The Russian Sphere of Influence
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the countries of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia that became independent were often portrayed as part of the Russian Federation’s “sphere of influence”. Any interruption to that sphere would not be taken lightly by the Russians, take for example the Georgian turmoil in 2008, it was the first time Russia had used military force against another country since the collapse of the Soviet Union (http://www.icds.ee/publications/article/the-russian-bear-on-the-warpath-against-georgia/) , so Syria maybe be the third country Russia will venture in, after Georgia and Ukraine. Let’s dive more into history and see what it has to tell us about the Russian exploit in Georgia and Ukraine, and finally Syria.
It was Georgia’s & Ukraine’s attempts to join NATO that first triggered the escalation of bad relations between Russia & Georgia (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/09/04/that-time-ukraine-tried-to-join-nato-and-nato-said-no/) .
Russia sees NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat against their strategic interests in Europe and has accused the West of having double standards. (http://thedailyjournalist.com/the-strategist/russia-s-indignation-over-nato-s-eastward-expansion-and-the-geopolitical-roots-of-the-ukraine-conflict/)
Georgia believed that membership in NATO is a guarantee of stability to the region by acting as a counterweight to Russia, which it considers a dangerous neighbour. This view was confirmed on January 5, 2008 when Georgia held a non-binding referendum on NATO membership with 72.5% voting in favour of joining the organization. (http://sputniknews.com/world/20080111/96285713.html)
During the NATO summit in Bucharest, the US called for Georgia & Ukraine to be allowed to join the Membership Action Plan (MAP). The alliance decided not to offer Georgia a MAP due to opposition from several countries, led by Germany and France, who feared the decision would anger Russia. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/04/01/us-nato-france-ukraine-idUSL0115117020080401?feedType=RSS&feedName=worldNews)
Responding on April 11, 2008, the head of the Russian military, general Yuri Baluyevsky stated that if Georgia joins NATO, “Russia will take steps aimed at ensuring its interests along its borders and these will not only be military steps, but also steps of a different nature”. (http://www.isrc.ge/researches-and-publications/nato---one-of-the-main-guarantees-of-peace-and-security-in-south-caucasus)
In August 2008, the Russian-Georgian war was triggered. In South Ossetia, which is a partially recognized state in the South Caucasus. South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia in 1990, calling itself the Republic of South Ossetia, however Georgia claimed South Ossetia is a part of its sovereign territory. When Ossetian separatists began shelling Georgian villages on 1 August, the Georgian Army was sent to South Ossetia on 7 August to defend civilians and restore order. Most of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital, was recaptured. (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/13/world/europe/2008-georgia-russia-conflict/)
Russia accused Georgia of aggression against South Ossetia and officially launched a large-scale land, air and sea invasion of Georgia. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/aug/08/georgia.russia2)
Russia recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as separate republics on 26 of August (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/27/world/europe/27russia.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) , On 8 September, French president at the time Sarkozy and Medvedev signed an agreement on a Russian withdrawal from Georgia. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7604376.stm) The Russian forces ultimately withdrew from Georgia but however, Russian troops remain till this day in South Ossetia & Abkhazia. (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/07/creeping-russian-border-georgia-south-ossetia-abkhazia-150722111452829.html)
Ukraine became gripped by unrest when President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union on 21 November 2013. (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25182823) An organised political movement known as ‘Euromaidan’ demanded closer ties with the European Union, and the ousting of Yanukovych. (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25182823) This movement was ultimately successful, culminating in the February 2014 revolution, which removed Yanukovych and his government. (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8faf984a-9bda-11e3-afe3-00144feab7de.html#axzz3oOFd6Zk7)
Starting on 26 February 2014, as protests gripped Crimea, pro-Russian armed men gradually began to take over the peninsula, they were uniformed militants, called the “little green men” in Ukraine (http://moderndiplomacy.eu/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=676:russian-spetsnaz-ukraine-s-deniable-little-green-men&Itemid=488) .
By 27 February, the Crimean parliament building had been seized by Russian forces. Russian flags were raised over these buildings (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10664381/Ukraine-crisis-Russian-flag-raised-in-Crimea-as-gunmen-storm-parliament.html) and a self-declared pro-Russian government said that it would hold a referendum on independence from Ukraine. Following that internationally unrecognised referendum, which was held on 16 March, Russia annexed Crimea on 18 March. (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/18/world/europe/ukraine-crisis/)
Russia has been an ally of Syria since 1956, Russia has supported the Syrian government since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, with military aid in the form of weaponry, training, and military advisors. In October 2011 and again February 2012, Russia blocked Western-backed resolutions in the United Nations Security Council because those resolutions left the possibility of sanctions, or even military intervention against the Syrian Assad government. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/22/us-syria-crisis-un-resolutions-idUSBREA1L0RU20140222)
In September 2015, the Russian Federation Council approved the use of Russian military in Syria to fight terrorist groups, ISIS or ‘the Islamic State’ in particular, at a request from the Syrian President Bashar Assad. (http://sputniknews.com/russia/20150930/1027761651/russian-armed-forces-abroad.html)
Russia wants a united front against ISIS that includes the Assad government. Western powers however have stated that the Assad government shouldn’t have a place in a coalition against ISIS. (http://www.businessinsider.com/putin-is-upping-military-intervention-in-syria-2015-9)
According to two American defense officials the latest U.S. assessment indicates that Russia has moved ground combat weapons and troops to operate them into areas of western Syria,the United States sees the move as Russia “stepping up its ground activity” in Syria. (http://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/06/politics/russia-syria-isis/)
Although that has been denied by Russian president Vladimir Putin who said that Moscow will not deploy any ground troops as part of its campaign against ISIS. (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-12/syrian-army-advances-with-help-of-russian-strikes-as-putin-defe/6847166).
In a twist of irony, “the US has stated that ‘More than 90%’ of Russian airstrikes in Syria have not targeted ISIS that Russia has been aiming at moderate Syrian opposition who are anti-Assad”, said State Department in first statement on specific figures of recent Russian strikes. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/07/russia-airstrikes-syria-not-targetting-isis)
We can somehow comprehend Russia’s intervention in Georgia and Ukraine, even though some would disagree in the matter it was implemented, since these are free states who have the complete freedom of whether to join the NATO or the European Union or even remain in the Russian sphere, Also it Looks like the Russian sphere of influence goes beyond its borders or even beyond the Black Sea, it has reached Syria. Apparently Syria lies within the Russian sphere of influence, is it because of Tartus? The Syrian port is the only naval base Russia has in the Mediterranean Sea. Will Russia succeed the same way it did in Georgia & Ukraine? Only time will tell.