In Russia’s long-term war against the West that includes the infiltration of domestic political systems, blackmail and the indirect influence of elected officials through “ethnic political organizations,” one of its most prized and enduring tactics is its exploitation of ethnoreligious rivalries and fissures within the states along its borders.
Moscow utilizes its vassal Armenia against the Western-leaning Azerbaijan in order to perpetuate the Nagorno-Karabakh war and, thus, imbalance in the South Caucasus. In both Georgia and Ukraine, Moscow formally maintains that it instigated wars of aggression solely to protect Russian passport holders, or citizens, or members of the “Russian world.” However, nobody should be fooled by Russia’s claim of “droit d’ingerence” (right to intervene) on behalf of “oppressed” Russian or Russian Orthodox minorities, or its enduring readiness to offer support to allegedly repressed minorities in targeted countries. Indeed, this tactic originated with Peter the Great, if not earlier.
Thus, today in Ukraine, Moscow has not only incited Russian speakers in Crimea, but also Hungarian minorities in the Carpathians. In Moldova, Russia plays the card of the Gagauz, a Christianized Turkic community, against the government in Chisinau. In Georgia, it champions the Abkhazians and South Ossetians against Georgia, claiming that many of them are really Russians and suggesting a perspective that looks to their eventual incorporation into the Russian state and the destruction of Georgian territorial integrity.
In Central Asia, it champions the rights of Russians in Kazakhstan and occasionally reminds the government in Tashkent that Moscow is solicitous about the welfare of the Karakalpak minority there. Russia’s efforts in the Baltics to conjure up a region-wide policy of discrimination and repression against Russian citizens and speakers is also well-known. Thus, across its borders, Moscow habitually plays this “national question” card to break states, render them subservient to Moscow, and simultaneously furnish grounds for rebuilding the Russian empire.
Moscow can play this card in many ways across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and has frequently done so in the past. Today, it supports Hungary in its demands for special rights for and complains to Kiev about the conditions of Hungarian speakers in Ukraine. In Serbia it inflames Serbian nationalism against Kosovo and supports the Bosnian Serb movement to frustrate the final implementation of the Dayton Accords and the movement of Serbia to membership in the EU. Thus, it can adjust its exploitation of ethnic tensions in targeted states to have its satellites and clients, who depend on it for support against those states, in an effort to break them up or make them more tractable to Russia.
One recent example has even occurred involving members of Congress. Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, among others influenced by Armenian diaspora organizations, including Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Jackie Speier of California and Frank Pallone of New Jersey, urged the U.S. Agency for International Development to support Armenian separatists, not only in Nagorno-Karabakh (a region of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenia for the last 25 years and not recognized by any U.N.-member state), but in a region of Georgia called Javakheti or Samtske-Javakheti.
It is unlikely that many people in Congress or the U.S. government know anything about this latter province. Javakheti is a region in Georgia that has a substantial Armenian population but not a majority. Neither is there any sign that Georgia, a democratic or at least democratizing country, is oppressing the residents of this region. Indeed, it is Moscow that has long tried to use this region to break up Georgia. And here Moscow has found ways to use Armenian diaspora organizations that it influences and controls, as well as the Armenian government that is, in effect, a wholly owned subsidiary of Moscow and a very repressive anti-democratic state, their ongoing revolution notwithstanding, to advance its anti-Georgian agenda in Congress by misleading members of Congress.
It is unfortunate that American citizens and members of Congress are again duped by another example of Russian active measures as applied to the habitual exploitation of this national question. But this vignette underscores the incessant urge of Moscow to break up pro-Western states, either through direct or indirect action by it or its satellites, in this case Armenia and its diaspora organizations in the U.S.
However, this episode, along with so many others like it in the context of the Caucasus or Eastern Europe, drive home the necessity for the U.S. to enhance its expertise and understanding of what used to be regarded as obscure minority issues in Europe and/or Asia. As the current travails of Syria or the Yugoslav and Transcaucasian wars of the recent past should remind us, in these parts of the world ethnic issues are not forgotten, and there are too many “political entrepreneurs” willing to stoke animosities for their own and Moscow’s benefit for us to be complacent about the threat they could present to regional security.
This small but telling Armenian example shows that for Moscow, the effort to break pro-Western states and add to its imperial domains remains and will continue to be a major tactic, but also an abiding strategic goal. And we can only combat this course of action by understanding it and vigorously assisting targeted governments to improve their governance and thus overcome the poisoned ethnic legacies of the past and present.
• Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College.
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