Looking at the arc of separatist states on the Russian borders, there have recently been interesting developments which might signal a new approach in Moscow’s policies.
Ukraine’s Lugansk and Donetsk, Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, Moldova’s Transdnistria region – all these territories were helped and maintained in one way or another by Moscow. In some cases, Moscow recognized independence (Georgia’s territories); in others, it pursues a federalization model (for example, in Ukraine and previously in Moldova).
Models of support differ, but the geopolitical agenda remains the same for all territories: preventing Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine from becoming fully-fledged members of NATO and the EU.
If so far this policy has been successful, its long-term prospects, however, are doubtful. Preventing the NATO/EU membership of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine does not prevent deeper cooperation between these states and the West. In fact, this approach has resulted in the creation of an arc of states geopolitically hostile to Russia. This increases instability and serves as a constant diplomatic pressure on Moscow’s foreign policy.
Moscow’s control of those separatist states has been based on direct financial and military aid. But the Russians were also interested in the economic benefits those regions could bring to Moscow. Decades have passed since the end of the Soviet Union, and the separatist regions have transformed into veritable appendages to Russia, with Russian money serving as the only economic lifeline. Though there were at times genuine measures taken in Moscow to raise economic and social conditions in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, the policy has largely failed. Abkhazia and Tskhinvali have become predatory entities which pin their survival on Moscow’s money and military might.
A decade or two ago, when Russia was on the rise economically, this state of affairs was still acceptable to the Kremlin. However, the Ukraine crisis of 2014 resulted in large economic sanctions with Russia’s GDP having experienced a sharp decline. As a result, control over expenses became stricter.
Vladislav Surkov’s resignation in January 2020 from his curating position in the Kremlin, over the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region and eastern Ukraine, came as a result of this changing attitude within the Russian political elite. This is the case not only with Georgia’s territories, but also with eastern Ukraine. There too expenses are high, while economic benefits are not.
There is also a question of the political elites of the separatist entities in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which failed to provide Moscow with clear ideas on how they are willing to raise the economic and social conditions in their territories.
These changes in attitude are not only dictated by immediate economic concerns. True, the expenses the Russian budget bears should not be overestimated, as spending tens of millions of US dollars does not represent a big fraction of the Russian budget.
What we are seeing here is more about those deeper developments in the thinking of the Russian political elite, which span the entire period since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Russian political elites have grown increasingly unwilling to spend money abroad if there are no benefits on the ground. And it is not only about winning in a geopolitical sense, as was the case in the 1990s or 2000s: Moscow is now increasingly tending to seek a mixture of both economic and geopolitical benefits.
We are then likely to see in the coming years Moscow’s stricter approach to spending in the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions. This could further complicate an already difficult economic and social situation in these two Georgian territories, as well as causing deep reverberations in the structures of politics classes in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. However, even these measures are not set to improve the internal situation. For Moscow, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali are adjacent territories and despite some hopes in Tskhinvali, there is little chance that Russia will be looking to annex those lands.
Thus, in the long run, Russia’s policies towards Abkhazia and Tskhinvali have reached a certain deadlock. Those territories now only serve a geopolitical purpose: preventing Tbilisi from NATO/EU membership, but not full-scale cooperation between Georgia and the West.
Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today