How does Russia occupy other countries?

Throughout history, Russia has pursued an imperialistic policy toward its neighbors, consistently expanding its Territory. The 2022 conflict in Ukraine provides a clear example of this trend. As soon as the Russian flag flew over the administrative buildings of cities in Southern Ukraine, Russia claimed these areas as its own. Before, Russia annexed Crimea and occupied parts of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions in 2014. The expansion has been a central theme in the existence of the Russian Empire, which has undergone various name changes, from the Grand Duchy of Moscow to the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation, but has never ceased its quest for new territories.

I want to explore the recurring patterns that Russia has adhered to in recent years.

But before I start, let’s come to the standard terms. What is “occupation”?
Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations states, “Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of a hostile army. The occupation extends only to the Territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.”

The US, “THE COMMANDER’S HANDBOOK ON THE LAW OF LAND WARFARE,” follows the Hague Regulations and defines military occupation clearly.

Military occupation:

  • Must be actual and effective; that is, the organized resistance must have been overcome, and the Occupying Power must have taken measures to establish its authority;
  • Requires the suspension of the territorial State’s authority and the substitution of the Occupying Power’s authority; and
  • Occurs when there is a hostile relationship between the State of the invading force and the State of the occupied Territory.

Thus, the military occupation always comes first and establishes conditions for changes in the occupied State.

The modern Russian State emerged after the 1917 revolution. Since then, Communists and the secret police NKVD-KGB-FSB have held power. Although the tools of the 20th century brought new methods of invasion and occupation, Russia’s foreign policy remained consistent.

Let’s start by examining the countries in the Baltic region: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. The detailed history of these countries’ occupation (or attempted occupation in the case of Finland) is widely available. I want to highlight the commonalities.

First, the Soviet Union signed agreements with these nations to station troops on their soil. While Finland rejected this offer, it was forced to comply after the “Winter War” of 1939-1940.

A few months later, in the summer of 1940, the USSR alleged that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were involved in an anti-Soviet conspiracy. To protect the “young communist state” and “satisfy the demands of the working class,” Russia invaded the Baltic nations. Communists subsequently organized plebiscites in which only trusted comrades could participate. The newly formed parliaments voted to join the Soviet Union immediately. Military occupation was necessary to ensure these staged elections’ legitimacy and align these countries with a new socialist future. A similar scenario was ready for Finland, but the country repelled the aggressor despite significant losses.

The following country subjected to Soviet and Allied occupation was Czechoslovakia. Concurrent with the crossing of the border by troops, Soviet special forces seized an international airport near Prague. This strategic move allowed them to bring more soldiers directly to the capital. Following this, Czechoslovakia’s government became more aligned with the USSR, halting the democratic reforms initiated by the previous administration.

We will skip wars in Afganistan and Georiga and fast-forward to 2014. In March of that year, Russia annexed Crimea. This operation partially followed a familiar pattern for Russian military forces, as they already had a base in Sevastopol. After gaining complete military control of the peninsula, Russia staged a referendum in which Crimea was declared part of the Russian Federation.

The situation in the Luhansk-Donetsk region differs slightly. Russia also conducted elections in these Ukrainian regions, with participants proclaiming their independence from Ukraine. However, the established regimes are staunchly pro-Russian.

In 2022, Russia attempted a scenario akin to its actions in Czechoslovakia in Ukraine—paratroopers aimed to capture airports near Kyiv while infantry battalions crossed the borders. Fortunately, the Ukrainian army halted the Russian troops and pushed them back to the northern boundaries of Ukraine.

When analyzing Russian invasions in the recent century, a consistent pattern emerges:

  1. Stationing troops on the targeted Territory.
  2. Simultaneous border crossings with special forces operations at airfields.
  3. Staging referendums.
  4. Declarations of integration with Russia.

In all these cases, Russia employed military occupation to ensure minimal or no resistance from the local population.

Marlon Parker

US – Belarus