Russia’s War of Inches

The Russian government would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. Its foreign policy for years has depended on establishing “facts on the ground.” Once the Kremlin’s forces or its allies take what they want, the Foreign Ministry is happy to commit to accords that cement their aggression in place.

Take, for example, recent developments in Syria and Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced last week that Russia does not support Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Speaking in Berlin, he told the Federal News Agency, “We don’t support Assad, and we are committed to the resolutions of the [U.N. Security Council].” Russian daily Izvestiya reports that he added, “The case of Syria is black and white: Only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Syria.”

Lavrov’s statement came just a day after the Washington Free Beacon reported that Russia and North Korea are helping Syria build and operate long-range ballistic missiles. Assad’s position is similar to that of Kim Jong-un: Encircled by hostile forces and dependent on a single patron, he will likely depend on his missile program to ensure his grip on power. (Iran has long been an ally of Syria and has supported Assad indirectly, but it was Russia’s intervention that prevented Assad from falling.) A stable Assad regime fulfills all of Putin’s goals in Syria, including access to the port at Tartus and having a client in the American-dominated Arab world. Having created “facts on the ground,” Lavrov can commit to hollow Security Council resolutions without any concern that they will revoke his gains.

In Ukraine this week, the leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, announced the creation of a new state: Malorossiya, or Little Russia. His proposal drastically expanded the scope of the insurrection against the Kiev government: The map of Malorossiya he released includes all of current Ukraine, with the capital moved to Donetsk. The map did not include Crimea, which “voted” to join the Russian Federation while under armed occupation by forces that Moscow insisted at the time were someone else’s army. This is the first time the separatists have expressed the goal of taking over the country.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists that “Moscow learned about [the announcement] from the media this morning,” and that the Kremlin is “committed to the Minsk Agreements” that were signed in 2014, nominally to end the conflict. The invasion of Ukraine may be turning into a misadventure for the Putin regime, but having effectively wrested control of more than 6,500 square miles, a mouthy separatist is unlikely to have much effect on the conflict: He wields little independent power, so his words are hollow, but the protection he enjoys from the Russian military will prevent Ukraine from responding.

The same pattern has appeared in Georgia since the end of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. This month, Moscow’s forces “quietly moved one of its borders hundreds of metres further into Georgia.” The process of “borderization” by which Russian “peacekeepers” in the breakaway district of South Ossetia increase their territory bit by bit has been going on for years. The tactic is effective because it raises the stakes: Any European or Georgian visit to the original line would mean crossing into “Russian territory.”

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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