In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own economic and political incompetence. The Soviet Union’s successor, the Russian Federation, was forced to confront the difficult fact that it had lost much of its influence among many of its formerly Soviet neighbors.
From 1991 until 2008 many central and eastern European countries pivoted away from Russia and joined western economic and military institutions like NATO or the European Union. During that period, Russia was too weak to prevent the expansion of NATO and the EU and to weak to maintain Soviet-like domination over the remaining former Soviet states. And so in a bid to maintain even a minuscule level of influence among those states closest to Russia, the Kremlin actively funded or supported separatists in these countries to threaten the host country with political unrest in the event of their pivot towards the West.
Transdniestria – Moldova
- After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the people of Transdniestria moved for independence and conflict broke out with their host country Moldova. A multilateral ceasefire between Russia, Moldova, and Transdniestria was finally achieved in 1992. Today it is a self-proclaimed independent territory between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border.
How Russia uses Transdniestria
- If the host country of Transdniestria, Moldova seeks to grow its ties with the West, the Kremlin can use its forces and those loyal to Russia in Transdniestria to incite violence and political unrest for Moldova.
- In 2008 Russian President Medvedev threatened Moldova with civil unrest and violence if the country moved for closer ties to the EU.
Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk – Ukraine
- In 2013 after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych suspended the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, the Euromaidan protest movement forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia. In early 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and said that the 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine was a mistake. After the annexation of Crimea, pro-Russian demonstrations occurred in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine (aka the Donbass region). The pro-Russian Ukrainians in the Donbasss were officially reinforced by Russia in August of 2014. President Putin claimed he was defending ethnic Russians being killed by the Ukrainian government.
How Russia uses Crimea and the Donbass
- Access to warm water port in Sevastopol and access to the Mediterranean
- Additional buffer from an ever increasingly pro-Western government in Kiev
- Continued unrest in Eastern Ukraine prevents the government in Kiev from pivoting towards Western economic and military institutions
South Ossetia and Abkhazia – Georgia
- Similar to Transdniestria, the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia moved for their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Soon after a Russian backed ceasefire was achieved in both regions of Georgia, and once again Russia remained very influential in the country. From 2003 – 2008 Georgian-Russian relations deteriorated until the pro-Russian separatists from South Ossetia and Abkhazia began to fire on Georgian military forces at which point Georgia fired back on the separatists which prompted Moscow to intervene on behalf of the ethnic Russians restore peace.
How Russia uses South Ossetia and Abkhazia
- After President Bush backed Georgia (and Ukraine) for NATO membership, Russia moved to create instability in the country and prevent any possibility of Georgia’s acceptance into NATO.
Nagorno-Karabakh – Azerbaijan
- After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh voted for its independence which Azerbaijan refused to recognize. Nagorno-Karabakh, the majority Armenian Region has since been supported by Armenia since 1994 when a ceasefire was reached between Azerbaijan and itself. Armenia is backed by Russian support and no Russians are deployed to the region.
How Russia uses Nagorno-Karabakh
- In 2016 it was discovered that Russia had also begun to sell weapons to Azerbaijan in addition to ongoing weapons sales to Armenia. Russia sells both sides weapons as a way to maintain influence in the region. Azerbaijan and Armenia try to outcompete one another to win over favorable Russian support.
Western territory of Syria with Alawite majority
- Since 2015 Russia has supported Bashar al-Assad in his fight against anti-government forces
How Russia uses Syria
- Alawite stronghold supported by Russia military foothold in the Middle East
- Russia is an indispensable country to the future of any peace process, thereby granting Russia additional prestige in the region and the world overall
- Continued access to Russia’s naval and air base in Western Syria
- Prevented the regime change of Bashar al-Assad, a major interest in Russian foreign policy (Prevention of autocratic regime change)
Russia’s intentional use of low-intensity conflict and propaganda has been described as ‘grey zone warfare,’ ‘hybrid warfare,’ ‘the Gerasimov doctrine’ along with countless others. But regardless of what fancy name their strategy is called it is clear that Russia intentionally engages in reverse asymmetric warfare against those across its near abroad. By reverse asymmetric warfare I mean that Russia purposefully chooses to send enough troops to fight or threaten violence, but not enough troops to help these separatists fight and win their independence.
By committing such a few amount of troops and support Russia achieves its goals at the lowest cost possible. Ideally, Russia would like to be the only country influencing the former Soviet states. But given Russia’s relative weakness against the United States and NATO, the Kremlin chooses to prevent any other countries from pivoting away from Russia’s orbit.