Russian military units began pouring into Eastern Ukraine this past weekend. No longer trying to hide or be covert. Russian war equipment theatrically paraded across the border with their unit designators on display for all to see. It’s no coincidence that a small army of reporters and tweeters were on site to witness the entire show.
They weren’t even trying to hide it. They might as well have been passing in review in the middle of Red Square.
This isn’t surprising at all. In fact it’s a textbook move by Vladimir Putin. A textbook the Russians have been following since the Soviet Union fell in 1991. When the USSR fell there were two main strategic priorities the Russian’s were concerned about. The first and most important was Ukraine which is Russia’s gateway to Western Europe. Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said the following regarding Ukraine’s importance to Russia:
“Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”
The second was Georgia which is Russia’s gateway to the oil and warm waters of the Middle East. Russia has had aspirations to extend into the Middle East ever since the Stalin days. Both Ukraine and Georgia are the two geographic pivots necessary for Russia to become an empire.
The Soviet Union officially dissolved on Christmas day 1991. The leadership of the new Russian Federation identified their two main priorities and assessed risks. The Soviets had devoted much to Ukraine over the years. The result of which was a heavily entrenched political support base. Ukraine and Belarus along with Russia became the founding members of the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Georgia however was another matter. The Russians knew that the Georgian political elite were ready to turn to NATO. To counter this they flamed ethnic fires with two ethnic groups within Georgia. Ossetians in the North and Abkhazians in the North West.
The conflict began as simple protests but it quickly escalated. Ossetians and Abkhazians began attacking Georgian government buildings with home made weapons and hunting rifles. Pretty soon the separatists began getting weapon supplies from Russia. The conflicts came to a close with Russia brokering a cease fire that left Georgia fractured. Two autonomous regions emerged - Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
If this sounds familiar to you….it should be. If you played the news broadcasts of Ukraine today side by side with those from Georgia in 1992 you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The tactics used are near identical. Remember when the Russian separatists shot down Malaysian commercial flight MH17? That exact same scenario happened in Abkhazia in 1993. Only in Georgia the separatists shot down more than one commercial plane.
The process the Russians followed in Georgia is strikingly similar to present day Ukraine. Moscow helps to force a stalemate by supplying the separatists with arms. Once that stalemate happens they help broker a ceasefire.There’s usually a caveat in that ceasefire that states that the Russian military guarantees the peace and will intervene if it’s broken. The end result is an autonomous region within the country that is loyal to Russia.
Fast forward to 2004. Ukraine was on the verge of their “Orange Revolution”. Like the Georgians in 1992 the Ukrainians now looked to the West rather than to Moscow. The uprisings forced a recount in the their ongoing presidential election and the heavily Russian supported Viktor Yanukovych was ousted.
The Orange Revolution would spread to both Belarus and Russia herself. Russia had to do something….
Russia had already laid the foundation for their response back in Georgia in 1992. In 2008 “color revolutions” had spread from Ukraine to Belarus and Russia. For seemingly no reason at all the autonomous region of South Ossetia began shelling various Georgian positions. Georgia counter attacked and closed in on South Ossetia. On cue Russia invaded into Georgia backed up by Abkhazian forces from the North West. The conflict would later end again via a Russian brokered cease fire.
The message was clear - the Soviet Union may be gone but the Russians are still in control. The Georgian conflict sent ripples of fear all over the former Soviet Bloc. The “color revolutions” died out and Ukraine began to slide back under Russia’s thumb.
Ukrainians now in 2014 see themselves as the Georgians of 2008. Russia following their textbook has positioned Kiev to have to make the same decisions Tbilisi made in 2008. If the autonomous regions in Eastern Ukraine begin shelling Ukrainian positions, like the South Ossetians did, Ukraine will have to react with caution and restraint. If they over react Russia will use that to send another message and will fully invade Eastern Ukraine.
What happens next?
I really think that the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 was something the Russians didn’t expect to happen. They assumed they’d always be able to manipulate Ukraine using their political and economic stranglehold they enjoyed in Kiev. However, when Yanukovych’s regime was ousted Putin was forced to escalate the timeline. 2008 Georgia was brought to 2014 Ukraine. If Ukraine continues their push to integrate into the EU and forge a relationship with NATO Russia will push the autonomous regions in Eastern Ukraine to begin shelling Ukrainian positions….a la South Ossetia 2008. Moscow will wait and gauge their reaction.
If Georgia continues their goals of joining NATO Russia WILL annex either Abkhazia, South Ossetia or both. They’ll most probably annex Abkhazia and dangle South Ossetia as a future warning.
Georgia and Ukraine represent Russia’s primary targets, but keep in mind the effect all this will have on the rest of the region. Places such as Moldova, Belarus and even Russia’s own populace will be watching.
Moscow is following a geopolitical playbook using plays they’ve already ran. Realizing and understanding this is key to predicting what they want and what they’re willing to do in the future.