Russia’s Caucasia Occupation

Grace Gardiner | Europe & Eurasia Fellow

Historically, far eastern Europe and the Caucasus have gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, save for a few larger states gazing upon the region with their own ambitions in mind. And no state has grander designs on Eurasia than Russia. Now, as President Vladimir Putin leads a campaign of militaristic nationalism, Russia has greater cause than ever to shape Eurasia into a bespoke sphere of influence–a perfect counterweight to the European Union, Russia’s long-time bugbear.


However, Eurasia is far from the perfect clay to be moulded in the image of a Greater Russia. Old problems in the region have risen in new contexts: a longstanding border dispute erupted violently between Armenia and Azerbaijan, while elections in Moldova and Georgia have reprised the old east/west dilemma in a new climate of social and economic upheaval. Russia now needs to face the louder voices of small Eurasian nations. It also must find a way to check the power of other forces with their own plans for the region.


Military ‘peace’ in Nagorno-Karabakh


The most blatant expression of Russia’s Eurasian power play is the peace deal it has brokered between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, on which both Armenians and Azeris stake a claim, goes back generations. This old dispute has gained modern dimensions, bearing as it does on the two powers of the region: Russia and Turkey. Turkey is close to the majority Muslim Azerbaijan, and the latter’s campaign could not have succeeded without support from Ankara. Armenia, meanwhile, has long had a close relationship with Russia.


The new peace agreement is a masterful demonstration by Russia of having one’s cake and eating it too. By allowing Azerbaijan to retain territory gained, they keep the Azeris–and Turkey–onside. However, the territories will only be conceded if Russia is permitted to install peacekeeping forces along the border. Thus, Russia can maintain an unsubtle show of force, dissuading anyone from trying their luck any further. One would think that, given the outcry against territorial losses, the deal would have alienated Armenia from Russia. But after suffering such a decisive military defeat by its old enemies, Armenia will rely heavily on Russia’s protection and support.


Manipulating democracy


This tactic of ‘borderization’, establishing a military presence along borders of particular importance, is beloved by Russia. It is not only a constant reminder to smaller countries that Moscow is always watching; it is also an effective means by which to influence and interfere in these states’ domestic affairs.


Georgia, for example, has had Russian ‘peacekeeping’ forces stationed on its territory since 2008. Concerns over its recent elections demonstrate just how heavily the Russian question bears on the fragile democracies of Eurasia. Georgia’s November parliamentary elections are the first since reforms were introduced aiming for a more representative electoral system, allowing a wider range of perspectives into parliament. These reforms were instigated in response to widespread protest over Russian influence in Georgian politics.


A recent policy briefing urging the EU to take a more decisive monitoring role in the election epitomises Russia’s concern that Europe is seeking to extend its influence in the Caucasus. Georgia is looking to strengthen its ties with Europe, and surveys indicate only 7 per cent of Georgians hold negative opinions of the EU. Reports that Russian troops stationed in separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia prevented Georgians from voting suggest that Russia is using its presence to compromise the electoral process in Georgia and protect its interests.


Georgia is far from an isolated case. Earlier this month, presidential elections in Moldova, parts of which have been occupied by Russia since 1992, were plagued by questions of Russian interference aiming to keep the country from straying too far from the sphere of influence. Furthermore, since occupying the Crimea in 2014, evidence of Russian influence in the Ukrainian public sphere has grown.


Controlling the conflict


Stationing troops in crucial foreign territories is clearly a boon to Russia, and the advantage extends beyond the ability to influence elections. Russia’s strategy is to establish a presence in the locations of border conflicts: either between states like Armenia and Azerbaijan, or within states like Georgia and Moldova, where minorities claim independence. Russia justifies stationing forces in these areas by claiming to keep the peace, but continuing the conflict works much more to Moscow’s favour.


The persistence of separatist movements in Eurasia is a major check to European influence. Countries may wish to join the EU, but their cooperation will be limited as long as independence movements continue but never achieve their aims. The EU’s Enlargement Strategy, which dictates that a state must settle any border disputes before being allowed to join the Union. Past difficulties with member states’ border disputes mean the EU is unlikely to entertain the membership of countries where separatism is an issue.


The EU’s relative inaction over Nagorno-Karabakh signalled to Russia that Europe is unwilling to be tangled in Eurasian conflicts. Thus, if Russia can ensure the indefinite perpetuation of internal disputes, it can keep Eurasian states from becoming too friendly with Europe.


Russia has had a long time to extend its roots in Eurasia. Things may be changing; Turkey is a stronger player than ever, and smaller states are trying to make their own way. Yet Russia remains entrenched. It has proven more than capable of adapting. With the rest of the world once again distracted by other matters, the people of Eurasia can expect to feel Russia’s influence for some time yet, from Yerevan to Chisinau, Tbilisi to Kyiv.


Grace Gardiner is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.