Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has adopted various instruments in order to maintain its regional primacy in the post-Soviet space (PSS). In particular, during the 1990s, a favourable political climate contributed to Russia negotiating all the ceasefire agreements that followed the violent ethno-conflicts that erupted in several states of the post-Soviet Union era. Besides Moscow’s intervention in the civil war in Tajikistan, Russia had a leading role in the precarious ceasefire with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1992 that later contributed to the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008. The terms of the ceasefire effectively legitimised the Russian troops’ presence there, since their peacekeeping force was permitted to remain — and even take additional measures — to maintain the peace. In Transnistria, where the ceasefire was brokered in July 1992, Russia’s ability to maintain control over military issues was facilitated by its close relationship with the separatist region’s peacekeeping contingent. While no peacekeeping mission could be established in Nagorno-Karabakh after the ceasefire in May 1992, in November 2020, a Russian peacekeeping force was deployed as part of a deal negotiated by Moscow to stop the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces in the region. Finally, despite its exceptionality, Russia’s meddling in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea have been described as an attempt to set the scene for another protracted ‘frozen conflict’ scenario. Overall, by 1993, Russia had over 36,000 troops deployed on peacekeeping duties in post-Soviet conflicts across Tajikistan, Transnistria, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
While Russia has always claimed to be a mere mediator in peace processes, its military presence and political involvement persuade observers to consider Russia a party to these conflicts. Russia’s peacekeeping deployments certainly aimed to stem the violence in these post-Soviet wars, but they also reflected Russian geopolitical goals rather than standard peacekeeping missions. Therefore, it has commonly been referred to as a ‘new Cold War’ between Russia and the US and the EU, with Eurasia emerging as its major battlefield when describing Russia’s assertive foreign policy in the PSS. Others consider Russia as a balancing and multilateral state that is determined to make the world a multipolar system and carve out more room for its own contribution. Stemming from this debate, under what conditions has Russia used military force in the PSS?
In addressing Russia’s regional assertiveness, academic and public discussions have mostly focused on individual explanations, from Vladimir Putin’s perceptions and beliefs through Russia’s authoritarian regime to geopolitical interests. These approaches have enormously contributed to the debate; however, taken individually, none of them provide a sufficient explanation for the diverse outcomes of Russia’s foreign policy across space and time. As Andrey Tsygankov (2018, xv) observes: ‘A large and complex country, Russia must be understood in terms of the complexity of theoretical approaches, tools and actors, geographic directions, and membership in global/regional organizations’.
External Pressure, Hierarchical Power Structure, and Regime Security
In recognition of this complexity, the pattern of Russia’s use of force is expected to result from a complex interplay between international and domestic variables, where some are more prevalent than others. Those approaches that account a country’s foreign policy as mainly driven by the international system argue that Russia’s use of military force is mainly influenced by its interaction with other major powers in its neighbourhood. Within this framework, the political situation following the disintegration of the Soviet Union left Russia with a profound security dilemma concerning the kind of arrangements needed to prevent the new countries along its borders from joining another military bloc – NATO – which Russia traditionally sees as a security threat. Viewed from this perspective, Russia’s moves in Ukraine are driven by “geopolitical considerations,” aiming at keeping “Ukraine out of NATO.” However, systemic factors alone cannot explain why Russia has not opposed China’s access to the economic spheres of the PSS or Turkey’s interference in the most recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Next to the external pressure exerted by other regional powers, it is necessary to pay more attention to what is within the state: the Russian quest for status in a hierarchical power structure in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), with Russian views on state order strongly influencing Moscow’s decisions over military interventions. Despite acknowledging the new countries’ sovereignty, the close functional interdependence between Russia and the CIS region reinforced a hierarchical relationship that is historically and strategic legitimate according to the Kremlin. In an attempt to obtain great power status recognition, Russia granted rights and responsibilities to neighbouring CIS states, including how to determine the appropriate use of military force. This has been the case for the de facto states of Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia where Russia has been struggling to legitimise its interventions internationally under the guise of responsibility toward ethnic minorities in the PSS. This narrative contributes to the construction of a geopolitical space with an iconic significance that, on the one hand, reinforces Russia’s great power status while, on the other, is constituted by mutual recognition — and sometimes even amplified — by the smaller neighbouring entity.
Finally, Moscow has legitimised the use of military forces to settle conflicts in the PSS as a tool to resist regime changes that would have threatened ‘the constitutional order’ in the CIS region and the political survival of Russian leadership. According to this interpretation, Russian support appears to have been crucial for fuelling, legitimizing, and bolstering separatist forces in an attempt to hamper democratic development of parents states. As a consequence, Russian support for the authoritarian tendencies of the secessionist regions has been functional in allowing ‘pockets of autocracy’ to persist within the region.
 Andrey Tsygankov, Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Policy (London; New York: Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2018).