Russia in the grey zones

“What’s a secure Russian border? One with Russian troops on both sides of it.” So goes the old Russian joke. But for at least three of the six states in Eastern Europe, this joke isn’t very funny. Russia has carved out territory from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and maintains troops in these breakaway territories. Russia also exerts control over these territories by providing varying degrees of political, administrative, and financial support to the local de facto authorities.

The “grey zones” of Eastern Europe – Abkhazia, Crimea, the Donbas, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria – constitute a central chapter in Moscow’s playbook for the neighbourhood. Russia uses them as strategic wedges to put pressure on and destabilise its neighbours. Keeping these unresolved conflicts going, typically by using local proxies, is part of Russia’s effort to bring its neighbours within its sphere of influence. Even in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russia maintains no troops, the stand-off between Armenia and Azerbaijan enables Moscow to project power into the region. The ambiguity and instability inherent in these conflicts is in itself a source of influence for Russia.

This strategy has, in many ways, proven effective. The grey zones are obstacles for Georgia and Ukraine to become members of NATO and move closer to the EU. They divert resources and attention from much-needed reform. They also represent a constant security risk as the threat of further Russian incursions hangs heavy over domestic politics and policymaking in Tbilisi and Kyiv; Russia can increase the pressure on these countries by mobilising its troops at will or, in the case of Ukraine, step up its ongoing military campaign.

Russia supports these grey zones to varying degrees and in various ways. In Ukraine, Russia formally annexed Crimea and integrated it as a federation subject. In the Donbas, Russia actively foments war with its own troops, “volunteers”, and proxy forces. In Georgia, Moscow has recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and maintains a heavy military presence in both entities. While South Ossetia is highly dependent on Russia, Abkhazia enjoys a modicum of actual independence in its domestic politics. Russia’s military and political presence is also felt in Transnistria, but its geographic location means that it cannot rely on Russia alone.