Featured in Stars and Stripes on March 24, 2016. To access the original article, click here.
Russia is increasing its presence in Syria, while its efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse grind to a halt. T-90 main battle tanks with explosive armor, only previously deployed in Chechnya and Ukraine, have been spotted outside of Aleppo. Reuters reports seven T-90s are at the Russian airfield in Latakia. Russia took over the main international airport in Damascus last year, and began airlifting tons of supplies, soldiers and armaments into the country, according to Business Insider. President Vladimir Putin confirmed in December that Russia is providing support to the Free Syrian Army.
“We support it from the air, as well as the Syrian army, we assist them with weapons, ammunition and provide material support,” he said.
This is part of a long pattern of Russian expansion of its military reach since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In March 1992, elements of the Russian 14th Army sided with separatists to oppose the central government of Moldova’s efforts to exert sovereignty on the ethnically Russian enclave of Transnistria. Russian officers trained the Transnistrian defense forces, and transferred weaponry to them. The separatist regime engaged in ethnic cleansing, leading to 25,000 Moldovans becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs). Russia then engineered a cease-fire patrolled by predominantly Russian peacekeepers, and the 14th Army remains on Transnistrian soil.
From 1991 to 1993, when Azerbaijan faced a war of occupation by neighboring Armenia, Russia put its entire weight behind pro-Russian Armenia against pro-Western Azerbaijan. This support allowed Armenia to occupy the Nagorno-Karabakh region as well as seven surrounding regions of Azerbaijan. During the war, in February 1992, Russia’s 366th Motorized Rifle Regiment surrounded the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly, while Armenians massacred the residents. Moscow said the Russians who had been involved in this action were “volunteers.”
By 1993, the Russian 7th Army was already protecting Armenia’s borders. Russia then arranged to be a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, which has mediated Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks for decades without any results. Azerbaijan houses approximately 600,000-1,000,000 IDPs expelled from its occupied regions. For Russia, however, the continuing unrest provides an excuse for maintaining 3,000 troops at the 102nd Military Base, north of Yerevan, Armenia.
Russian forces supported Abkhazian separatists in their fight with the Georgian government in 1992. Human Rights Watch reported, “The conflict in Abkhazia was heightened by the involvement of Russia, mostly on the Abkhaz side, especially during the war’s initial stages. … Russian arms found their way into Abkhaz hands, Russian planes bombed civilian targets in Georgian-controlled territory, Russian military vessels, manned by supporters of the Abkhaz side, were made available to shell Georgian-held Sukhumi, and at least a handful of Russian-trained and Russian-paid fighters defended Abkhaz territory in Tkvarcheli.”
Human Rights Watch later interviewed a group of six armed Russians in Abkhazia who admitted they had been brought to the conflict area on Russian helicopters, were all former KGB and Spetznaz forces, had been fighting Georgian troops, had previously been fighting in Transnistria, and had begun in Moscow as a group of 30 “experienced, disciplined, Russian professionals.” They then denied being members of Russian government forces, but said they were “independent, patriotic forces.” (It was one of the earliest examples of the “little green men” made famous in the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea.) The result: a cease-fire patrolled by Russian peacekeepers.
This led to devastating results in 2008, when the Russian army intervened in Abkhazia and Ossetia to “restore the peace.” Georgia cares for approximately 300,000 IDPs. Russia is one of three parties involved in the Geneva peace talks. Today, Russian troops remain in these separatist areas, on soil recognized by the international community as Georgian, without the permission of the Georgian government. Russia also recognizes these areas as independent states.
In 2014, Russian forces stationed at the Russian naval station in Crimea surged out of their base in uniforms without insignia, to forcibly evict Ukrainian forces from their own territory. Russian “volunteers” have fought on the side of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and these separatists are armed with Russian tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and personnel carriers. Crater analysis shows that mortar rounds and missiles fired in support of the separatists have their origins inside Russia itself.
Russia has now annexed Crimea, and called for diplomacy to solve the crisis it created in eastern Ukraine. It is a cosponsor of the Minsk talks. Today, Russian troops are stationed in Crimea, and Putin has threatened to introduce Russian troops overtly into eastern Ukraine to “protect” the citizenry.
The pattern is clear: Russian military support for a side in a civil war contributes to unrest, and then Russian diplomatic efforts keep the conflict simmering. The continuing problems justify maintaining a Russian troop presence.
In all these instances, Russian military interventions and/or peace efforts have led to a continued expansion of Russian power and influence. America and its allies in Syria need to learn from history, and not just repeat it.