The armed conflicts in the post-Soviet space may have different causes and different durations but almost always they share the same “depth of freezing”.
In Transnistria, fighting ceased in 1992. In Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh, volcano-like conflicts “fell asleep” in the early 1990s but periodically “awaken,” erupting with new waves of escalation. A relative “truce” has been prevailing in the occupied Donbas for less than six months. All these territories have common markers by which one can unmistakably recognise a self-proclaimed republic under the protectorate of Russia. The late USSR can be seen here at the level of symbols, place names, aesthetics of solemn events and rhetoric of local media. From an economic perspective, people live here in early 1990s style: the railway stations in Abkhazia covered with trees are the clearest illustration of these processes. The cult of Russia reigns in each of these unrecognised (with rare exceptions) formations, proclaiming “forever together” slogans. Russia literally “feeds” these depressed territories in the middle of nowhere. And there are no hints that at least some thaw will come after the frost.
The fall of the Berlin Wall became the symbol of the collapse of socialism for the whole world, and the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe gave rise to the myth of the “end of era” and, consequently, of the geopolitical confrontation inherent in the Cold War. Russia grandly withdrew a huge military contingent from Germany, which it had inherited from the Soviet Union, while its soldiers in Tajikistan and Moldova were becoming direct participants in local armed conflicts. The emergence of 15 new states on the political map of the world took the international community by surprise. By inertia, all former Soviet republics, with the exception of the Baltic states, found themselves in a zone of Russian influence. Therefore, Moscow undertook to settle all the wars that arose in this area, though in a very specific way. First, Russian paramilitaries (such as the Cossacks in Transnistria and Abkhazia) and regular units participated in the conflict and later took over the peacekeeping mission. Second, the alienated territories came under the hybrid occupation of the Russian Federation: local governments were tied to the Kremlin with an “umbilical cord” and the main display of social mobility here was the issuance of a Russian passport – a kind of pass to the outside world that also gives an opportunity to legally leave this “frozen ghetto”.
The presence of Russian troops never means the end of the conflict. According to the 1999 UN Istanbul Convention, Russia was supposed to withdraw its formations from Transnistria in 2001 but has not yet done so. Moldova’s newly elected president Maia Sandu called for the withdrawal of all Russian troops from the self-proclaimed Transnistrian republic. She suggests replacing Russia’s “blue helmets” with an OSCE civilian mission. As expected, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation met Sandu’s initiative with fierce opposition, saying it “undermines the peaceful settlement”.
The occupation under the guise of peacemaking does not give the main thing – peace. As the outbreak of military confrontation in Georgia in 2008 and the recent escalation in Karabakh have shown, no guarantees can be expected from Moscow. It will either stir up the conflict itself (as in case of Georgia) or take advantage of the resumption of hostilities (as in the case of Karabakh). Putin does not conceal his revanchist sentiments. He aims if not to restore the Soviet Union, then at least to return Moscow to the level of its influence of 30 years ago. He needs frozen conflict zones as instruments of putting pressure on countries leaving the Kremlin’s orbit. Transnistria for Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia for Georgia, occupied Donbas and Crimea for Ukraine are safeguards against full integration into the EU and NATO. Moscow’s inability to create similar enclaves in the Baltic States greatly contributed to the successful European integration of the three states.
Russia has had its military base in Armenia since the 1990s but has expanded significantly its presence in the region during the recent outbreak of confrontation in Karabakh: 2,000 Russian fighters have entered Nagorno-Karabakh for the next five years. According to the investigation of the InformNapalm Ukrainian volunteer network, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict zone was invaded by the service persons of the 15th brigade of the Russian Armed Forces, which took part in the war in Georgia in 2008, as well as in the occupation of Crimea and fighting in Donbas. In addition to expanding its military influence, Moscow is gaining political weight: Armenia’s pro-Western Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is likely to step down soon replaced by a most loyal possible politician (Russia still has helped contain the Azerbaijani offensive). As a result, the Kremlin will have another “safeguard” to keep Yerevan from rapprochement with the West.
The same fate may befall Donbas. The best-case scenario for Putin is to reintegrate the occupied territories on the basis of a special status with the prospect of further federalisation of Ukraine. In such a way, Moscow will receive not only a “safeguard” against Euro-Atlantic integration but also a chance to return the country to its orbit, dismember it and annex eight southeastern regions (the same ones where the Russian Spring, pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine, was defeated in 2014). At present, it does not seem that official Kyiv would agree to such a plan. Another thing is the freezing under the Transnistrian scenario. It is not a compromise or a settlement attempt. It is still a hybrid occupation. The legitimisation of Russian armed groups in the form of peacekeepers is also the preservation of the status quo “post-Soviet space as a zone of geopolitical interests.” Is there an alternative? It’s a question to be put to Kyiv and its western partners. It is clear that the sanctions imposed on Russia are unlikely to have a diplomatic or security effect. They can weaken the Russian Federation economically but certainly will not force it to give up claims on Donbas. Moreover, the implementation of the Nord Stream 2 project clearly shows that Europe is not ready to stop using Russian gas (which is the main source of Russia’s foreign exchange earnings). Therefore, if we talk about the peacekeeping contingent, it should be deployed on the eastern border of Ukraine, not on the current line of contact, and it is clear that these should be international formations without the participation of the aggressor country’s troops.
The information sometimes appears in the diplomatic circles that Russia is allegedly ready to make some concessions on the Donbas issue, but only if the issue of Crimea is completely removed from the international policy agenda. Such a compromise could be a modern version of the Munich Agreement. First, there is the UN resolution of 27 March 2014 that states that the United Nations “calls upon all states, international organisations and specialised agencies not to recognise any alteration of the status of Crimea on the basis of this referendum and to refrain from any action or dealing that might be interpreted as recognising any such altered status.” Second, the International Criminal Court should assess Russia’s actions. On 11 December 2020, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda met with Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine Giunduz Mamedov in The Hague. During the meeting, it was reported that the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court had decided to complete a preliminary investigation into the events in Ukraine related to the international armed conflict in Donbas and Crimea. “In the future, the Judicial Division of the ICC should approve initiation of a full-fledged investigation into the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the context of armed conflict. These include killings, enforced disappearances, torture, political and religious persecution of Ukrainians, forced deportation of the Crimean population to mainland Ukraine and the colonisation of the peninsula. These serious violations of international humanitarian and criminal law have been analysed by the ICC Prosecutor’s Office since 2015”, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine informed.
The examples of Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine are all sufficient to understand that each of these countries has fallen victim to Russia’s aggressive “peacekeeping” policies aimed at maintaining its influence over the former Soviet republics.
Stepan Nazarenko – Ukrainian journalist, publicist, volunteer.