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Putin ponders a shift in strategy: annexing breakaway territories

Crikey logo Crikey 25/05/2022 Eugene Chausovsky
Russian President Vladimir Putin (Image: Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik/AP/AAP) © Provided by Crikey Russian President Vladimir Putin (Image: Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik/AP/AAP)

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hits the three-month mark, an important shift in Moscow’s strategy may be emerging.

This shift isn’t a military one: Russia remains focused on expanding control over eastern Ukraine. But Russia’s political strategy regarding so-called breakaway territories, not only in Ukraine but throughout the former Soviet space, may be changing.

From Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine to the region of South Ossetia in Georgia, there is growing speculation that such Moscow-aligned breakaway territories may soon formally become annexed by Russia. Reports by Ukrainian officials suggest that Mariupol, Kherson and other cities in Ukraine that have been occupied by Russian forces could hold a referendum to be annexed by Russia in September, while US officials have suggested it could happen even sooner than that. In the meantime, South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov signed a decree on May 13 for a referendum to be held on July 17 for the breakaway territory to join Russia.

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Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, some of the newly independent states chose to remain aligned with Moscow in their foreign-policy orientation, including Belarus, Armenia and many of the central Asian countries. Others chose a different path, with such states as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova seeking greater autonomy from Russia and eventually turning in a more Western direction.

The problem for each of the states in the latter group was that there were local elements in specific regions of these countries that resisted control from their respective national governments and sought to remain aligned with Moscow.

Tensions rose during the late Soviet and early post-Soviet period over issues such as autonomy and foreign-policy orientation, boiling over into armed conflicts in the early 1990s that eventually produced these so-called breakaway territories (or de facto independent statelets), including Transnistria in MoldovaAbkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and (much later on in 2014) the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in Ukraine. Each of these breakaway territories was backed by Russia, both militarily in the form of Russian troops and economically with Russian financial support.

Russia had two primary motivations in supporting such breakaway territories. One was to maintain a foothold in these territories as a source of pressure on the Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldovan governments, even as they sought closer ties with the West. The other was to maintain undermining any efforts by these countries to join the European Union and NATO. The only exception was Crimea, which Moscow did formally annex in March 2014, in large part due to the pre-existing presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet naval base in Sevastopol — even as the Kremlin supported informal separatist statelets in eastern Ukraine.

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Russia thus used the ambiguous status of these breakaway territories in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as a source of leverage with their pro-Western governments and with the West itself. This played into Moscow’s broader strategy of maintaining influence in these countries as a counterbalance to the West, just as Russia sought to counter EU and NATO expansion, all while maintaining a working (albeit tense) relationship with the West. By avoiding formally annexing these territories, Moscow was also able to lessen the indirect costs — namely economic sanctions and political isolation — while maintaining a steady foothold in the former Soviet space.

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However, with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and its protracted conflict in the country, Moscow’s sustaining such breakaway territories looks like an untenable strategy. The Kremlin’s working relationship with the West is all but destroyed, with Russia facing unprecedented sanctions and political isolation from the United States and EU. There is no longer a realistic approach for governments like Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia to pursue a balanced relationship with Moscow.

In this context, the growing rumblings that territories such as the Donetsk People’s Republic, Luhansk People’s Republic, South Ossetia and recently occupied regions including Kherson may be annexed by Russia should be taken seriously.

Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states immediately prior to its invasion of Ukraine sent just that message: that Moscow was no longer satisfied with the political status quo and that negotiation formats such as the Minsk talks were deemed as no longer viable by the Kremlin. Were Russia to annex these territories and others, this would mark a substantial shift not only in Moscow’s breakaway territory strategy but also in its entire way of doing business with the West and with pro-Western states in the former Soviet periphery.

This would signal that Russia is not serious about finding a diplomatic solution to address such conflicts and that both the war in Ukraine and the broader rift between Moscow and the West are likely to be prolonged. Indeed, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko may have hinted at just such an outcome when he spoke on May 17 of Russia’s “opportunity to turn to the East and make a radical turn toward promising markets”, referring to Moscow’s plans to shift its economic ties away from the West and towards Asian countries, especially China.

This doesn’t mean immediate or wholesale annexation. Each of the breakaway territories has its own unique local conditions that Moscow must consider, including the transition to a new leader in South Ossetia who is more circumspect on the issue of annexation, just as Russia may wait to see the battle lines in Ukraine more firmly stabilised before moving ahead with annexation.

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But as Western pressure on Russia is unlikely to go away any time soon, and as NATO is likely to see its own expansion to include Finland and Sweden, Moscow may make the calculation that its influence and political control over such breakaway territories no longer needs to be ambiguous. The costs for annexation are no longer as prohibitive politically, and — as with the decision to launch the invasion of Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin may determine that the benefits of action outweigh those of inaction.

This is especially the case as Russia has not been able to achieve the swift and comprehensive military victory in Ukraine that the Kremlin was hoping for, and the expansion of territorial control throughout Europe’s periphery could be displayed by Putin as a type of Russian victory and as a signal of power and influence to his domestic audience.

Yet at the same time, annexation could create new burdens and unforeseen complications for Moscow at a time when Russia is not exactly flush with cash or unequivocal support from even its closest allies.

Whether Putin makes the call or not, his stance on this issue will serve as a key indicator and weathervane of the broader political direction Russia will take moving forward, both in the region and with the West.

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