Eurasian disunion – Russia’s vulnerable flanks – Part Eight

Analysis 13 June 2018
Eurasian disunion – Russia’s vulnerable flanks – Part Eight

The think tank Institute for Strategic Analysis continues publication of excerpts from a book “Eurasian disunion-Russia’s vulnerable flanks” to keep English-language readers informed of new trends, developments and analyses of President Vladimir Putin’s policies in former Soviet nations during his reign over Russia.


Vulnerable Flanks

In pursuit of a dominant “pole of power” position in Europe’s East and in Central Asia, and in order to strengthen its revisionist “Russian World,” Moscow is prepared to redraw international borders throughout the post-Soviet zone. The de facto annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the further division of Ukraine became a logical step after Russia’s forced partition of Georgia, in August 2008, and the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, a move that brought no punishing international consequences.

Putin’s aggressive moves into Ukraine and the muted international response sent shockwaves throughout the broader neighborhood. States from the Baltic Sea to the South Caucasus and Central Asia felt under more direct threat of destabilization, dissection, and of being drawn involuntarily into Russia’s imperial designs.

In sum, five of Russia’s flanks are exposed to destabilization and armed conflict as a result of Moscow’s revisionist and revanchist policies. Along Russia’s northern flank, two of the three Baltic countries (Latvia and Estonia) contain significant ethnic-Russian populations and remain on alert for scenarios of subversion engineered by Moscow. Putin may decide on more direct and forceful measures to allegedly defend not only Russian ethnics but also “Russian-speaking” populations that were settled in these republics during the post–World War Two Soviet occupation.

Alternatively, Moscow may seek to carve out a land corridor across Lithuania to connect with its Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic coast. The fact that this would mean direct action against a NATO member may prove attractive to Putin, as he could test Alliance unity and resolve in defending its territorial integrity. Even without direct attempts at partition and annexation, the Kremlin could pursue various destabilizing measures through energy pressures, trade embargoes, cyber attacks, incitement of ethnic unrest, or by staging sabotage or terrorist attacks on Baltic territory. This would also test NATO reactions to non-conventional attacks on a member state.

The Nordic non-NATO members, Sweden and Finland, are also growing increasingly concerned by Moscow’s incursions along their borders and inside their territorial waters, which directly threaten their national security. They are assessing the possibility of entering the Alliance to protect their vital interests. Russia’s attack on any of the Baltic states could draw Sweden or Finland into direct confrontation with Moscow.

Along Russia’s western flank are several defensive flashpoints that could be triggered by Moscow’s offensives. Poland could become embroiled militarily to protect its eastern borders and defend the besieged Ukrainian state, as well as its own co-ethnics in Ukraine. A Russian military invasion, occupation, and partition of mainland Ukraine would spark armed resistance and insurgency against Russian forces.

Insurgent leaders might then appeal to Poland for military assistance. If Kyiv itself were bombed or captured, the Ukrainian government would likely seek refuge in Poland and draw Warsaw more directly into a confrontation with Moscow. Meanwhile, the rest of Central Europe would be exposed to a host of instabilities, ranging from energy cutoffs and trade disruptions to refugee outflows and military spillovers.

Belarus will seek to ensure its territorial integrity as the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka endeavors to shield itself from the prospect of Russia’s expansionism. Moscow may claim parts of Belarus or view unification with Russia as the optimum solution. Lukashenka has not supported the annexation of Ukrainian territory for fear that this would set a precedent for the potential fracture of Belarus.

Nonetheless, the Kremlin may call upon Minsk to provide “brotherly assistance” to Greater Russia, possibly within the framework of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or threaten political repercussions. In the most far-reaching scenario, if state integrity comes under increasing question, Belarus may break with Russia and appeal for international protection.

Romania can become more closely involved in supporting the territorial integrity and EU association of Moldova, a country threatened by Moscow-sponsored separatism in the Transnistrian and Gagauz enclaves. Emboldened by success in Crimea, Putin may push for a referendum on federalization or independence for Moldova’s wayward regions. Concurrently with targeting Moldova, Moscow may forcefully establish an autonomous entity along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast between Odesa and Crimea. This would create a direct territorial link between Crimea and Transnistria under Moscow’s control and further challenge the pro-Western government in Kyiv. It would also provide Moscow with control over the entire northern coast of the Black Sea, including its maritime resources.

Along Russia’s southwestern flank, NATO members Romania and Bulgaria are growing concerned about security in the Black Sea and the stability of the wider Balkan region. The seizure of Abkhazia from Georgia and Crimea from Ukraine and threats to truncate other countries has increased Russia’s preponderance in the region. This heightens pressure on all littoral states, challenges NATO’s presence and its deterrence projections in the Wider Europe, and provides Moscow with a stepping-stone toward Central Europe and the Balkans.

Moscow has also become more active among the post-Yugoslav states, seeking greater influence and leverage against Western interests and cultivating potential allies among countries that have yet to qualify for EU or NATO membership, particularly Serbia, or facing internal divisions, in the case of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Kremlin inroads through energy contracts, corrupt business deals, and the exploitation of local nationalisms undermine prospects for Western integration and place both NATO and the EU on the defensive.

Along Russia’s southern flank, Moscow maintains pressure in the South Caucasus to undercut the region’s Western connections. The governments in Georgia and Azerbaijan voiced dismay at the mild Western response to Russia’s partition of Ukraine and what this could portend for their own territorial integrity. Benefiting from its substantial military presence in Armenia, Moscow could reanimate an armed conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, currently controlled by Armenia.

It can also sever Georgia by forcibly creating a military corridor between Russia and Armenia. All these measures, in addition to reanimating an assortment of ethnic claims inside both Georgia and Azerbaijan, would have an adverse impact on the stability of both governments and may push them into an enforced Russian orbit.

Russia’s offensives could also obstruct the construction of energy pipelines between the Caspian Basin and Europe or place these under Moscow’s control and handicap EU attempts to pursue energy diversity. This would also curtail US and European connections with Central Asia and reduce prospects for natural gas deliveries from the region to Europe. The Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) is planned as a network of pipelines that will connect gas fields in Azerbaijan with southern Italy via Georgia, Turkey, Greece, and Albania.

It is due to consist of three sections: the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP), the Trans-Anatolia Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), and the TransAdriatic Pipeline (TAP). The SCP is already online and pipes Azerbaijani gas from the Caspian coast to the Georgian-Turkish border; TAP will pump gas directly into Italy; and TANAP, presently under construction, will link the SCP with TAP. TANAP is expected to be concluded by 2019 and TAP by 2020. The further development of the SGC could involve a broad energy infrastructure linking Europe, the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf that would exclude Russia.

Along Russia’s southeastern flank, the Central Asian states are increasingly wary of Kremlin policy and growing political interference. They are also concerned about the impact of closer economic integration through the Eurasia Economic Union (EEU), where the cost may outweigh the benefits to their own economies. If coupled with an undercutting of state sovereignty and demands to “protect” Russian ethnics in Kazakhstan and elsewhere, this could raise nationalist voices in the region and precipitate more direct conflict with Moscow in opposition to the latter’s integrationist agenda.

Central Asia faces escalating security challenges in the wake of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, limited Western political and economic engagement, and Russia’s growing aspirations. This can increase the appeal of local nationalists and propel some countries to develop closer ties with a more assertive China. Such relations could evolve into mutual defense arrangements as protection against a revisionist Russia.

The war between Russia and Ukraine has dramatically escalated the geostrategic competition between the Western states and a neo-imperial Russia. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea demonstrates President Putin’s geopolitical ambitions and the limitations of Western deterrents. It has challenged the independence of other nearby post-Soviet states and exposed America’s newest NATO allies, NATO partners, and even the non-aligned European countries to the destabilizing regional repercussions of the Kremlin’s assertiveness.

Although Russia’s military capabilities do not match those of its Soviet predecessor, the country presents a destabilizing presence in several key regions and employs numerous forms of subversion against targeted neighbors. The following five chapters systematically examine the threats confronted by Russia’s vulnerable flanks and the responses of states that are targeted by Moscow.

(To be continued)

Republished from a book "Eurasian Disunion Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks".