2016 proved that Russia doesn't have a universal method of resolving the “frozen conflicts” in the post-Soviet space. Every case requires a specific approach.


Utility workers taking down the biggest Lenin statue in Ukraine. Photo: RIA Novosti

The post-Soviet space has always been one of the most important priorities of Russia’s foreign policy. And 2016 was not an exception. After all, for the Kremlin, successful promotion of the country’s national interests depends on stability and predictability in the states and regions bordering Russia.

However, for the last two years, Russia’s military campaign in Syria completely overshadowed the agenda of the post-Soviet space, which includes Ukraine, Moldova and the republics of the Caucasus. As Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitri Trenin said, “The Middle East became a firing ground for Russia to test its potential of returning to the global arena as one of the key stakeholders.”

Nevertheless, Moscow still pays a great deal of attention to its Near Abroad and, first and foremost, to the regions faced with ethno-political and civil conflicts. What changes did 2016 bring to the region? Did the Kremlin come up with a new approach for resolving protracted conflicts in the post-Soviet space? Was this approach based on certain principles? If so, what motivations were behind it?  

Driven by conventional wisdom, pundits and journalists used to describe the tensions in the post-Soviet space as “frozen conflicts.” However, this term looks a bit inaccurate today, first with the military escalation in Eastern Ukraine and then recent escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory located between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia. In 2016, this enclave once again became the scene of escalating military and political tension

In both cases, the conflicting sides appear to be reluctant to observe ceasefire agreements. These hotspots are still facing a lot of casualties among civilians despite the fact that military clashes are currently not as intense as they were in 1991-1994 in Nagorno-Karabakh or February 2015 in Donbas. Nevertheless, April 2016 saw an increasing escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which became the most intense since 1994, when the ceasefire treaty was first signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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One should keep in mind that the conflicts in Eastern Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh didn’t become models for the entire post-Soviet space. For example, Abkhazia and South Ossetia didn’t become troublemakers in 2016 for the Kremlin: the dormant ethno-political conflicts were not unfrozen. The Georgian factor decreased in these breakaway republics, with the Kremlin’s opinion taken into account more seriously than Tbilisi’s.    

For Moscow, Abkhazia and South Ossetia represent «a new reality for Transcaucasia», which Russia’s foreign ministry and other special agencies are supposed to protect, as indicated by Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept. However, it doesn’t mean that Tbilisi will yield and legally recognize this as the new normal. The West supports Georgia’s aspirations to regain its territorial integrity; however, there are no specific moves to change the current status quo. 

In the context of Russian foreign policy in the post-Soviet space, the conflict in unrecognized Transnistria, which is part of Moldova, is very important. After the 1992 ceasefire treaty, the military confrontation in the region came to an end and the protracted conflict was relegated to the secondary agenda. However, for the last two years, it has become one of the key topics of the European security agenda amidst the crisis in Ukraine and the increasing confrontation with the West in the post-Soviet space.

Nevertheless, 2016 didn’t bring any significant escalation in the country. Moreover, the presidential election in Transnistria went well, without incidents and political tensions. Meanwhile, socialist leader Igor Dodon came to power in Moldova, with his aspirations to normalize relations with Russia. Thus, his election is a good sign for resolving the Transnistria problem through negotiations, not conflict. However, there are no guarantees that diplomacy will win.

Thus, the post-Soviet conflicts has been evolving since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with some of them losing their relevance and the others (like the confrontation in Donbas) coming to the fore and posing threats not only for a separate region, but also for the entire Eurasian security system. Thus, there is no universal ways of resolving all conflicts. Every region requires a specific approach. And this is the key rule that drove Moscow in 2016 and previously.    

Post-Soviet space through the lens of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept

According to Russia’s 2016 Foreign Policy Concept, among the Kremlin’s key priorities are “fostering democratic development of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, strengthening their international positions, providing them with security and bolstering social and economic restoration.”

During the 2012-2016 normalization of relations with Georgia Moscow drew several red lines. Specifically, Russia made it clear that it wouldn’t talk about the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Instead, it expressed interest in improving relations with Tbilisi in those fields, where Russia and Georgia can see eye-to-eye provided the current status quo and reality in Transcaucasia won’t be changed. This means that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should remain independent from Georgia, according to the Kremlin.

However, Moscow is not going to accelerate the process of a possible incorporation of South Ossetia into Russia. That might be why the Kremlin recommended rescheduling the South Ossetia referendum on this problem for the following year, after the end of the 2017 presidential campaign in the country. Yet it is not ruled that this problem will come to the fore in the near future. The referendum in South Ossetia might become a tool in the case of increasing tensions between Russia on the one side and Georgia and its Western allies on the other.

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However, oddly enough, the Kremlin’s new Foreign Policy Concept didn’t mention the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic while describing the conflict as Armenian-Azeri tensions. The Kremlin is ready to collaborate with France, the «EU representative», and the U.S. within the format of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) to resolve this problem. Yet, during the April escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016 it was Russia that encouraged Baku and Yerevan to achieve the ceasefire and, after the de-escalation, participated in the negotiations.

Today, the Kremlin’s diplomacy is trying to maintain a balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At the same time, it doesn’t put into question the territorial integrity of the latter despite the fact Yerevan is a strategic ally of Russia, involved in Eurasian integration projects. 

Likewise, Moscow is flexible on the Transnistria issue, which allows it to maneuver. While recognizing Tiraspol as a participant of the peaceful negotiation process, Russia is not ready to recognize it as an independent state. However, the success of Dodon in Moldova’s presidential elections and his pledges to improve relations with Russia strengthen the positions of those who are ready to come up with a compromise.

As Irina Bolgova, an expert from Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University) argues, “The period of turbulence in the post-Soviet space, which reached its apex in 2014 during the Ukraine crisis, turned into a protracted phase.” According to her, today none of the stakeholders is interested in a severe escalation of the situation because of potential grave implications. That’s why geopolitical players are just trying use uncertainty in their own favor.

In this context, Russia’s position toward Donbas is very curious. In 2016, Moscow made it clear that it is not going to repeat the Crimea experience in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin rather sees the Donbas military conflict as a tool of containment of Kiev’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. That’s why Russia is so far reluctant to recognize the people’s republics of Donbas and Luhansk. Another reason is Moscow is concerned with escalation of tensions with the West.

On the other hand, Moscow clearly drew a red line: Military oppression of the separatists in Eastern Ukraine is not the best option to resolve the Ukraine crisis. To quote Alexander Gushchin, associate professor of the Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow aims at exposing Kiev’s inability to fulfill its commitments on conducting elections in the separatist republics and amending the country’s Constitution. In addition, the Kremlin seeks to reinvigorate those forces in Europe that are not willing to impose sanctions on Russia.  

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Looking ahead to 2017

Thus, Russia doesn’t have a universal approach of resolving ethno-political and civil confrontation in the post-Soviet space. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it behaves like a revisionist country to withstand the West, but it is ready to cooperate with the U.S. and the EU in Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria.

However, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is much more complicated. It is aggravated with the harsh confrontation with the West and, especially, with Ukraine. Kiev denies the fact of the political crisis in Ukraine while describing the conflict as Russia’s direct intervention in the country, with the Kremlin denying these accusations.       

At any rate, Russia is not driven by a solid ideology or a set of values. It doesn’t try to blindly project its experience of dealing with protracted conflicts to other former Soviet republics. Its key motivation is to understand how to tackle the problems in the post-Soviet space in a certain region at the current moment of time. And if these challenges pose a threat to Russia itself, it is ready to change the status quo. Other than that, it is ready to maintain the balance of forces and take into account the interests of all stakeholders, while hedging possible risks.

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