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When Will Russia Use Force in Support of Foreign Policy Objectives? Comparative Evidence from the Ukrainian (2014) and Georgia (2008) Crises


Russia’s use of force in South Ossetia (Georgia) and Crimea (Ukraine) share similarities often overlooked by the West. The presence of domestic crises in non-EU and non-NATO countries within Russia’s sphere of interest creates vulnerabilities for those regimes when Russia has motivation and potential to prevent the rise or consolidation of anti-Russian regimes. The main goal of Russia’s national security strategy is to foster multipolar alternatives to an American-dominated international order and prevent US/EU encirclement of Russia. Thus, domestic crises coupled with international polarization concerning the foreign alignment of the regime experiencing crisis drive Russia’s appetite in militarized disputes. How Russia uses introduces armed actors into militarized disputes stems from both the institutional institutions in which the country experiencing a domestic crisis is embedded as well as the domestic institutions and practices governing regional autonomy.

Increased international polarization is analyzed in this report as it presents key challenges and opportunity in explaining Russia’s involvement in the Georgian and Ukrainian crises. The findings in respect to Russia’s challenge, illustrates the Kremlin’s view of NATO and the EU’s expansion eastward. Russian discomfort with the expansion militarized both the Georgian conflict in 2008 and the aftermath of the coup in Ukraine as it sees the expansion as a threat.

Explaining the choice of militarized involvement, however, is only one dimension of forecasting the Russian calculation to use force outside of its borders; this report also accounts for the form that the militarized involvement can take. Specifically, the report argues that integration into international institutions determines whether Russia will use covert or direct force and that the presence of regional autonomy shapes whether Russia can annex territory. Russia’s coercive strategies in these two international crises generate three militarized outcomes that the report explains through a generalized decision model. The first militarized outcome is the Russian decision to annex territory (the Crimea) from Ukraine. The second use-of-force case is that Russian decision to covertly involve itself in the Ukrainian internationalized civil war to punish a new non-pro-Russian government. The third armed violence scenario this report explains is the Russian decision to directly involve its armed forces, serving under Russian banners, against Georgia in 2008.

This report, using historical analysis, identifies major domestic crises that made Ukraine and Georgia susceptible to Russia’s military activities in both countries. In Ukraine, the financial crisis of 2008 cornered then-President Viktor Yushchenko to ponder which competing economic bloc his country should side with, either the European Union or Russia, ramping up existing pro- and anti-Russian sentiments domestically. The Georgian crisis was born out of the policies then-President Mikheil Saakashvili introduced to re-incorporate two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Following this initiative, the closure of Ergenti Market, an economic center of South Ossetia, set in motion Georgia’s domestic crisis. Saakashvili’s mistaken hope that South Ossetia would seek Georgia’s help opened the door for Russia to step in and provide the necessary economic support while criticizing Georgia’s leadership.

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Full Citation:

Stevenson, John. "When Will Russia Use Force in Support of Foreign Policy Objectives? Comparative Evidence from the Ukrainian (2014) and Georgia (2008) Crises," Report for the Strategic Multilayer Assessment, U.S. Department of Defense. College Park, MD: START, 2016. https://www.start.umd.edu/sites/default/files/publications/local_attachments/START_WhenWillRussiaUseForceinSupportofForeignPolicyObjectives_Feb2016.pdf

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