Mother Russia can be quite generous when it comes to her collection of statelets. In the early 1990s, when a broken Russia had no choice but to suck in her borders, a severely distracted Kremlin still found the time and money to promote and sponsor the fledgling breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transdniestria in Moldova. And as Russia became more economically coherent over the years, the number of Russian troops in these territories grew, and a bigger slice of the Russian budget was cut out to keep the quasi-states afloat.
These post-Soviet statelets have a good deal in common. They are all tiny - South Ossetia is roughly 3,900 square kilometers (1,500 square miles) and has about 40,000 inhabitants, Abkhazia covers 8,500 square kilometers and its population is about 240,000, and Transdniestria is 4,100 square kilometers and has a population of 555,000. They are also all economically isolated, effectively run on black and gray economies, and are largely dependent on Russia's financial largesse for survival. Most important, from Russia's point of view, they each occupy strategic spaces in the post-Soviet sphere where Russian troops and thus the potential for further intervention can apply acute pressure on Georgia and Moldova should they draw too close to the West. The presence of Russian troops in these breakaway territories forms the tripwire that any Western patron will be wary to cross when it comes to defending those countries in their time of need. This, after all, is the true deterrent value of statelet sponsorship.
But Russia's strategy has also gotten to be a lot more burdensome and much more complicated in recent years. In addition to readopting Crimea (covering 26,000 square kilometers with a population of 2 million), Russia has added to its basket of statelets the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic (16,000 square kilometers collectively with a population of 1.5 million and 2 million, respectively) in eastern Ukraine. Though exact figures are hard to come by, various compiled estimates show Russia has annually been injecting about $300 million into Abkhazia and at least $100 million into South Ossetia and Transdniestria each to finance their annual budgets, provide cheap fuel, pay pensions and so on. In addition, Russia has allocated at least $2.42 billion in 2015 to support Crimea (not including military costs) and, according to a report written by Higher School of Economics analyst Sergei Aleksashenko, Russia has allocated at least $2 billion in the federal 2015 budget to sustain its military support in eastern Ukraine, a figure that continues to grow.
And the list is only getting longer. As the world has observed in recent weeks, Russian military support for Syrian loyalist forces in the coastal Alawite enclave of Latakia has dramatically increased, with all signs pointing to a long-term stay. Knowing that any negotiated settlement is likely to fall apart in the end, the Russian plan is to help Syria's Alawites carve out a de facto state. Meanwhile, back in the Caucasus, the long frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh may also be taking a significant turn in the coming months. We see growing indications that Russia and Azerbaijan may be collaborating to shake up the status quo between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with Russia readied to send in peacekeepers and stay for the long haul in a bid to tighten its grip in the region.
From eastern Ukraine to Alawite Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia appears to be making a conscious effort to widen its footprint in strategic spaces. This will be a pricey endeavor, but the geopolitical logic behind these moves is not lacking.
Whether strong or weak, capitalist, communist or tsarist, Russia will be compelled to anchor itself to natural geographic barriers for its own security. In eastern Ukraine, the natural Russian extension is to the Dnieper River, and short of reaching that river, Russia will try its best to use the separatist regions to both undermine Kiev and create an imperfect buffer against NATO's growing involvement with Kiev. The Crimean Peninsula reinforces Russia's hold on its only warm-water base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea, and naval projection on the Black Sea gives Russia access to the Mediterranean. The ports of Latakia and Tartus on the Syrian Mediterranean coast - an Alawite stronghold now depending on Russian aid - gives Russia a physical foothold in the eastern Mediterranean and a platform to influence power plays in the Levant. In the mountainous Caucasus, where Russia has already been strengthening its presence in Georgia's breakaway territories and remains Armenia's only real patron, a developing bargain with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has the potential to expand Russia's presence even more and thus reinforce a Russian buffer to the south.
A Buffer in Eastern Ukraine
In order of priority, Russia's position in eastern Ukraine comes first. Ukraine, from centuries past to today, forms the soft underbelly of the Russian state that must be insulated at all costs. If Ukraine comes under significant influence or control of a Western power, the Russian southwestern flank will be laid bare. But Russia is not strong enough to anchor itself on the Dnieper River and absorb both the military and economic costs of such an endeavor. So Russia must settle. The best Russia can do at this point is to try to consolidate autonomy for the eastern rebel provinces, using its tight grip over separatist commanders to dial up and down the conflict as the need arises. If Russia feels as though its demands are being ignored when it comes to NATO's buildup, sanctions or the like, violence in eastern Ukraine flares up. Once the Germans and the French get the message and start pressuring Kiev to make certain political concessions, the fighting quickly de-escalates.