Russian National Interest and its ‘peaceful’ strategic outposts
By: Bob Rehorst
Russia, the largest country in the world. It is the country that contains massive forests, lakes, rivers, tundra’s, steppes, mountains – everything about it is big. Stretching from the Bering Sea to the Baltic, Black and Caspian Sea, its size is representative of its ambitions.
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Empire, the big bear of Russia has been there, hibernating, waiting for the moment to wake up again. That moment has long passed, and Russia seems to be increasingly active across the globe once more. Rather than full military offensives, the awoken bear is cunning, strategic and calculative. There are very little coincidences in Russian foreign policy.
More pertinently, in the 1990s, NATO's expansionist behaviour began to raise former Soviet nations to an allied status aggressively. The Russian bear was still licking its wounds, and NATO was bringing chunks of its empire into the fold of the Allied forces. For a long time, Russian presence across the globe scaled down substantially, while its enemies raised military presence around its periphery. Now Russia is reclaiming its position on the world stage because they simply have to.
A striking example of Russia’s craftiness is its slow but steady disruptive methods in Ukraine. Russia managed to annex Crimea by using Russian ethnic votes and utilising the Ukrainian unrest to send forces into the peninsula. Questions that arise then are, why Crimea, why Ukraine, and, where else is Russia active? This Dyami insights will provide a brief introduction into Russian foreign ambitions.
The Crimean annexation serves Russia as a strategic outpost to project military power in other places like Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. What is often overlooked, however, is that control over Crimea means control over the Sea of Azov, which directly links to the Caspian Sea via the Volga-Don Canal. The ability to move warships from the Caspian shorelines (including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and, Iran) to the Black Sea, allows Russia larger maritime options, as well as flexibility when crises erupt in the region.
For example, before WWI started, 50 per cent of all Russian exports, and 90 per cent of its agriculture exports passed through the Bosphorus channel of Istanbul out of the Black sea. Today, every fifteen minutes an oil tanker passes through the same channel, carrying Russian and Kazakh oil. This exemplifies the fact that, throughout history, Russia’s Black Sea ports, being the country’s only warm water port, have always served Russian commercial interests.
Currently, the Crimean peninsula also serves as a strategic outpost for Russian power projections in the region, as well as for energy projects, pipelines and trade corridors. It ensures its position in the region by sending in troops to ‘protect Russian people’ in the peninsula. Russian ambitions in the Black Sea are no secret, and Crimea served as a highly strategic starting point. However, it is not the only outpost that was seized via hybrid strategies by Russia. We see similar patterns emerging in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia.
After the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the northern regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have played a role in Russia’s ‘creeping occupation[ Alexander Lanoskar, “Russian hybrid warfare and extended deterrence in eastern Europe,” The Royal Institute of International Affairs 92 (1), 2016, 175–195.]’ of Georgia. Georgia’s ‘western ambitions’ in regards to trade and alliances are a thorn in Russia’s side, and Moscow continues to undermine Georgian hegemony, as well as its developments to European logistical and economic status[ Cappelletti, A. & Rehorst, B. 20 November 2020. ‘Doing Business in the Post-Conflict part III – The Case of Georgia: Between Western ‘darling’ and Russian strategic outpost’. Dyami Strategic Security Solutions. https://www.dyami.services/post/doing-business-in-the-post-conflict-part-iii-the-case-of-georgia.]. For now, Abkhazia contains approximately 4,000 Russian troops (originally dubbed as 'peacekeeping forces'), and Russia remains ever-present in the South-Caucasus region. Thereby solidifying additional coastal outposts on the Eastern end of the Black Sea.
A third strategic outpost is the Transnistria region of Moldova. Its etymology is essential here (Transnistria is Romanian colloquial for ‘Beyond the Dniester River') because it indicates a Romanian description of an otherwise Russian-speaking region. In the region itself, the breakaway state is referred to as 'Pridnestrovye’, which is a name also used in Russian. The area has been a long-standing outpost of Russia in post-Soviet times, and it was the stage for a two-year civil between pro-Russian separatists and the Moldovan defence forces between 1990 and 1992. The conflict was frozen through the brokering of a ceasefire, and Russia sent in 'peacekeepers', which remain in Transnistria to this day.
Peacekeepers in Abkhazia, peacekeepers in Transnistria, ‘protective forces’ in Crimea, it appears that Russian ‘peacekeeping’ interest serve alternative purposes. At the time of writing, Russia has been deploying peacekeeping troops to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, as part of a Russian-brokered peace deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenia's prime minister Nikol Pashinyan[ BBC World News, 10 November 2020. ‘Nagorno-Karabakh: Russia deploys peacekeeping troops to region’. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54885906]. Russia had previously brokered a ceasefire with Turkey and Syria, demonstrating its reinsertion as a powerful actor in the Middle-East and beyond.
Nagorno-Karabakh was the only post-Soviet conflict without Russian presence, which was a source of incredible frustration for Moscow. All the while, Azerbaijan was supported by its patron, Turkey, by means of drones and Syrian mercenaries. This was a clear threat to Russia and its sphere of influence, and it seems that Russian troops are deployed to push back against Turkey's regional power moves. According to Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, "[…] Russia is reinserting itself into that region, where it's been in retreat"[Losh, J. 25 November 2020. ‘Russian Troops in Nagorno-Karabakh ‘Clearly a Win for Moscow’’. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/11/25/russian-troops-nagorno-karabakh-peackeepers-win-moscow-armenia-azerbaijan/]. While Armenia expressed discontent with the current peace deal, for Moscow, this is a clear win.
On a final note, Moscow’s gaze extends well beyond former Soviet nations, as it recently signed a deal with Sudan to establish a new military naval base near the Port of Sudan on the Red Sea. It seems that with this move, Russia aims to increase its military foothold in Africa, as well as challenge the influence of American, French and Chinese naval forces based in Djibouti.
The list of examples above raises a series of questions regarding Russia's plans. As Winston Churchill once wrote, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest”[ Col Mastriano, D., PHD, (Collective of authors), Project 1721: A U.S. Army War College Assessment on Russian Strategy in Eastern Europe and Recommendations on How to Leverage Landpower to Maintain the Peace, Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College 2016, p. xi]. Russian national interest, here, looks primarily like Moscow’s classic power projections. However, the majority of the outposts are illustrations of Russia’s ancient ambition of a warm water port.
Whether these outposts are mere power projections, buffer zones or satellite power regions, Russian peacekeeping missions serve a purpose. That purpose is, indeed, Russian national interest being pushed under cover of 'peace operations'.
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About the author:
Bob Rehorst is a Global Security Analyst at Dyami. He has extensive field experience in the Levant-Middle East region, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. He holds a Graduate Degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, and an Undergraduate Degree in Cultural Anthropology, both from Utrecht University. Bob specializes in geopolitics, conflict development and global crises.