March 25, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Russia’s Passport Imperialism
The South Ossetian Model
Russia’s passport imperialism strategy likely developed in the late 1990s, when Russian authorities began distributing Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway provinces of Georgia, in exchange for them sending in old Soviet passports. Most residents were willing participants, with over 90% effectively taking Russian citizenship by 2008.
Armed clashes between Georgian and South Ossetian forces turned into full-blown warfare in August 2008. Russia decisively intervened to defeat the Georgians, claiming a responsibility to protect Russian citizens. While the passport practice manifested as a thinly veiled pretext for aggression, it is likely to continue, given the fact that international nationality law lays relatively few limitations on the sovereign right of nation-states to grant citizenship.
A number of other factors allowed the Kremlin to intervene in Georgia. NATO had no responsibility to come to Georgia’s aid, and Russian troops were already on Georgian soil. One of the conditions of the uneasy peace between Georgia and its breakaway provinces after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the stationing of Russian “peacekeepers.” These soldiers were ostensibly brought in to separate the warring parties, but Russia clearly favored one side, and the forces were not impartial to the conflict as in a traditional UN peacekeeping operation. They were used as a tripwire by Moscow; when Georgians began shooting at Russian peacekeepers it became further justification for Russian direct involvement.
Crimea and the Expanding Responsibility to Protect
By occupying Crimea in late February 2014, Russia widened its responsibility to protect its citizens to large pockets of ethnic Russians outside its own territory. This move was preceded by a campaign to convert many of these Ukrainians into Russians.
Mere days after the 2008 South Ossetia War ended, major news outlets reported that Russia was actively enabling passport distribution in Crimea. At the time, Anatoliy Hrytsenko—then chairman of the Ukrainian parliament’s national security committee and until recently the Ukrainian Minister of Defense—opined that a large number of newly minted Russian citizens would constitute a threat to Ukraine’s national security. But the threat was not immediate, because the Russian method for establishing rationale for invasion involves some finesse—Russia’s passport strategy appears to have been a way to lay the groundwork for potential action in the future rather than determine its course.
Russia under President Putin plays for the longer game and its strategy is a patient one. Putin recognizes the strategic value of ethnic Russians and Russian passport holders in neighboring states, but he will not move to their defense unless there is a reason to do so and a palpable strategic advantage for Russia. There is little pragmatic value for Russia to coerce a former Soviet republic that stays securely in the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and maintains an eastward orientation. But when the EuroMaidan protest movement unseated Ukrainian President Yanukovych, Ukraine swung further toward the West than Russia could tolerate. Putin used the involvement of far-right nationalists in EuroMaidan to stoke fears that they would try to de-Russify Crimea.
The resulting Russian intervention signals to the West that its influence in the post-Soviet sphere is deeply resented in Russia, and it demonstrates to other parts of the former Soviet Union that Western powers may only help them diplomatically and economically, but will not protect them militarily from Russia’s will. While the Communist underpinnings of the Cold War may be gone, the Russian mindset continues to regard the competition with the West as a zero-sum game.
As in Georgia, NATO had no treaty obligations to defend Ukraine. Russian troops were, once again, pre-positioned. Under the Partition Treaty, Ukraine had leased the Crimean naval base at Sevastopol to Russia until 2042. Among other stipulations in the treaty, this allowed up to 25,000 Russian troops to remain on the base and was subsequently used as legal cover for a Russian troop buildup in Crimea. Their proximity to strategic locations in Crimea allowed a swift takeover of the peninsula before Ukraine had a chance to react—based on the accurate assessment that Ukraine would not challenge Russia militarily.
Moldova In The Present Context
Moldova has some of the attributes of country primed for a future Russian infringement. Moldova’s breakaway region is Transnistria, which is dominated by Russian influence. A full third of its population is ethnic Russian, the majority of which hold Russian citizenship. Transnistria splintered from Moldova as the Soviet Union was crumbling, much like South Ossetia broke off from Georgia. The speaker of Transnistria’s parliament has already asked the Russian government to make provisions for annexing Transnistria in the same bill that annexed Crimea.
Moldova also lies at the intersection of Russian and European influences. The parliamentary deadlock between pro-European and pro-Russian factions is so intense that the legislative body could not decide on anything more than who should act as president between September 2009 and March 2012. However, in light of recent events in Ukraine, European Union leaders have put Moldova on the fast track to sign its EU Association Agreement by August 2014. Despite this, NATO is not treaty-bound to come to Moldova’s defense in the event of armed conflict, although the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe has pointed to the possibility of a Russian invasion.
Just like in South Ossetia, Russian troops are deployed as “peacekeepers” on the border between Moldova and Transnistria. Once again, if armed confrontation were to erupt between Moldovan and Transnistrian forces with Russian soldiers sandwiched between them, the danger to Russian troops could be used by the Kremlin as a reason to intervene, even without any direct threat to the ethnic Russian population. As areas of the world become less stable, Russia will look for advantages and opportunities to recover what it regards as its rightful position in the world.
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