For Russia involvement in ethno-political conflict is not kind of idee fixe. There are many interests and rationales behind it.

A rebel of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) on the territory of the market in a town in Dobas destroyed by shelling. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russia’s involvement in the military confrontation in Syria has fueled the debates about Moscow’s role in resolving severe ethno-political and civil conflicts. The situation is made more acute by the fact that since the collapse of the Soviet Union right up until September 2015, Russia had only intervened in conflicts in the post-Soviet space, for example, in Tajikistan in 1992-1997, in the former Soviet republics of Transcaucasia in 1992-1994, and in the Dniester River in 1992. 

In August 2008, by recognizing the idependence of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, for the first time, Moscow violated Article 5 of the Belavezha Accords, which fixed the borders of the post-Soviet republics as of the end of the Soviet Union.

The transfer of Crimea from one post-Soviet republic to another in March 2014 set a precedent. The West and Ukraine called it an annexation, while Russia described it as the reunification or Crimea’s “return home.”

In September 2015 Russia went beyond the geographic scope of the former Soviet Union in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). The military operation calls for an assessment of Russia’s previous experience and the risks involved.

Is Russia fueling the conflicts around disputed territories? 

An article “Accumulating Disputed Territories” recently appeared in an influential Russian business newspaper Vedomosti, in which the authors make an attempt to assess the Kremlin’s previous military experience and the risks. The opening lines alone are disheartening for the Kremlin:

Read Russia Direct's report: "Frozen Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space"

“Russia is increasingly investing in conflicts that become frozen, and which then require new investments. It is not clear what the outcome of the Syrian operation will be, but Russia has already accumulated responsibility for no fewer than four disputed territories: Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Donbas. This growing list of ‘under-states’ requires not only a large budget, but also competent management. Russia has problems with both.”

Naturally, such an article cannot take into account all the conflicting details and nuances of the ethno-political conflicts involving Russia. So, it would be an oversimplification to file all cases of Russian interference under the same heading.

Let’s start with the fact that Moscow has never had either a strategic objective or an obsession with collecting “disputed territories” and investing in conflicts. In fact, over the past two decades Russia’s position in relation to these conflicts, as well as the issues of territorial integrity and self-determination, has repeatedly changed.

Before the conflict with Georgia, dubbed in media as "the five-day war," Moscow operated a blockade and sanctions against that selfsame Abkhazia (which were fully abolished only in spring 2008). The Georgian authorities once welcomed the presence of not only Russian armed forces (which withdrew completely by November 2007), but also border guards (before 1999). 

In offering the Kozak memorandum on the basic principles of the state structure of a united state in Moldova (2003), Russia was prepared not only to recognize the territorial integrity of Moldova, but also to help guarantee it.

That would have made the latter a unitary, not federal country. But neither before nor since have the parties to the Transnistrian conflict been so close to solving the problem of integration into a single state. Alas, 12 years ago the chance slipped away. And not because of Russia’s actions.

After the “five-day war” in South Ossetia, Russia prolonged the Grand Treaty with Ukraine to strengthen cooperation with Kiev, and the question of Crimea remained off the Kremlin’s agenda until “Maidan-2.”

Regrettably, the authors of the Vedomosti article cannot accept the simple fact that Russia’s policy is not only a consequence of its actions. Moscow’s political approach is seen as a unilateral movement. What Moscow wants, Moscow gets. But does that make Russia the demiurge of global reality? Are there not other factors that force it to move in a particular direction?

Russia is taking on more responsibility as it moves forward. Moscow has been forced to react both to mistakes in the “national construction” of new independent entities and the active foreign policy intervention of other players (U.S., EU, NATO).

Multi-dimensional nature of the post-Soviet conflicts 

It is not only Moscow’s policy in respect of the conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria that has changed. The approaches of Georgia and Moldova have also changed — rapidly at times. And the Ukraine that emerged after Maidan-2 was very different to the Ukrainian state that preceded it.

Therefore, we can (and should) debate the results of conflict resolution and/or involvement, but at the same time must not ignore the multi-dimensionality of the various post-Soviet case studies that are not simply the product of Soviet-style machinations from the Kremlin.

Regarding Russia’s role, it would be unfair to ignore the positive outcomes of Moscow’s interference. For instance, the May 1994 agreement on a permanent ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, which was concluded largely thanks to the efforts of retired Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador Vladimir Kazimirov, remains virtually the only such document, which maintains the fragile status quo in the region, that is both violated and disputed. Yet, so far, no one has proposed a better solution, which would encourage both sides to come up with genuine compromise.

Likewise, Moscow stopped the bloodshed in Transnistria in 1992 and in Tajikistan in 1997 by putting both parties at the negotiation table. In addition, Russia contributed to establishing peaceful negotiation process between Georgia and South Ossetia in 1992 and between Abkhazia and Georgia in 1994.

And had former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili not sought to “unfreeze” South Ossetian conflict in the spring of 2004, it is not ruled out that the current dynamic of the Russo-Georgian relations would be different.

Post-Soviet republics as under-states?

The authors of the Vedomosti article also use the word “under-state” to describe the post-Soviet de facto entities, which echoes of the views of many experts who see them as “black holes” "piratic enclaves."

However, most serious pudints (such as Laurence Broers, Donnacha O'Beacháin, Helge Blakkisrud, Pal Kolstø, Nina Caspersen, Thomas de Waal and John O’Loughlin) take a more careful view and avoid oversimplification of such complicated issue.

They began to consider these entities as the consequence of the complex processes of Soviet disintegration, national self-determination and the construction of new post-Soviet formations. Avoiding pejorative connotations, they also studied the political processes, electoral campaigns and structures of everyday life inside them.

Incidentally, these “under-states” (as some authors see them) were certainly not Moscow’s obedient puppets all the time. Suffice it to recall the results of the 2004-2005 elections in Abkhazia, which were unpredictable for Moscow and seriously divided the Abkhazian society. Or take the campaign in South Ossetia in 2011, which also was full of intrigues, with the Kremlin having had little influence on the outcome of these elections. 

Also read: "What are the Kremlin’s new red lines in the post-Soviet space?"

This is important to take into account, especially, in the context of the frozen conflicts:  After all, the blame for the conflicts between "under-states" and their “parent states” lies not only with them and Russia (which did not support them immediately), but also with the new post-Soviet states, which conducted a controversial policy as well.

After all, Abkhazia lost 4 percent of its pre-war population in clashes and battles with Georgian army, not the Russian one.

It should be also taken into account that reluctance to recognize “under-states” as independent does not mean refusal to work with thier population, as indicated by the West's policy toward these "under-states." For example, the visa restrictions for Abkhazian people imposed by the EU are indicative in this context. No wonder, the people of these unrecognized states choose Russia to establish closer ties. Such examples are plenty.

One worthy point the authors of the Vedomosti article do make is the need to improve the managerial skills of Russian diplomats and officials, and representatives of large corporations. But raising their level of competence doesn't means abandoning Russia’s national interests or the necessity (if circumstances require) of intervening in conflicts in order to “freeze” them until the best compromise solution is found — not a settlement that seeks to minimize Russian involvement and edge Moscow out of the game.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.