|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: April 16-30, 2021
Russia claims regional hegemony in the post-Soviet space and considers that strengthening Western positions in the region poses a threat to its national interests. The purpose of our review is to provide readers with information about important events related to Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space. The review is a biweekly publication and will be useful for everyone – decision-makers, public employees, media representatives and other people who are interested in the ongoing processes in post-Soviet countries.
Citizens of Donbass Receive Russian citizenship
Main Event: According to Viktor Vodolatsky, the Deputy Chairman of the Committee for CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots of the Russian State Duma, the number of people wishing to obtain Russian citizenship through a simplified procedure may increase to one million in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics by the end of 2021.
Event in Details: On April 24, 2019, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed a decree on granting expedited citizenship to residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The first passports were issued on July 14, 2019. Russian passports can be obtained in the Rostov region which borders Ukraine.
Amid the ongoing events in eastern Ukraine since 2014, Russian officials overtly speak in defense of the interests of the separatist regions. On April 8, Dmitry Kozak, the Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration, the influential official who oversees the direction of Ukraine, openly said that Russia may be forced to defend its citizens in Donbass.
Granting Russian citizenship is a Kremlin practice which Russia once used in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Shortly before the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Moscow began issuing passports to residents of the breakaway regions of Georgia. Today, the majority of the people in these regions are Russian citizens. Russia has also used the argument of protecting its citizens in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region to legitimize the war against Georgia.
Why the Event is Important: Granting Russian citizenship to residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions will allow Moscow to legitimize its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, if necessary.
Another Spy Revealed in the Occupied Crimea
Main Event: A Russian citizen was arrested on charges of espionage in favor of Ukraine in the annexed Crimea.
Event in Details: On April 22, 2021, a court of the occupied Sevastopol sentenced a Russian citizen to pre-trial detention on charges of treason. According to the Russian Federal Security Service, the detainee passed classified information about the Russian Black Sea Fleet to the Ukrainian Military Intelligence Service.
Russia has detained dozens of people in Crimea on various charges since its annexation in 2014. Those who doubt the legitimacy of Russia’s presence on the peninsula are the main targets of the Russian Special Services. In addition, the number of espionage cases identified by Russian and Ukrainian special services has increased dramatically since 2014.
In 2020, the relevant services of Ukraine and Russia arrested a number of people on charges of espionage:
On April 16, 2021, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) arrested Alexander Sosonyuk, the Consul of the Consulate General of Ukraine in St. Petersburg. According to the FSB, the Ukrainian diplomat was arrested while trying to get classified information. In response, Ukraine declared the Russian consul in Odessa persona non grata. The Russian official must leave Ukraine by April 30.
Detention of the Ukrainian Consul. Source: Russian TV channel Russia 24
Why the Event is Important: After the 2014 events when Russia annexed Crimea and openly supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, the “spy war” between Russia and Ukraine intensified. There have been frequent reports of “spies” on both sides indicating a high degree of military-political confrontation between Moscow and Kyiv.
Russia Withdraws Its Troops from the Ukrainian Border
Main Event: On April 22, 2021, the Russian Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu, ordered a withdrawal of the Russian Armed Forces from the Ukrainian border. The goals of the “snap checks” in the Southern Military District have been fully achieved and troops will return to their permanent deployment on May 1, said Shoigu.
Event in details: According to available information, Russia massed 80,000 troops on the border between Crimea and Ukraine at the end of March. Photos, videos and other data which were circulated in open sources were sufficient proof of this. The unprecedented development of the mobilization of the Russian military forces raised suspicions that Moscow was preparing for a military invasion of Ukraine.
Russian military maneuvers incited tensions. The Commander-in-Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Ruslan Khomchak, accused Moscow of using force and blackmail to escalate the tension. The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, met with Ukrainian soldiers on the front line on April 8-9. Amid ongoing tensions, Zelensky invited the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to speak anywhere on April 20 in order to calm the situation in eastern Ukraine.
Why the Event is Important: The scale of the mobilization of Russian troops was unprecedented and the possible objectives were to test whether the new US president would support Ukraine and increase Moscow’s pressure on Ukraine. The Kremlin’s main message was that it will not back down and Russia will use weapons to defend its citizens in Donbass if Ukraine approaches NATO and joins the organization which will most likely mean a military invasion of southeastern Ukraine and, thereby, provide ground communication with the Crimean peninsula.
Ukraine Prevents Russian Cyber Attack
Main Event: On April 27, 2021, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) announced that it arrested a Ukrainian citizen from Zaporizhia on charges of organizing a cyber-attack on government agencies.
Event in Details: According to the SBU, the detainee was instructed by the Russian Special Services to organize a cyber-attack against the critical infrastructure of the local and central governments, sending a viral file to Ukrainian public officials.
The latest attempt of Russia’s cyber-attack was reported on March 16 when the SBU announced that the target of the hackers linked to the Russian Federal Security Service was classified government data.
Ukraine often accuses Russia of cyber-attacks which are part of the Kremlin’s hybrid war tactics against Ukraine. Ukraine has been a target of Russian cyber-attacks before. An attack on the country’s energy system in 2015 left 230 thousand people without electricity. A computer virus disrupted power supply in Kyiv in 2016. Targets for cyber-attacks became state, financial and energy organizations in 2017. In February 2020, the SBU disrupted the activity of a network of “bot farms” in five cities of Ukraine. In February 2021, Ukraine accused Russian internet networks of attacking the web-pages of Ukraine’s security and defense sector and trying to disseminate documents in the network.
Why the Event is Important: In recent years, cyber-attacks have become an instrument of Russia’s foreign policy and a part of the Kremlin’s hybrid war tactics. Following the 2014 events in Crimea, the Kremlin aims at influencing the domestic policies of Ukraine through cyber-attacks. Recent cyber-attacks have confirmed that Ukraine is vulnerable to similar attacks which may derail the vital infrastructure of the country.
Russian President Hosted His Belarusian Counterpart
Main Event: The President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, met with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, on April 22, 2021
Event in Details: The presidents did not make any significant official statements after the four-hour meeting; however, they praised the unification progress of the two countries. Lukashenko last met with Putin on February 22, 2021 in Sochi. The next meeting is scheduled for the summer.
Meeting of the Presidents. Source: RIA Novosti
Before the meeting, an alleged planned military coup and an assassination plot against Aleksander Lukashenko was exposed. Some of the plotters were arrested in Moscow.
The process of re-rapprochement between Russia and Belarus began after the 2020 presidential elections. If there were tensions between the parties before the elections, the situation changed after the August presidential elections. Amid protest rallies against Lukashenko, unprecedented for Belarus, and growing pressure from the West, a reconciliation with Moscow became the only way for Lukashenko to maintain power. Therefore, Lukashenko has been talking more about integration. According to him, 26-27 requirements of the integration roadmap are fulfilled and only two-three economic requirements remain to be addressed.
Why the Event is Important: Although the internal protest charge weakened, maintaining power remains a challenge for Lukashenko without Moscow’s support. The purpose of the next meeting with Putin is to obtain political and economic guarantees that should ensure Lukashenko’s rule in the long term.
Tajikistan and Russia Create a Unified Air Defense System
Main Event: During a visit of the Russian Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu, to Tajikistan the parties agreed to establish a unified air defense system.
Event in Details: The decision is to increase the reliability of the state border protection in the airspace of Tajikistan.
The Joint CIS Air Defense System was established on February 10, 1995. Currently, Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are members of the system whose main purpose is to protect the air boundaries of the CIS member states, jointly control the CIS airspace and monitor the aerospace posture.
Why the Event is Important: Tajikistan borders Afghanistan from which US troops will soon leave. Amid this background, the Russian Ministry of Defense expects that the situation in the region will deteriorate, something which will also affect Russia’s ally countries in Central Asia. Russia is trying to strengthen military cooperation with its allies and thus prevent a possible destabilization.
Visit of the “President” of Abkhazia to Russia
Main Event: On April 20, 2021, the de facto President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, visited Russia.
Event in Details: This was Bzhania’s first “official” visit to Russia this year. In 2020, Bzhania paid seven “official” visits to Russia.
During the visit, Bzhania met with the Director of the Russian State Insurance Company, the Head of the Federal Air Transport Agency, the Head of Rospotrebnadzor, the Head, Alexander Kolpakov, and the First Deputy Head of the Administrative Directorate of the President of the Russian Presidential, Pavel Fradkov.
It was important for Bzhania to discuss the resumption of air traffic in Abkhazia which is a priority for his “government.” He has been actively seeking Moscow’s support in rebuilding the infrastructure of the Babusher Airport near Sokhumi over the past year.
Bzhania also met with Dmitry Kozak, the Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration, who oversees the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Meeting with Kozak is always important as he is one of the most influential public officials in the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. According to official data, the main topic of discussion was the implementation of the investment program promoting the socio-economic development of Abkhazia which is important for Abkhazia’s economic revival in the wake of the pandemic. The purpose of the meeting was also to discuss the progress of the creation of a common socio-economic space.
Why the Event is Important: Recently, Moscow has been increasingly putting pressure on Bzhania to resolve “problematic” issues such as granting “Abkhazian citizenship” to citizens of Russia, the acquisition of real estate by Russians and the alienation of energy facilities to Russian companies, etc. The purpose of this visit was to assess the progress of the solution to these “problematic” issues which will further determine Moscow’s financial or political support for Bzhania’s “government.”