|Author: Stefan Meister|
POST-SOVIET CONFLICT ZONES IN THE CONTEXT OF THE UKRAINIAN CRISIS
The annexation of Crimea reflects the end of the post-cold war order in Europe and the return of geopolitics, if it ever disappeared. Europe lacks a functioning security order that could adequately respond to Russian challenges. While the Russian-Georgian war and Russia’s one-sided recognition of South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence was interpreted by the “West” as an exception, the annexation of Crimea is seen as something more fundamental. Moscow has annexed a territory in which no ethnic or territorial conflict existed before. It has created its own conflict by ignoring international law. However, the idea of a Russian master plan which started in Georgia and ended in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine appears unlikely. Rather, the creation of a new conflict zone has to be regarded as Russia’s answer in relation to a failed policy of influencing the Western neighbor and a lack of instruments to secure Ukraine’s dependency. This shows the core function of post-Soviet conflicts for Russia as an instrument to guarantee limited sovereignty of post-Soviet states. At the same time, the EU always accepted Russia as the key player in post-Soviet conflicts and in this sense recognized the limited sovereignty of these states.
Post-Soviet conflicts serve both an internal and an external function. With regard to the internal function, security threats firstly serve the purpose of legitimizing the ruling elites, their actions and authoritarian policies. This is especially true for the Karabakh conflict. Thus, the war, occupation and security situation created the Karabakh myth which has become an integral part of Armenian and Azerbaijani post-soviet identity. In the case of Transnistria the internal function is much more about business interest and the interest of the ruling elites to stay in power, but it also helps to justify their rule. This conflict has no ethnic roots but is based on political and economic interests which are shaped by the competition between different business groups.
The external function focuses primarily on Russia as the regional power which aims to dominate the post-Soviet countries. The conflicts have become an important instrument to keep post-Soviet countries under control, to use them in order to have Russian security forces deployed in the region and influence the policy of the involved states – it is about limited sovereignty of these states. With Crimea Moscow has created a new separatist region on the territory of Ukraine, which has no ethnic roots because all conflicts have been solved in the past through comprehensive autonomy of Crimea. In the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine it’s mainly people from outside who tried to create new separatist regions in Luhansk and Donezk with Russian support but without local backing. These actions created or supported by the Russian leadership should help to undermine the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state and has set a new paradigm. Russia wants to influence the policy of the Ukrainian state by means of externally funded provocations in the Eastern regions. Federalization, the new magic word in Moscow, is also discussed for Moldova with regard to Transnistria and Gagauzia. As a last consequence federalization translates to a confederation which could give Ukrainian regions the possibility to sign international contracts or partly integrate with Russian lead institutions like the Customs Union. It could open the door for the Russian side to influence the policy of Kiev or Chisinau through the regions.
The events in Ukraine also indicate the weakness and vulnerability of Moldova and the South Caucasian states with regard to security, economic and energy dependence from Russia. In the past, the elites of these states didn’t do enough to limit their economic and energy dependency from Russia. At the same time, the lack of a functioning European security order which includes Russia and the post-Soviet states has become evident. It reveals the major weakness of EU neighbourhood policy, namely the lack of including a security dimension. Without security guarantees or the will to solve conflicts, reforms and transformation to democracy and good governance is even more difficult.
What are the consequences of the Ukraine crisis and the changes in the Russian foreign policy of the last months for post-Soviet states.
1. Internal Dimension
The Maidan movement in Ukraine has been observed by post-Soviet leaders in different ways. Especially authoritarian regimes regard it somewhat skeptically because it could become, like the color revolutions, a role model for civil society movements, challenging their rule or even provoking a change in leadership like in Ukraine. This is also one reason, why Russia is so active in undermining the credibility of the Ukrainian interim government: It fears a successful precedent of regime change in a post-Soviet country. While the government as well as civil society voiced their support for the Maidan movement, the reaction in Azerbaijan was rather critical and limited to rhetorical support by the weak opposition. In Armenia anti-Russia demonstrations took place in December against the decision of the government to join the Customs Union instead of enhancing the prospects for further EU-integration. At the same time the Armenian government unconditionally supported Russian actions in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the external dimension is more striking at the moment. The annexation of Crimea and the undermining of Ukraine’s state sovereignty by Russia have set a dangerous precedent with direct implications for the separatist regions in Moldova and the South Caucasian states. With its actions Russia has made two things clear: Firstly that its major interest is to prevent EU and NATO-integration of post-Soviet states, if need be also with military means and by breaking international law. And secondly its willingness to use territorial conflicts to keep post-Soviet countries in its sphere of influence. Russia’s action has taken place against the background of the failure of its Ukraine policy which became visible with the dismissal of Victor Yanukovych. As a reaction to the failure of its policy of sticks and carrots in Ukraine, Russia has shifted from “soft” to hard power. Russian leadership sees more and more the EU as the main competitor in the post-Soviet region, because it perceives the export of norms and standards with Association and Free trade agreements as possible game changer in terms of economic and political standards.
The goal of Russian policy is to protect its sphere of influence and to get an external recognition by the EU and the U.S. for the limited sovereignty of post-Soviet states. Considering the South Caucasian and Moldovan perspective, it has become evident that Russia won’t shun an open conflict with “the West” and neither the EU nor NATO are willing to directly protect non-member states.
At the same time, those countries which seek more integration with the EU and NATO or cooperate with both are under stronger pressure by Russia. Past failures in conflict management and resolution will now, under a more critical political situation, be even more difficult. Hence, every state with separatist movements has to find a new balance between engaging with and balancing Russia.
3. The Security Dimension
In terms of successful EU rapprochement especially Georgia and Moldova are under pressure. In Georgia this is reinforced by the goal of NATO-membership. Ongoing discussions in Moscow ponder whether an incooporation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into the Russian Federation, like with Crimea, makes sense. Security was always an important tool for Russia to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan. By challenging Armenia’s security guarantees in the context of the Karabakh conflict and using its economic dependency especially in the energy sector, Russia has prevented the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU in December last year and promotes Erevan’s integration with the Customs Union. Although Armenia did quite well during the reform process with regard to EU standards, it shows how fragile these reforms are and the domestic support for them. 
For Azerbaijan, Western security guarantees and the continuation of its balancing policy between Russia and the “West” are even more important, considering Russia’s increasingly aggressive policy. Russia has deployed up to 5000 soldiers in Armenia. Moscow has accelerated the arms race between both parties of the Karabakh conflict by selling weapons to Armenia at discount prices and at the same time for market prices to Azerbaijan. Last December, President Putin announced Russia’s expansion of military presence in Armenia: this provides for a deeper integration of Armenia into the Russian air defense system, especially since Moscow will add a helicopter squadron to its air force in Armenia. With the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) as well as the existing Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan oil pipelines, Azerbaijanis a close partner for the diversification of the EU’s energy supply independence from Russia. Furthermore it plays an important role for the withdrawal of NATO-troops from Afghanistan this year – a fact which could be challenged by Russia under Western sanctions.
In Moldova, security forces are neither prepared for a conflict with Russia nor an infiltration by it. Nevertheless, the referendum on the Customs Union membership and against EU integration in the beginning of February has opened a front of separatism in the region of Gagauzia. In the case of continued rapprochement between Moldova and the EU, the Russian government has several instruments to destabilize the country. This includes gas debts for Transnistria, the dependency on the Russian market but first and foremost the huge importance of working migrants in Russia for the Moldovan national economy.
For the EU and Germany, questions about how to stop the situation of uncertainty and provide security in the countries of the common neighborhood with Russia have become increasingly important. To give countries like Moldova and Georgia the impression that they are the next goal of Russian supported aggressions destabilizes their domestic policy and could escalate the situation in separatist regions. The current policy of the EU which accepts Russia as a main negotiator in the Karabakh conflict and as a security provider in the whole region has to be questioned in light of this crisis because Russia is a partisan actor with an interest in preserving these conflicts. The end of the post-cold war order, ushered by Russia’s action in Ukraine, raises the question about a new security order in Europe and new methods of integration of post-Soviet conflict zones into this framework.
In this context we have to discuss the role of NATO, OSCE and EU. NATO is not the solution because of the lacking interest of the US for more engagement in Europe and the resistance of many member states to enlarge NATO into the post-Soviet region which would provoke Russia’s action even more. An option could be a new conference for security and cooperation in Europe which includes all post-Soviet countries and puts the ethnic and territorial conflicts on the table. Strengthening of the instruments of collective security which has been nearly forgotten after the end of the cold war should be a key goal of Germany and the EU. That would mean the return of the OSCE as a security organization and not only as an administrator of conflicts like in the past. But all this needs strategic debates about security in Europe by EU member states and the will to accept that security will cost. It is an illusion that the US will return to Europe. The key word in Washington is burden sharing and if the Europeans want to have more security, they have to pay for it.
 Stefan Meister, Sicherheitspolitische Stagnation im Südkaukasus. Berg-Karabach im Spannungsfeld regionaler und internationaler Akteure, DGAPanalyse 2, March 2013, http://vg04.met.vgwort.de/na/9871592ae8904e888f902941bd7fb1bc?l=https://dgap.org/de/article/getFullPDF/23485.
 Piotr Zochowski, Andrzej Wilk, Wojciech Kononczuk, The conflict in Donbass – forced de-escalation?, OSW Analysis, 11.06.2014, http://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/analyses/2014-06-11/conflict-donbas-forced-de-escalation.
 Vladimir Ryshkov, Putin’s federalization card in Ukraine, The Moscow Times, 7.04.2014, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/putins-federalization-card-in-ukraine/497680.html.
 Huseyin Aliyev, Emil Souleimanov: Maidan: Lessons for the South Caucasus, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3.05.2014, http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/12931-maidan-lessons-for-the-south-caucasus.html.
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 Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony, West Point, New York, 28.05.2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/05/28/remarks-president-united-states-military-academy-commencement-ceremony.