Sunday’s Referendum in Crimea makes it almost inevitable that the territory will now join Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria as another of Eurasia’s “frozen conflicts.” If the West is to counter Putin’s aggression in the long term, it must learn from two decades of failed policies related to these conflicts and the unrecognized states they have spawned.
The brazenness of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have led the Obama Administration and its European allies to realize the clear and present danger that Russia poses to European security. They appear also to understand that a policy of appeasement will only exacerbate matters. Yet so far the West’s counter-measures are (perhaps understandably) focused exclusively on shoring up Ukraine and strengthening NATO’s posture on Ukraine’s borders.
But Putin’s Ukraine policy is directly drawn from Russia’s experiences manipulating internal conflicts to divide and rule across Russia’s western and southern periphery. Indeed, grabbing Crimea probably seemed like a good idea to Putin in part because he thinks such a strategy has served Russia well in its efforts to undermine pro-Western states in Russia’s neighborhood for more than twenty years.
The strategy was not Putin’s idea, but he has doubled down on it. The last Soviet rulers contributed to exacerbating the violent conflicts that rocked the transition to independence in the South Caucasus and Moldova. Russian security structures continued the policy under Yeltsin, and Putin began refining it upon coming to power in 1999. While references to Georgia and Moldova are seen in discussions about Crimea, the mother of all unresolved conflicts is the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. From 1989 to 1994, Moscow alternated in supporting the two sides to weaken both and impose its dominance. After Azerbaijan adopted a pro-Western foreign policy soon after independence, Russia helped Armenia dismember Azerbaijan. With Russian backing, Armenia today occupies not only the disputed territory but also much larger tracts of lands that were subjected to ethnic cleansing.
Since then, Russian leaders have told their Azerbaijani counterparts on countless occasions that, if only they alter their foreign policy, Moscow might lift its thumb off the balance. Fast forward to 2013: When Armenia, like Ukraine, sought an Association Agreement with the European Union, a simple threat to discontinue Russian support for Armenia’s continued occupation of Azerbaijan appears to be what forced Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, during a Kremlin visit, to immediately pledge to join the Eurasian Union instead. Meanwhile, Russia sells masses of weaponry to both sides—cheaply to Armenia, and for top dollar to oil-rich Azerbaijan.
And in 2008, Putin dismembered Georgia, completing Russia’s de facto annexation of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whom Russian forces had helped remove from Georgia’s orbit already in 1992–93—and which Putin had aggressively taken under Moscow’s control. And while Moldova’s Transnistria may be the most forgotten of the post-Soviet conflicts, Russian policy has been the same there. As Moldova moves toward the European Union, Russian-dominated Transnistria is expressing it interest to join (no surprise) the Eurasian Union. Most recently, its leaders have asked to follow Crimea’s lead into Russia.
Putin’s message to all these countries—and now to Ukraine—is the same: If they go West, Russia will dismember them and prevent them from regaining their sovereignty. Since the conflicts can always be used to stage various provocations, Moscow can use its influence to keep these countries weak and vulnerable. To this message, neither the European Union nor the United States have had any credible response: The European Union’s promise of deep free trade agreements, for example, do little to address Putin’s threats.
Of course, Russia’s policy is one of last resort: it implies that Russia has little to offer the countries on its perimeter, and can only maintain control by coercive and subversive measures. And in every case, Russian policies have unified fractured elites and populations and strengthened their determination to maintain their independence.
Yet at the same time, Russian manipulation has helped prevent the development of normal political systems in the countries concerned. Furthermore, unrecognized states are the black holes of international politics: Because they are not subjects of international law, they are a magnet for illicit activities, from the smuggling of drugs and arms to nuclear proliferation.
Moscow appears to believe that unresolved conflicts are an excellent insurance policy against the expansion of Euro-Atlantic institutions into its neighborhood. Indeed, none other than former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated in 2011 that the 2008 invasion of Georgia had been launched to thwart further NATO expansion. The logic is simple: Moscow thinks NATO and the European Union will never grant membership to countries with unresolved conflicts on their territory, and whose borders are therefore disputed. Unfortunately, recalcitrant EU and NATO members have parroted this notion more than once. As a result, Putin probably believes that grabbing Crimea would kill any possibility of Ukraine’s future membership in the European Union, let alone NATO.
Of the six states in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership, only two—Armenia and Belarus—do not have unresolved conflicts on their territory. Not coincidentally, they are the only two that are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, and who plan to join the Eurasian Union. The other four all aspire to closer ties to the West—and are paying the price in terms of lost sovereignty. These four states are also the only ones on the European continent that lack any form of collective security mechanism whatsoever.
To successfully push back against Putin’s invasion of Crimea, America and Europe must acknowledge the regional dimensions of Putin’s ambitions. Further, they can no longer afford to ignore or neglect the unresolved conflicts, as they essentially have for two decades. In Georgia, one key reason for the escalation to war in 2008 was the absence of real international mechanisms to manage and eventually resolve the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Where such a mechanism exists—the OSCE Minsk Process between Armenia and Azerbaijan—Western powers have neglected the conflict, even as it is once again escalating. Most notably, the United States, a co-chair of the Minsk Process, left the office of the negotiator vacant for close to a year during 2013. Continued neglect almost ensures that Moscow will use these conflicts to manufacture new crises, whether in Transnistria, Abkhazia, or Nagorno-Karabakh.
What, then, is to be done? First of all, the response to Putin must be regional—it must be focused on shoring up the fledgling states along Russia’s periphery—and particularly those affected by unresolved conflicts. While providing security guarantees for these states is not realistic at present, the EU and NATO might begin by making clear that the unresolved conflicts will not be held against these states if they fulfill criteria for membership. There is an obvious precedent for this: West Germany, of course, had a sizable unresolved conflict that did not prejudice its membership in either organization.
Second, America and Europe must abandon the notion that they can somehow achieve their aims in Eastern Europe while ignoring or neglecting the most serious challenges to the survival and development of partner states there. Instead, they must engage on the very core issues of sovereignty and security that the unresolved conflicts create.
America and Europe have levers at their disposal. They are parties in some format to negotiations in all unresolved conflicts—except Crimea, where such mechanisms have yet to be established. The 5+2 format over Transnistria, the Minsk Group over Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Geneva discussions over Georgia’s conflicts all provide an avenue for clear and concerted Western engagement. That would almost certainly lead to destructive Russian diplomacy, but it would send a clear signal to Moscow that the times of neglect are over.
Fourth, America and Europe could easily set up high-level bilateral and regional security consultations with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and it could deepen security cooperation with them. Such steps would reassure these Western allies, and ensure that Moscow understands that there is no implicit acceptance of a Russian “sphere of privileged interests,” to use Medvedev’s terminology.
Practical measures are also of key importance. In Georgia, the deployment of an EU Monitoring Mission following the 2008 war has helped counter Russian provocations and neutralized Russian efforts to manufacture local crises or throw unfounded accusations at Georgia. It has done little to address the unresolved conflicts, but it is a powerful tool to contain these conflicts and reassure the Georgian leadership. Similar missions could be deployed in Moldova and Ukraine. Moreover, the population of these Russian satellites lives in an information vacuum, dominated by the propaganda of Russian official news. Countering that information monopoly and providing unbiased news coverage of regional and international developments for these populations is an important long-term goal.
In the final analysis, a key element in any effort to contain Putin’s expansionism is to counteract his manipulation of unresolved conflicts. That means taking the victims of his policies seriously and helping to shore up their sovereignty and security. Taking steps to address frozen conflicts would register at least as much as any freezing of assets—and by making Eastern Europe safer, it would also help prevent the next Crimea crisis.