Empire By Other Means: Russia’s Strategy for the 21st Century
During the first phone call between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on 28 January, both sides agreed on the need to improve the US-Russian relationship. While it’s still uncertain how this new relationship will evolve, the conclusion of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing that “we’re not likely to ever be friends” is telling. More importantly, Tillerson noted that the Kremlin has “a geographic plan” and that it is “taking actions to implement that plan.”
Russia has much more than a simple territorial plan. In fact, in recent decades Moscow has actively pursued Putin’s long-term vision of reestablishing Russian power and influence in the former states of the Soviet Union and not shied away from redrawing borders and launching military campaigns.
Since the 2000s Russia has shown increasing tendency towards “reimperialization” of the post-Soviet space, especially in regards to the territories inhabited by ethnic Russians, as I argue in my book "Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire." Moscow counts some 35 million Russians and Russian speakers abroad as compatriots concentrated in states such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Latvia and Estonia and has repeatedly demonstrated commitment to engage and protect these populations. In other words, broad reimperialization is the end-goal of Moscow’s policies, and Russian compatriots are among the means for Moscow achieving that end.
The concept of reimperialization should not be solely understood in the narrowest sense of the term. An empire does not simply result from acquisition of territories. Rather, reimperialization should be understood as a process allowing a dominant country to have indirect control over the sovereignty of other states.
To achieve this end, namely dominance of the post-Soviet region, Russia uses a consistent seven-stage trajectory of policies to reimperialize the former Soviet republics. This trajectory begins with soft power and cycles through humanitarian policies and compatriot policies, which create institutions, laws and policies to co-opt the Russian diaspora. This proceeds to information warfare; “passportization,” which hands out Russian citizenship and passports to compatriots abroad; calls for compatriot protection, which can eventually result in annexation of territories. Although various stages can occur simultaneously or in different order, the general trajectory involves cooptation of the Russian diaspora to achieve territorial expansion under the guise of compatriot or minority protection. All of this occurs under the veil of a blitz of information warfare.
Russia has already achieved various degrees of success with these policies across former Soviet republics, but possibly the most effective application is in Ukraine. Russia’s use of soft power instruments in Ukraine traces back to the early 1990s and gained considerable momentum after Ukraine’s attempts to turn westward with the Orange Revolution of 2004. For example, in October 2008, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, called on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to monitor the rights of Russians in Ukraine. He claimed that Ukraine used “restrictive measures without taking into account the interests of the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine.” However, no international human rights organizations had received personal complaints from ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. The timing of Moscow’s policies was related to Ukraine’s ambitions of moving closer to institutions like the EU and potentially NATO, which from Russia’s point of view could have been perceived as a security threat. If Kiev had succeeded, it would have not only removed Ukraine as a neutral buffer state, standing between Russia and the West, but would have also reduced Moscow’s sphere of influence in the region.
Alongside humanitarian efforts, Russia simultaneously ramped up compatriot policies. Russian citizens created illegal and semi-legal organizations in eastern Ukraine and provided members with paramilitary training. According to media reports and information from social networks, in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, a pro-Russian separatist organization, “Donetskaya Respublica,” was registered in 2006 and started receiving military training no later than 2009.
In the late 2000s, Russia increased the scope of its passportization strategy in Ukraine. In 2008, the Ukrainian media reported that the Russian consulate as well as individuals such as a librarian in a Sevastopol library began systemically handing out Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens. Soon after, estimates suggested that the number of Crimeans with Russian citizenship ranged from 8,000 to 40,000. During this time Russian officials continued to deny the policy of passport distribution in Crimea. Once sizable populations in neighboring foreign states became Russian citizens, Moscow then could call for their protection both rhetorically and militarily, starting the process of annexation or de facto control of these territories.
Russia’s information warfare accelerated in wake of the Ukrainian Maidan revolution of 2013-2014. In autumn 2013, Russian television – including Perviy Kanal, Rossya 24, Life News, the Russian edition of Euronews and Russia Today – began a wide-ranging propaganda campaign to shape the perceptions of Russian compatriots. First, they discredited European integration of Ukraine and the Maidan protests. Second, the Russian media turned to a favorite tactic – smearing opponents as “fascists.” The media tried to propagate a narrative among eastern and southern Ukrainians and Russian speakers that “fascism is returning to life” in Kiev and western Ukraine, and that their rights would be severely undermined.
Following President Viktor Yanukovych’s departure from both government and Ukraine on February 21st, Moscow’s instruments of soft power suddenly shifted to what can be best described as a hybrid warfare campaign under the pretext of protecting the rights of Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine. The night of February 27, 2014, Russian special-mission troops captured the local legislature of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea. At the same time, Russian troops, previously stationed in Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, attacked Ukrainian troops, governmental buildings and infrastructure in the same region.
In the meanwhile, pro-Russia hackers embarked on a cyber-espionage campaign against the Ukrainian government. Using a technique called spear-phishing, the hackers sent emails to targets that appeared to come from legitimate sources and included attachments that, when opened, enabled access to their computers.
On March 16th, Russian authorities and pro-Russian separatists conducted an illegal referendum for Crimea and Sevastopol to join Russia with the reported but unlikely outcome of 96.7 percent supporting annexation.
However, annexation of Crimea was not the only objective.
Despite sporadic violence that broke out in eastern Ukraine in early March, the real fighting began after April 11th when a special Russian military detachment, commanded by Russian Colonel Igor Girkin, who had participated in the capture of Crimea, crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border and captured the city of Slavyansk in the region of Donetsk. In later months, pro-Russian militias continued advancing on other towns and cities in eastern Ukraine. Despite the Ukrainian Army’s efforts to liberate the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, subsequent offensives in 2014 and 2015 enabled militants to maintain control over some territories in the area. This led to a frozen conflict in the eastern part of the country, which not only severely hampered Kiev’s bid of joining the EU, but also complicated its chances of joining NATO.
The aggressive policies Moscow pursued in Ukraine in the name of Russian compatriots recall Russia’s war in Georgia and efforts to strike discord among ethnic minorities in the Baltic States, in Kazakhstan and beyond. By establishing frozen conflicts in such places as Luhansk and Donetsk, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia gained considerable leverage over Kiev and Tbilisi’s politics and foreign policy for years to come, without having direct territorial control.
The world waits for how the Trump administration will manage Russia’s ambitions in the former Soviet republics, though tension is anticipated between efforts to improve relations with Putin and the Kremlin’s strategic plans of preventing neighboring countries from slipping away from its sphere of influence.