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All is not quiet on the eastern front

A fateful combination of geopolitical facts has made Ukraine and Georgia key to the success of the Kremlin’s strategic goal of imperial resurgence, which apparently can only be achieved by controlling the fate of these two nations. Consequently, Georgia and Ukraine have become the primary targets of Russian aggression.

The world is rich with geopolitical hot spots right now. Iran, the Levant, North Korea, the waters east of China – all provide credible risks of a major war. Sino-American competition is clearly a major international issue for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, multi-sided geopolitical struggle in the Middle East will certainly provide a plentiful supply of crises.

August 26, 2019 - David Batashvili - AnalysisIssue 5 2019Magazine

Tskhinvali Highway from Gori, Georgia – Photo: Giorgi Balakhadze (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

Another major geopolitical issue of our time is Russia’s sustained efforts to restore its empire – in some novel form, to be sure, but to restore it nonetheless. This issue is as dangerous as the earlier-mentioned ones. Nevertheless, in comparison, it appears to be getting somewhat less attention and less priority in the West. It is true that the West has begun to react to Russian interference in Europe and the United States as it became nearly impossible to ignore. Yet, the intensely severe threat that Russia poses to its neighbouring states deserves more attentive treatment than it is getting presently. Similar to the problems in East Asia and the Middle East, the situation with Russia involves a serious risk for escalation, including the danger of a major interstate war.

Despite all of Russia’s efforts since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s objectives in its former empire remain incomplete. Its actions to rectify this situation will continue and, possibly, escalate. All the states in Russia’s European borderlands now face some kind of threat that has its origins in Moscow. The most endangered and viciously targeted ones, however, are Ukraine and Georgia.

The Russian strategic rationale

Russia’s goal, expressed in both words and actions, is to replace the world where the United States is the primary power with what Russians call the “multipolar” world order. In effect, it is the same model of international system that existed on the eve of the First World War. In this system several great powers have their own spheres of influence, carved out in various parts of the world. None of the powers possesses clear primacy. They continually wrestle with one another, grouping and re-grouping into fragile alliances.

It is easy to see why Russia’s ruling regime finds such a model attractive compared to the currently existing US-led one. In this model, there would be greater room for manoeuvre to conduct Moscow’s chosen strategy. The Kremlin, however, does not deem the official national borders of the Russian Federation as sufficient to carry proper imperial weight – either today or in the potential “multipolar” world of tomorrow. Hence, we have witnessed stubborn and aggressive efforts to gain some form of control over the nations that used to be within the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Decision-makers in Moscow do not believe that Russia’s long-term future as a great power can be guaranteed without such control.

A fateful combination of geopolitical facts has made Ukraine and Georgia key to the success of the Kremlin’s strategic goals. Apparently, the successful attempt at Russian imperial resurgence can only be achieved by controlling the fate of these two nations. Consequently, Georgia and Ukraine have become primary targets of Russian aggression, which includes direct use of military force.

Existence of a truly sovereign Ukraine is incompatible with Russia’s goal to reconstruct its empire due to a host of geographical, strategic, political and cultural factors. The demographic weight and economic potential of Ukraine – a country of 44 million people situated between Central Europe and Russia’s own geopolitical core whose border is only about 450 kilometres from Moscow – is of key importance to that aim. The concept of Russkiy Mir (“Russian world”), a key ideological lever of modern Russian imperialism, is undermined by this partly Russian-speaking nation’s refusal to bow to Moscow.

Ukraine also presents deep problems in terms of historical narrative and political identity. Many Russians see Ukrainians as people who are culturally very similar to them, and yet Ukraine has developed a democratic political model that is drastically different from Russia’s traditional autocracy. Putin and his supporters claim that Russia can find no viable alternative to their authoritarianism. Ukraine makes this thesis look dubious. If a democratic Ukraine manages to make further progress, that can become unbearable for the Kremlin.

While Ukraine lies at the very core of the modern Russian imperial project, Georgia is crucially important to Moscow in its own right. The South Caucasus east-west transportation corridor runs through this country, representing competition to Russian east-west corridors. If Moscow were to become dominant in Georgia, it would be able to undermine or control this route. Georgian territory also connects Russia to its ally, Armenia; and Azerbaijan to its ally, Turkey. This means that if Russia can control Georgia, it will fully consolidate its influence over Armenia while cutting Azerbaijan off from Turkey and Europe. In that case Baku would have little choice but to negotiate the terms of its surrender in the Russian sphere of influence. For Moscow, that is why gaining Georgia means also gaining Azerbaijan. Moreover, if Georgia fell into the Kremlin’s hands, that would deprive Central Asian states of any prospects of developing independent communication with Europe. In other words, from Moscow’s geostrategic perspective, Georgia holds the key for the entire southern flank.

The majority within Georgian and Ukrainian societies are vehemently against submitting to Russia. Thus pro-Russian realignment in these countries cannot come as a result of a democratic choice. To achieve its goals in Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow needs to either place proxy regimes in their government or turn them into failed, disintegrated states. In the latter case, Russia would be able to manipulate the chaos to suit its own interests.

Hard and soft power in Georgia

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has been trying to bully Georgia back into submission. In the early 1990s, it conducted what is now called “hybrid warfare” against Georgia which led to the de facto Russian takeover of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions – similar in its essence to the events in Donbas in 2014. Since then, the Kremlin has been employing a wide-ranging arsenal of military, covert, diplomatic, economic and propaganda activities to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty. The direct military invasion of Georgia in August 2008, although particularly consequential and tragic, was just one episode of many in the continuous Russian effort to subdue Georgia. Today, Moscow pursues this effort as actively as ever, employing both hard and soft power.

Two Russian mechanised brigades with high-grade weaponry are based in Georgia’s two Russian-occupied regions. One of these, the Tskhinvali region (sometimes referred to as South Ossetia – editor’s note), is located just 40 kilometres from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. A significant number of Russian forces are also based next to Georgia in the North Caucasus. Georgia, like Ukraine, is not protected by any military alliance guarantee. For the West, we are partners, but not formal allies.

Russian diplomatic pressure on Tbilisi is constant. Moscow absolutely refuses to admit Georgia’s right to conduct its own foreign policy. Any advance in Tbilisi’s co-operation with its western partners or any action that hampers Russian influence in Georgia is met with admonition and very thinly veiled threats from Moscow. Russian-affiliated political parties, organisations and public figures are active in Georgia, striving to promote a pro-Russian agenda. They are supported by massive propaganda and disinformation involving TV, radio, newspapers, websites, social media and online trolls. The West in general, NATO and the EU are attacked with particular deliberation. Russian-affiliated groups employ xenophobia and promote hatred towards minorities. Pro-western politicians and NGOs are targeted viciously.

This information warfare has, so far, achieved only limited success. Georgian society is showing resilience in the face of Russian influence. This was demonstrated rather spectacularly in June this year with the sight of Sergey Gavrilov, a pro-imperialist Russian member of parliament and president of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, in the seat of the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament. It caused an enormous uproar with protest rallies lasting weeks. While their demands focussed on domestic matters, the protesters consistently targeted Russia’s occupation, Moscow’s continued aggression against Georgia, and Vladimir Putin. The whole affair demonstrated that years of Russian propaganda have failed to outweigh the impact of the occupation in the Georgian society.  

This resilience is Georgia’s advantage in the struggle to defend its sovereignty. It does not possess many other advantages, however. Georgia’s position as a target of Russia’s aggressive policy remains difficult.

Possible scenarios in Ukraine

Things are also looking ominous in Ukraine. The direct military threat is probably more severe than in Georgia. There is, of course, an ongoing war in Donbas, with a hot frontline that supplies a never-ending stream of casualties. There have been no major offensive operations since 2015, but that could change very quickly. Meanwhile, Russia is engaged in a large-scale military transformation to make its options against Ukraine more viable. When the war started in 2014 there were no permanently based Russian units at Ukraine’s border. Starting in 2015, Russia began to establish such units. As a result, Russia’s region bordering Ukraine now hosts two armies: the 20th Army of the Western Military District (headquarters in Voronezh) and the 8th Army of the Southern Military District (headquarters in Rostov-on-Don). Along with other units, these two armies include three newly established mechanised divisions – the 144th in Bryansk and Smolensk Oblasts, the 3rd in Voronezh and Belgorod Oblasts, and the 150th in Rostov Oblast. These divisions keep growing with new regiments added in 2018 and 2019.

In a potential larger-scale war against Ukraine, Russia would probably employ most of its armed forces. Nevertheless, the placement of new large units along Ukraine’s border enhances Russia’s capability to start and wage such a war. Russia has heavily invested resources into enhancing this option should it make the decision in the future. If Moscow is convinced that no combination of non-military methods is ever going to satisfy its purposes in Ukraine, all bets might be off.

A potential military scenario could be very risky for Russia. Starting a large-scale war could prove much easier than ending it. Full occupation of Ukraine is impracticable because of the size of its territory and its population – not to mention the strength of Ukrainian armed forces. Even taking over a large part of Ukraine could prove too much for Russia. The drain of resources would be enormous with Ukrainian resistance never ending and the West taking new punitive measures against Moscow. It probably would not end well for Russia’s imperial ambitions and for the regime in the Kremlin itself.

There is always a chance, however, that Russia can work out a military scenario better suited for its purposes. For example, one scenario might involve the direct use of Russian armed forces within a limited area – perhaps just Donbas, or between Kharkiv and the Sea of Azov. If such an operation were successful, the gains made might be limited enough for Russia to “digest” successfully. Moscow would avoid the insurmountable problems associated with occupation of a larger portion of Ukraine.

A limited territorial gain by itself would not lead to an accomplishment of Russia’s strategic goal. The point would be to inflict the shock of casualties and territorial losses on Ukrainians, undermining the legitimacy of their government and increasing the chances of internal destabilisation. Moscow could then exploit the destabilisation to attempt breaking up Ukrainian sovereignty, like it did in 2014. Such a project would not necessarily be successful. A Russian military victory would not be guaranteed, destabilisation would not be certain even in the case of a Ukrainian military defeat and an attempt to use destabilisation could fail. But a Russian enterprise along these lines is possible.

This is only a sample scenario, of course. Moscow may take an entirely different approach to achieve its aims. Nevertheless, the facts are that Russia shows no signs of letting Ukraine go, and it is building up its military might with Ukraine in the cross hairs.

Resistance

Despite Moscow’s efforts, Ukraine and Georgia keep resisting Russia’s influence. As a result, the Kremlin’s objectives remain incomplete. At this point, Russia’s strategic goals and the interests of the Ukrainian and Georgian people are mutually exclusive. The essence of the situation is that Russia wants to subdue us, while we refuse to be subdued, which leaves no room for any meaningful compromise. These are dangerous circumstances which contain a risk of escalation. Moscow has repeatedly shown that it is prepared to start an international crisis when it thinks its objectives require it. It is now setting the stage for a potential new military escalation in Ukraine. Georgia, meanwhile, is not safe either, being strategically vulnerable and a target of a sustained Russian subversion effort.

Georgia and Ukraine are located on an active geopolitical frontline. Its explosive potential is dangerous – the Kerch Strait incident last November was a vivid reminder. Its significance is huge because events here are decisive for Russia’s fate as a great power. What is happening here deserves to get more attention from the US and Europe than is spared now. Otherwise, when another crisis breaks out, the West might be caught surprised and unprepared, again, just like it was in 2014 and 2008.

David Batashvili is a research fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (Rondeli Foundation) in Tbilisi. 

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