The overall picture for Russia in autumn 2016 in regard to some of its former European colonies that once belonged to the Soviet Union is rather favorable. Belarus and Armenia have the closest relation with Russia, and are politically and economically dependent on the country. In the western direction, the leadership of Belarus has not shown willingness to open up politically or economically in the western direction – instead it has officially formed a Union State with Russia including tight military cooperation, namely educating forces in Russia and regular military exercises with the participation of Russian forces.
Concerning the southern direction, Armenia just appointed a former Gazprom manager Prime Minister. Russian bases in Armenia (that belong to the southern military district) have seen a strengthening of forces, e.g. Yerebuni recently received more aircraft, and regular drills (for instance reconnaissance troops, signal troops, exercises in mountainous regions). Russia just has passed a Iskander missile system to the Armenian army.
Accordingly, Liveuamap has depicted the area of Russian military influence as following:
InformNapalm has analyzed the Russian “Kavkaz-2016” exercise and found among others that a Russian attack group is in place in the southern military district, capable of short-term offensive operations in the south-western direction, including air support, a layered air defense system and landing of personnel and equipment in several areas. In regard to the latter, there indeed has been a certain “obsession” with water landings and amphibious assault exercises (which for example can be seen here for the last months).
Taking into account Russia exercising offensive scenarios and the existence of an attack group being ready to strike in the south-western direction, this map additionally shows the fatal position of tiny Georgia, run by a pro-Russian parliamentary majority and prime minister – formerly in charge of the foreign office – practically surrendered by Russian military and dependent units. Those forces stage regular “exercises” on the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and have created the phenomenon of the “moving border”.
Moreover, Russia’s Head of General Staff Gerasimov just a few days ago noted that Russia would be able to control the Black Sea, the statement being repeated during his visit in Turkey this week.
Such statements are of very relevance for the security environment of all Black Sea countries, especially those not being in NATO. Moldova in this regard remains far more vulnerable than Ukraine, the latter disposing of military resources and experience that also a country such as Russia has to take seriously.
Russia has succeeded in the creation of an overall instable environment around its “exclave” Transnistria. Still, the establishment of another terrorist entity in the region, the “Bessarabian People’s Republic” including the Ukrainian city of Odesa – with planned “support” from Transnistria, failed in 2015, thwarted by Ukrainian security structures and volunteers.
Moldova for its part has a history of facing similar Russian hybrid war methods as Ukraine. A popular method has been of getting involved in corruption scandals through various methods in order to weaken the country. The most recent example is the case of former pro-European Prime Minister Filat who was sentenced for corruption. The current prime minister has been more willing to cooperate with Russia, and agreed to renew the discussion for a settlement on Transnistria (the issue of a “special status” coming up), met Vice Prime Minister Rogozin in July, and has offered the perspective of deepening cooperation with Russia, after Russian tanks from Transnistria crossed the Dniestr into the territory of Moldova during “anti-terrorist” exercises.
Of the countries mentioned Ukraine remains the only country with a clear western orientation, significant human resources, minimal cooperation with Russia and the will to follow this path despite serious internal problems. Russia has probably realized that the currently occupied Ukrainian territory will not generate sufficient leverage in order to influence the rest of the country to Russia’s advantage.
Russia however is determined to waste significant resources into the restoration of its former sphere of influence. Therefore growing Russian military capabilities in the Black Sea, the Russian foothold of Transnistria and a further instrumentalization of Moldova – in whatever manner – could be used as leverage both over Ukraine to the east and NATO members Bulgaria and Romania to the west.