Date: 26 November 2019
Russia’s New Strategy: Putin Ignites Tensions in the East
The post-Soviet zone has found itself in a shaky position for the first time in five years, or since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and a hot phase of the Donbas war. Russia is to be blamed for what is taking place right now, albeit it uses more subtle tools than it employed five or eleven years ago when it invaded Georgia. Anyway, Vladimir Putin now targets Georgia in a move that he believes to be the key to Moscow’s taking control of the Caucasus, and to the same extent, the “Moldovan operation” serves as a proving ground for what the Kremlin plans to do in Ukraine.
With the passing of months, the situation of Putin’s regime is becoming more and more fragile, with Russian society decrying their country’s economic standstill, cumbersome Western sanctions and a drop in oil and gas prices. This is yet far from being just a matter of recent Moscow rallies, also reflecting acute strifes between the incumbent power structures and the inhabitants of some parts of the Russian Federation. Putin used to quench public discontent by finding an enemy abroad and waging an armed conflict against them, as he first did in Chechnya, then in Georgia as well as in Ukraine and Syria, the last of them being most recent examples. Though long gone is Russia’s potential to start open-armed conflicts against its neighbors, and Putin is hungry for success as never before, especially when having in mind that NATO and the United States are closely monitoring the Kremlin’s further steps.
In its last-ditch solution, Moscow could sow chaos in the former Soviet republics. Russia, however, holds an ever-growing interest in enhancing its ties with the West in a move that could prompt the latter to lift sanctions, nurture economic cooperation efforts, or even to recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Ideally, Moscow seeks to fracture the Euroatlantic alliance in a bid to forge a new security architecture in Europe. But for this to be possible, Russia must solve at least some of its outstanding disputes with the Western world. Recent years have seen Moscow’s failure to impose a pro-Russian narrative in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, with Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko standing against his country’s deeper integration with the Kremlin. Having failed to force a pro-Russian stance upon these countries, Russia has no other choice but to diminish its pro-Western pursuits. For obvious reasons, Moscow will find it challenging to deflect Ukraine from its path of integration with Euroatlantic structures, though Kremlin political experts might have noticed fresh opportunities opening up after Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections. One of these is the need to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine by launching what was named as the Steinmeier formula. Signed in Kiev in October this year, the Minsk agreement, or a peace plan for Ukraine’s separatist-occupied areas, called for holding local elections in Donbas. Earlier Ukrainian lawmakers will need to adopt a law to grant special status to the rebel-held region, a solution that may in the future act to the benefit of Russia.
Moldova and Georgia have become the next target of Russia’s political offensive in the post-Soviet zone of influence. This is where Russia began in June two long-term, albeit slightly different, hybrid operations. The Kremlin aspires to accomplish is a goal by skilfully coupling both diplomatic and economic tools, without the need to have recourse to violent military solutions, but to show itself off as a conciliatory body ready to join forces with Western diplomats.
Moldova: Russia’s proving ground
Moldova’s February 24 general election moved the country towards a stalemate. In consequence, there emerged three political groups that dominated the parliament, among which were Moldova’s Democratic Party (PDM), led by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, the Russophile Socialist Party of Igor Dodon and the pro-Western bloc ACUM. An alliance formed by two of these political factions would give both the parliamentary majority and an opportunity to form a government. The ACUM bloc refused to create a coalition with the oligarch-led political party while not agreeing to ally with socialists either, amidst these two’s differing policies. What served as the only possibility was a coalition between Moldova’s Democratic Party and the Socialist Party that had been in power, albeit informally, before the vote. Those that scored better were socialists that yet no longer wanted to be seen as the coalition’s weaker link. All in all, Moldova’s constitutional crisis barred the country’s majority coalition from being formed, which led to the interim appointment of Pavel Filip as acting president. He had to face the need to dissolve the country’s parliament, especially if confronted with the looming deadline for creating a new government.
Finally, Dodon and Plahotniuc held talks during what was branded as a decisive meeting, which the Democrats filmed with hidden cameras and later released to the public. Notorious for his frequent trips to Moscow, Dodon demanded control over ministerial chairs such as foreign affairs, defense, interior and finance. Also, he wanted socialist-affiliated members to become the head of the intelligence service, as well as demanded seats on the Constitutional Court. Dodon also revealed that his Socialist Party was receiving monthly payments from high-level Russian officials in the amount of $600,000–700,000, though it is illegal in Moldova for parties to be funded by foreign entities. Moreover, the president indicated that Russia wanted to become the side of the joint governance deal in a secret agreement, signed between him and Plahotniuc in the presence of the Russian ambassador in Chisinau. This accord would include, among other things, the federalization of Moldova. Because Plahotniuc refused to accept the term “federalization,” Dodon suggested to replace it with “special status” to be applied to the Transnistrian and Gagauz regions. In exchange, Dodon claimed that President Putin would give personal guarantees that criminal cases initiated by Russia against Plahotniuc would be dropped.
The oligarch did not succumb to Dodon’s demands as he was probably not expecting the involvement of foreign actors in Moldova’s imbroglio. Russia, the European Union and the United States set Plahotniuc’s ouster from power high on their list of priorities. Moldova was visited on June 3 by Bradley Freden, the director of the office of Eastern European Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, Johannes Hahn, the commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy, and Dmitry Kozak, the Russian deputy prime minister and special representative of the Russian president for economic relations with Moldova. The three foreign officials met with representatives of the country’s major political parties as well as with Prime Minister Pavel Filip and President Igor Dodon, chiefly to convince both socialists and the ACUM bloc to form an alliance against Plahotniuc. While Dodon obeyed orders from the Kremlin, U.S. and EU diplomats find it way more challenging to persuade members of the pro-Western ACUM bloc. At last, they succeeded in a move that led to the establishment of a coalition and a new government. Notwithstanding that, the PDM at first had no intention to renounce power. But Plahotniuc held the Constitutional Court, law enforcement agencies and secret services tight in this grip. But after a few days of a political stalemate that pushed Moldova on the brink of a civil war, the United States’ ambassador to Moldova, Dereck J. Hogan, paid a visit to the Democrats’ headquarters. The reaction of PDM was swift, with Vlad Plahotniuc fleeing Moldova in a hurry. Western countries somehow seemed to forget that socialists had long cooperated with Plahotniuc in his efforts to nurture Moldova’s picture as an oligarchic state while Dododn owed his presidency to a secret deal with the tycoon.
What served as the sole common denominator for this somewhat exotic coalition was the urge to pursue the process of deoligarchization of Moldova. The problem was that this referred to nothing more but the plan to dismantle the Plahotniuc-based system. Most Western media outlets eyed Moldova’s change of power in terms of a clear-cut victory of democracy, cheering over the appointment of Maia Sandu to the post of the prime minister while her ACUM bloc got most of Moldova’s ministerial chairs. But the Kremlin knew what it was doing. The ACUM bloc gave the Socialist Party full control of the ministry responsible for negotiations with Transnistria and the Information and Security Service (SIS), Moldova’s only special service. The coalition is working correctly right now, though it is little known whether the country will soon see snap election or whether the governing coalition, which is somewhat exotic, will last until the end of the term. President Igor Dodon will yet have a decisive voice on the country’s internal situation, and everything will rely on when socialists may find it most comfortable to pull out of the alliance and call a new election. Naturally, the Kremlin’s stance is yet another critical factor. As long as Russia is testing a model of tactical cooperation with both Moldova and the West, the Socialist Party and the ACUM bloc are unlikely to swift from partnership to a conflict.
Bilateral ties between Moldova and Russia mounted shortly after a new government was formed. Moldovan President Igor Dodon held a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Minsk on June 21. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak visited Moldova twice within three weeks in June this year. Back in 2003, Dmitry Kozak had devised a federalization project for Moldova. Under his plan, this would have turned Transnistria into a state-within-the state, with blocking powers on Moldova’s policies, and would have given Moldova the long-lasting status in the grey zone somewhere between the European Union, NATO and Russia. Chisinau turned this plan down while Kozak, for his part, has drawn some lessons. This is why Moscow is avoiding putting forward unilateral solutions and projects, claiming to deliver the same goals by a mock dialogue and joint initiatives with the West, regardless of whether they are dubbed “federalization” or “special status.” It is just words, and what counts most is Moscow’s efforts to rebuild its sphere of influence.
What was referred to as Tbilisi’s bloody night of June 20–21 shocked both the local authorities and foreign entities. Judging by both swift and well-coordinated response, Russia was the only state not to be surprised by what had taken place in the Georgian capital. Georgians took to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, to express their disapproval of a Russian lawmaker, Sergei Gavrilov, addressing the Georgian parliament from the speaker’s chair, who visited Georgia for the convening of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. That night, Georgian police officers dispersed a group of 10,000 protestors as they tried to storm the parliament. Anti-Russian and anti-government rallies yet failed to morph into a country-wide revolution. The government lowered the political temperature by striking a blow to the opposition and by making some concessions. The incident forced the resignation of Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, and the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party Bidzina Ivanishvili announced that the 2020 parliamentary elections would be held using the proportional system. But there is more to the political events in Georgia than meets the eye, and this is by no means a purely internal game. Putin’s response was surprisingly swift and sharp: he issued an executive order banning Russian airlines from flying to Georgia and advised Russian tourists visiting the country to return home. This marked yet another chapter of the economic blackmail that occurred in ties between these two countries before the 2008 war. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine gathered steam by launching an anti-Georgian campaign. What happened in Georgia was nothing but a “Russophobic provocation,” Kremlin spokesman said, echoed by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. Both Georgians and Russians seem to speak with one voice over a potential provocation, albeit blaming someone else for staging the incident. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili called Russia “an enemy and occupier” whose “fifth column” she suggested was behind violent riots in the country. This is of course true, but Zurabishvili personally appointed a former KGB officer, Dimitri Lezhava, as her defense and security aide. But attention should be drawn both to the incident that sparked a powder keg and its main character.
Based in Athens, Greece, the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy comprises Orthodox parliamentary delegations from over 20 countries. Once a year, the General Assembly brings together all members, with this year’s edition convened in Tbilisi. The IAO agenda and program was personally approved by the chairperson of the Georgian parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze. The invitation to Sergei Gavrilov and the other Russian deputies to come to Georgia was sent out by Georgian member of parliament, Zakhariy Kutsnashvili. “The first meeting of the Assembly, according to the program, was to be chaired by the Secretary General of the organization—a Greek deputy and not Gavrilov,” he was quoted as saying. Why did Gavrilov take his place? And how did it happen that the incident got worldwide notoriety in Tbilisi, making thousands of people take to the streets? Interestingly enough, after Gavrilov came back to Moscow, he said that the Tbilisi rallies had been staged in advance while what had happened in the parliament was then used for stirring up Georgia’s political clashes at home. Not really, in fact – a provocation was planned, and Russia took advantage of the disturbance to accomplish its goals on Georgian soil. A quick look at Gavrilov’s biography is enough to see that he is far from being just a blameless victim.
Sergei Gavrilov began his career back in the 1990s as an employee of a bank owned by Alexander Lebedev, a well-known businessman and a former intelligence officer. Sometime later, together with a certain KGB colonel named Yavlyuhin, he was sent first to Vnesheconombank and then to Vneshtorgbank. Thereafter began the most mysterious period of Gavrilov’s life, albeit he is said to have visited Transnistria and Abkhazia at the time when the republics had civil wars flared up. He arrived in war-torn Kosovo, Iran, Iraq, as well as in Crimea when the Ukrainian authorities waged war against Crimean Tatars. Gavrilov combined all the trips with his leading work in the MiG corporation, in which he officially oversaw the execution of the company’s export contracts. In fact, he served as a member of the acting pool of Russian intelligence services. Back then he befriended Igor Sechin. At the suggestion of Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Lebedev, Gavrilov was appointed the head of the Research Institute for Economic Crises and Armed Conflicts. A devout Orthodox, he became a politician and ran as a candidate of the Communist Party to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. The lawmaker is recognized to hold ties to Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, who is known for being Mr. Putin’s confessor. Gavrilov has been a member of the State Duma for the third term in a row. He serves as the head of the Committee on Issues of Public Associations and Religious Organisations. In 2008, he backed the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a move that made him a perfect agent provocateur.
In its 2018 report, Georgian counterintelligence services raised the issue of Moscow’s grave threat posed to the country, chiefly by its ongoing militarization efforts in Georgia’s breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and by Moscow’s meddling in Tbilisi’s internal affairs, mostly by waging hybrid warfare and conducting disinformation campaigns. What Russia aims is to destabilize Georgia, stir up social strifes and escalate the conflict between the incumbent power structures and the opposition. It just so happened that the Tbilisi incident unfolded Georgia’s further problems on its borders, not only with Russia. In mid-August, a group of separatists set up new fences in the village of Gugutiantkari, located between Georgia as the South Ossetian region of Tskhinvali. In doing so, Russia resumed an illegal borderization process that involves a gradual advance of the occupation line inside Georgia to enlarge the Russian-held territory. There also reemerged the issue of the Armenian-inhabited region of Javakheti. Tensions over Georgia and Azerbaijan’s border have flared up over the Davit Gareja monastery complex, also known as Keshikchidagh. Russian propaganda outlets have disseminated an unverified story that Turkey plans to take the Muslim-inhabited region of Adjara from Georgia.
Russia’s ambition is to polarize Georgia along ethnic and religious lines. The Georgian showcase displayed Moscow’s active use of religious themes to pursue political goals and carry out hybrid warfare tasks. It cannot be excluded that Russian services are trying their utmost to deploy their agents provocateur among Georgian football fans as the latter are the first to exhibit the most extreme Russophobic stance. In 2013, as a member of the advisory board for Vneshtorgbank, Gavrilov arrived in Tbilisi to watch a friendly match between Dinamo Tbilisi and FC Dinamo Moscow and to sign a sponsorship deal with the local football team.
Also, the Georgian authorities gave given the nod to many Russophile institutions and Russian-speaking media outlets being present in the country. High on these two’s agenda are both anti-NATO and anti-EU propaganda as well as plans to build Georgia’s cooperation with Russia. What also should be worrying is high turnout during a rally staged on July 28 in Georgia’s port city of Batumi that called for an improvement in strained relations with Russia. The event attracted an estimated 30,000 people. The demonstration was staged by the opposition Alliance of Patriots of Georgia party, the country’s third-biggest political force. Those who gathered at the rally demanded that Georgia enter a direct dialogue with Moscow as well as two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Two weeks earlier, the three Georgian MPs representing the Alliance of Patriots had arrived in Moscow for talks in the State Duma.
Russia has struck a blow to Georgia with its economic sanctions while using social discontent over Gavrilov’s speech as a mere excuse. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused “Western curators” of fanning “anti-Russian rallies” in Tbilisi. Moscow is ready to study the proposal to hold an emergency meeting between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and Georgian Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze. These consultations are the only form of official dialogue between the two countries. However, there are no free lunches.
Suspension of the direct air service between Georgia and Russia dealt a massive blow to the Georgian tourism industry. Tbilisi’s economic problems with Moscow, which once banned imports of Georgian wine, led to the depreciation of the Georgian currency as he lari fell to a twenty-four-year low in July this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country would not push for any further sanctions if the Georgian authorities took action against what he referred to as “anti-Russian forces,” or the country’s pro-Western opposition. And the government in Tbilisi appears to some extent to fulfill the Kremlin’s wishes. Georgian police cracked down violently on the protesters and detained some of the opposition leaders, and, last but not least, Rustavi-2, Georgia’s main pro-opposition TV channel, was “neutralized.” The Georgian government issued an official apology after a TV presenter had delivered an obscene jeremiad against Vladimir Putin during a live broadcast. The TV host was suspended from duties while, shortly after, Rustavi-2 changed its owner. Moscow will, however, push for more and more, forcing Ivanishvili’s team to make a tragic decision. A tough stance on Russian pressure may lead to economic collapse and the need to hand over power to the opposition. Tbilisi’s submission to the Kremlin and its rush to fulfill Moscow’s subsequent demands may spark social strifes.
Not incidentally, Moldova and Georgia have become the next target of Russia’s political offensive in the post-Soviet zone of influence. These two are where Moscow since the early 1990s has had its “strongholds” in what is called “frozen conflicts” in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This in fact means Russia violating Georgia and Moldova’s sovereignty, by actually occupying part of these two’s lands where it also stages war games. What Moldova and Georgia also had in common was the “oligarch rule” of Vlad Plahotniuc and Bidzina Ivanishvili, respectively. Moscow ousted Plahotniuc, who once held almost absolute power in Moldova, allegedly promising to introduce democratic reforms in the country, and allowed most of its allies to take top seats in the country. In Georgia, where democratic institutions are far stronger than in Moldova, with Ivanishvili having never enjoyed such influence as Plahotniuc did in Chisinau, Russia could do nothing more but to destabilize the country and vex social moods.
The Kremlin might have had different goals in Moldova and Georgia. The former country has a strong Russophile political camp, to which Moscow managed to hand over the majority of vital ministerial chairs. Georgia’s pro-Russian team is much weaker, while two pro-Western political parties are currently waging war over influence in the country. Having all this in mind, Moscow has decided to sow unrest in Georgia in the hope that both the governing team and the pro-Western opposition emerge weaker in this internal clash. As time goes by, Moscow’s allies may gain most, with the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia party poised to assume this role. Russia had long tolerated Plahotniuc’s rule in the country. So what has it changed its course? The Kremlin must have been fearful of seeing the oligarch marginalize the Socialist Party as he had neglected the PDM’s all previous coalition partners. Furthermore, Plahotniuc began to build influence in the breakaway state of Transnistria in a move that could pose a threat to Russian status. But another theme seems a way more critical.
Moscow is currently making efforts to test a brand-new model of relations with the West, aiming to put an end to an internal conflict in this part of Europe by acting hand in hand with Western diplomacy. The Kremlin’s pragmatic cooperation with the United States and the European Union in Moldova is a signal for the worldwide community that Russia stands ready to solve problems across the post-Soviet region. Perhaps Russia will be interested in repeating its “Moldovan scenario” also in Ukraine. What does this consist of? First, Russian diplomats work altogether with the West as long as this suits Moscow’s interests. Secondly, pro-Western and pro-Russian forces form a local location, with one of its tasks consisting of settling a regional conflict. The alliance will remain in effect as long as it benefits the Kremlin. Thirdly, this suspends Russia’s geopolitical rivalry with the West over a given country that receives economic aid from Europe, while Moscow agrees to lift sanctions. Fourthly, a separatist-controlled territory formally returns under control of the country’s central government after being granted a special status.
The consequence is a three-level compromise, within the country’s political system, between the central authorities and separatists as well as between Russia and the West. The entire process leads to what was referred to as the Finlandization of those Eastern European states where Moscow has not enough power to impose its influence. How the events unfolded in Moldova displays the grave danger related to the implementation of the Russian strategy in the remaining post-Soviet republics if the West sees this as a favorable solution. Threats are mounting with the attitude revealed by some of the worldwide think tanks that sometimes criticize NATO and EU aspirations of countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. In October, the same thesis was conveyed in a report Rethinking the Regional Order for Post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia by RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based research center established back in the 1940s for the purposes of the U.S. Armed Forces. It is unacceptable to force any country to negotiate status-neutral mechanisms and to limit its right to deploy contingents or to hold military exercise on its territory despite their compliance with international obligations, as suggested in the paper. These countries cannot view joint Russian, U.S. and EU regional consultations as the only security guarantee as these three virtually deliver “non-aligned states” into the clutches of the Kremlin. What RAND Corporations has suggested in its white book is to the liking of Moscow that will now do its best to convince Europeans to take adequate steps, also by sowing internal chaos as it was the case in Georgia.
One should not forget about Russia’s ambition to deepen ties with Belarus, a step of particular importance for the former. The idea of forming a union state has for over two decades been the apple of the eye of Russian officials who are making bolder efforts to call for newer levels of mutual integration. Minsk bows to Moscow’s pressure to secure Russian economic aid and relatively cheap energy. Consequently, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin will meet later in December to discuss a package of roadmaps for moving ahead with the integration of the two countries. No further details have been available to the public. Russian dailies yet say that both leaders will first and foremost negotiate economic and energy issues. Elsewhere across the region, Russia will not necessarily carry out similar activities as it does in Belarus to subordinate a country. Suffice it for Moscow to convince the West that Georgia or Ukraine are “rogue countries” while their integration with the EU or NATO structures prompts nothing but trouble for these two blocs. It is better for Berlin, Paris and Washington to leave these countries right where they belong, which is in the East, yet not only geographically.
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