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Conflict in Russia and the Post-Soviet Space (Module)

Module description


  • Induction and Orientation module
  • If studying War in the Modern World you must also complete History of Contemporary Warfare 1: the early Cold War, 1945–1975 and History of Contemporary Warfare 2: from Cold War on Terror to War on Terror, 1975-2011.
  • If studying International Relations and Contemporary War, you must also complete International Relations and Contemporary War 1: Theories and Concepts and International Relations and Contemporary War 2: Problems and Issues. 

Study units

  • Approaches to Post-Soviet Conflict
  • New States, Civil Wars
  • The Separatists
  • Russian Warfare in the Early 21st Century
  • Russia and the Future of European Security


The conflict in Ukraine has brought into sharp relief an enduring set of security issues related to Russia and its fellow post-Soviet states. This course focuses on the most acute and destructive end of the security spectrum: the armed conflicts that have plagued – and continue to plague – the independent states of the former USSR. These include civil wars, insurgencies, terrorist campaigns, and even (supposedly unfashionable) inter-state warfare. While each conflict must be examined within its own context, a number of structural conditions are shared across the post-communist space, and all have far-reaching implications for future Eurasian security.

The module seeks to provide specialised knowledge and understanding with regard to four key questions:

  1. What types of conflict have occurred in the former Soviet space, and what are some of their common features?
  2. What are the drivers of such conflicts, and what might determine their future trajectories?
  3. What is the relevance of these conflicts for broader Eurasian and international security?
  4. How have different theoretical approaches within strategic studies and international relations attempted to explain and define post-Soviet conflicts?

We begin in unit 1 by defining our area of focus, and considering several different analytical approaches to the region. We revisit the fall of the Soviet Union and examine the ways in which this epochal transformation facilitated conflict, including the question of whether 'decolonisation' is an appropriate framework for viewing this process.  Next, we consider the role of ethno-nationalism as a driver of fragmentation and conflict, and contrast it with political economy explanations (focused on resource competition, neopatrimonialism and organised crime). Finally, we examine the rise and role of Islamist movements, and their contribution to regional security challenges.

In unit 2, we focus on civil wars in Georgia and Tajikistan, and their regional repercussions. We begin with the series of conflicts in Georgia, from independence to the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. This conflict introduces many of the variables we discuss in the module (political instability, nationalism, secession, corruption) as well as several different types of conflict within one arena. Ongoing issues with respect to Russia's relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Georgia's quest for European integration, are also considered. Next, we explore the little-known Tajik civil war (1992-1997), which features an interesting mix of conflict types (civil war, refugee-based insurgency, Islamist terrorism) and external interventions (Russia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan). We conclude by considering the current state of Central Asian security given domestic challenges and developments in Afghanistan. A major aim of this unit is to enable students to better interpret ongoing events in the Caucasus and Central Asia, two regions expected to experience greater instability in the coming years.

In unit 3, we focus on two separatist conflicts that began in the late communist era, and remain unresolved to this day. We begin with the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh and the ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the fate of the enclave. We then consider the case of Transnistria, including changes in its structural context given the evolution of European and Russian postures in southeast Europe and the war in Ukraine. We conclude with a look at the potential for separatism within Russia itself. This unit thus further elaborates the discussion of ethno-nationalism, intrastate conflict, borders and sovereignty.

In unit 4, we take a close look at the Russian experience of warfare in the early 21st century. The unit focuses heavily on the two Chechen wars, the domestic campaign of Chechen terrorism, and Russia's stance within the post-2001 global war on terror. We then consider the ongoing low-level insurgency in the North Caucasus, and the potential impact of the rise of the Islamic State on local militancy. We conclude with a detailed look at the evolution of Russian military doctrine since 2000, with a special focus on its changing threat perceptions vis-à-vis Western security institutions.

Finally, in Unit 5 we focus on Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and the current state of European security. First, we deconstruct competing Western and Russian narratives with respect to the origins of the Ukraine conflict. We discuss the outbreak of the conflict and the annexation of Crimea, and then ground these events within theories of international relations and international security, considering realist, liberal and constructivist interpretations of the conflict. A key aim in this discussion is to explain why the Ukraine conflict has generated so much attention and debate in policy and academic circles, and provide space for comparing disparate narratives and interpretations. We also discuss the implications of the conflict for NATO and European security relationships. We then consider the drivers of Russia's armed intervention in Syria in 2015. Finally, we conclude the module by considering what the conflicts we have examined in this module portend for the future of European security. While the module cannot keep up to the minute with ongoing events, its presentation of overarching historical, strategic and structural factors in this specific region should give students the tools to better understand and analyse ongoing developments after the conclusion of the module.

*Please note that module information is indicative and may change from year to year.

Staff information

Not applicable

Teaching pattern

One-term course, 1 x 11 weeks

Module assessment - more information

All War Studies Online modules are 20-credit modules and will be assessed by:

  • 1 x 1500-word short essay
  • 1 x 3000-word long essay
  • In addition you will be assessed on participation within the discussions

Key information

Module code 7SSWM229

Credit level 7

Assessment coursework

Credit value 20 credits

Semester Full-year

Study abroad module No