The Front Line Drawn Across Russia's Backyard

8 MINS READAug 8, 2017 | 09:15 GMT
Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova sit on the front line of Russia's battle with the West for international influence.

Russia's goal in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova is to weaken the West's influence while strengthening its own.

Editor's Note

As tension between Russia and the West has mounted in recent years, Moscow has increasingly turned to hybrid warfare to gain and hold ground in their contest for power and clout. This is the second installment of a five-part series exploring the geopolitical context, targets and tools of that strategy, as well as the steps Russia's adversaries are taking to counter it.

Globalization has changed how we think about time, space and distance, but geography is still the same where it counts: national security. The former Soviet states lining Russia's border know this better than most, since their proximity to the eastern giant renders them more vulnerable to Moscow's hybrid warfare tactics than countries farther afield. Nations like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova sit on the front line of Russia's lasting battle with the West for influence in the international system, and they are the countries most at risk of being caught in the crossfire.

Russia's goal within this first tier of states is simple: to weaken the West's influence while strengthening its own. One way of doing this is to undermine less friendly governments and install more neutral or allied ones; another is to block or even reverse these states' integration with Western blocs such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Should Moscow successfully pull one of these pro-Western states under its umbrella, it would no longer be a prime target for Russian meddling. But if countries such as Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan were to join forces with the West, they would quickly find themselves in the Kremlin's crosshairs.

Armed with the advantage its nearness affords, Russia has tailored its means to suit its ends in its immediate backyard. The hybrid warfare tools Moscow typically favors there include conventional military power, paramilitary groups, political manipulation, punitive energy and economic measures, cyberattacks, subversion, and propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Moreover, there are a number of factors that play to Russia's favor in the region. For one, Moscow boasts sturdy support bases within its pro-Western neighbors in the form of breakaway territories, pro-Russia political parties and allied militias. For another, these countries' economies still rely heavily on Russian trade and energy, while their close locations make it easier for Moscow to launch military operations across their borders. And because these countries don't belong to NATO, they have no institutionalized mechanism ensuring that the West would come to their defense in the event of a Russian invasion.

This isn't to say that Russia can operate with impunity in these countries, however. There are limits to the type of activities the Kremlin can pursue without the risk of galvanizing popular backlash and Western support for first-tier states, should Moscow overextend its reach.

Ukraine: Ripe for Rebellion

Russia's hybrid warfare strategy has been on full display in Ukraine since the country's Euromaidan uprising began in 2014. The Western-backed movement, which ousted pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich and replaced him with a government more friendly to the West, spurred the Kremlin into action. Rather than sending in conventional troops, Russia deployed unmarked military forces to seize key strategic facilities in Crimea and to drum up support among ethnic Russian locals for Moscow's annexation of the peninsula. The Kremlin then lent its support to a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, first with materiel such as anti-tank weapons and man-portable air defense systems and then with volunteer militias formed in Russia and pro-Russia territories in the region. This aid eventually evolved even further into conventional (albeit unofficial) assistance from Moscow in the form of artillery fire from Russian and unmarked military units inside Ukraine.

The Kremlin had its reasons for responding to the Ukrainian rebellion with hybrid warfare tactics rather than an all-out assault. Launching a conventional war in Ukraine would have been extremely expensive, given the country's vast territory and the lack of natural geographic barriers for Russian troops to capture and anchor themselves to. Only the Dnieper River, which snakes vertically through the middle of Ukraine and links to the country's capital, Kiev, could have served as such an anchor. But the challenges of stationing military forces in hostile territory and supporting them with lengthy supply lines would have made for a costly endeavor in terms of both money and manpower. An open invasion of Ukraine, moreover, would have led to far more blowback from the West than did the more subtle alternative. The use of hybrid warfare thus mitigated the risk of drawing U.S. troops into the fray and triggering more severe sanctions from the West.

Furthermore, Russia's goal in Ukraine was not to grab as much territory as possible, but to shake the country's orientation toward the West and, if possible, neutralize or reverse it. The annexation of Crimea was an exception, motivated by the fact that the peninsula was mostly separate from Ukraine proper and Russia's Black Sea Fleet was already stationed there. Because ethnic Russians make up a majority of Crimea's population, Moscow had the local political capital — and the absence of stiff resistance — needed to quickly snatch it up. Russia's own people largely approved of the move as well, offering the Kremlin an easy win after the embarrassing setback of Ukraine's foreign policy realignment.


Instead of taking the same approach elsewhere in Ukraine, Moscow sought out parts of the country that showed considerable support for Russia — namely, the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Kremlin then funneled aid to separatist paramilitary groups in the area until they transformed into de facto administrations, establishing the newest breakaway territories in Eurasia. The formation of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics deprived Ukraine of much of its critical industrial hub and gave Russia the means to bleed Kiev dry with persistent clashes over the eastern regions.

Meanwhile, in areas of Ukraine less receptive to the separatist cause, Moscow has resorted to other tactics in hopes of destabilizing the country and delaying its integration with the West. In the political and economic realm, Russia has slapped trade restrictions on Ukrainian agricultural exports while propping up like-minded political parties and politicians. At the same time, Moscow has launched cyberattacks against Ukraine's government institutions and power grid. All the while it has ramped up its propaganda and disinformation campaigns through state-run, Russian-language media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, which have accused the administration in Kiev of fascism and outlined the consequences of visa-free travel for Ukrainians in the European Union. Though these moves have not neutralized Ukraine or halted its integration with the West, they have led to significant instability, while the conflict in the country's east continues to drain national resources and thwart Kiev's aspirations of EU and NATO accession.

Georgia: Eroding at the Edges

Of course, Russia had sharpened its skills in hybrid warfare long before the Euromaidan uprising swept across Ukraine. In 2008, Moscow proved for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that it was willing to use conventional force against a Western-aligned neighbor: Georgia. However, Russia also showed caution in its deployment of troops, limiting its military activities in the Russo-Georgian war to airstrikes and ground operations in the friendly regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (It opted against leading offensives into the more populated and politically inhospitable areas of Georgia, including the capital of Tbilisi.) After the war ended, Russia recognized the two regions as independent states and built military bases within their borders, bolstering its overt military support for them and dimming the prospects of Georgia's participation in the European Union and NATO.

Yet unconventional techniques supplemented these conventional maneuvers in the lead-up to the conflict. Moscow distributed Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while Russian media outlets portrayed the war as a "humanitarian effort" intended to protect Russian citizens. As it would later do with Ukraine, Russia also cut off its trade ties with Georgia following the conflict's end; it resumed them only when the Georgian Dream party came to power after defeating the anti-Russia United National Movement in 2012-13. While Georgian Dream has maintained the country's pursuit of EU and NATO membership, it has proved more willing than its predecessor to work with the Kremlin on economic and energy issues, even as Moscow has kept pressure on Tbilisi by gradually moving the breakaway territories' border posts deeper into Georgian territory.

Moldova: Bargaining With a Breakaway Territory

Moldova has witnessed Russia's hybrid warfare strategy firsthand, too. As in Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow has leveraged a pro-Russia breakaway territory — Transdniestria — to undercut the Western-leaning government in Chisinau. Any attempt by Moldova to move closer to European institutions has spurred Russian military buildups near its borders, including in Transdniestria and the Black Sea.

Russia has been busy within Moldova's borders as well, throwing its weight behind political parties and leaders inclined to cooperate with Moscow. Chief among these figures is Igor Dodon, the country's president and the head of the Socialist Party. Dodon won the November 2016 race with the help of the Kremlin's cash and Moldova's Russian-language media outlets, which lauded his candidacy and castigated pro-Europe parties for corruption. Since taking office, Dodon has sought to reverse the Moldovan Parliament's attempts to align with the West, turning instead toward Russian-led blocs like the Eurasian Economic Union. This shift could become even more pronounced if the president's Socialist allies win parliamentary elections in 2018 — a vote Russia is sure to try to shape with the tools of hybrid warfare.

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