BACKGROUND: In late May 2015, unexpectedly and almost abruptly, Russian officials, state organs, and even pro-Moscow separatists “indefinitely” put on hold plans for the creation of “Novorossiya.” Originally, the Russia-aligned Novorossiya project was envisioned as a separatist confederation between the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics as well as any future pro-Russia breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. But amid severe economic pain induced by international sanctions, and on the heels of a diplomatic offensive by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Sochi, the ambitious Novorossiya agenda was shelved.
The demise of Novorossiya was only the most recent wrinkle in a series of fluctuations among Russia’s constellation of loyalist breakaway regimes along its periphery. Only several months earlier, between December 2014 and February 2015, Russia signed “integration treaties” with the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. While the wording of the agreements varied in scale and scope, much like the two regions themselves, the end result was clear: Moscow had extended its control over both rebel statelets, despite having formally recognized each region’s “independence” following its brief war with Georgia in 2008.
However, the disruption of the Novorossiya project as well as the Abkhazian and South Ossetian integration treaties illustrate not only a shift in tactical Russian policies towards friendly separatist regimes, but a return to the strategic status quo ante. Instead, rather than merely using separatists as local proxies, their chief purpose is to provide means of both positive as well as negative leverage over their origin countries. This represents a return to a standard policy from which Moscow deviated following the 2008 war with Georgia, when it recognized the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia despite having already comprehensively defeated Georgian military forces on the battlefield.
While Russia’s leadership in 2008 likely hoped that its swift military victory combined with the psychological blow of Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would topple then-President Mikheil Saakashvili and his government, Saakashvili’s party was only later ousted in 2012 through democratic elections. Meanwhile, Russian political leverage in Georgia had considerably dwindled. The war and the recognition of the Georgian breakaway territories had transmuted Moscow’s role from an irascible broker to an occupying power. Short of the threat of renewed invasion, Russia had few means or mechanisms for representing its interests in Tbilisi after 2008. Diplomatic relations had been severed, economic ties were marginal, and Georgia had long ago already weaned itself from Russian energy supplies.
IMPLICATIONS: The conclusion of the Novorossiya project and the integration treaties with the Georgian separatist regimes represent two sides of the same coin. Moscow is positioning its proxies in both Ukraine and Georgia to have an optimal impact on policy considerations in Kiev and Tbilisi, respectively. With the threat of Novorossiya lifted, and Russian officials once again calling for a solution that preserves the idea of a united Ukraine (albeit without Crimea), eastern Ukrainian rebels are being positioned to maximize Russian leverage over the Kiev government. Conversely, while a Ukraine shorn of the Donbas would be a territorial catastrophe, the remaining population would be more united, largely pro-Kiev, and predominantly Western facing in its geopolitical instincts.
In Georgia, although Abkhazia and South Ossetia are too far divorced from Tbilisi to serve as comparable leverage to eastern Ukraine, Moscow has sought to integrate both regions as deeply within Russia as possible without outright annexation. This is the primary reason why Moscow is unlikely to annex either region, including the under populated, oblast-sized South Ossetia. Moscow effectively exercises considerable direct control over both regions – and especially South Ossetia, whose relationship to Moscow is by now largely indistinguishable from official annexation – but does not wish to compound the mistake made in 2008 in recognizing each region’s independence.
Instead, Moscow hopes to dangle the possibility of returning the separatist regions, and particularly South Ossetia, to Georgian control under certain circumstances. In Georgia, growing pro-Russia civil society groups and anti-West political movements can and have declared their ability to win key concessions from Russia on trade, economic development, and territorial reintegration. Should a pro-Moscow force come to power in Georgia, Moscow may be prepared (or present the appearance of intent) to reverse its earlier determination and return South Ossetia as a means of empowering local political allies. In short, control over South Ossetia could be relinquished as a means of obtaining fealty from Georgia as a whole.
The Russian annexation of Crimea in early 2014 is, in many respects, the exception that proves the rule. In the case of Crimea, Russian intent was relatively straightforward and unambiguous. Crimea was treated not as an instrument of leverage over Kiev, but as a key strategic asset to be secured as well as a historical accident, in the Russian view, to be corrected. If anything, Moscow’s decision not to recognize Crimean independence could serve as a kind of indictment on the recognition strategy that Russia employed in 2008 in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Similarly, separatist elections in the Donbas region were met by statements of “respect” in Russia, rather than recognition, as was widely expected.
Russia is unlikely to annex the existing separatist regions in Ukraine or Georgia, as it hopes instead to better utilize those regions as means of leverage against the Kiev and Tbilisi governments. However, this strategy neither reduces the potential for instability nor makes Russian influence any less malignant. Although Russian annexation of these regions would have the benefit of being symbolically rich, it offers few strategic benefits for Moscow and could even jeopardize the durability of Russian sway over the origin state. Russian support for titular unity would not necessarily impede its influence – such as in Moldova’s Transnistria region now, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia before 2008 – but offers Russia a certain degree of strategic flexibility.
This diplomatic ambiguity is, in many respects, an extension of Russian hybrid warfare. Russia maintains the trappings and observes the protocols as a neutral observer – and uses its preponderance of power and influence to shape outcomes in its favor while attempting to appear as a constructive partner. This has the effect of preserving Russian interests at the expense of conflict resolution. However, this “constructive” Russian role will likely contribute to further splitting threat perceptions in Europe, as some states will welcome a less openly aggressive Russian approach, while others will perceive it to be a more insidious threat.
This shifting Russian approach will also divide opinions within the victimized states themselves. Russian support for separatist forces invariably raises territorial integrity in these states as a top political issue. Yet it is through concessions to Moscow that at least some territorial grievances could be most easily and quickly ameliorated. Like with South Ossetia in Georgia, Moscow would be likely to “reward” at least some eastern Ukrainian territory to the political movement that successfully secures key foreign policy concessions that favor Russian interests.
CONCLUSIONS: Western hesitation to take a more active role in limiting and countering Russian actions in Ukraine and Georgia may leave their governments with few choices but to accede to concessions as a matter of political or even state survival. The 2014 NATO summit in Wales and the recent Eastern Partnership summit in Riga showcase the continued political toxicity of Euro-Atlantic expansion within Europe. The promise of Euro-Atlantic conditionality, a font of European soft power, appears comprehensively, and perhaps permanently, derailed. Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova remain on the outside of Euro-Atlantic retrenchment with few appreciable mechanisms for continued, long-term integration. Shifting Russian policy towards separatist proxies is likely meant to harness growing local frustration with Western quiescence in Ukraine and Georgia as a means of expanding Russian influence through political means.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Michael Hikari Cecire is a Black Sea regional analyst and the co-editor of Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security (2014).