With Putin’s unprecedented victory in the presidential election this Saturday, let’s take the time to investigate the pro-Russian separatist regions in the post-Soviet bloc, which, depending on who you ask, is either former, current or future Russian territory.
Those in that second camp have a genuine gripe against Putin’s regime pertaining to its propogation of “frozen conflicts” in former Soviet territories. As its name suggests, frozen conflicts are armed conflicts in which progress toward a resolution has halted, oftentimes due to their continuation being of strategic relevance to a great power which has the resources and political wherewithal to do so.
Putin’s Russia has become a master of frozen conflicts, instigating and maintaining them in Georgia (supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia), Moldova (supporting Transnistria), Azerbaijan (supporting Nagorno-Karabakh, albeit less overtly), and most recently, in Ukraine (supporting rebels in Donbass). Pro-Russian rebel groups in these nations provide the Kremlin with a strategic leverage over its former dominions, preventing them from integrating into the European Union. Preventing the expansion of the EU and NATO is of paramount importance to Russia, and the drive to create a buffer zone between the Russian core and Central Europe has driven Russian foreign policy since its inception.
The support of rebel regimes in frozen conflicts throughout post-Soviet bloc is the most recent way in which Russia has attempted to achieve this long-held historical ambition. Iryna Friz, a Ukrainian parliament member, said: “It is frozen conflicts that allow the Kremlin to influence the pro-European states of the post-Soviet space. Therefore, any statements by the Kremlin on supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are blatant lies.”
The region where Russia is most heavily involved in is Georgia, where the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been recognized and propped up by Moscow since 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. Since then, developments between Tbilisi and Moscow have been minimal, which is just how Putin wants it. The death of Archil Tatunashvili, a Georgian citizen, in South Ossetia in February, coupled with Russia’s decision to open up poll booths in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, enabling the separatist regions to vote in the presidential election (in which they voted over 90 percent for Putin) sparked international criticism and condemnations.
Georgia itself condemned the presence of poll booths as “a clear demonstration of the ongoing occupation” of its territories, and “yet another step towards their factual annexation by the Russian Federation.” However, Tbilisi is far from unified on what to actually do about the separatists. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s government has taken a realpolitik approach, willing to engage in negotiations with the separatists if the opportunity arises. Kvirikashvili seems to acknowledge the futility of his position. In December, the disgruntled leader exclaimed: “What do you think we can do in such cases, enter into a new military conflict?! … Unfortunately, other than activating international mechanisms, we have no other means to react.”
The West is similarly conflicted, recognizing the necessity of countering and preventing Russia’s growing influence, but having neither the resources nor the initiative to do anything about it. Former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan noted that through the expansion of NATO “[the United States has] signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”
Whether it be in Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine, a similar pattern of visceral condemnations of Russia and declarations of support for the state in question, followed by little to no genuine progress, plays out. Chauvinists are enraged by lack of military action while diplomats are irked by diplomatic stalemates, but no amount of vexation in the West seems to change the fact that frozen conflicts are not going to be resolved anytime soon.
It is easy to suggest that Russian aggression and expansion was merely an inevitability after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Russia’s fervent desire for a buffer zone between itself and the West eliminates any possibility for everlasting peace or at least productive cooperation between the two. However, this assumption, which is extremely Russophobic, lacks self-criticism and places all of the blame on Moscow. The expansion of NATO in the 1990s under Bill Clinton in this context can be viewed as a major strategic blunder, cornering Russia and all but forcing her to retaliate. Former American diplomat Strobe Talbott warned: “An expanded NATO that excludes Russia will not serve to contain Russia’s retrograde, expansionist impulses,” but instead, “… further provoke them.”
The developments — or the lack of them in this case — in Georgia, Moldova and now Ukraine are consequences of the disastrous expansion policies NATO in the 1990s. And while it would be foolish to consider Russia innocent in this whole affair, we cannot forget the role that the West has played in instigating the frozen conflicts of the Post-Soviet bloc.