Russia’s Strategy of “Capture”

Russia’s Strategy of “Capture”

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine represented the Kremlin’s latest and most extreme reaction to a process that has been unfolding for decades: the final breakup of the Soviet Union.


Social capture refers to a systematic policy aimed at embedding attitudes in the society of another country that is pro-Moscow, anti-Western, Eurosceptic, anti-Atlanticist, or all of the above. Through this policy of influencing public opinion, the Kremlin has effectively sought to establish pro-Moscow Trojan horses in countries like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

This includes, but is not limited to, the following:


1) The use of Kremlin-backed and Russian-language media to spread pro-Kremlin and anti-Western narratives in receptive segments of society. Examples include anti-LGBTQ messaging in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova.

2) The use of so-called “compatriot” policies and identity politics with Russophone and ethnic-Russian populations, as Moscow-aligned groups did in pre-annexation Crimea and pre-war Donbas in Ukraine. 

3) The distribution of Russian passports and the payment of pensions to ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in former Soviet countries such as Ukraine and Georgia.

The next rung on the Kremlin’s capture ladder is elite capture. This is a systematic policy of weaponizing and instrumentalizing corruption to create a sympathetic lobby inside the political and economic elite of another post-Soviet country. If social capture involves a policy of establishing a Trojan horse in another society, elite capture involves creating one in its political, bureaucratic, and business community.

Elite capture includes, but is not limited to, the following:

1) Leveraging the Russia-based business ties and economic interests of political figures. In the past, this has included Bidzina Ivanishvili in Georgia, Viktor Medvedchuk in Ukraine, and Vladimir Plahotniuc in Moldova.

2) Leveraging legacy Soviet-era networks such as gas delivery systems. The Kremlin has used murky energy schemes with opaque ownership structures like RosUkrEnergo, EuralTransGas, and Moldovagaz as carrots to capture and control elites in former Soviet states like Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

3) Planting elites in neighboring countries, as was the case when Ivanishvili, who lived in Moscow in the 1990s and whose economic assets are tied to Russia, founded the Georgian Dream party in 2012.

4) Leveraging defense assistance, as has been the case in the past with Armenia or via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Traditionally, as noted above, state capture refers to private-sector actors taking over state institutions in their native country. The twist in the former Soviet space is that nominally private sector actors from Russia, which are actually adjuncts of the Kremlin, attempt to capture the state of another country through proxies. State capture is the logical conclusion of a successful policy of societal and elite capture as it builds on and expands the networks of influence that these established.

Arguably, the most successful example of state capture is Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party, which captured the state of Georgia following the 2012 elections there. During the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, Russia appeared dangerously close to capturing the Ukrainian state until a civil society uprising thwarted it.

Finally, land capture is Russia’s policy of creating pretexts to seize part of the territory of another former Soviet state. This was the case in Moldova’s Transnistria region, Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) regions, and Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Donbas region. In pursuing land capture, Moscow traditionally follows an arsonist-firefighter strategy, instigating an ethnic or regional conflict and then playing the role of peacekeeper.

It is only when these four forms of capture fail to subjugate their target that Moscow resorts to an attempt at total land capture, as was the case with the February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine (the initial goal of which was elite decapitation and regime change).

Toward Hybrid Containment

The four-pronged Russian policy of capture represents a hybrid threat as it involves both non-kinetic and below-threshold aggression as well as traditional kinetic methods. It, therefore, requires a hybrid response from the United States, its allies, and partners that extends beyond the traditional defense and foreign policy arms of government.

This essay attempts to start a conversation about crafting such a policy, which I call “hybrid containment,” as it addresses each form of Russian capture.

Such a policy would include, but not be restricted to, the following:

1) Containing social capture would involve assertive and systematic anti-disinformation efforts in the Russian-language media space in former Soviet states to push back on Kremlin-sponsored disinformation narratives. It would also involve financing media literacy efforts in these countries and active engagement with civil societies to foreclose on these narratives taking hold. Additionally, it would include working with partner governments in the former Soviet space to counter Moscow’s compatriot policies, such as issuing passports to citizens of other countries.

2) Containing elite and state capture would involve vigorous anti-corruption efforts, including tightening beneficial ownership regimes and international money laundering efforts. It would also involve sanctioning Moscow’s proxies in former Soviet states. Additionally, it would involve efforts to facilitate diversifying these countries’ energy suppliers to reduce dependency on Moscow and disrupt the networks that make elite and state capture possible.

3) Containing land capture would involve working with partner states in the former Soviet space to achieve early detection of Moscow’s efforts to instigate and leverage ethnic and regional conflicts. It is too late to do this in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. However, the Kremlin has long sought to inflame tensions in other regions, such as Moldova’s Gagauzia region. Containing land capture would also include enhanced defense cooperation with partner countries in the former Soviet space.

These policy recommendations are far from exhaustive, and some are already in place. However, Russia’s policy of capture in the former Soviet space is a systematic effort that requires a systematic response. Arming and assisting Ukraine against Russia’s current aggression is the central component of that response, but it is not the only component. The battle between Russian mafiaism and liberal democracy in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union is not a conflict in far-off lands of which we know little. It is the normative struggle of our time and should be treated as such.

Brian Whitmore is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the McDowell Center for Global Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Councils Eurasia Center, and the host of The Power Vertical Podcast.