Last month, Leonid Tibilov—the unrecognized president of the non-existent country of South Ossetia—granted an interview to a Russian news agency. In the interview, Tibilov described himself as “inspired” by Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and expressed hope that South Ossetia, a disputed region in northern Georgia, might itself “become part of Russia”—and soon. Shortly thereafter, the unrecognized president of the non-existent state of Transnistria, Yevgeny Shevchuk, echoed this call. Sitting in his office (which reportedly features a photograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin), Shevchuk told Euronews that Transnistria, a sliver of land in Moldova, was gunning for independence, with the ultimate goal of Russian absorption.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is in a pitched battle with its own pro-Russia breakaway rebels. President Petro Poroshenko ended a ceasefire with separatists in east Ukraine, vowing to “attack and liberate our land.” In recent weeks, fighting has intensified between government forces and the rebels, who are supported to varying degrees by Moscow.
Ukraine, it seems, is not the only place where Russia is playing fast and dirty with national borders. Today, the region that was once the Soviet Union is home to a small cohort of breakaway states: bits of disputed land that, with varying support from Mother Russia, have rejected their national governments and sworn independence. Recent weeks show signs of escalation in Europe’s so-called “de facto states”: South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh (in Azerbaijan). There are rising fears that separatist forces, buoyed by the example of Ukraine, will up their ante. Or that Russia’s revanchist eye will turn toward Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan—and that this, in turn, will tear post-Cold War Europe asunder.
In response, the U.S. and Europe have launched a diplomatic full-court press in the South Caucasus. On June 27, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine signed economic and (in the case of the former two) political deals with the European Union. But observers are ill at ease. Speaking of Crimea, Romania’s foreign minister recently warned of “a possible contagion.”
Back when Soviet leaders drew borders within their eastern union, they often sliced through ethnic groupings and created minority pockets within unfriendly lands. So much the better for fuelling regional tension, which would, in turn, dampen resistance to Moscow. In the ’80s, the Soviet Union began to crumble, unleashing a swell of ethno-nationalism and a slew of ugly territorial disputes.
In the ’90s, fighting erupted in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Georgian territories that border Russia) and in Transnistria (wedged between Ukraine and the rest of Moldova). There were wars and thousands of deaths and, eventually, Russia-backed ceasefires. In 2006, Transnistria, which boasts the only Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag in Europe, held a referendum in which 97 per cent reportedly voted in favour of independence. Two years later, Russia and Georgia fought a full-on war in South Ossetia, which claimed hundreds of lives and displaced almost 200,000, according to Amnesty International. (The war ended when Moscow pulled back most of its troops and declared South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent.) Russian soldiers remain in all three states, as do Russian rubles. Russia subsidizes pensions, funds infrastructure projects and sells gas at a discounted rate.
Nagorno-Karabakh (N.-K.)—a disputed Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan—also hosted a war in the ’90s, which similarly ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994. But NK is not itself a candidate for Russian absorption: it is an Armenian-majority region, not Russian. Moscow has used NK as leverage over oil-rich Azerbaijan and Armenia. It plays both sides of the dispute: officially backing Armenia while simultaneously selling weapons to Azerbaijan.
Post-Crimea, Europe’s frozen conflict zones (as they are often called) have seen a ratcheting-up of rhetoric and theatrics. In May, Moldovan authorities caught Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin trying to leave Moldova with a petition calling for Transnistrian independence, which he had secretly collected from the separatist region. The authorities reportedly seized the papers, but Rogozin later boasted that he had managed to sneak most of them back to Moscow.
This spring, Georgia accused Russia of initiating near-daily brawls along the Russia-Georgia border, and referred to Russian troops as “Somali pirates.” In May, Abkhazia’s president fled the capital and hastily resigned after pro-Moscow opposition forces dramatically seized control of his ofﬁce. The Kremlin reportedly dispatched mediators.
Around the same time, in April, Azerbaijan began large-scale military exercises near its border with Armenia. Ceasefire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh continue. The International Crisis Group speaks of an accelerating “arms race” between Armenia and Azerbaijan—and warns of “strident rhetoric” along the border, with phrases like “blitzkrieg” and “total war” gaining widespread currency with military planners on both sides. A conflict in N.-K. could conceivably draw in other big players, like Turkey (which backs Azerbaijan) and Israel (which has sold Azerbaijan a fleet of drones).
While the world’s gaze is narrowed on Ukraine, dangers have lurked in these de facto zones for some time. All stand out as easy transit stops for traders of arms, drugs and sometimes human beings. In 2011, the U.S. government reported that between 2005 and 2010, authorities had intercepted 10 black market shipments of highly enriched uranium in the border region around Transnistria.
In the years since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war—which Russia won, but not as handily as some expected—Russian defence spending has nearly doubled in nominal terms, according to security analyst IHS Jane’s. That is being felt in the de facto states. “As for the Trans-Caucasus region, Russia will never leave this region,” declared Vladimir Putin after touring a Russian military base in Armenia in December. “On the contrary, we will make our place here even stronger.”
But what do the de factos want? In 2010-11, U.S.-based researchers Gerard Toal and John O’Loughlin conducted the first mass opinion polling in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria. Their conclusion was that “the prospect of annexation by the Russian Federation would likely be welcomed by a plurality of residents of Transnistria, and the overwhelming majority of those remaining in South Ossetia.” In Abkhazia, the preference is for independence. In all three regions, the overwhelming majority believes that the Soviet Union’s collapse was a “wrong step.”
Three years after the poll was conducted, Toal, director of government and international relations at Virginia Tech University, says, “Crimea absolutely is contagious.” How will it kick off? Toal’s bet is on a quick-shot referendum in Transnistria.
With respect to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says he can “absolutely” imagine a situation in which Russia forcibly steps in; “I wouldn’t rule out some provocation.” But Herbst also thinks that Crimea could leave the West “more favourably disposed toward helping the Georgians and Moldovans in dealing with their Russian problem.”
The same sentiment could enliven Western efforts in N.-K. The Ukraine crisis has exposed Europe’s overwhelming energy reliance on Russia and accelerated the hunt for alternatives. In December, a group led by BP signed a $45-billion natural gas contract with Azerbaijani leaders, and the U.K. consolidated its position as the largest foreign investor in the country.
Full-scale military invasion and annexation would also be costly for Moscow. For that reason, many experts believe that Russia’s interest is in maintaining a fragile status quo: allowing the soft force of Soviet nostalgia and the sharp threat of Red Army action to feed the quixotic aspirations of the de facto states. This, in turn, would help Russia to keep Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in line—and might discourage bodies like the EU and NATO from accepting them as members. Thomas de Waal, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, says Russians don’t want to go war. “But I don’t see any evidence that they want peace either.”
The Eastern Partnership was meant to prevent all this. The EU launched it in 2009 when, after a round of expansion, the union found itself bordering the former Soviet Union. Through trade agreements, the project was meant to build ties between Europe and the six ex-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Between 2009 and 2013, Brussels spent more than $2.8 billion to develop it. Recently, the EU and the U.S. have backed this up with a diplomatic push in the Caucasus. In December, Brussels put Georgia and Moldova on an EU association fast track. In February, EU foreign ministers discussed plans for a Caucasus charm offensive, which would involve “informal contacts” at venues like the world championship in ice hockey.
But Moscow has other plans for its neighbours. On May 29, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus signed the rival Eurasian Economic Union. (Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are set to join soon.) A few days later, President Barack Obama travelled to Warsaw and announced a $1-billion project called the European Reassurance Initiative to boost military reinforcements in Europe. Meanwhile, experts in Europe’s so-called frozen conflicts are starting to object to that very turn of phrase; conflict in any one of the de facto states is bound to heat up.