How Russia’s Frozen Conflicts Could Warm Up Along Its Sizable Borders

Image Source: Homoatrox – CC0

The full effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are yet to be seen, but they will have repercussions throughout the former Soviet Union, where central authority has remained weak since the Soviet collapse. Wherever low-level “frozen conflicts” persist (or could emerge), Russia’s potential to escalate the situation will cause further obstacles to Western integration and is likely to derail wider security efforts in the region.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, numerous conflicts broke out based on ethnic divides. Some conflicts, like in Russia’s Chechnya and Moldova’s Gagauzia, which emerged in the 1990s, were stabilized through military or diplomatic means. But several conflicts in Eurasia—in Georgia, in Moldova, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan—still remain in limbo, without any peace agreement or path to reconciliation. Russia provides significant aid, such as free or heavily discounted energy imports, to sustain and control these regions and their independence movements.

Russia’s Attempts to Leverage Power Over Post-Soviet States

By keeping these conflicts ongoing, the Kremlin has deterred Western integration and leveraged its power over individual post-Soviet states. While Ukraine’s situation represents the most extreme example of “conflict manipulation”—with Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk being used as the “flashpoint” by the country to eventually invade Ukraine—exploiting internal tensions in other post-Soviet states has helped the Kremlin gain political concessions and instigate unrest across the former USSR.

Moldova and Georgia, which signed the EU’s association agreements in 2014 to help “deepen political and economic ties between the signatories,” and formally applied for EU membership shortly after the 2022 Russian offensive in Ukraine, appear most vulnerable to being targets of the continued Russian meddling in post-Soviet states. Unlike in Ukraine, Russia did not start the conflicts in these countries but provided support to their burgeoning separatist movements amid the Soviet collapse.

Conflict erupted in Moldova’s Transnistria region in the early 1990s. The Russian-speaking Transnistrian separatists were given support by the Soviet 14th Guards Army—later renamed as the Operational Group of Russian Forces—1,500 of which remain to this day in Transnistria. Transnistria’s 250-mile border with Ukraine’s southwest has also helped Russia militarily encircle Kyiv. In addition to Russia’s military footprint, the Kremlin also maintains significant influence over Transnistria’s political, economic and intelligence institutions.

Russia’s success in Transnistria speaks to the Kremlin’s ability to exploit the complex ethnic divides in the former Soviet Union. Transnistria’s Ukrainian population fought alongside Russians during the separatist conflict in the early 1990s. Attempts to build a distinct Moldovan identitysince the Soviet collapse have further alienated the country’s Russian-speaking population, and even with the Ukrainian-Russian tensions at an all-time high, Transnistria’s Ukrainians have continued to be largely supportive of the Kremlin since the early 1990s.

Additionally, Moldova’s territory of Gagauzia could similarly be used by Russia to pressure Moldova’s central government. Gagauzia too has sought independence since the Soviet collapse, and the ethnically Turkic, Russian-speaking population have gravitated toward the Kremlin. In 2014, at the height of the previous Ukraine crisis, Gagauzian voters expressed overwhelming support for integration with the Russia-backed Eurasian Customs Union (later known as the Eurasian Economic Union, or EAEU) instead of the European Union.

A crisis in either of the Moldovan regions could plunge the country into chaos, in tandem with a wider Russian military campaign. In early March, images began circulating online of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko appearing in front of a map that appeared to show invasion plans for both Ukraine and Moldova. Whether this was a plausible threat or simply a message to Moldova’s currently Western-leaning leadership, Moldova has been made acutely aware of the Kremlin’s stance on westernization.

Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia both declared their independencein the early 1990s, leading to open conflict in these areas. Though ceasefires were declared shortly after, sporadic violence has continued in both these territories. The steady, mass adoption of Russian passports by South Ossetians and Abkhazians, a process known as passportization, led to a diplomatic situation that created the need to protect Russian citizens as well as enforce order on the Russian border. Finally, after weeks of escalation on both sides, Russian forces invaded Georgia with separatist militant allies in 2008.

The five-day Russian military campaign reached the outskirts of Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi, where, following a ceasefire, Russian forces withdrew to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, constant attempts to slowly expand separatist territory have since further undermined Georgian sovereignty. The war with Russia put Georgia’s NATO ambitions on hold, while Georgia’s government believes its EU membership remains a more viable goal. But as long as Russian forces remain prepared to escalate matters in this regard, Georgia’s Western-leaning political factions will struggle to reach the goal of being part of the EU.

Since 1991, the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and surrounding areas has pitted both Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other, and has also led to the involvement of Turkey, with Israel and Iran having more limited stakes in the conflict. Russia, however, maintains the most influence in this dispute. It has balanced good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, while leveraging Armenia’s dependency on Russian military support.

This military aid has spurred Armenia to join the Russian-led EAEU and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance, while an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Russian troops remain at the Russian 102nd military base and the Erebuni air force base, both located in Armenia. Together with the Russian peacekeeping force in internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory and the Russian forces in Georgia, the Russian military plays a substantial role in terms of security in the Caucasus.

Russia’s Growing Influence in Central Asia and Beyond

Meanwhile, the possibility of conflict is prevalent in Central Asia. Kazakhstan, which borders Russia, has a large Russian minority population. Shortly after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin traveled to Kazakhstan and congratulated then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev on “creating ‘a state in a territory where there had never been a state before.’” Though Putin made this thinly veiled threat, the Kremlin nonetheless appears more likely to leverage its security guarantees in Central Asia, as demonstrated by the CSTO-led intervention in Kazakhstan in January 2022 that put an end to the unrest in the country during protests against the Kazakh government.

The Russian military also helped put down an Islamist insurgency in Tajikistan in the 1990s, which was part of wider efforts by the Kremlin to prevent Islamism from emerging near or within Russia. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Russian troops remain at the Russian 201st military base in Tajikistan. Additionally, clashes between ethnic groups across Central Asian states, primarily in border regions, have also been used by Russia to win political points with these states by managing their disputes.

Exploiting these tensions could help the Kremlin pressure individual Central Asian states, as well as repel China’s growing influence in Central Asia (and potential Western overtures there). But the Kremlin’s interest appears to be in demonstrating its commitment to upholding law and order in the region rather than undermining it.

The likelihood of Russian-backed conflict breaking out elsewhere in the former USSR remains unlikely for now. The Baltic States have largeRussian populations, but their NATO membership puts severe limits on the Russian military from initiating any unrest there. Belarus is already strongly allied to Russia, and, having alienated its European neighbors, it has increasingly turned to Moscow to shore up its position.

But outside the former USSR, the Kremlin’s ability to foment unrest has spread to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Under the leadership of President Milorad Dodik, the country’s large Serbian minority has increased its calls for independence in recent months. Frequent visits by Russian militias to BiH in recent years reveal the Kremlin’s potential to escalate tensions in another region where independence movements are prevalent.

A potential conflict in BiH would prevent it, and most likely Serbia, from joining NATO or the EU. Serbians are unlikely to join either institution if they are seen as suppressing Serbian independence in neighboring Republika Srpska. Mass pro-Russia and pro-Putin protests on March 4 in Serbia following the 2022 Ukrainian offensive reveal Russia’s popularity among the wider Serbian population in the region.

Russia, a Challenge to the U.S. Global Security Order

Russia’s ability to turn the frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union into hot ones stems from years of attention and efforts through media penetration, political outreach, economic incentives and long-standing cultural links. Once conflict breaks out, the Russian military can be further augmented by militants and private military companies.

The Kremlin’s success also points to the real grievances among minority populations in post-Soviet states. The escalating use of military force simply demonstrates that Russia cares less and less about the optics behind methods that prevent westernization, as long as their methods are effective and yield the desired results at the end.

Russia’s focus on conflict management rather than conflict resolution has granted it resilient influence across the former USSR and supplemented its tools to halt westernization. Its invasion of Ukraine has reinforced doubts over the legitimacy of the U.S. global security order, vividly apparent since the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

The likelihood of Russia using its military elsewhere in the former Soviet Union will depend on its success in Ukraine and repercussions from the West. Other countries are likely to apply these lessons to their own territorial disputes, such as Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. But the greater threat to Washington may be the blow to the U.S. global security order if Russia continues to challenge it in Europe.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.