Russian-Sponsored Territories

James Meek

Over the past twenty years Russia has removed a set of territories from other countries. It removed the eastern part of Moldova, now known as Transdniestria; it removed the north-western Black Sea part of Georgia, Abkhazia; and it snipped away the territory controlling Georgia's main road to the Caucasus mountains, South Ossetia. The intention now appears to be to carry out the same operation in Crimea, removing it from Ukraine.

In each case, the procedure, not necessarily planned as such, has nonetheless followed a similar pattern. The territories contain large populations who, with varying degrees of justification, objected to the governments handed them in the post-Soviet order of newly independent states. The Slavs of Transdniestria feared Moldova would force them to speak Moldovan, and would unite with Romania. The Abkhazians wanted greater autonomy within, or independence from, Georgia. The South Ossetians, historically close to Russia, feared being cut off, within Georgia, from their northern kin in Russia, on the other side of the mountains.

In each case, clandestine Russian military support, helped by the presence of Russian bases in or near the territories concerned, found willing takers in the form of local military, paramilitary forces and self-proclaimed 'Cossacks'; Russian troops only became involved openly as 'peacekeepers'. In each case, the internationally recognised governments supposedly in charge of the discontented territories took military steps to enforce their claim. The presence of 'peacekeepers' and Russian-armed militias led to clashes, giving the Russian military cause to intervene decisively on the side of the separatists. (Newly independent Georgia's first military response to Abkhazian separatism was particularly heavy-handed.)

Russia's explanation is that the territories concerned should never have been allowed to go beyond Moscow's caring embrace, and that in each case, they are fulfilling the wishes of, and protecting, the majority of the territories' inhabitants. There is some truth in the latter point; but it is a dangerous argument for Moscow to make, given that it could be equally applied, against Russia, to Chechnya.

Russia has always stopped short of incorporating the three Russian-sponsored territories of Transdniestria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia – let's call them the RSTs – into Russia. But their status, whatever it is, has never been recognised by more than a handful of Russian allies, itself a small group. The RSTs exist as anomalies, outside international law; the only other comparable places in Europe are the Turkish-sponsored North Cyprus, which would rather move from its sponsor towards the EU, and Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenia's actions at least have clarity. Russia effectively controls, backs and has responsibility for the RSTs, but has always denied invading and conquering them (or liberating them, as many local people would put it). At the same time, Russia is as sensitive to any perceived violation of its own post-1991 borders as China or the US.

As the RST scenario begins to play out on the Crimean peninsula, with its majority of disgruntled Slavs and a large minority of Tatars, deported en masse by Moscow within living memory, it is time to treat the RSTs as symptoms of a particular Russian problem; and to ask Russia to decide, in fact as well as in law, where it believes its borders stop, and the borders of other countries begin.


  • 28 February 2014 at 3:21pm
    Max Pyziur says:
    It's one thing to engage in war, it's another to engage in occupation. You need about 500,000 fully-trained, well-fed troops per 20 million in population
    for an open-ended engagement. It's not just the soldiers' salaries, but the logistics and other military support.

    That's an awful lot of $$ that has to come out of a national treasury that is usually allocated for other things (pensions, healthcare, etc).

    Given the resiliency and resolve, and guerrilla-mindedness of the non-PRU Ukrainian constituency, full-scale assault on the part of RU is a challenging proposition.

    What is an easier ploy is to use the Georgia/Abkhazia/South Ossetia model: carve out a small piece, call it sovereign, and get three of your "buddies" to formally establish diplomatic relations (Venezuela and Nicaragua). Occupation of Crimea is doable (2 million population => implies a smaller occupying force of say, 50k, with Russia currently having ~900,000 troops available).

    The issue then is what sort of spillover are you going to see. In 2008, by recognizing the questionable sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (in the southern Caucauses), Russia emboldened the continuing separatism efforts taking place in the northern part (Chechnya, North Ossetia, Dagestan, etc).

    Russia also has to contend with the instability and challenges of two other clients: Syria (120,000 fatalities, 2 million refugees; effectively, a
    five-sided proxy war), and Iran.

  • 28 February 2014 at 4:13pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    It might be worth trying but you know what the Russian answer would be, because Putin evidently wants to get his hands on as much of the former Soviet empire as he can. All of his propaganda is aimed at awakening those slumbering prejudices about western decadence and reaction. The Maidan demonstrators are fascists, Yanukovich signed an agreement brokered by Steinmeier which has now been broken and he is rightfully still president.
    The uprising in Kiev was a new form of revolution, similar to Dresden in 1989. Putin's problem is that if Maidan Occupy movement is successful then the RST minorities will want to follow suite. The Soviet (sorry) Russian authorities are stamping hard on all protesters as of Monday, just so the message gets over - if you try to criticise me you will end up in Siberia for ten years. Once a KGB always a KGB man.

  • 2 March 2014 at 1:21pm
    James Thorne says:
    The 'procedure' outlined in the third paragraph sounds mighty similar to that implemented by NATO in Kosovo. So more a post-Cold war procedure, then, than a specifically Russian one.

  • 3 March 2014 at 9:14pm
    usazerisnetwork says:
    The article offers good analysis and analogies, but falls short with the example of occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. The occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region is very similar to the other RST, while also being somewhat different and unique in some other ways. Just like Transdnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Nagorno-Karabakh region became embroiled in a war in late Soviet and immediate post-Soviet history. Indeed, many analysts write that the demise of the USSR started with the first even "ethnic conflict" - that of the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Just like the other RST, the NK region of Azerbaijan had a Russian (labeled "CIS" base, for "Commonwealth of Independent States") military base, the 366th Motorized Infantry Regiment (itself part of the 23rd division of the 4th Soviet Army stationed in Azerbaijan SSR). The 366th motorized infantry regiment not only passed on a great deal of armaments to the Armenian military, but took part in gruesome massacres, including the recently commemorated 22nd anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre - the largest crime against humanity and war crime in all of Europe in 1992. Numerous Russian soldiers and officers, including Spetznaz, were detained by the Azerbaijani authorities in 1992-1994, and released after personal appeals from then president Yeltsin and other Russian officials. During that entire time, Russian government supplied billions of dollars of arms to Armenia free of charge, whilst also helping on diplomatic front, by taking control of the peace negotiations. Examples abound - more background and facts could be found in the this well-researched Factsheet by the US Azeris Network:

  • 4 March 2014 at 8:10pm
    Maja says:
    Just read another analysis which in my opinion is more correct: "Putin is doing in the Crimea and in the east what it did in Georgia with the support of Russian-leaning client states named Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in Azerbaijan with the state of Nagorno-Karabakh".

    20 % of Azerbaijan is occupied today by Armenia with help of Russia. The conflict would have been solved for a long time ago, but Russia makes everything to preserve status quo - even gives to Armenia weapon for free.