Today, Russia and the West face the most severe crisis in their relations since the end of the Cold War. The West accuses Russia of violating international law in Ukraine, while Russia claims that the West violated similar laws earlier in the Balkans (especially in Kosovo) and the Middle East.
In this context, conflicts in the post-Soviet space, which includes Ukraine, Moldova, and the republics of the South Caucasus are especially important. By heating up periodically, they threaten the broader European security, and by remaining unresolved, they both limit the chances for the newly independent post-Soviet countries to foster an economic relationship with the EU and the US and provoke tensions between Russia and the West. Thus, the post-Soviet space today is receiving increasing attention among scholars and decision-makers due to its geopolitical fragility and unpredictability. The former USSR area has always been one of the most important priorities of Russia’s foreign policy. After all, for the Kremlin, successful promotion of the country’s national interest depends on stability and predictability in the states and regions bordering Russia.
Currently, the Western literature puts a political emphasis on Russia’s policies in Eurasia. The attention usually is focused on the Russian “revisionism” and interpretation of the situation in the protracted conflict zones in the context of possible cases for the repetition of the “Crimean scenario”.
However, the Russian leadership does not have a universal approach either to conflicts or to the de facto state of the former USSR area, be it Abkhazia, Transnistria, or the alleged “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
As for the conflict in Georgia, the position of the Kremlin is that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should remain independent from Tbilisi. 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 normalisation of relations with Georgia, starting in 2012 Moscow drew several red lines. Specifically, Russia made it clear that it would not talk about the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Instead, it expressed interest in improving relations with Tbilisi in fields where Russia and Georgia can see eye-to-eye provided the current status quo and reality in Transcaucasia will not be changed.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia diverge in their strategic nation-building goals greatly. While Sukhumi/Sukhum insists on national independence (the probability of this scenario is a separate question), Tskhinvali/Tskhinval is eager to be incorporated to Russia and being annexed to the Republic of North Ossetia (the Russian constituency). However, Moscow is not going to accelerate the process of a possible incorporation of South Ossetia into Russia. That might be why the Kremlin missed any opportunities to schedule the referendum on this issue, which had been intensively discussed in this republic. No doubt this topic will be one of the focal points of the 2019 parliamentary campaign in South Ossetia (the first elections under president Anatoly Bibilov, who was elected in 2017).
Nevertheless, the Russian leadership is not interested in breaking the status quo established after the “five-day war” of 2008. Only accelerated Georgia’s NATO accession can change the current Kremlin approach. In the case of increasing tensions between Russia on the one side and Georgia and its Western allies on the other, the referendum in South Ossetia might become a Moscow’s tool.
Oddly enough, the Kremlin’s latest Foreign Policy Concept did not mention the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, while describing the conflict as Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions. The Kremlin is ready to collaborate with France, the EU representative, and the US within the format of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) to resolve this problem. During the 2016 escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, 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 does not put into question the territorial integrity of the latter, even though Yerevan is a strategic ally of Russia, involved in Eurasian integration projects. In this context, we should not overestimate the impact of the Armenian “velvet revolution”. The transit of power from Serzh Sargsyan to Nikol Pashinyan did not break the previous foreign policy priorities of Yerevan, which is why the Kremlin did not blame the “revolutionary technique” in this country.
Likewise, Moscow is flexible on the Transnistria issue, which allows it to manoeuvre. While recognising Tiraspol as a participant of the peaceful negotiation process, Russia is not ready to recognise it as an independent state. The success of Igor Dodon in Moldova’s presidential elections of 2016 and his pledges to improve relations with Russia strengthen the positions of those who are ready to come up with a compromise. Nevertheless, the most important challenge for Moscow is a split within the Moldovan political elites. The government and parliament of this country consistently support the European foreign policy vector being interested in decreasing the Russian presence in Moldova as a whole and the Transnistrian conflict resolution in particular. The crucial problem is the upcoming parliamentary elections of 2019, which will be treated by both Russia and the West as a proxy security rivalry between them rather than domestic competitions. Here any surprises seem to be possible. In the context of this conflict, we should take into the account the Ukrainian position. Russia has no common border with the unrecognised republic of Transnistria while Ukraine does. Moreover, Kyiv considers it as a potential “second front”. Thus, the Ukrainian authorities have strengthened their security and trans-border cooperation with Moldova to minimise the Russian influence in the region. However, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov named the two scenarios (Moldova’s accession to NATO, which is not a part of the country’s political agenda, and its unification with Romania) that would convince Moscow to follow the Abkhazian scenario and accelerate the process of Transnistrian recognition.
Russia’s position towards the Donbas is very curious. Moscow has 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 Kyiv’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. That is why Russia is so far reluctant to recognise the People’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. A possible escalation of tensions with the West also preoccupies Moscow. On the other hand, Moscow drew a clear red line: military oppression of the separatists in Eastern Ukraine is not the best option to resolve the Ukraine crisis. However, the 2018 events demonstrated the Ukrainian conflict was not limited to Donbas only. The Azov Sea growing instabilities could establish some additional security challenges to the Black Sea region as a whole.
In 2019, most likely, no tangible breakthroughs to overcome the Russian-Ukrainian tensions are foreseen. The parties have fundamental differences on all issues, ranging from the strategic orientation in foreign policy to the status of disputed regions. The election campaign in Ukraine will exacerbate the game in the “patriotic” and populist field. In this context, it would be important for Moscow to keep the confrontation at least at the current level, not allowing a new escalation that is fraught with retaliatory measures either in the form of recognition of “People’s republics” according to the Abkhaz-South Ossetian model, or their more active support by all available means. Moscow would only support the process of recognition of the Eastern Ukrainian self-proclaimed entities if Kyiv tried to incorporate either the Donbas region or Crimea by force, not unlike what Georgia’s ex-president Mikhail Saakashvili attempted to do in 2004-2008 with the “return of territories”. Otherwise, the Kremlin will not dramatically change the current status quo in this protracted conflict.
Thus, Russia does not have a universal approach to the resolution of ethnopolitical and civil confrontation in the post-Soviet space. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it behaves like a revisionist country to withstand the West, while it is ready to cooperate with the US and the EU in Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. However, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is much more complicated. It is aggravated by the harsh confrontation with the West and, especially, with Ukraine. Kyiv overlooks the political crisis in Ukraine describing the conflict as Russia’s direct intervention in the country, while the Kremlin denies these accusations. At any rate, Russia is not driven by a solid ideology or a set of values. It does not try to blindly project its experience in 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. 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. A balance that will benefit Russia and allow it to maintain a privileged position in the post-Soviet space.