RD Interview: Sergey Markedonov of Russian State University for the Humanities talks about the unpredictable nature of frozen conflicts and assesses the chances that the Ukrainian conflict might end in military confrontation.

The opening of the Immediate Response 2008 international military exercise in Georgia. American, Ukrainian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani forces also took part in the exercise. Photo: RIA Novosti

With the recent escalation of fighting in Eastern Ukraine, many experts have started to talk about the thawing of so-called “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan. And the plans of NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg to visit Georgia in late August to open a NATO special training center could hypothetically also heat up these frozen conflicts, given the Kremlin’s sensitivity to this problem. 

Russia Direct has sat down with Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities, to discuss the unpredictable nature of frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space as well as the responses by the Kremlin and the West to the threat posed by increased regional instability. 

Russia Direct: Ukraine has changed the way the West looks at frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe. How has the perception of these conflicts changed since Crimea’s incorporation into Russia?

Sergey Markedonov: I usually describe the changes in perceptions as the “Crimean spectacles.” This trend emerged last year, shortly before the referendum in Crimea, when its status was on the agenda.

Today this trend is dominating. The “Crimean spectacles” mean that ethno-political conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and, to a lesser extent in Transnistria, are assessed in the context of Crimea.

In particular, [the conflict along the borders of] South Ossetia and Abkhazia is seen as a sort of precursor for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

 Also read:"How Russia's protracted conflict with Georgia impacts how we view Ukraine"

Likewise, such logic is broadened to Transnistria (which is formally part of Moldova). If we look at the recent statement of the General Secretary of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, who said that Moldova will soon be the next hot spot, Transnistria is seen as an upcoming “aftertaste” of the so-called annexation of Crimea.

However, all these conflicts differ significantly. The decisions on South Ossetia and Crimea were undertaken independently of each other. 

In 2008, the question “Who is next?” was most significant and many experts talked about Crimea, Transnistria or even Nagorno-Karabakh.

But shortly after the five-day war between Russia and Georgia, the German TV Channel ARD broadcast an interview with then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who said that Crimea was not a disputed territory and Moscow didn’t give any signs that it was going to reassess the status of the peninsula. 

Not only did Putin make statements that Crimea was a part of Ukraine, but also Russia made some moves to extend the Big Agreement on cooperation between Russia and Ukraine, which was based on the recognition of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. 

And it indicates that the Russian logic is not like the one described by the Western media and politicians. It is not the logic of the proactive move, which suggests that Moscow has a certain plan and strictly follows it. It is the reactive logic, which means responding to problems as soon as they arise. 

RD: Could you give specific examples?

S.M.: Moscow didn’t recognize the independence of South Ossetia [before the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict] despite the fact that South Ossetia held two referendums in 1992 and 2006.

In addition, there were many requests to Russia’s Constitutional Court, to the Supreme Council and to the President in person and to the State Duma — requests to recognize independence or incorporate into Russia. 

Another example: In 2008, the situation in Crimea didn’t threaten Russia. That’s why there was no desire in Moscow to change the situation in its favor or to take risks.

But in 2014, the situation started significantly changing, when Ukraine began to turn from a country that created a balance of power into a country that identified itself as the outpost of the West in its confrontation with Russia.

This situation created the Crimea story. So, this decision was taken in the context of February 2014 and the Maidan protests, which provoked such a response from Moscow.   

 Also read: From Maidan to Mukachevo: Evolution of the Ukraine crisis. 

RD: You say that Crimea was a situational response from the Kremlin. But what about Putin’s speech during the 2008 NATO-Russia summit in Bucharest, shortly before the Russo-Georgian conflict, when he warned that further NATO expansion would provoke Russia to incorporate Crimea, Ukraine would no longer exist as a unitary state and Abkhazia and South Ossetia would become Russia’s buffer zones?

S.M.: These warnings were expressed not formally, but rather, emotionally. Yet, when Western opponents give this example, they tend to present Russia’s policy as a one-sided move: Moscow wanted to do something and finally did it.

We should not forget about NATO’s expansion from the other side. If there were any frameworks in place — no NATO expansion, no ignoring the interests of Russia — Russia would not have behaved in the way that it finally did. 

RD: Following your logic, NATO expansion is a sort of “red line” for the Kremlin. Could other events — like NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe, American military assistance to Ukraine or the opening of the NATO training center in Georgia — be seen by Moscow as new red lines that will lead to a much graver conflict?

S.M.: Actually, Russia drew these “red lines” long ago and they haven’t significantly changed: NATO expansion is acceptable for the Baltic States, but not for the core territory of the former Soviet Union.

Russia’s red lines were clearly expressed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his deputy Grigory Karasin in their statements on Transnistria. 

In fact, they framed them within two extreme viewpoints: Lavrov said if Moldova gives up its neutrality and enters NATO, Russia will raise the question about the status of Transnistria, while Karasin added that Russia would like to see Transnistria as autonomous within Moldova.

At first glance, there is a contradiction in their statements. But there is no contradiction. It is just two frameworks that require taking into account Russian national interests. 

This means that Russia’s new red lines — NATO military exercises and assistance to Ukraine or Georgia — are hardly likely to provoke a war. But what can really lead to a war is a question of status.

For example, if Ukraine or Georgia join NATO tomorrow, then serious escalation in the confrontation is highly likely.

To what extent will the confrontation increase? It is too early to predict. But, obviously, for Russia, it will be unacceptable. But if the conflict will be in a frozen state, Moscow is hardly likely to play the role of the revisionist state, just because it lacks economic resources to be revisionist. 

 Recommended: 3 reasons why Moldova could become the next Ukraine. 

RD: Western experts and officials argue that NATO expansion doesn’t pose a threat to Russia. In fact, they are faced with a dilemma, as they see it. Following their logic, they don’t want a war with Russia and, thus, straddle the line between taking into account Russia’s interests and honoring their commitment to respond to what they see as calls for help from Ukrainians or Georgians. But it is Russia’s policy in Ukraine that brings about their fears. So, how to deal with this standoff?   

S.M.: Let’s understand the nature of NATO. It is a military bloc that expands its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders, not a club of stamp collectors (laughing).

And, in reality, it doesn’t take into account Russian interests or involve Russia in creating mechanisms of providing international security.       

RD: Yet the odds of Georgia and Ukraine entering NATO are miniscule today. If that is the case, should Russia be concerned? Don’t its fears look like an exaggeration to promote its political goals? 

S.M.: You know it is not a matter of Georgia’s membership in NATO posing a threat to Russia. It is a matter of how it is trying to enter the alliance.

If a country, which tends to identify itself as an outpost deterring the “Russian empire,” enters the NATO, it might change the bloc and its policy, given that all decision-making in the bloc is based on the consensus of its members.

So, it is not the bloc itself that brings about concerns [in the Kremlin], it is when NATO membership is seen [by Georgia or Ukraine] as defense from Russia. 

RD: You said that Georgia tries to deter what it sees as the Russian imperial ambitions, but its new government seems to be trying to find common ground with Moscow. 

S.M.: Yes, the new Georgian government is more pragmatic, but you should keep in mind that they don’t shy away from a pro-NATO policy. 

RD: After the Minsk II Agreements, there were signs that Ukraine could become another frozen conflict, with many observers pinning hopes on this scenario. What is your assessment?

S.M.: A frozen conflict is a conflict with no dynamic. But when people die, when there are shootings in cities, when two sides cannot agree on territorial status, there is no reason to call this conflict “frozen.” I would be happy if the Ukraine conflict was frozen. 

As soon as both sides finally understand they could totally destroy each other, the conflict might be frozen.

The problem is that the West’s position is that it is only Russia that should be to blame for the development of the Ukraine crisis. So, many in Ukraine probably disregard the possibility of compromise and prefer to wait, when the West exerts pressure on Russia through sanctions or others means.

I respect this position, but it doesn’t lead to compromise. 

A local resident rides a bicycle as Ukrainian servicemen sit atop an armored vehicle with Ukrainian flags, on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine, Mar. 4, 2015. Photo: AP

Regarding Russia, the danger is that it is very difficult to say what the Kremlin wants. But it is possible to say what Russia doesn’t want.

It doesn’t want the same type of failure [in Donbas] as it was in the case of the Republic of Serbian Krajina [a self-proclaimed Serb republic within the territory of Croatia during the Croatian War of Independence in 1991-1995; the rebels from this republic were defeated by Croatia’s army because of the lack of support from Yugoslavia, which they wanted to join – Editor’s note] 

Probably, we will witness some attempts to unfreeze conflicts and flex muscles. And if these attempts fail and all stakeholders understand this, they might come up with a compromise.

After all, the Minsk Agreements, with its flaws and contradictions, resulted from the failure of all sides to reach their goals.

Today there might be attempts to reassess these agreements and there will be Minsk III, Minsk IV, etc. The only positive moment in this situation is that all players are taking about commitments to these agreements, although they question them. 

RD: That’s why — because of a great deal of talk and hope on these agreements — there is an illusion that the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is frozen.

S.M.: Exactly. I mean here the illusion, not the frozen state of the conflict.

RD: What should Russia do and not do today to avoid exacerbating the Ukrainian conflict and prevent other protracted conflicts in the post-Soviet space from completely unfreezing?

S.M.: In the beginning, let’s figure out which conflicts are frozen and unfrozen at present.

Well, the conflicts in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria can be deemed frozen. But the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan seems not to be frozen anymore.

The Donbas war is in full swing. So, what does Moscow need to do in this situation?

I think it should at least not intensify confrontation. It should take more of a defensive (not offensive) policy, because the intensification of the conflict could lead to toughening sanctions, which will aggravate economic challenges and, finally, result in failure.

The failure is even more dangerous in the current context, because it could fuel emotion-driven thinking among Russian political elites and take them away from pragmatism.

On the other hand, not everything depends on Moscow, because the West is reluctant to offer a face-saving solution for Russia.  

RD: Why do you think so?

S.M.: If there is an opportunity to win, why should the West come up with a compromise?

RD: But why do you think the West is driven by zero-sum game logic if some experts and politicians repeatedly say that they are not interested in weakening Russia, a country that — with all its nuclear potential — could become a big troublemaker if it fails? 

S.M.: If it is the case, let’s change the approaches of how to resolve the problem. This opinion is fair and I agree with it in general. But the question is not what we are speaking about, but what we are doing.

If you think so [that a weaker Russia is not good for the world’s security], you need to admit that Donbas is included in the sphere of Russia’s particular national interests.

 Recommended: Russia Direct Brief: 'A Five-Step Program for Fixing the Ukraine Crisis'. 

RD.: Kiev seems to have proposed a compromise to Moscow recently, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko made attempts to amend Ukraine’s Constitution and expand the rights of the Donbas. Do you think that this move could help to resolve the country’s standoff with Russia?

S.M.: The problem is that there is no clarity about the political role that the leaders of Eastern Ukraine will play in a new Ukraine and if they will be really properly incorporated in accordance with the law, while taking into account their interests and the interests of Russia.

So, [these amendments look] like talking without thinking over the real mechanisms that will work in practice.   

RD: Let’s think about a worst-case scenario of the development of the Ukraine crisis. What would that mean for the Kremlin?

S.M.: The scenario of Serbian Krajina is the worst case one. In this case, the Eastern Ukraine republics will be totally destroyed and their rights will not be taken into account.

The law about decentralization won’t work and will be just a formality.

Regarding Russia, the domestic implications of such scenario will be very grave, because in this case, many will understand that Putin is not so powerful and try to shake him from different positions. And if so, there could be serious threats not from liberals, but from those on the right and nationalists.

This consolidation based on anti-Putin sentiments is what I am concerned with most. So, the instability [in Ukraine] can be exported to Russia. And I don’t want it. 

RD: Can the West contribute to resolving protracted conflicts in the former Soviet republics?

S.M.: The problem is that the West sees these conflicts as tools of Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space. And the influence is regarded as dangerous and negative.

Some American experts admit that the West doesn’t have the time and tools to intervene more rigorously [in Eastern Europe]. They admit that Russia is an important stakeholder here and it is difficult to resolve security problems without Moscow.

But they don’t go beyond this understanding. It doesn’t lead them to the idea that they need to change something in their approaches of how to deal with Russia.