We’ve been here before. Most of the world just wasn’t paying attention.
When Russian-backed separatists seized control of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in the early 1990s, it didn’t make international headlines. Likewise, when separatist fighters in Moldova’s Transdniester region took control of that strip of territory with Moscow’s implicit blessing, it was largely met with a collective yawn in the international community.
The script and the playbook have been the same as has the result: exploiting a local ethnic conflict, the Kremlin has repeatedly used local proxies, and then its own troops to seize de facto control of a breakaway region in a former Soviet state. And all the while Moscow has maintained a semblance of plausible deniability that it was the conflicts’ principal instigator.
The result was a series of “frozen conflicts” that Moscow has been able to use to influence and pressure its neighbors.
And with Russian troops now clearly moving into Ukraine opening a new front, assisting separatists in seizing control of the strategic town of Novoazovsk, and halting gains by the Ukrainian Army in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts—an increasing number of analysts say Vladimir Putin’s endgame is to seize as much territory as possible and then freeze the conflict in the Donbas.
“Putin would appear to win, securing Crimea, a frozen conflict in Donbas, which he will assume will cripple the Ukrainian economy and the prospects of a Maidan administration ever succeeding,” Timothy Ash, a senior analyst of emerging markets for Standard Bank in London, wrote in the Kyiv Post.
Likewise, Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs wrote recently in The Moscow Times that such an outcome in eastern Ukraine would “become a source of destabilization for Ukraine’s adjacent regions” and open “the way for a real Bosnianization of Ukraine.”
And in a report from Transdniester’s de facto capital, Tiraspol, the Russian journalist Sergei Podosenov noted that “to a certain extent, Transdniester could represent the favorable scenario for self-proclaimed Novorossia in the event of its secession from Ukraine.”
Tiraspol, he added, “does not look like the capital of a tiny state recognized by no one and located in unfriendly surroundings, but like an everyday, quiet, southern Russian city with little houses covered in ivy.”
So are we about to add Donbas to the list of Kremlin-orchestrated frozen conflicts? Perhaps, with some important caveats.
The wars in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transdniester that led to those territories becoming de facto Russian protectorates all took place in the early 1990s, in the chaos following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“The majority of the current unrecognized states in the former Soviet space emerged atop the wave of the ‘parade of sovereignties,’ when this was a sort of political trend,” journalist Vladimir Dergachev wrote on the online Russian newspaper gazeta.ru recently.
And as a result, the uprisings there appeared to much of the world at the time to be genuine local rebellions, and therefore not so different from the former Soviet republics’ independence struggles. In this environment, Russia was able to plausibly claim to be a mediator and—ultimately to play the role of “peacekeeper”—in conflicts that it had itself stoked.
And it was able to do so with the West’s implicit blessing, or at least tacit consent.
This time, the mask would be off and Moscow wouldn’t be able to pursue its goals by stealth. Setting up a frozen conflict in Donbas would intensify Russia’s conflict with the West, lead to even more crippling sanctions, and Moscow’s deeper isolation.
“Moscow retained for itself the status of a relatively neutral intermediary in Abkhazia and South Ossetia until 2008, and in Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh to this day. In this instance it will no longer be possible,” Dergachev wrote.
And knowing the threat that a frozen Donbas conflict would be for Ukraine’s statehood, Kiev would likely prefer to keep the conflict hot. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said he would not allow a Transdniester scenario in eastern Ukraine.
Moreover, until Russia and its proxies can carve out clearly defined continuous territory, it will be difficult to freeze the conflict. “Strictly speaking, to this day no republics—even self-proclaimed ones—exist in the political sense. What we have is an uprising or insurgency,” Dergachev wrote.
A more apt analogy than Transdniester, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, he added, would be Srpska Krajina, the Serbian-backed enclave in Croatia that existed from 1991 until it was retaken by Zagreb.