The horrifying and tragic situation in Ukraine should shock no one; it is just the latest in a pattern of actions that Russia has undergone to induce former Soviet Republics (SSRs) into compliance in an attempt to assert its dominance as a global power. Russia has been in control of the region since the fall of the Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin has ensured that any attempt to go against the grain is met with swift backlash from Russian comrades. Though we no longer refer to the USSR as controlling the Eastern bloc, its shadow still looms. Russia continues to dictate the rules of the region, and “sovereignty” is hardly an obstacle for Putin to get what he wants. Putin has shown the world time and time again that he is not afraid to invade his neighbors to promulgate his own agenda and beliefs about where the border between East and West should lay.
When the USSR collapsed in 1992, fifteen new countries emerged out of one of the most powerful dictatorships the world has ever known. Former Soviet or KGB officials took the reins of most of these countries with promises of modernization and democratization. Yet today, Freedom House ranks only the three Baltic states as being free and democratic. The other twelve states have been in steady democratic decline for over a decade and still operate under the wing of Vladimir Putin and Russia.
Examples of Russian Interference in Former Soviet Republics
In the thirty years since Soviet collapse, Russia has invaded or interfered with almost all the other former republics. The collapse of the USSR left many questions around border disputes and resulted in several de facto states, many of which are still fighting for independence today. Even Russia has not been immune from rebels seeking territorial sovereignty within their borders. They have fought two wars in Chechnya, a small region in the North Caucasus. Russia’s failure in the first war in the mid-1990s helped bring Putin to power as he vowed to restore order. After a three-year hiatus, the war heated up again and many criticized Russia for using disproportionate force to quell the dispute, under the guise of “anti-terrorism.” Estimates of civilian deaths during the wars are in the tens of thousands, and Russia’s attacks were often seen as egregious and unnecessary. One of the most heinous acts occurred during a Russian siege of a school in Beslan which left 331 people dead, most of which were children.
In 2008, Russia turned their attention away from Chechnya and towards liberating other de facto states in nearby Georgia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, two areas of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, began seeking their independence and were much more sympathetic to Moscow than they were to Tbilisi. In August 2008, Georgia launched an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia and was met by the Russian military who invaded Georgia to support the territories. In just five days the Russian military had defeated Georgia and recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia and established military bases there – which they still control today. The invasion caused Georgia to sever diplomatic ties with Russia and leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The West largely criticized the Russo-Georgian War and the subsequent human rights violations in the regions, though took little action other than voicing concern, despite reports of inhumane treatment and forcible displacement of ethnic Georgians from the regions.
Six years later, in 2014, Russia annexed and took over Crimea from Ukraine in a move that shocked the West and is still widely criticized. The move came after a winter of turbulence in Ukraine after President Viktor Yanukovychh, a Russian puppet, withdrew from a deal that would’ve brought Ukraine closer to the European Union, which sparked violent protests in Kyiv. The Russian military then invaded and took over the Crimean Peninsula and a local “referendum” in Crimea led to Russian annexation on March 18, though most of the world still refuses to recognize its legitimacy.
Russia has also been involved in territorial disputes in other former SSRs. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh, claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, became a headline topic in the fall of 2020 when the decades-long dispute boiled over into full-fledged war between the two countries. Russia supplied both sides with weapons and was surprisingly hesitant to back Armenia, a country which it helped “liberate,” and instead brokered the peace deal that ended the feud which gave Azerbaijan most of the spoils.
Putin Ensuring Loyalty from Former Soviet Republics
Shortly after the collapse of the USSR, the CIS was created to promote economic and foreign policy cooperation between former SSRs. CIS helped coordinate the consolidation of nuclear weapons from Belarus and Ukraine back to Russia, as well as the creation of free-trade areas amongst members. Despite these developments, plenty of member states have criticized Russia’s involvement as a way to exert its power; even the current Executive Secretary, Sergey Lebedev, is a close ally of Putin and former KGB official. Two states, Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2018), left the international organization after Russian interference with their sovereignty.
Even without direct Russian interference, Putin still manages to keep target countries close. When Kazakhstan experienced violent protests in opposition to their authoritarian regime in January 2022, Putin sent his military to help quell the unrest. The Kremlin also helped supply Belarus with weapons to squash the pro-democracy protests in 2020 and 2021 in support of the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994.
The Future of the Region
The world is currently watching as the situation in Ukraine worsens by the hour and speculation is growing about what the outcome will be. Many are protesting and eyeing the West to do more to stop the conflict and pressure Putin into backing down. Several European countries and the United States, among others, have already unleashed some of the harshest sanctions that Russia has ever seen. Some have even called for kicking Russia out of SWIFT, an international banking platform, or even out of the UN Security Council. However, much is still left unknown and there are serious questions about if Putin can still be considered a rational actor – a dangerous prospect as he ratchets up rhetoric regarding his nuclear forces.
Whatever becomes of the current Russia-Ukraine crisis, the war further reiterates Russia’s indignation over Soviet collapse and eastward expansion of NATO. They have previously warned of “horrible conflict” if Georgia considers joining NATO and are now unleashing on Ukraine for considering joining. The United States and other NATO members have to step up to protect the sovereignty of other countries from Putin’s wrath. What’s next? Will Russia invade Moldova to try and liberate Transnistria, a Russian-backed de facto state? Will they absorb Belarus in an attempt to reintegrate the USSR? The ripples that will spread from the wake of these actions will forever change geopolitics as we know it. One thing is clear though – the reality for the former SSRs is that Putin holds the pencil, and he draws the borders of the former Soviet Union as he sees fit.
Author Biography: Austin Newman is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPD) and a J.D. Candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Christopher Newport University.