In the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, analysts and politicians alike have attempted to interpret what will be Russia’s next step: will it stop at the South of Ukraine, will it attempt to conquer the whole country, or will it expand its war within other countries as well?

Looking at the last-mentioned option, a method that has been mainly ignored in the last period, that could be utilized as a way for Russia to start new conflicts is to utilize breakaway states. As such, while Transnistria has been mentioned recently as a ramp towards invading Moldova, there is also action in another breakaway state, which has been quite sidelined recently, namely in South Ossetia. It is small a territory with around 52.000 people, which is de jure part of Georgia, but that became independent in 2008 with the help of Russia.

Since then, it has always seen Russia as a guarantor of its independence, but recently the internal policies of the breakaway regime have taken a much more incisive approach, as at the moment there is “taking legal steps to join Russia in the near future”. For now, the response of the Kremlin has been rather timid, probably carefully calculating their steps before deciding to unite with South Ossetia. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has so far avoided any clear position on the topic, emphasizing that no legal actions have been undertaken by Russia in regard to South Ossetia, but that they have respect for the wish of the South Ossetian people.

 

This might change soon though, as on the 13th of May 2022, the South Ossetian authorities have decided to schedule a referendum  for the 17th of July, on the question of joining Russia. This could have significant implications not only for Georgia, whose sovereignty would be directly violated by the Kremlin, but also for Russia’s future expansionist exports. These patches of breakaway republics, as well as the patches of Russian minority populations from different post-Soviet states, could be used as justifications for future conflicts by Moscow. By nurturing regions such as South Ossetia and Transnistria with financial support, Russian citizenship, and even with military presence, Moscow has ensured war-starting ramps against Moldova and Georgia, which could be activated in different circumstances. For example, if the war against Ukraine worsens, Russia could start a conflict with the weaker and less equipped Moldova and Georgia, in order to re-ensure the trust of the Putinist public, who is ecstatic about the annexation of former Soviet regions.

International law, as it has been demonstrated, has no value for the Kremlin, and a unification of South Ossetia with Russia would serve a double purpose: internally, as said, it would be a popular move, and externally, it will gravely affect Georgia’s entry into the European Union and especially into NATO. Georgia is not ready to give up its sovereignty and stop recognizing South Ossetia as part of its territory. While Georgia was already dealing with two breakaway republics, it would be in an even worse situation if it would deal with an occupied territory, incorporated into Russia, similar to Ukraine’s situation with Crimea.

While South Ossetia in itself is not a high stake, being a small, undeveloped, and unpopulated region, it could hint the future Russian modus operandi. There are many regions which have been nurtured by Moscow and/or have sympathy for Russia: Transnistria, and even some parts other parts of sovereign Moldova, the Russian minorities from the Baltic States, from Eastern Ukraine (as we have seen), from Georgia’s breakaway states, and even from northern areas of Kazakhstan. As such, while at the moment a future Russian war with NATO is one of the main topics, another relevant and realistic development is Russia’s war with post-Soviet states. They are considered as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and as such any collaboration with other states and especially with Western states would be considered almost treasonous.

While the West keeps rightfully supplementing Ukraine with armament in, it must consider what could happen in other post-Soviet states and make its intentions clearer. The fact that NATO and Western countries in general have not drawn a clear line for Russia, which it cannot cross, and have not set its foot at the right time, is what led to the humanitarian disaster that is the invasion of Ukraine and what could lead to similar invasions/sovereignty violations in countries such as Moldova or Georgia. The Kremlin has nothing more to lose, and it will continue going forward despite the sanctions. South Ossetia’s referendum could be an indicator for what lies ahead, and disregarding such developments is also what has led to Ukraine’s invasion.

Clearly, most if not all of the Ossetian leadership is connected to Russian authorities, and it is unlikely that this referendum is just out the spontaneous will of the people and not an orchestrated effort. To quote a UNESCO preamble, “wars begin in the minds of men and yet there has been no adequate response in the minds of people charged with the defences of peace”. As such, NATO must prepare for such a new war, for such a scenario, that in the mind of Vladimir Putin could have already begun. Namely, a war in which Russia attacks only non-NATO states with breakaway republics or Russian minorities. This would force NATO’s hand and force them to ponder: how much should we accept before we step in?

Russia will take as much as it allowed to take. Its general population will resist the sanctions through fanatical nationalism, which justifies suffering and harsh life conditions, while its more educated and pro-democratic population will keep fleeing, in a mass brain drain process. Meanwhile, Moscow will engage more and more with other authoritarian states, with whom it can trade and rebuild its oil and gas routes. In this context, relations with the West will be broken, but that does not guarantee Russia’s downfall, not even in the case of a long-dragging, unproductive war in Ukraine.

As emphasized previously, there might be a time in the near future, when NATO as a whole or certain member state will be angered by Russia’s engagement in the post-Soviet region, which violates the sovereignty of many states. Meanwhile, some European citizens will suffer more and more from inflation and from the crisis, while others will be more and more angry towards the lack of action against Moscow, especially if they will expand their invasions to other countries.

Of course, for now these are only calculated speculations. Nevertheless, it is certain that at some point, the democratic leaders of NATO will have to say out loud to Moscow “this line will not be crossed”. The question is: will they have the courage and the political wisdom to do so?

 

By Marcu-Andrei Solomon