Review: The Russian Interventions in South Ossetia and Crimea Compared: Military Performance, Legitimacy and Goals, Emmanuel Karagiannis

Feb 6, 2019 | Mattia Baldoni

The Russian Interventions in South Ossetia and Crimea Compared: Military Performance, Legitimacy and Goals, Emmanuel Karagiannis,
in Contemporary Security Policy 35:3
pp. 400-420,
Published online: 29 Sep 2014.

English version

Russian military interventions in South Ossetia and Crimea highlighted similarities and differences in Kremlin’s approach towards its Post-Soviet neighbours. There are two main factors, which link these two events: the first is the NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe (1999-2004). This is the main threat detected by Moscow. Russia newly suffers the “surrounding sense”, which historically influenced internal and foreign Russian policies. During his famous Munich Conference’s speech in 2007, Vladimir Putin stressed Russian intolerance towards Western strategies and patterns. Russian President also underlined the imminent fall of US geopolitical monopoly and the birth of a new, multipolar, world. Looking at these concepts, we can easily explain revitalised international Russian activism, started from 2007. South Ossetian and Crimean events can be equated as the product of Russian changed self-perception. In fact, Moscow has developed its own IR’s theory, which emphasizes Federation’s strategic interests and priorities. Warfare, even only as a last resort, is not more a taboo in Kremlin’s thought.
Another event deeply influenced this Russian geopolitical evolution. Unilateral declaration of independence, made by Kosovo in 2008, was recognised by half UN members (not by Russia and China). As stated by Russian diplomats, this decision has created a precedent, perfectly like South Ossetia and its de facto State condition. Russian army intervened to protect its peace-keepers in Ossetia and to prior defend Russian majority living in Crimea. In both cases, Russian population’s safety was considered the fundamental justification of the military intervention.
By military viewpoint, some differences emerged. First of all, these two territories are quite different. Crimea is a strategic peninsula in Black Sea, inhabited by 2 million people and hosting an important Russian Navy base. South Ossetia is a little mountainous region in the Caucasus, barely populated and without particularly strategic meanings for Moscow.
Second, even if in small-scale, military efforts showed several features. During Georgian War in August 2008, Russia counterattacked, quickly regaining Ossetians lands (among them, the capital Tskhinvali) conquered by Georgian troops and occupying crucial Georgian towns, like Gori and Poti. Russian Army incisively held war operations, easily overcoming opponents. Despite the one-sided challenge, Moscow suffered some wounded and fatalities and lost few military vehicles. Suffered damages showed the uncompleted Russian military modernization in 2008. This aim was achieved later, as shown by Crimean operation in 2014. In this case, Russia prior moved, pursuing a detailed plan and holding a quick and efficient military operation. In 24 hours, the whole Crimean Peninsula was occupied by Russian troops and closed off from Ukrainian mainland. Neither fatalities nor damages were reported. Few weeks later, after 16th March 2014 Referendum, Crimea declared itself as an Autonomous Republic, member of Russian Federation.
In conclusion, the two Russian military interventions are associated by the broad change of Russian background and international strategies. Anyway, also differences are useful to show the evolution of Moscow’s military and diplomatic ability (2008-2014).

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