Putting Russia's Crimean Intervention in Context

15 MINS READApr 12, 2014 | 11:00 GMT
Putting Russia's Intervention in Crimea in Context
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives orders to the Russian army in western Russia on March 3.
(Kremlin Press Information Centre/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Russia's military intervention in Crimea and subsequent buildup of forces throughout the region has raised speculation that Russia could choose to intervene elsewhere in the former Soviet space, including in mainland Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia or perhaps even the Baltic states. There are recent historic precedents for Russian military intervention in all of these states. Examining previous interventions reveals that Russia follows a rigorous calculus and constraint-based strategy in each example, with important parallels in each case. These case studies not only give context for Russia's current position on each of these countries, but also provide signposts to look for in assessing the potential for and limits to any future Russian interventions.

Russia's most recent actions in Crimea follow a pattern similar to that of its interventions in other parts of the former Soviet space over the past 25 years. This pattern, though it varies in terms of specific application, broadly consists of three categories: the organization of ethnic Russian or pro-Russia social and political groups and movements; the deployment or support of informal or unofficial security forces in key areas; and finally the launching of formal military operations. These initial steps enable Russia to first lay the political groundwork for a potential intervention while testing both local and foreign responses before the actual intervention takes place. The consistent goal of each of these interventions has been to keep independent-minded or Western-oriented territories that Russia views as within its sphere of influence away from the West and within the Russian orbit. Below are several case studies of such Russian interventions, and how they apply to the current context and in the consideration of any future Russian actions in these states.

Russian Intervention in the Baltics

Soviet Intervention in Lithuania, 1990-1991

After World War II, Lithuania and the other Baltic states were incorporated into the Soviet Union. For the next 40 years, the country was ruled by the Communist Party of Lithuania and militarily and economically dominated by Moscow. However, the emergence of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform policies of glasnost and perestroika set the stage for Lithuania to break free from the Soviet orbit.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

To this end, the Reform Movement of Lithuania, or Sajudis, was launched in June 1988. While it began as a movement of intellectuals to support Gorbachev's reforms, it also supported other issues such as the restoration of the Lithuanian language and the disclosure of secret protocols signed in the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which led to Lithuania's incorporation into the Soviet Union. By 1989 the group had risen in popularity and began to call for Lithuania's independence from the Soviet Union. In the beginning of 1990, Sajudis won 101 out of 141 seats in the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian republic with the group's leader Vytautas Landsbergis elected chairman of the Supreme Council. Lithuania then unilaterally declared independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990, becoming the first Soviet republic to do so.

This rapid sequence of events in Lithuania was of deep concern to the Soviet authorities and led to a Soviet military intervention. But this intervention, just like Russia's intervention in Crimea, had several precursors. First, it began with the imposition of an economic blockade of Lithuania meant to weaken the secession movement. Then, in the beginning of January 1991, a pro-Soviet movement known as Yedinstvo organized demonstrations around the parliament. These protests consisted of 5,000-7,000 people, some of whom were alleged to be Soviet soldiers in civilian garb. Demonstrators tried to storm the parliament building but were driven away by Lithuanian security forces.

Several days later, the Soviets deployed special paramilitary units to Lithuania, under the pretext of ensuring constitutional order of the Lithuanian republic under the Soviet Union. Just days after that, the Soviet military already stationed in the republic seized several public buildings in Lithuania, including the National Defense Department building in Vilnius, and several other cities. On Jan. 13, Soviet troops attacked the Vilnius TV Tower, killing 14 people and wounding 700. The Soviets simultaneously sponsored the National Salvation Committee, an alternative government that pledged to restore Lithuania into the Soviet Union. These actions ultimately failed to prevent Lithuania's independence from the Soviet Union (and some argue were an important catalyst to the Soviet bloc's collapse), but they nonetheless prevented the formal recognition of Lithuania's independence until September 1991.

Current Context

With the Russian military increasing activity in the Western Military District, which borders the Baltic states, as well as in Kaliningrad, which borders Lithuania, there is concern that Russia could choose to intervene militarily in the Baltics.

However, there has so far been little activity to suggest that Russia is seriously considering an invasion of the Baltic countries. First, there have been very few protests in any of the Baltic countries in support of Russia, despite the fact that Estonia and Latvia have large Russian minorities. There have been some small protests in Estonia and Latvia in support of Russian actions in Crimea or endorsing the use of the Russian language in schools, but these consisted of only around 100-150 people at their peak. And while there have been some grievances of ethnic Russians over their citizenship status in these countries, as well as Russian opposition to Latvia suspending Russian television channel Rossiya RTR over its depiction of the Ukraine crisis, these have so far not led to any major organized groups or social actions. However, it is possible for demonstrations to increase in these countries in the future, with further demonstrations planned in both Estonia and Latvia in the coming weeks and months.

Another important component in considering Russian military intervention is that, unlike Ukraine, the Baltic states are all NATO members and therefore subject to the collective security pact of the alliance. While the Baltics have all expressed concern over the level of commitment of the alliance to the bloc (with Estonia calling for a permanent military base in the Baltics), their membership in NATO is likely enough to dissuade Russia from taking actions that could galvanize the support of other NATO members, particularly the United States. Therefore, Russian military action in any of the Baltic states is very unlikely.

Russian Intervention in Moldova

War of Transdniestria, 1989-1992

Moldova also saw hostilities arise with Russia during the late Soviet period. Gorbachev's reforms of glasnost and perestroika led to a surge in nationalism in Moldova, which included calls for the return of the Moldovan language (which was recognized as Romanian in the 2013 amended constitution) as the official state language instead of Russian and eventually for outright independence. Such calls were rejected by people in the autonomous territory of Transdniestria, which consisted of a majority Slavic (Russian and Ukrainian) population that wanted to retain Russian as an official language and wanted to remain a part of the Soviet Union. Nationalist groups like the Popular Front of Moldova began to call for minority populations like the Slavs and Gagauz to leave Moldova, while the Slavs established a movement known as Yedinstvo (the same term used in Lithuania) to hold protests against the proposed language laws, appealing to Moscow for support.



In August 1989, the republic adopted Moldovan as the only official language in defiance of Moscow. This was the formal reason for demonstrations against the issue in Transdniestria and led to clashes between Moldovan police and Transdniestrian "self-defense units" backed by Moscow. In January 1990, a referendum was organized for self-governing status for Transdniestria within the Moldovan Soviet republic, which was approved by a reported 96 percent of votes. Following the vote, Transdniestrian workers armed themselves with weapons from Soviet army stores in Transdniestria and began to take over police stations and government buildings in the territory. Armed clashes broke out on a limited scale in November 1990 between Moldovan security forces and Transdniestrian separatists, with the latter receiving support from Russian and Ukrainian volunteers.

By 1991, most of the region was no longer under effective control of Moldova, and the Russian military only officially entered the conflict at its final stage, when the former Soviet 14th Guards Army stationed in Transdniestria intervened against Moldovan forces. Russia then brokered a cease-fire agreement in July 1992, which effectively established Transdniestria as a de facto independent republic. The breakaway territory continues to be supported financially and militarily by Moscow to this day.

Current Context

Following Russia's intervention in Crimea, there have been concerns that Russia could choose to go further with an intervention into Moldova. Indeed, there have been unconfirmed reports that Russia has built up its military and weapons presence in Transdniestria since the conflict in Crimea. Moreover, Moldova has been pushing for EU integration in the same way that Ukraine has, making it a potentially prime target for Russia.

There have already been initial signs of potential intervention. Limited pro-Russia protests have occurred in Moldova. Several dozen Russian supporters held a rally in Chisinau on April 6, though these were met by more than 100 anti-Russia protesters who said that they did not want a Crimean scenario in Moldova. There has not been evidence of organized protests in Moldova on the scale of those in eastern Ukraine, and there have been no armed confrontations at this time, though it is possible protests could grow in the future.

Therefore, Russian military intervention into Moldova proper is unlikely. In addition to weak social and political support for military intervention, there are also significant logistical constraints. Given its location in between Ukraine and Romania, Transdniestria would be very difficult to supply in the event of a military action from the territory into Moldova. Russia would be reliant on enemy airspace if it supplied forces by plane, and it would have to invade parts of Ukraine to supply forces from the ground — which is unlikely due to logistical and political considerations. Russia is therefore more likely to depend on traditional areas of influence such as economic pressures and political backing of Transdniestria and Gagauzia to counter Moldova's Western integration drive, rather than military action.

Russian Intervention in Georgia

Russian Intervention in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, 1989-1993 and 2008

Georgia experienced a similar reaction to Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika as in the Baltics and Moldova, with increased nationalism and calls for independence. This consequently fueled separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two autonomous regions that were ethnically and culturally distinct from Georgia proper and that feared Georgian independence would compromise their autonomy.



Protests began in Abkhazia in 1989, which then intensified into armed clashes between Abkhaz and Georgians in the territory starting in July. These initial clashes prompted intervention by the Soviet military, which restored order and blamed both sides for the fighting. However, once Georgia demanded greater sovereignty from the Soviet Union in 1990 and then declared independence in April 1991 (which was officially recognized in December 1991), Russia then began to intervene decisively on the side of the Abkhaz.

In June 1992, Abkhazia unilaterally declared independence from Georgia, and Abkhaz militants attacked the Ministry of Internal Affairs building in Sukhumi, which at the time was controlled by Georgian authorities. This was followed by Georgian military operations into Abkhazia in August, which included dispatching 3,000 Georgian troops to the region. The Abkhaz were then reinforced with paramilitary forces from Russia's North Caucasus region, which were then able to drive back Georgian forces from the territory by 1993. Georgia also accused Russia of providing training and military assistance to the Abkhaz militants, as well as more direct involvement including the bombardment of Georgian forces by Russian aircraft. Moscow officially responded that Russian forces were only acting in self-defense, though it was clear that Russian involvement in the conflict proved decisive.

In August 2008, Russia once again intervened in the Georgian theater. The context for the operation was the official declaration of Georgia's aspirations to join NATO, which Russia staunchly opposed. In the months leading up to the conflict, Russia began distributing Russian passports to citizens in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus giving the Kremlin a pretext for intervention on behalf of Russian citizens. Such an intervention occurred after Georgian forces shelled South Ossetia, which had experienced cross-border fire in the days leading up to Russia's intervention. Russian then deployed "peacekeepers" across the Rokhi tunnel into South Ossetia to repel Georgian forces there and then launched aerial and naval attacks into Georgia proper. The conflict concluded with the recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia and the permanent stationing of Russian military forces in both territories.

Current Context

As Georgia continues to strive for NATO membership and make steps toward signing key integration deals with the European Union, similar to Ukraine and Moldova, there are concerns that Russia could intervene once again into Georgia proper. Recent military exercises by Russian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have also driven such fears, as Russia has used military exercises consistently to pre-position forces.

However, there are key differences between the situation in Georgia now and the conditions leading up to Russia's intervention in 2008. First, Russia already has a permanent military presence and de facto control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it did not have in the previous intervention. During that war, Russia only penetrated into Georgia proper in order to disrupt lines of supply and chose not to drive further to occupy Tbilisi, as this would have made Russian troops occupy territory with a more hostile population. Instead, Russia chose to fortify its presence in the logistically and politically more suitable areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

These same conditions exist when considering a potential Russian military intervention into Georgia, though there have been some signs of greater Russian penetration into the country. For example, there were unconfirmed reports that Russia has once again been handing out Russian passports in the country, this time in the ethnic Armenian-dominated province of Samtskhe-Javakheti. There have also been allegations that the United National Movement party of former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is planning "Kiev-style" protests in the country in a bid to get security forces to crack down on protests and jeopardize the government. These reports remain dubious, but if true could be worrying signs for the Western-oriented government in Tbilisi.

However, in considering further Russian action in Georgia, it is important to remember that genuine support for Russia is very limited in the country and there have been no significant pro-Russia protests to date. This makes the social and political conditions necessary for large protest actions in support of Russian intervention unlikely, especially considering that Russia intervened militarily only six years ago. While another Russian intervention cannot be ruled out, it is more likely that Russia will use its existing presence and leverage in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and other areas to undermine Georgia's Western integration drive.

Russian Intervention in Ukraine

Annexation of Crimea, March 2014

Following the Western-backed uprising against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and the subsequent implementation of a Western-oriented government in Kiev, Russia decided to respond where it had the greatest leverage over Ukraine: Crimea.



Russia's intervention in Crimea occurred in several stages. First, Russia made a number of social and political moves to lay the groundwork for a potential military intervention. This included supporting protests in Crimea against the Ukrainian government and in favor of Russia, with Russian flags and pro-Russia slogans widespread in demonstrations. In addition, officials from Russia handed out Russian passports and began fast-tracking processes to give Russian citizenship status to thousands of residents of Crimea. Russia also recognized a new leadership led by ethnic Russian Sergey Aksyonov, who replaced the former Crimean Prime Minister Anatolii Mohyliov, an ethnic Ukrainian.

Following these moves, groups of armed men without insignia began taking control of key infrastructure, including regional airports in Sevastopol and Simferopol. Similar security forces set up checkpoints on roads connecting Crimea with mainland Ukraine. While these armed men closely resembled Russian military personnel in their appearance and weaponry, Russia officially denied any involvement and instead labeled these forces "self-defense groups," like similar groups opposed to the Yanukovich government that had participated in the uprising in Kiev. In the meantime, Russia maintained that its own military forces in Crimea were abiding by legal agreements between Russia and Ukraine.

Only after many of these self-defense forces were positioned around Crimea did Russia acknowledge its formal military buildup and deployments throughout the peninsula. At this point, the Russian military in Crimea could sufficiently surround and overwhelm Ukrainian forces on the peninsula, and these units either defected to Russia or were forced to abandon Crimea, just as Russia annexed the peninsula to formalize its political and military control.

Current Context

Russia's military intervention in Crimea has raised fears that Moscow could go further and invade mainland Ukraine. In this context, there have been signs that Russia is laying the groundwork for a potential intervention. The most notable development is the emergence of the same kinds of pro-Russia protests in eastern and southern Ukrainian cities as those seen in Crimea before the military deployment. However, a key difference is that these demonstrations have been much smaller (in the low thousands vs. tens of thousands in Crimea), and have been met with sizable pro-Western counter-demonstrations. This shows that the political conditions to welcome a Russian intervention in mainland Ukraine are much weaker than they were in Crimea.

That being said, the recent participation of armed men in the occupation of regional administration buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv is an escalation of previous activities. These men, armed with AK-74s in Donetsk and Luhansk and handguns in Kharkiv, appeared to have training and experience similar to the unmarked security personnel that occupied key infrastructure in Crimea prior to the formal Russian military intervention. Thus, they fit into the broader Russian strategy of transitioning from social and political groups to supporting informal armed groups.

However, because of the immense logistical and security constraints involved in an invasion of Ukraine, it does not appear that Russia is seriously planning a formal invasion of mainland Ukraine at this time. Instead, Russia can support and back an irregular armed force in cities throughout eastern Ukraine as a way to maintain leverage in the country and shape the political evolution in Kiev, without running the risk of provoking a strong reaction from the West with a formal military intervention.

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