Post-Soviet Frozen Conflicts: Understanding Russian Involvement

Frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space clearly pose a great threat to the regional stability and security. Let alone the damage they entail for the states and regions they take place in, the conflicts also aggravate the relations between Russia and the West that is detrimental for the European security architecture at large.

The tensions between Russia and the West in this context arise from the misrepresentation of each side’s intentions and divergent approaches towards the post-soviet states and are exacerbated by the existing ethno-political entanglements in the newly independent states (NIS), i.e. the former Soviet republics. Russia’s role and goals in the conflicts are often misunderstood. In this regard, the analysis of frozen conflicts in the post-soviet states seems to be of the greatest importance, since they are the cause and the consequence of the current standoff at the same time, and they cannot be solved without a dialogue between Russia and the West as well. The resolution of these conflicts is therefore contingent on the relations between the key players – the US, the EU and Russia.

The Soviet legacy

One should understand that although Russia indeed plays a crucial role in maintaining the “frozen” state of conflicts in the post-soviet space, these conflicts do not come down only to Russian foreign policies.

As Eurasia scholar Thomas de Waal notes: “The breakdown of empires is the most common catalyst for producing new aspirant states… The post-Soviet space is especially rich in these territories”. Post-soviet conflicts in this sense are the direct consequence of the USSR breakup. They are rooted in the Soviet past and complex relations between the Soviet republics and their ethnical minorities. Foreign Policy Institute research fellow Robert Hamilton stresses that some of the post-soviet states had institutionalized identity divisions that became explicit during the USSR collapse, leading to the military conflicts between identity groups in these countries. The borders in the soviet republics were drawn in such a way that different ethnic groups were split and mixed with each other, creating a potential for instability in the long term. When the USSR began collapsing, nationalism was on the rise in the Soviet republics and some of their regions, leading to the collisions between ethnic minorities and titular nations. The breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan were mostly inhabited by ethnic minorities seeking more autonomy or independence in some cases, and unification with other countries in the others (like Armenians living in Karabakh or Russians in Crimea). Thus, the 1990s were marked by an outbreak of separatist movements in post-soviet countries, and even Russia was no exception (the Chechen war). The most recent frozen conflict in the East of Ukraine in its turn is more of a geopolitical genesis, although it was stipulated by the tensions between the Russian-speaking East and the new revolutionary authorities in Kiev that promoted the policy of ukrainization.

Ethno-political conflicts are extremely difficult to resolve. The unwillingness of both parties to make concessions and the initial identity tensions foster the zero-sum perception, where the mutually agreed resolution is hardly achievable. As Neil MacFarlane points out, the divisions between communities deepen as the conflicts proceed due to the war-related grievances and uncertainty regarding the negotiations. Combined with the balance of power that does not allow each party to prevail, the conflict turns into the frozen state.

Therefore, the conflicts per se are not the result of Russia’s policies (although in case with Ukraine Moscow facilitated the separatist moods in the East of the country). By and large, these conflicts are the outcome of the nation-building policies of NIS and the rise of national identity within the ethnic minorities fearing of their future status downgrade. In this vein, the parent states’ and the separatist de-facto states’ policies should also be taken into account when talking about conflicts resolution. Nevertheless, Russia in some cases is the main player that sustains the existence of the de-facto states. What drives Russian actions and what does it actually do?

Russia’s sphere of influence interests

The most often repeated thesis is that Russia wants to enjoy a “sphere of influence” (e.g. Stent 2020: Cooley 2017; US National Security Strategy 2017), implying that Moscow strives for the Cold War-type exclusive control over the neighboring countries. In fact, Russia sees the post-soviet space as the “sphere of its privileged interests” – the term used by Dmitri Medvedev that caused many speculations in the West regarding Russian intentions in Eastern Europe and CIS countries. However, as Dmitri Trenin explains, the “privileged interests” does not mean the declaration of Russian hegemony in the region.

It means that the post-soviet space is the region of Russian foreign policy’s top priority, which is quite normal for any state to have one. There is no declaration of “sphere of influence” in any Russian foreign policy or national security concept. With a closer look, it will become obvious that none of the post-soviet states is under Moscow’s control. Moscow would like to see more solidarity from its partners but it cannot force them. Still, Russia acknowledges that it deems post-soviet space crucial for its national interests, national security in particular.

As Ru-PAC analyst Julian Fisher shows, Russia’s security concerns have been aggravated by the NATO expansion, which Moscow saw as a menace due to the failure of its integration into the Western community and the increased concentration of the Western military presence on its borders. Therefore, the key priority for Moscow in the post-Soviet space has become to prevent the countries it considers vital for its national security from joining NATO. It is not necessarily that these countries must become Russian satellites. Instead, Moscow wants to ensure that they are not hostile to Russia. However, when in its “backyard” Russia witnesses the emergence of highly anti-Russian and pro-NATO regimes that are inter alia, according to Moscow, generously supported by the West, the Russian leadership sees it as a direct threat to the national security. Thus, by supporting separatist movements in countries like Georgia and Ukraine, Russia draws the “red lines” for the further NATO advancement.

The problem with NATO enlargement in the region is connected with the divergent foreign policy paradigms and Russia’s threats perception. As Alexander Gabuev illustrates, enlarging NATO and promoting democracy in the region Washington wants to sustain the independence of these states by providing them with alternative options, whereas Moscow sees it as the US covert attempts to weaken Russia’s positions in terms of its influence and strategic security.

Ambiguity in Moscow’s policies

It is often claimed that Russia is guided by a certain strategy towards the conflicts. Russia is portrayed as an actor playing a “long-established role in destabilizing its neighborhood”. Some pundits analyze Russian involvement in the region through the lenses of the “Crimean scenario”, trying to depict a single pattern of Russian interventionism that uses hybrid warfare in order to grab more territories and/or to maintain its influence. However, as Sergey Markedonov argues, Russia has no “universal recipes”, i.e. there is no single approach attached to the post-soviet conflicts: “its key motivation is to understand how to tackle the problems in the post-Soviet space in a certain region at the current moment”. Its actions with regards to the frozen conflicts are therefore mostly reactive. Russia reacts to the emerging destabilization, however it does not initiate one.

Moscow has different goals in each case and as such implements different approaches: it recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia, however hesitates to do the same with Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh and the “People’s Republics” in Eastern Ukraine. In most cases it deploys peacekeeping missions in the conflict zones in order to prevent the further escalation. In Ukraine it provides military and economic support to the separatists by stealth. In almost all cases, Russia explicitly picks the side of separatists, however in Nagorno-Karabakh it tries to strike a balance between Azerbaijan and Armenia so it neither condemns, nor supports Stepanakert’s aspirations.

On the one hand, Moscow indeed preserves the territorial disputes and divisions by baking secessionists and tries therefore to gain a leverage on the policies of their parent-states. On the other hand, Russia promotes peaceful conflicts resolution, rather than military. When the wars erupted in Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan in 1990s, it was Russia that brokered the ceasefire agreements between the parties of the conflicts. Its military presence in Georgia and Moldova (that was in fact recognized by then-leaders of these states) became a barrier against the major escalations. Although the relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol remain tense, there has been no large-scale military collisions between the two since the Russian peacekeeping mission began in 1992. After the Russia-Georgian war in 2008, it is unlikely that the conflict between Georgia and its separatist regions will erupt again in the foreseeable future due to the Russian troops stationed there. It is also applicable for Nagorno-Karabakh, as long as recently deployed Russian peacekeepers are in the region.

Contrary to the common belief that Russia undermines all the attempts to resolve the crises, in cases like Moldova and Ukraine it is actively involved in finding the peaceful solutions (the Kozak Memorandum for Moldova, the Minsk Agreements for Ukraine). However, as Nadezhda Arbatova mentions, Russia puts more effort into the military scenario prevention than into conflict resolution per se.

Frozen conflict impasse: is there a way out?

Russia is neither capable of, nor willing to reconstitute the USSR in any form. Its actions in the post-soviet conflicts are determined by mainly its threats perception, not by neo-imperialism. In this regard, still there is room for cooperation between Russia and the West.

The discussed conflicts have two main implications: ethno-political and geopolitical. The latter has become the most substantial factor and as such, it is the Russia-West relations that determine the outcome. As the authors of a RAND report on frozen conflicts state, “conflict resolution will flow from an agreement on the regional order, not the other way around”. It means that in order to solve the crises (both in the post-soviet countries and between Russia and the West), firstly the West and Russia should come to terms with regards to the new security architecture in Europe. As both Russia and the West exert influence on the parties of the conflicts, i.e. the secessionists and the parent states respectively, working together they may find a suitable solution that meets the interests of both sides. In this vein, Russia and the West should understand that without each other’s engagement the post-soviet conflicts are unlikely to be resolved.

Maksim Kostin is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).