Russia's Influence in Breakaway Territories in the Region


Russia's preferred presidential candidates in South Ossetia and Transdniestria, separatist regions of Georgia and Moldova, respectively, have both lost in their territories' elections in recent months. These breakaway territories of the former Soviet Union need a foreign patron to guarantee their independence, and Russia needs them as leverage against its former states. Ultimately, the developments in South Ossetia and Transdniestria do not represent a threat to Russian influence in those regions or a larger decline in Russian power in other separatist territories.

In recent months, Russia has experienced political challenges to its influence in the Georgian and Moldovan breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Transdniestria, respectively. In South Ossetia, Russia's favored presidential candidate, Anatoly Bibilov, lost a runoff election in November 2011. The South Ossetian Supreme Court declared the results of the runoff invalid, which led opposition leader Alla Dzhioyeva, who had won the vote, to mobilize her supporters, and protests were briefly rampant in the territory. The court scheduled a new election for March 25, 2012, but Bibilov withdrew his candidacy. In Transdniestria's presidential election in December 2011, the Russian-backed candidate, Anatoly Kaminski, lost to Yevgeny Shevchuk. 

Rather than threaten Russian influence, these incidents highlight the nuances of that influence, which is more effective in the military and economic spheres than in domestic politics. The breakaway territories of the region, including the former Georgian territory of Abkhazia and the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, depend on Russia's support to guarantee their independence. Likewise, Russia needs to have clout in the breakaway regions so that it can leverage them against their former states when those states refuse to cooperate with Russia's plans.

The former Soviet Union region historically has consisted of hundreds of nationalities, including Abkhaz, Ossetians, Chechens, Moldovans, Ukrainians and Russians. As the Soviet Union began to collapse, many of these ethnic communities viewed the new emerging states as a threat to their existence and sought to escape rekindled nationalism by forming their own autonomous regions. A number of conflicts broke out: South Ossetians and Abkhazians battled with Georgia, Azerbaijanis and Armenians fought over Nagorno-Karabakh and Moldova struggled to retain Transdniestria. Only a few of these groups succeeded in achieving de facto independence, and of those that did, Russian support invariably played a part.

Transdniestria is the largest of the breakaway territories by population, with approximately 530,000 inhabitants, followed by Abkhazia with 250,000 people, Nagorno-Karabakh with 138,000 people and South Ossetia with 70,000 people. Lacking resources and the ability to operate economically or militarily like a normal nation-state, these breakaway territories have been forced to rely on a foreign patron to guarantee their independence. Russia recognized this as an opportunity to build relationships with these territories, which it could then use as leverage against uncooperative states in Russia's periphery.

Russia has a strong military presence in each of the breakaway areas except Nagorno-Karabakh. Between them, Abkhazia and South Ossetia host approximately 7,000 Russian troops, and roughly 1,100 Russian troops are stationed in Transdniestria. Although it does not have a military base in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia does have a base in neighboring Armenia from which it can easily deploy troops to the territory if necessary.

Additionally, Russian financial aid is vital to the weak economies of the breakaway regions. Russia provides South Ossetia and Abkhazia with millions of dollars in financial aid each year. Moscow suspended some of its financial aid to Transdniestria in 2012 when Kaminski lost the presidential election, but Russia still provides a few hundred million dollars. Russia's support in Nagorno-Karabakh is indirect; it gives financial aid to Armenia, which supports the breakaway territory both militarily and financially.

Russia has shown that it can and will use its dominant position in these breakaway regions to punish their former patrons when they engage in actions that Moscow does not like. For example, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 when Tbilisi was actively following a pro-Western course (its attempt to join NATO in particular), and it later recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. It has since kept troops stationed in the territories, where they can be a constant threat to Georgia. If Azerbaijan or Moldova did anything of which Russia does not approve, Russia could recognize the sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh or Transdniestria, respectively.

While Russia's position in the breakaway territories is strong, the position of the states that those territories broke away from is not. Moreover, those states themselves are weak compared to Russia, and thus they cannot militarily change the reality in the breakaway regions. And Russia has no interest in seeing those territories restored to their former patrons because that would remove an important lever for Moscow. Therefore, the recent events in South Ossetia and Transdniestria will not hurt Russia's strategic position in those areas, though they do illustrate that events in those areas do not always go according to Russian plans.