THE PAPER | The Russian Policy Towards Ex-Soviet States

Russia sought both to maintain its power as a “big brother” and to organize its policies around ethnic problems and unrecognized states.

By Yoko Hirose
Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University, Kanagawa, Japan

THE PAPER | The Russian Policy Towards Ex-Soviet States

Image Attribute:  Russian soldier Image Source: Day Donaldson, Flickr, Creative Commons

Following the collapse of the USSR and Moscow’s loss of influence over the region, Russia established its own overseas base policy. However, as the legal successor nation to the USSR, Russia closed most of its overseas bases, except those near its former Soviet space and in Syria. This policy is explained by the fact that Russia was overwhelmed by the fall-out of the Soviet collapse, including major financial difficulties; thus, Moscow could not afford to keep many overseas military bases. The successor state did fight to maintain as many strategic bases as possible; however, Russia sought both to maintain its power as a “big brother” and to organize its policies around ethnic problems and unrecognized states. It thus sought maintain an overwhelming influence over the region of the former USSR.

In 1994, after the last Russian troops pulled out of Estonia and Latvia, the Russian Federation held only 28 foreign bases or other installations in the former territory of the Soviet Union (in the newly independent post-Soviet states of Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Ukraine). By 2002, Russia had closed its intelligence installations in Lourdes, Cuba, and its largest naval base outside the WTO, in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. Together with external politico-military reasons, domestic factors and budgetary constraints played a major role in these changes [1] .

Today, Russia maintains bases in the former USSR, with locations in Armenia, Belarus, South Ossetia (Georgia), Abkhazia (Georgia), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Trans-Dniester (Moldova), and Ukraine (Crimea is now an illegal part of Russia), and has maintained bases in Azerbaijan, Georgia (mainland), and Moldova (mainland), although they were already supposed to be closed. The case of bases in Georgia and Moldova illustrates again the ease with which military bases can be established in other countries. In particular, Georgia and Moldova are young and weak states, and their positions in international society are not strong [2] ; they also receive only minimal support from other nations. Thus, Russia had assisted separatist parties in both states when they clashed with these governments. The assistance has led to the victory of separatist parties and Russian enforced cease-fire agreements, part of which involved establishing military bases.

Although the nations of the former USSR, such as Georgia and Moldova have resisted Russian bases, other countries have been willing to host them, including Armenia, which is next to the de facto and unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh, within the border of Azerbaijan, where the chance of conflict remains elevated. Feeling threatened by this instability, Armenia makes use of the security provided by a Russian military base.

However, as noted, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine―members of GUAM―have tried to oust Russia from the bases on their territory. Attempts to remove the bases were especially strong during the democratizing periods of each nation. As predicted, the base problem was politicalized as host countries went through a democratizing process [3]. Such phenomena have been observed in the cases of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, since all three countries have tried to approach the EU and NATO, and Georgia and Ukraine developed democratic political movements without bloodshed, via the so called “color revolution”; they are expected to became countries with a “European Standard”. Georgia and Moldova both asked Western countries for help in closing Russian bases. The Russian military presence in the Caspian Sea and Caucasus area, which is near to the Middle East, however, has remained intact. This is partially because the area is confusing politically and ethno-nationally. Though the “Soviet Transcaucasus Military District” was dissolved in September 1992, and the Russian military left the South Caucasus, it returned later under the auspices of peacekeeping.

The Russia-Georgia “Military Cooperation Agreement” of October 9, 1993 allowed for the establishment of strategic bases in Georgia. Four more bases were created in 1995, after the 15 September signing of a second agreement: Vaziani near Tbilisi, Gudauta in Abkhazia, Akhalkaraki (settled as the 62nd military base), and Batumi (settled as the 12th military base). However, Georgia insisted on the closure of two out of these four bases, so Vaziani and Gudauta were gradually evacuated.

The Russian presence, especially in Georgia and Moldova, has been viewed as a serious problem by the OSCE because of the CFE treaty. At the OSCE Istanbul summit in 1999, a resolution was passed declaring that Russia should reduce its heavy weaponry in Georgia before the end of 2000, close the Vaziani and Gudauta bases by mid-2001, and then close the bases in Moldova by the end of 2002 [4] .

However, Russia did meet the deadlines set by the agreement. Georgia requested that all Russian bases be closed by 2002, but Russia offered military assistance to Georgia and demanded, in return, the right to keep military bases in Akhalkaraki and Batumi for 15-25 years. Russia handed over the Vaziani base on June 29, 2001, and declared that it had dissolved the Gudauta base, finishing the withdrawal of troops in November 2001. That statement was not quite true, however, and the base problem between Georgia and Russia finally reached a stalemate between 2001 and 2004. One of the reasons that Russia tried to keep the bases in Georgia was a concern with US presence not only in Central Asia but also in the South Caucasus, where the United States had started training the Georgian military in 2002. Thus, the Russian position on military policy in the South Caucasus seems to have been established in this way. Russia tried to retain the Qabala Rader station in Azerbaijan, and in 2002 it tried to remain at its Georgian military bases.

Further complicating the withdrawal, Russia requested financial compensation for the closed bases and then proposed the association of an anti-terror center with existing facilities for the West. At the time, then Georgian president Saakashvili, known as a radical anti-Russian politician, declared that Georgia would not host the new foreign military base. This statement put Russia at its ease. Subsequently, the Foreign Ministers of Georgia and Russia issued a joint statement on the cessation of the functioning of Russian military bases and other military facilities and also set the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia on May 30, 2005 (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2005) . The Russian withdrawal of military facilities from Georgia was also postponed from June 2005 to sometime in 2008. The last stage of withdrawal was the evacuation of heavy equipment from the Batumi base and the closing of the Tbilisi headquarters of the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus (GRFT). Georgia assisted in the process of withdrawal and Russia promised not to replace or replenish the evacuated weapons and military equipment. In addition, three supplementary agreements were envisaged:

(1) Closure of the bases in Akhalkalaki and Batumi 

(2) Establishment and functioning of an anti-terrorist center 

(3) Transit through Georgian territory

The agreement is in line with the 1999 Istanbul Georgian-Russian joint statement, and this procedure was checked by foreign missions, such that of as Germany. Additional agreements were signed on the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia and on the transit of military equipment and personnel over Georgian territory March 31, 2006. All Russian military facilities were to be completely closed before the end of 2008 [1].

Moldova has also sought to expel Russian military facilities. In 1994, its constitution declared that Moldova would remain neutral and not allow foreign military bases to enter the country. In line with the Istanbul document (1999) , Russia had to withdraw its military facilities and remove heavy weapons from Moldova by 2003. However, the non-attainment of the political resolution of the Trans-Dniester problem caused Russia to delay withdrawal of its remaining 1500 troops and the disposal of roughly 20,000 tons of stockpiled ammunition and equipment (2006 estimates). With Russia showing no intention of withdrawing its military power from Trans- Dniester, Moldova tried to solicit foreign support for settlement talks with Russia. The Russian military base in Tiraspol, the Trans-Dniester’s “capital,” houses the staff of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Trans- Dniester (the former 14th Army) and two battalions, although it has no official base status. In October 2005, the enlarged “5 + 2” negotiating format (Moldova, the Trans-Dniester, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, with the EU and the USA as observers) was agreed on in an attempt to overcome the deadlock. However, it was clear that Russia was not prepared to fulfill the Istanbul Agreement until a political settlement of the Trans-Dniester conflict had been reached and that Russia intended to keep its peacekeeping troops there indefinitely. Ammunition removal activities were also stalled [1].

The halting of base removal is closely related to the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008. The war was started by a pre-emptive attack on South Ossetia by Georgia and escalated by the Russians with Abkhazian support for South Ossetia. However, there were many provocations by South Ossetia, supported by Russia, even before the outbreak of war. Russia began a war with Georgia in August 2008, just after Saakashvili sent his army to South Ossetia. The wide recognition of Kosovo and the problem of NATO seemed to provide Georgia with insight for the war. Russia prepared for the war in April 2008; it augmented its paratrooper force to 2542 men and conducted a large military exercise, “Kavkaz 2008”, in the Caucasus area in July 2008. The Russian army then intervened before the war, although Russia said that the actions were carried out by the “Vigilante corps of South Ossetia”, even though the troops involved were part of the Russian 58 Corps. Just after the war started, the Russian 58 Corps and airborne troops entered the Georgian territory officially with the aim of “saving Russian citizens”.

Actually, Russia seemed to be trying to keep its military bases in Georgia, apparently thinking it easier to maintain bases in the unrecognized states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian withdrawal of military facilities from Georgia and the Georgia-Russian war led to the Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states in 2008. This cannot be accidental.

The “Medvedev Doctrine” further supports the theory of a relationship between military bases, unrecognized states, and big power. Issued just after the Georgia-Russia conflict, it was meant to outline a new Russian diplomatic policy. The doctrine consists of five points: 

(1) International law: “Russia recognizes the primacy of the basic principles of international law, which define relations between civilized nations. It is in the framework of these principles, of this concept of international law, that we will develop our relations with other states”. 

(2) Multi-polar world: “The world should be multi-polar. Uni-polarity is unacceptable, domination is impermissible. We cannot accept a world order in which all decisions are taken by one country, even such a serious and authoritative country as the United States of America. This kind of world is unstable and fraught with conflict”. 

(3) No isolation: “Russia does not want confrontation with any country; Russia has no intention of isolating itself. We will develop, as far as possible, friendly relations both with Europe and with the United States of America, as well as with other countries of the world”. 

(4) Protect citizens: “Our unquestionable priority is to protect the life and dignity of our citizens, wherever they are. We will also proceed from this in pursuing our foreign policy. We will also protect the interest of our business community abroad. And it should be clear to everyone that if someone makes aggressive forays, he will get a response”. 

(5) Spheres of influence: “Russia, just like other countries in the world, has regions where it has its privileged interests. In these regions, there are countries with which we have traditionally had friendly cordial relations, historically special relations. We will work very attentively in these regions and develop these friendly relations with these states, with our close neighbors”[5] . 

In addition, Medvedev defined “priority regions” as those that bordered Russia, but in actuality, the definition is not limited only to these regions. Using this principle, Russia aimed to retain its influence in the former USSR and support the people who live in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where about 90% of the people have Russian passports. It can thus be said that unrecognized states are useful for Russia in its quest to maintain a strong influence in the former USSR. While Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states seems to disprove the relationship between unrecognized states and the influence of big power via military base, it can be understood by the same logic of US support for Kosovo independence. That is, the newly independent states (Abkhazia and South Ossetia in this case) remain client states (to Russia in this case) with a debt of gratitude for independence. In addition, as a newly independent nation, it remains weak and cannot realize sovereignty or security without continuous support from patron countries. Therefore, newly independent states seem to be willing to accept foreign bases for survival.


Ex-Soviet states can best be understood as a legacy of the big powers. In the cases analyzed here, Russia and the United States―as modern-day big powers―need overseas military bases in order to maintain their influence over strategic parts of the world. Securing overseas military bases, especially large-scale ones, tend, however, to cause friction between the host region or government and the “big power”. However, unrecognized states or weak states (including newly independent states) can be easily managed by patrons or “big powers”, allowing them to establish their military bases. Such bases are even at times welcomed for the security guarantees that they can bestow on their host. This phenomenon illuminates an interesting facet within the field of big power research and shows the mechanisms by which the military interests of big powers are served and maintained via weak and unrecognized states. 

Beginning in November 2013, Russian military forces entered the autonomous Ukrainian region of Crimea, where the majority of people were Russian or Russian speakers. In addition, the Crimea is important for Russia for historical and geo-political reasons. Russia uses the same logic as in South Ossetia and claims Russia has saved Russian people in the Crimea. The events of March 2014 only highlighted tensions; Russia annexed the special autonomous district of Crimea and Sevastopol, where a Russian military base was located. The annexation to Russia was approved in a referendum on March 16, in which 95.77% of votes approved the decision to become part of Russia. However, the referendum was carried out under military threat, and the people against the annexation boycotted the vote. Following this, the Crimean parliament declared independence on March 17 and expressed the hope that Russia would recognize Crimea as a sovereign state. On March 18, Putin announced that Crimea would be incorporated into Russia, and on the same day a treaty to that effect was established. Crimea became part of Russia, its citizens became Russian, Crimean time was changed to Moscow time, and the currency was changed to the Russian ruble. The Ukrainian interim government and Western countries had not recognized the referendum and incorporation, but Russia―at least in the short term―had succeeded in its de facto annexation. 

Significantly, for the present analysis, Russia recognizes Crimea as a sovereign state, with Crimea being unrecognized for only a short period because it is likely that Russia wants to create the form of a sovereign state of the Crimea that will then merge with Russia, thus fending off criticism from the international community. In terms of an analysis of unrecognized states and big powers, it can be said that a new type of unrecognized state is created. Thus, the thesis of this paper has been demonstrably borne out in contemporary political affairs. 

The difficulties inherent in resolving the problems of present unrecognized states extend to study about them as well. However, new unrecognized states not only continue to be formed but also have become a more or less frequent occurrence in this vulnerable world. Therefore, the need for further studies on unrecognized states is constantly growing, both to analyze the phenomenon and to seek resolution to the problem of existing unrecognized states. However, insofar as the problems of unrecognized states are not resolved, case studies will be limited, and it will be impossible to assess the true value of research into unrecognized states as well. To overcome such limitation as much as possible, researchers from various disciplines should collaborate in conducting many case studies of this problematic phenomenon.

Cite this Article:

Yoko Hirose (2016) Unrecognized States in the Former USSR and Kosovo: A Focus on Standing Armies. Open Journal of Political Science,06,67-82. doi: 10.4236/ojps.2016.61007


[1] Lachowski, Z. (2007). Foreign Military Bases in Eurasia: SIPRI Policy (p. 18). Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

[2] King, C. (2001). The Benefits of Ethnic War: Understanding Eurasia’s Unrecognized States. World Politics, 53, 524-552.

[3] Cooley, A. (2008a). Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas. New York: Cornell University Press.

[4] The Istanbul Document (1999).

[5] Reynolds, P. (2008). New Russian World Order: The Five Principles. BBC.

Copyright © 2016 by author and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).


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IndraStra Global: THE PAPER | The Russian Policy Towards Ex-Soviet States
THE PAPER | The Russian Policy Towards Ex-Soviet States
Russia sought both to maintain its power as a “big brother” and to organize its policies around ethnic problems and unrecognized states.
IndraStra Global
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