Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 04:32 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 04:32 | SYDNEY

Russian meddling in the breakaway republics

3 June 2009 12:29

Dr Constantinos Filis is Head of the Russia-Eurasia & SE Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

The August 2008 five-day war in Georgia was evidence of substantial changes on the global political horizon, including the fact that the US — while remaining a superpower and the strongest state in the world — can no longer do whatever it wants, whenever it wants. The world is moving towards a post-American era. And this has less to do with a US losing power than a growth in the power of a number of other countries: China, India, Russia and Brazil included.

In this new world, limits have been placed on the US scope of action, while Moscow wants to alter a number of aspects of the current system — within which it has suffered significant losses over the past 16 years — and put in place new rules that more closely reflect the emerging realities.

Also emerging are regional superpowers pursuing control of their immediate neighbourhoods: presumably in an attempt to decide the fate of the weak via a rationale of 'geographical continuity' (Russia-Georgia) or of guaranteeing their security. It is quite probable that within this framework, borders will be changeable rather than guaranteed for the weak, thus making the latter more susceptible to the influence of regional powers, for fear of losing their territorial integrity and national sovereignty. But this will motivate weaker states to seek protectors beyond their region — unless they uncomplainingly fall in with the new regional realities.

In the past, Russia has sent the message that it recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in order to protect them from Georgian aggression. Through bilateral agreements on the guarding of the borders of the de facto seceded regions by Russian troops, the installation of a Russian base in Abkhazia, the Russian statement regarding potential military assistance for South Ossetia and reference to the residents of South Ossetia as the 'South Ossetian nation', Moscow is attempting to bolster every aspect of statehood in these regions: territorial claims, a people and troops capable of promoting national interests and guarding national borders.

In promoting statehood for these two provinces, Russia is serving a twofold objective: on the one hand it is ensuring that Tbilisi will not make sovereign claims on these territories in the future, and on the other it is strengthening its influence within both these regions, the leaderships and residents of which look to Moscow as a 'kind protector' that also functions as a guarantor of security, obviating the presence of 'Western' organisations such as the OSCE.

In a nutshell, the Kremlin is determined to increase its presence in the region as a means to averting the prospect of a Western-controlled presence establishing itself there. At the same time, Moscow is cultivating an image of Tbilisi as an aggressive actor that does not believe in the free expression of self-determination for the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that is willing to impose its views by recourse to arms.

By strengthening attributes of statehood in the secessionist entities in question, Russia is rendering less likely their incorporation into the Russian state, which in any case it deems undesirable due to the reduced economic circumstances of these regions and the more general security problems that exist in the Caucasus as a whole.