Nicole J. Jackson is an associate professor at Simon Fraser University and the author of Russian Foreign Policy and the CIS: Theories, Debates and Actions.
The Russian regime’s full-on military assault is a tragedy for Ukrainians and the global community. But while this attack is by far its most aggressive and extreme, there are precedents: Russia has been involved in military and hybrid action in former Soviet states for 30 years. Though each of these conflicts is unique, based on local grievances and legacies of empire, there are lessons to be learned.
In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s military became involved in the newly independent states of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Moldova (Transdniestria) and Tajikistan, all of which endured separatist conflicts or civil war. It was also indirectly involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and undertook their most violent action within its own borders in Chechnya. Few in the West paid attention, however, because the former Soviet space was considered Russia’s “near abroad.”
In the chaos of those early years, Russia’s military involvement in Moldova, Georgia and Tajikistan followed a broad pattern. It began indirectly, through Russian or separatist troops already on the ground; later, Russia officially declared war and became directly militarily involved. In each case, Russia claimed a variety of vital economic, security and diaspora interests. During the conflicts, it sent in “peacekeepers” – mostly Russian troops – but included others involved in the fighting. The cloak of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russia-led economic, political and security organization, gave legitimacy to Russia’s actions. Eventually, outside actors, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or the United Nations, were invited to “keep the peace.”
As a result of these actions in the 1990s, neighbouring regimes were, for a time, more oriented toward Russia. They signed “friendship” agreements and new political and trade deals. The separatist regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria became “frozen conflicts,” which persist to this day. Russia’s involvement in Tajikistan’s civil war ended with Tajikistan remaining highly dependent on it.
Later, under Russian presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, Russia grew economically and militarily. First came Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008. Then, in 2014, Russia took more dramatic action by annexing Crimea and interfering in Ukraine’s eastern republics. Military actions became increasingly sophisticated. They were accompanied by the strategic use of cyber warfare, relentless propaganda and denial of its actions. These represented Russia’s second generation of conflicts. Military actions pushed beyond self-defined separatist regions into countries that were no longer newly independent.
While Russia’s internal debate over the conflicts became increasingly stifled, a more globalized world began to pay attention. Russia’s aggressions in the former Soviet space were now playing out as NATO and the European Union expanded to Russia’s doorstep. Russia’s actions were accompanied by increasingly assertive and nationalist rhetoric focused on perceived geopolitical grievances and threats to the Russian regime.
In 2015, Russia became directly militarily involved outside the former Soviet space, in Syria. In the ensuing years, it became evident that this was a new Russia, actively challenging the rules-based global order, through a wide variety of means, around the world. Nevertheless, Russia remained involved in conflicts in the former Soviet space: In the aftermath of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, it sent peacekeepers.
What is happening today in Ukraine has clear roots in Russia’s post-Soviet legacy of empire. There are evident trends in the evolution of Russian rhetoric and action. However, the dramatic scale and breadth of the attack on Ukraine show just how much Russian conflicts in the former Soviet space have evolved. Similarly, Russia’s official justifications have become more contrived and emotional.
This is a meticulous assault on all of Ukraine by a President willing to use absolute force at any cost. It demonstrates a desire to control more than separatist regions. The aim appears to be to topple the regime and push to the very borders of NATO countries, and perhaps further. The timing takes advantage of perceived Western weakness. In contrast to the 1990s, there is a desire that goes well beyond intervening for Russia’s interests or destabilizing a country to force it into pro-Russia arrangements. Mr. Putin seems to perceive both the Ukrainian regime and the liberal democratic order as existential threats to his own power.
This attack is also an example of a new kind of war in Europe – combining conventional land, air and sea forces and the threat of nuclear force, with other hybrid actions, and relentless, angry propaganda, lies and denial. Its horrors are being broadcast live, almost instantaneously and with global reach.
Mr. Putin has unleashed the third generation of Russian military conflicts. With the global community now against him, hopefully it’s his last.
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