The Frozen Conflicts of the Former Soviet Union

Image by Aris_Katsaris

The Soviet Union may have fallen, but its legacy lingers. It lingers around the edges of the Russian Federation, where frozen conflicts based along ethnic lines raise their ugly heads, even thirty years later.

As we have mentioned before, Vladimir Putin is no longer a communist. He is, however, the new tsar of Russia, obediently and expertly restoring imperial Russia one bite at a time. He is starting with the old hinterlands the tsar’s coveted, which provided a buffer to turbulent Western Europe, Central Asia, and the Balkans.

The Russian empire was once much larger than it is now. At its zenith, it stretched from Poland to San Francisco. When the USSR fell, many of these buffer zones were returned to their ethnic tribes to govern themselves. However, one of the agendas of the former communist giant was to spread the Russian language throughout the union.

This agenda the USSR accomplished very well. When the wall fell—and the union shortly after—these Russians were left in enclaves throughout the former territories, including the satellites in Eastern Europe. You can see this phenomenon today, boiling from Estonia to Kazakhstan.

Vladimir Putin wants them back.

The Russian, Soviet masters were wise to spread Russian throughout their satellite states and regions—that is, if your goal is to inject your culture and language into a land foreign to them, with an eye to better control the territory. Today, the fruits of this agenda can be clearly seen and are the basis of a rationale for the Kremlin to exploit. After all, what could be better than to say you are just protecting Russian speakers when you annex a foreign country?

The process of reclaiming Soviet lands started right after the fall of the USSR. The first area to come under the control of Russian troops was Transdniester in Moldova. Moldova is a small strip of land wedged between Ukraine and Romania. Historically, it was part of Romania, and the people are basically Romanian.

Along the Ukrainian border, east of the capital, Chisinau, lies a smaller strip of land called Transdniester. After the Soviet Union fell, the region fought for its autonomy, and Russia brought troops in to protect the Russians living there. Russian troops still occupy the area today. It was the first post-Soviet frozen conflict.

As Moldova moved toward the European Union over the last decade, magically 20% of the assets of the Moldovan central bank disappeared and crippled the pro-EU government. We’re talking billions of dollars. The people protested the incompetence and corruption, and Moscow exploited these divisions expertly, electing a pro-Russian president whose first official act was to fly to Moscow. The Eurocentric prime minister accused Russian security services of stealing the money.

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War brought further opportunities to bring certain areas under Kremlin control. When South Ossetia, a pro-Russian area on the Georgian border, and Abakhazia to the west declared their independence from Tbilisi, Georgia sent troops to protect its territorial integrity. Russia responded with force, and the war lasted four days, with Moscow eventually coming out the winner.

Although the Russian military performed poorly and many weaknesses were brought to light, the simple fact of overwhelming force ruled the day for the Kremlin. Russian troops remain in both areas today.

In fact, Russia is actively pulling these two areas closer to the Russian Federation, with talk of annexation running rampant. The borders to the two areas have been closed off and on to Georgian residents, some of whom want to return to their homeland to visit the graves of their loved ones. In fact, three Georgians were arrested in South Ossetia this recent Easter doing just that. Thirty thousand Georgians were forced from their homes during the conflict and are set up in makeshift refugee camps inside Georgia to this day.

The Russian military has started inducting certain units of the Abkhazian military into the Russian army, while disbanding and disarming other, less reliable forces. Russia has established an “embassy” in the territories that are only recognized by Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as of late. Tbilisi is none too happy about the frequent visits of Russian foreign minister Lavrov to the contested areas.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan and a consequence of the Sovietization of the Caucasus, Russia has long stationed troops with its ally Armenia and sold weapons to both sides in the conflict. This disputed zone, sandwiched right beside NATO’s southern flank near the Turkish border, could eventually spark a global conflict.

When looking North of the Caucasus, Ukraine is the obvious elephant in the room at the moment, with the Crimean Peninsula (or Krim, as the Russians call it) firmly under Russian annexation and control.

The warm water ports of the Black Sea were just too tempting a target for Moscow. When the opportunity came, they took it and succeeded in annexing the historically and strategically all-important peninsula without firing a shot. Russians will justify the action by saying, “Krim has always belonged to Russia. We corrected a historical mistake.”

East Ukraine has been an entirely different situation altogether. When Viktor Yanukovych was forced out of power during the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014, Moscow didn’t look on this too kindly. Yanukovych had accepted the three billion loan from Moscow and reneged on a free-trade agreement with the European Union. With him forced out of power, Russia just could not let this place they don’t even see as a real country—the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union and the buffer for Russia to the West—become European.

So the Russians in Novorossiya (or “New Russia,” or East Ukraine, or Donbass) needed to be protected too. A referendum was held after the pro-Russian rebels seized territory, which gave justification for Moscow to support the rebellion. However, three years later, the Ukrainian army has gotten much stronger.

Ukraine would no longer be a pushover for Russia. Kyiv is building its own weapons, has financial support from the IMF, and is making progress bringing its governmental culture in line with Western values, meaning they are slowly dealing with corruption that has strangled the country for decades.

The conflict in the West is getting expensive for both sides. Ukrainian veterans have blockaded transportation lines to the eastern areas, shutting off vital commerce for both sides. Russia is even enabling the use of the Russian currency, the ruble, in the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. They are allowing formal, government documents from the conflict zones to be used in Russia. It seems annexation may be possible here as well, although all sides in the conflict talk about upholding the Minsk peace agreements (which will never happen, and everyone knows it).

As the US and Europe are focused on geopolitical threats like North Korea, the South China Sea, and the Islamic invasion of the continent, Moscow continues to reassert pressure in its historic spheres of influence. The Kremlin will not slow down this process. The Russian people, if anything, are extremely patriotic. Putin knows that rebuilding imperial Russia will be a big winner at home, no matter how much it costs or how much the people suffer as expenditures are redirected to the military in the midst of an economic downturn.

The only question is what lands may be next on the Kremlin’s radar. NATO worries about Estonia and the other Baltic nations and has returned American armor to the theater in size. Poland worries. However, the most probable next hot spot—or frozen conflict—could be in the Balkans. Serbia is restless. Russian security services are active throughout the region. The future is yet to be seen; however, the Balkans don’t have a good track record. They tend to start world wars.

Originally posted at Opslens.com

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