Moscow has a long history of using military force to maintain its control over areas it considers part of its empire. East Berlin, Hungary and Czechoslovakia are examples from Cold War history. Other examples are less well known in the West, but are still significant.
On Dec. 27, 1979, Soviet forces dressed in Afghan army uniforms took over the major government and military installations in Kabul, Afghanistan. Russia recognized Babrak Karmal as the rightful leader of Afghanistan and then heeded his request for intervention (broadcast from his location inside the Soviet Union) to justify the invasion. The Soviets announced their military action was to protect the socialist revolution in Afghanistan.
A decade later, as the Soviet Union collapsed, a section of Moldova separated from that country and unilaterally declared its independence. This separatist region, the Trans-Dniester, was supported by Moscow in a brief war in 1992. Russian troops then moved into the area as peacekeepers. Russia now chairs fruitless peace talks between the two sides. Russia also used its position in Transdniester as justification to cancel its involvement with the Conventional Forces in Europe arms limitation treaty.
In the same period, areas within Georgia broke away from that country. These separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, declared their independence. Russia again moved troops into the area as peacekeepers and co-chaired peace talks that have gone nowhere. In 2008, when Georgia tried to restore its sovereignty over these separatist areas, Moscow fought a war with that country, supposedly to protect Russian citizens living in the breakaway republics. Russia has since recognized the two areas as sovereign nations and kept their forces on the Georgian border.
In 1991-94 Armenia invaded around one-fifth of Azerbaijan's territory, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region. During the war, Armenia was heavily supported by the Russian military. Today, the largest Russian military base outside of Russian territory is located in Armenia.
The United Nations Security Council passed four resolutions acknowledging that Nagorno Karabakh and the surrounding occupied territories are part of Azerbaijan, and demanding immediate withdrawal of all Armenian troops from the occupied territories. But the resolutions remain unfulfilled by Russian-backed Armenia. Given Russia’s veto power on the Security Council, it is not surprising that the Council does nothing to push for the implementation of its own resolutions. As in Moldova and Georgia, Russia is a cosponsor of peace talks that have not solved the conflict.
Now it is Ukraine’s turn. Russian military units dressed in uniforms without insignia (but driving Russian-licensed military vehicles) occupied or surrounded major governmental and military installations in Crimea. Russia has recognized Sergei Aksyonov as the leader of Crimea, despite his party having the support of 3 percent of the people. Russia is defending its moves in the area as an effort to protect Russian citizens in Crimea. As NATO forces mass on the Polish border and the United States calls for a cease-fire, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ended military maneuvers on the Russian-Ukrainian border. He said he has not ruled out direct military intervention in the east of the country, if necessary to protect Russian citizens.
If history is a guide, neither Europe nor the United States will militarily defend Ukraine’s independence. Any United Nations resolution will call for respecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but will not contain enforcement provisions or a condemnation of Russian moves.
A cease-fire will be established, with Russian troops acting as peacekeepers. Russia will co-chair peace talks that will enshrine their continued involvement. Russia, controlling Ukraine’s northern borders and the Crimea, will have a stranglehold on that nation’s independence. American prestige in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus will slip another notch.
American politicians are calling for steps to roll back Russian gains in Crimea. For their calls to be heeded, they should first call for the removal of Russian troops in the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan. James J. Coyle, Ph.D., is the director of Global Education at Chapman University and is chair of the Eurasian committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy.