-western aspirations would be stopped if not permanently, then at least significantly hampered. Even in “Nagorno Karabakh,” where Russia was not an active player at the beginning, now sees Russia having the highest biggest stakes through which it exercises influence on Azerbaijan’s foreign policy and thus limits Baku’s potential to be more influential in such.

However, it is becoming more and more difficult to manage five breakaway conflicts together. First, financial support for the regimes (except for “Nagorno Karabakh”) comes from Moscow. To this should be added military expenses related to the stationing of military bases there. Third, Russian support for breakaway regimes has created a veritable arc of anti-Russian states along almost the entirety of Russia’s southern and western borders.

First Signs of Coming Problems

Just before his first visit to Georgia on July 17, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko opened a joint Ukraine-Moldova transit point on the Transnistrian section of the Moldova-Ukraine border. This comes amid heated rhetoric from the Moldovan government on tightening border control measures and calls for 1,500 Russian troops to be withdrawn from Transnistria. It was also reported that Ukraine and Moldova would open up to ten additional border control points. The head of Transnistria claimed that it would choke the region’s trade causing a loss of approximately $40 mln.

This could potentially create problems in the further deterioration of economic conditions in Transnistria and put Russian influence at risk. Indeed, Russia has a lot to worry about with these developments since its does not have a direct land route from the Russian mainland to Transnistria. Unlike with South Ossetia, Abkhazia or east Ukraine, where mainland Russia is directly connected to the breakaway territories, Transnistria from the military perspective is perhaps the most disadvantageous place for Russian forces.

Before the Ukraine crisis, Ukrainian territory was used by Moscow as a transit route for the resupply of Russian forces in Moldova. But once relations between Kiev and Moscow deteriorated in the wake of the conflict in Donbass, the land and air routes to Transnistria were closed to Russian troops. Now the Russian Defense Ministry will have to circumvent Ukraine and enter Moldova itself. If denied air transit in Moldova too, Moscow will essentially be cut off from its 1,500-strong peacekeeping force in Transnistria.

Surely any such scenario is fraught with consequences for both Moldova and Ukraine. For example, Moscow, in response, could escalate the military situation in east Ukraine if Kiev decides to further strangle Transnistria. In Chisinau, too, Russians could rely on the pro-Russian president who is able to gather wide support among the population and cause problems for the ruling pro-European government.

Nevertheless, it shows how it is becoming ever more complicated for Moscow to manage four different breakaway territories across Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. Transnistria is perhaps a testing ground for Russian efforts to keep the breakaway territories under its influence. Any failure to do so will result in an unfortunate example for Russia’s projection of power outside its borders and will be a major defeat for Moscow’s strategy of denying its neighbors the opportunity to join western-led integration projects.

Emil Avdaliani

24 July 2017 18:14