#PutinAtWar: The Birds, The Bees, and Where Separatist Officers Come From

A quick look inside some of the military academies that train pro-Russian separatists in the South Caucasus

Left: South Ossetian and Abkhazian cadets on a march (Source: VKontake / Khetag Kozaev). Center: Vladmimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) with a South Ossetian Cadet (Source: VKontakte / Batradz Alborov). Right: South Ossetian and Kyrgyz cadets at the Mikhailovskaya Military Artillery Academy (Source: VKontakte / Zaur Dzhioev).

More than two decades after their de facto separation from Georgia, the so-called Abkhazian and South Ossetian Republics maintain standing armies supported by the Russian military.

While Abkhazia maintains its own military academy, the Sukhumi Higher Combined-Arms Command School (SVOKU), South Ossetia has yet to establish one, and relies entirely on Russian defense academies and universities. Nonetheless, some new Abkhazian military officers are still being educated in Russia, alongside cadets from other countries across the world.

The participation of South Ossetian and Abkhazian cadets in Russian military institutions of higher education is no secret, but it is also not something which is highly publicized. Only a handful of countries recognize the two de facto states, with their main sponsor being Russia.

The Academies

Seemingly, there is no limit to the academies in Russia available to aspiring separatist officers. An article from 2017 in the South Ossetian state media outlet “Res”, however, details a limited list of seven of the top military universities in Russia available to its inhabitants. Furthermore, the article details that about 50 people took tests to be admitted to the Russian academies.

The seven universities mentioned in the article were:

  • The Institute of Combined-Arms Combined Arms at the Academy of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (Moscow);
  • Mikhailovskaya Military Artillery Academy (St. Petersburg);
  • The Military University of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (Moscow);
  • Military Academy of Communications (St. Petersburg);
  • Military Institute of Military Conductors (Moscow);
  • Military Medical Academy (St. Petersburg);
  • Ryazan Higher Airborne Infantry School (Ryazan).

These are some of the most highly esteemed military institutions of higher education in Russia. Still, cadets from South Ossetia, along with their Abkhazian counterparts, have been known to attend other military institutions of higher education across Russia.

Such institutions include the Far Eastern Higher Combined-Arms Command School (DVOKU), the Moscow Higher Military Command School, and branches of the Military Logistics Academy across Russia. Specifically, the Military Logistics Academy branches identified were those in Volsk and Omsk.

Unlike South Ossetia, Abkhazia has maintained its own military institution of higher education for almost two decades with SVOKU founded in 1995. Still, many aspiring Abkhazian cadets look to Russia for their education. Although South Ossetia has no outright equivalent to SVOKU, it does have a school to prepare cadets for the Russian academies.

Regardless of the institution, all cadets must go through five years of schooling before commissioned as officers in their respective armies. The Abkhazian SVOKU, however, is an exception to the rule, where many educations are only four years.

Building relationships abroad

South Ossetians and Abkhazians are not the only ones to go to Russia for their military education, nor is this an unusual practice. In fact, exchange programs for military education are common across the world. What makes this example exceptional is the fact that many of the cadets train and study alongside colleagues from countries that their governments don’t recognize.

Looking at the social media profile of one cadet at a branch of the Military Logistics Academy, the Volsk Military Institute of Materiel Support (VVIMO), @DFRLab gained detailed insight into the nationalities represented there.

Visualization of nationalities at VVIMO. (Source: VKontakte / Sukhrob Gayurov)

The illustration above is an assemblage of country tags from a collection of profile shots of graduating cadets. Note cadet uniforms from Angola, Cuba, Kyrgyzstan, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia with different variations of the new Russian digital camouflage pattern EMR (Единая маскировочная расцветка).

As could be expected, the cadets at these academies form tight bonds when they spend five years together. As such, this makes for a rare opportunity of diplomacy between the two North Caucasian states and other countries which would otherwise not recognize their existence. In the future, as these cadets rise through the ranks of their militaries, the relationships formed could have a significant impact.

A Kazakh cadet flying his flag next to his South Ossetian colleague. (Source: VKontakte / Nurken Abenov)

Since the August War of 2008, few United Nations member states have begun to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The states to recognize these two de facto states are Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru.

Building marked “special faculty” at VVIMO. (Source: VKontakte / Medgat Mokenov)

Foreign servicemen study at the Special Faculty (специальный факультет/спецфак) of their respective academies. The Special Faculties are, for the most part, meant to educate foreign servicemen, and the education received is likely to be different from that of the Russian cadets.

Cadets from Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not the only ones in Russian service academies originating from largely unrecognized or de facto states. Cadets from Palestine have also studied in Russia, and while far more countries recognize Palestinian statehood compared to Abkhazia, it remains to be a topic of high contention.

A Palestinian cadet at DVOKU with his Abkhazian counterpart. (Source: VKontakte / Andrey Guschin)

The Russian federation recognized Palestine, or the Palestinian National Authority, as a sovereign country and thus Palestinian cadets in Russian academies should not surprise anyone. Nonetheless, the aggregate of countries and de facto states represented at Russian service academies paint a picture of Russia as a destination for servicemembers from internationally controversial countries to get their education.

For Example

In the case of Sergei Burnatsev, a cadet at VVIMO, we delineated his transition from cadet in Volsk to lieutenant in South Ossetia. On June 27, 2016, Sergei posted on VKontakte (VK or ВКонтакте) suggesting that he finished his education at VVIMO. In the background, the Special Faculty can clearly be identified from its unique blue trim against the white wooden walls. These features stand out from those of other buildings at this academy.

The rank in question, with higher quality visualization. (Source: VKontakte / Sergei Burnatsev)

On this post, Sergei can be seen on the left in his new rank of lieutenant, indicated by two stars on his shoulder. He attached a comment to the post “Вот и всё”, meaning “that’s all”. Comparing the features of the surroundings in the picture with Google Earth imagery of the academy in Volsk, the location of the picture was evident.

Geolocation of the Special Faculty in VVIMO. (Source top: VKontakte / Sergei Burnatsev ; Source bottom: Google Earth, 52.057936, 47.386903)

Finally, in a VK post dating to March 31, 2017, Sergei posted an image of a car with South Ossetian plates, suggesting that he was back in South Ossetia. Presumably he continued his service as a lieutenant in the South Ossetian armed forces.

(Source: VKontakte / Sergei Burnatsev)

Conclusions

The participation of cadets from South Caucasian de facto states in Russian military academies represent Moscow’s continued interest in maintaining a sustainable buffer between itself and Georgia. Since Russia recognized the sovereignty of both these countries, there is nothing inherently strange or surprising about this. It does, however, create an interesting dynamic when cadets from Abkhazia and South Ossetia train alongside other cadets from countries which recognize neither de facto state. This dynamic represents a rare space of diplomacy that would not be possible under other circumstances.

Furthermore, this phenomenon represents a significant dependency on Russia on the behalf of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia is generally the more institutionally developed of the two de facto states, and as such has its own academy, but South Ossetia still finds itself entirely dependent on Russia for the education of its future military commanders. This take-away is amplified by fact that parts of the South Ossetian armed forces are being integrated into the Russian military, suggesting that this de facto state in particular is struggling with establishing proper institutions, even more than two decades after separation.


Michael Sheldon is an editorial intern at the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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