Exploring Russia’s “Buffer Zone” strategy in the Black Sea
This commentary is the third in a series of essays on the geostrategic importance of the Black Sea that already includes a brief historical perspective and an assessment of NATO-Russia tensions in the region. As the White House is reflecting on the conditions for resuming dialogue with Russia, this commentary focuses on Russia’s use of territorial, cultural, and ethnic regional dynamics in the region to create a buffer zone against the West and presents options for Black Sea states and their allies and partners.
Reunite, Control, or Disperse
Russia’s current military doctrine (2014) and national security strategy (2015) reflect the Kremlin’s overarching obsession with fragmentation and subversion, especially in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions. Moscow shares the West’s assessment that unresolved regional conflicts, ethnic tensions, or violence from extremist groups create a risk of destabilization. However, Russia perceives its own actions as defensive and mirrors Western accusations by claiming foreign military buildup and intelligence services in its near abroad seek to destroy its unity and territorial integrity. No clear distinction is drawn by either document between Russia’s internal and external borders. On the contrary, neighbor countries allegedly serve as an entry point to shape Russia’s information space and its internal sphere, undermining its national interests. In this perspective, radical political change at Russia’s outskirts must be thwarted at any cost and could possibly lead to conflict.
The perceived need to recreate a buffer zone at Russia’s borders against the West has pervaded Russia’s leadership since the early 1990s. It started with the trauma of the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, the voluntary demise of which Vladimir Putin later called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” At the turn of the 2000s, Russia, fearing unrest in the North Caucasus (Chechnya and later Dagestan, Ingushetia, or Kabardino-Balkaria) could lead to attempts at secession in its inner abroad, responded heavy handedly. Interestingly, it was in Chechnya, where the threat had been most salient, that Moscow gave the most leeway to local leaders — offering all-but-complete autonomy in exchange for unfailing support to the central government. In the meantime, in the Black Sea region, Russia’s policy to preserve its cordon sanitaire reached well beyond its inner borders to include most of its neighbors. Moscow was too weak to coerce former vassal entities in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. It therefore struggled to preserve influence through diplomatic pressure, covert economic dominance, and regional integration instead.
Western buildup around the Black Sea region progressively challenged the notion that Russia could maintain regional dominance through nonmilitary means. As the European Union and NATO filled the post-Soviet power vacuum, Russia soon became aware that it was unable to stop the alliance’s expansion eastward to Bulgaria and Romania. It also failed to deter NATO from pledging eventual membership to Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest summit (2008), while establishing closer partnerships with Azerbaijan, Armenia (2005), and Moldova (2006). Having stretched eastwards and driven by bureaucratic dynamics, the European Union in 2009 proposed its Eastern Partnership to all countries around the Black Sea, a move that accelerated the decay of Russia’s post-Soviet economic sphere of influence. In the early 2010s, as Russia was already increasing pressure on its near abroad, it sought again to revive its projects of regional integration and launched a competing economic platform, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), but garnered limited success in the region — only Armenia joined, with reservations.
After the “colored revolutions” in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), Russia’s focus increasingly switched to hard power to preserve its sphere of influence. Only Armenia, due to its specific situation, was allowed to cultivate ties with outside powers while maintaining excellent relations with Moscow — it still belongs to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). But in general, Moscow made clear to states in the region that political independence was not really an option. From a geopolitical perspective, Russia’s move aimed at restoring the strategic depth it felt it had lost in Europe after the Cold War and avoiding what it considered to be hostile military forces at its borders — even if it implied encroaching over its neighbors’ territory. Then, following economic recovery, Russia undertook with the annexation of Crimea to maintain access to a key strategic area, perceived as critical to restoring its global reach. Putin’s repeated allusions to potential use of nuclear weapons in the broader context of the crisis in Ukraine was a message to the United States that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s buffer zone and that Crimea potentially pertained to Russia’s “vital interests.”
Escalating Fractured Identities into Conflict
Russia understands too well that the Black Sea countries’ unique mosaic of cultures is their potential weak spot. Tensions often predated Russia’s current behavior, as remnants of the Soviet-era territorial division game. The Soviet Union drew its republics’ borders to ensure that they had significant minority populations. It resorted to border changes and forced displacement of many of the Caucasus and Black Sea peoples, leaving gaping ethnic and territorial wounds. At the end of the Cold War, these wounds bled again and remain wide open. Russia found itself with about 25 million citizens living abroad that it would later use as an anchor point. Armenia and Azerbaijan became engulfed in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which, almost three decades later, is not even frozen, as the 2016 Four Days War recalled. Georgia emerged in 1991 as a poorly centralized state, already shattered by a civil war in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Ukraine inherited deep social and economic fractures and a loose national identity, while Crimea never left the shadow of Russia’s armed forces.
The exploitation of nationality issues is at the core of Russia’s current efforts to legitimize the establishment of its buffer zone in the Black Sea region. In Georgia, then in Ukraine, the Kremlin claimed against all evidence that ethnic Russians or local minorities were faced with a “risk of genocide.” Cross-border cultural links served as a pretext for more sovereignty infringement. In 2008, Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, wrested from Georgia after the 1992 civil war. In early 2017, South Ossetia was renamed Alania and its security forces merged with Russia’s, a possible prelude to “reunification” with Northern Ossetia-Alania under the Russian flag. Russian passports have been distributed to residents of Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea. In February 2017, President Putin issued an executive order recognizing identification documents issued in Eastern Ukraine. By contrast, the rights of local Tatars as a minority were mostly ignored after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, because they were critical of Russia’s political design. In April 2016, their mejlis (local parliament) was eventually outlawed on accusation of sowing dissent among the population.
The Black Sea countries also served as a blueprint for the so-called Gerasimov doctrine. Before and after the 2008 conflict with Georgia, Moscow actively tried to undermine the Georgian population’s morale and escalate tensions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while jamming Georgia’s network to prevent organized response. In Crimea, the Kremlin took control of the communication networks and used sponsored entities to escalate low-level cultural and political divergences into a nonexistent armed conflict, a scenario designed to justify ex-post Russia’s intervention against “neo-Nazis and anti-Semites.” Further steps led to quick absorption — covert military buildup under a false flag rebellion, a sponsored referendum, and recognition of independence by the Kremlin. Obfuscation tactics complicated international response until Putin eventually announced the fait accompli on April 17, 2014. During the conflict in Donbass, Russia resorted to integrated information warfare techniques even more massively — alteration of communication networks, disinformation, and promotion of anxiety.
However, this adventurous strategy might backfire in the longer run. Russia’s military is not strong enough to subdue its entire regional environment even if it were willing to, and Moscow’s actions harmed its soft power. In 2016, the Kremlin could claim it had the nominal support of the majority in Georgia’s separatist territories. Still, it did not disrupt Georgia’s ability to organize free and fair elections and a peaceful transition of power, while 77 percent of all Georgians held a negative view of Russia and 71 percent perceived it as a threat. Ukraine was trapped at a time when its institutions were already undermined, yet the conflict might have a bitter aftertaste for Moscow. Indeed, by seizing Crimea, Russia proved an existential threat to Ukraine and the adversary against which national identity could be consolidated. Finally, because Russia itself comprises as many as 185 ethnic groups, it should consider the risk that its actions in foreign breakaway territories could incentivize local separatists in Northern Caucasus or elsewhere more than anticipated.
A Possible Path Toward Stabilization
Washington and the Europeans should establish a shared vision of the future of the Black Sea region with clear, if more limited, objectives to support their partners. For those that aren’t already in, there is no prospect of integration into either the European Union or NATO in the short run. NATO has realized that enlargement in the Baltic region came at a strategic and military price — it was more than just a bureaucratic deal. The U.S. president was reluctant to commit to Article 5 during the May 2017 Leaders’ Meeting, and the recent U.S. strikes in Syria, which occurred in a very different context, should not be overinterpreted as a demonstration of U.S. willingness to protect third parties against a Russian intervention. In any case, direct foreign military assistance in a conflict would be complicated by the nature of Russia’s strategy, which manipulates perceptions and internal social and political issues to generate unrest. It could backfire against the party providing assistance.
That Black Sea countries will continue to rely primarily on themselves to thwart Russia’s design. It does not mean they will be abandoned. Western countries should confront Russia whenever it seeks further to undermine the stability or integrity of sovereign countries and continue to set a high economic price for any territorial encroachment. Yet as recalled in the NATO treaty’s Article 3, each member state’s responsibility for individual defense is at the core of collective defense. Both individual NATO and non-NATO Black Sea countries’ militaries should become efficient enough to deter or defeat a destabilization attempt on their own, buying time and political leeway for their partners to react. Within NATO, Romania’s efforts to modernize its forces, as well as the alliance’s limited reinforcement measures in the Black Sea will certainly complicate Russia’s military calculus. Georgia is modernizing its security apparatus, while reasserting its defensive posture with a defense budget above 2 percent of gross domestic product. These steps are nonescalatory, but they would prevent Russia from an easy seizure of territory.
Black Sea countries will be even less subject to foreign pressure if long-lasting ethnic and political tensions are addressed. Renewed political investment toward resolving regional conflicts, especially in Nagorno-Karabakh, would help remove hurdles to regional integration and could be a credibility test for the EU doctrine of “strategic autonomy.” The spread of governance rules and democratic standards, or rather active support to countries that chose to endorse them, should remain a priority. As for the future, the United States and the European Union should remain uncompromising in the struggle against corruption, particularly in Moldova and Ukraine. In the long run, the ability to rally their populations around a collective project, as well as improved economic and social standards, will strengthen the Black Sea nations’ internal cohesion. It will help them resist destabilization, much more than unconditional Western political and economic support aimed at countering Russia’s influence.
Yet these efforts should not obfuscate an overarching truth: the Black Sea region will not thrive as a “front line” between Russia and the West, in circumstances of confrontation and struggle for influence. Changing perceptions toward interdependence rather than alienation is therefore critical. First, the Black Sea offers opportunities to experiment with deconfliction between NATO and ssia — interests at stake for both parties are less critical than in the Baltic region. Second, the Black Sea region could be a bridge between Europe, the Caspian Sea, Central Asia, and beyond. Its cultural diversity could be turned into an asset to which Russian-speaking minorities could contribute if convinced by the narrative proposed by the country they live in. Finally, cultivating economic and diplomatic ties with third parties could help the Black Sea countries balance Russia’s overwhelming presence in the region and complicate any destabilization attempts. A prerequisite is that they believe in the inclusive future of their shared space and invest beliefs, as much as money, in it.
Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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Originally published at www.csis.org.