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Nov 17, 2016 | 09:16 GMT

For Russia, Some Conflicts Are Colder Than Ever

For Russia, Some Conflicts Are Colder Than Ever
(LELI BLAGONRAVOVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Pro-Russia breakaway territories will become more central to Russia's standoff with the West over the former Soviet periphery.
  • As the West-Russia competition intensifies, Moscow could increase its military presence in the breakaway territories. When things de-escalate, Russia could continue to provide support, directly or indirectly, through economic and security aid.
  • Regardless, Russia plans to maintain its military position in the breakaway territories.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, pro-Russia breakaway territories have figured prominently in the Eurasian political landscape. The breakaway phenomenon actually began under the Soviet Union during Mikhail Gorbachev's era of reduced (yet still strong) centralized control in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time of his rule, a series of nationalist and independence movements arose to challenge Moscow's grip, as did regional movements trying to break away from their republics.

This was particularly true in areas where ethnic and cultural minorities were concentrated. The most notable hot spots were in the Abkhazian and South Ossetian regions of the Soviet republic of Georgia, the majority Slavic region of Transdniestria in the republic of Moldova, and in the majority Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. As Moscow's control and authority over the Soviet republics weakened, tensions grew. Eventually, armed conflict broke out. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, these regions formed de facto states outside the control of the newly independent former Soviet republics.

Moscow's role in the breakaway conflicts was complex, particularly given that they occurred as the Soviet Union was dissolving and the Russian Federation emerging. In simple terms, by backing breakaway territories, Russia solidified its control over parts of the former Soviet space and turned them into assets for Moscow. Russia's military presence in the territories has enabled it to rapidly respond to regional political developments. For example, when Georgia shifted to a strong pro-West, anti-Russia foreign policy following the Rose Revolution in 2003, Russia backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia against the central government in Tbilisi. In 2008, Russia used the territories as a point from which to invade Georgia and to demonstrate NATO's unwillingness to come to the aid of an ally. Soon after, Russia established official military bases in both territories, something that has undermined Georgia's drive to join NATO and the European Union to this day.

Similarly, when the 2009 Moldovan parliamentary elections unseated the Russia-friendly Communist Party in favor of the pro-West Alliance for European Integration, Russia used Transdniestria to express its displeasure. Moscow increased its security presence in the breakaway territory and rebuffed efforts by the Moldovan government to reintegrate Transdniestria into the country. The very existence of this territorial dispute has made the European Union and NATO wary of considering Moldova's bid for membership. 

Russia's use of Nagorno-Karabakh is more complicated, since it lacks a direct military presence in the breakaway territory. Moscow has, however, used the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh as a way to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan and to remain the predominant foreign power in the Caucasus. Though Armenia is strategically aligned with Moscow and Azerbaijan has a more balanced foreign policy, Russia sells weapons to both in a bid to keep each focused on the other and dependent on Moscow for its security needs.

In Modern Context

Russia's use of the breakaway territory strategy is not only limited to conflicts that originated in the late Soviet, early post-Soviet period. In 2014, Moscow employed its breakaway strategy once again in Ukraine. Following the EuroMaidan uprising in Kiev, Russia annexed Crimea and supported a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, which is still active. Donetsk and Luhansk are now the newest separatist territories in the former Soviet space, and once again Russia is funneling military personnel and supplies to the regions to undermine pro-Western governments in the former Soviet periphery.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine and the creation of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics show that Russia's strategy for the former Soviet space has changed little. The breakaway strategy should be understood as part of Russia's broader efforts to keep its sphere of influence in the former Soviet periphery intact so as to buffer against foreign rivals, especially those influenced by the West. When that fails, as it did with the EuroMaidan uprising in Ukraine, Russia seeks to sow discord by supporting domestic opposition groups and by providing rebel territories with political, economic and military backing.

As the Russia-West standoff following the EuroMaidan uprising intensifies, the importance of breakaway territories increases. Just as the West has strengthened its political, economic and security cooperation with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, Russia has strengthened its presence in the breakaway territories it supports, increasing the pace of its military exercises and providing rebels with more sophisticated weaponry.

The standoff between Moscow and the West has also made the security situation within breakaway territories more dynamic. There was a significant escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh in April; dozens of troops were wounded and hundreds were injured or went missing on both sides. Meanwhile, the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues to produce casualties daily, and kidnappings and the movement of demarcation markings near Abkhazia and South Ossetia have caused conflict between Russia and Georgia. As Moscow and the West continue to compete for influence across the former Soviet periphery, the security situation could become more unstable in and near the pro-Russia breakaways.

Points of Negotiation

Yet, diplomatic progress might still be made. As Russia continues to bear the pressures imposed by low energy prices and Western sanctions, it may become more willing to negotiate over breakaway territories. In fact, Moscow and the West already have several platforms through which to discuss the various breakaway territory conflicts: the Minsk and Normandy talks over Ukraine, the 5+2 talks over Transdniestria and the Minsk talks over Nagorno-Karabakh. And each has been active in recent months.

Though negotiations have so far failed to produce breakthrough agreements, they have led to some important tactical changes. For example, Ukraine and the Russia-backed rebels agreed in Minsk talks to a military withdrawal plan at three sites along the line of contact, and the withdrawal at two of the sites has been fully implemented. Also, in the most recent Normandy talks over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would support an armed Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe force in Donbas. Though Kremlin officials have since hedged those statements by stressing the need to work out the specifics of such a force and calling on Ukraine to do more in terms of political concessions, it nevertheless shows that Moscow is capable of flexibility in negotiations.

Such flexibility could also be applied to other topics and other breakaway territories. Given Russia's weak economy, Moscow would like to reduce the economic burden of single-handedly sustaining the breakaway territories (whether through direct financial transfers, subsidized energy prices, and preferential trade and investment arrangements), and therefore could be open to greater economic cooperation between these territories and their neighboring states. Russia's military buildup in these territories also gives Moscow the option to scale down its security presence in terms of weapons deployments and frequent military exercises in exchange for a reciprocal scale down on the part of the West along the former Soviet periphery, were the two sides to get more serious on de-escalating the Russia-West standoff.

That said, Russia is unlikely to abandon its position in these breakaway territories entirely. Maintaining a military presence in Donbas, Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia gives Moscow significant leverage over Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, and its indirect support to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict anchors Russia's position in the Caucasus. Russia could give tactical concessions to minimize military conflict and to ease its own political and economic isolation, but its broader breakaway territory strategy is likely to endure. 

Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky

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