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frozen conflicts jaggedly thawing: it’s time for washington to understand and act

FROZEN CONFLICTS JAGGEDLY THAWING: IT’S TIME FOR WASHINGTON TO UNDERSTAND AND ACT

Image source: shutterstock

 

Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

-- Winston Churchill, 1939

 

A MOST CURIOUS DEVELOPMENT

The world is focused on Russian President Valdimir Putin’s criminal war against Ukraine.  But in recent days, a much less high-profile event has happened that leaves many outside observers scratching their heads:  the Kremlin’s pull-out of the nearly 2,000 Russian “peace-keepers” from Azerbaijan, now that Baku has regained full sovereign control of Karabakh and the surrounding districts once occupied by Armenia.  

The natural assumption in the West when this move was first announced was that, of course, these troops would be sent to the Kremlin’s war front in southeastern Ukraine.  But that’s not what happened.  So far, these troops have been repositioned along the Armenian-Iranian border, supposedly to guarantee Azerbaijani safe passage and commercial transit across the Zangezur Corridor in Armenia to its exclave of Nakhchivan, thus providing direct land access to Türkiye and onward into Europe.  It’s worth noting that the speaker of the parliament in Yerevan has said that this redeployment is only temporary.  But even if their temporary status is true, this is an odd development.

This pullout of Russian troops from Azerbaijan was further perplexing in the West because it had been widely assumed that Moscow would not only keep them there for their full five-year deployment, no matter the actual circumstances, but would take advantage of one of the points in the agreement that would allow Moscow to extend their deployment in Azerbaijan for a further five years.  This would have given Moscow troops on the ground for at least a decade in all three countries of the South Caucasus:  Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. 

Further, Russian troops in all three countries, and especially Azerbaijan, would guarantee the Kremlin a loud voice, if not a total veto, in the ongoing development of the Middle Corridor, the land route for transportation and trade from China, through Central Asia, across the Caspian Sea, through the South Caucasus nations and Türkiye into Europe.  Why would Moscow do something that, at least in theory, benefits the Middle Corridor?

Why is this even of any interest to the West other than to highly specialized analysts and historians?  It’s because Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s commitment to fully resolve their historic conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh represents a substantial historical shift in Eurasian international relations and opens significant new possibilities for the West in an important region where, almost by default, it has seemed to defer to Russia.  

FROZEN CONFLICTS

Following the fall of the Soviet Union in the final week of 1991, several of the newly independent states inherited what came to be called “frozen conflicts.”  These were Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Transnistria in Moldova, and Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine.  Almost all involved ethnic minorities who were unhappy with the new country they found themselves in after the unexpected independence and who then agitated for political and geographic change.

While the Kremlin did not cause these prolonged conflicts, it was pleased to let them sit unresolved because, the thinking went at that time, if they were solved, then the countries involved would begin to look toward Europe, and more generally to the West, instead of to Moscow, for new primary relationships, as indeed Armenia has begun to do now that it no longer has Karabakh at the top of its national and international agenda.  Also, it was for the Kremlin a passive and internally acceptable way to keep the newly independent countries with prolonged conflicts in the Kremlin’s fold, because the European Union would not start a membership process with them so long as they remained subject to unresolved territorial conflicts.  

But Moscow’s war in Ukraine has changed all of this.  It turned the prolonged conflict of Donetsk and Luhansk into a much broader hot war of Russia seeking to subjugate all of Ukraine because, some believe, Putin has now set out to build a new Russian Empire.  Could any of the other prolonged conflicts now become hot wars?

NEXT IN PUTIN’S CROSS-HAIRS?  

Moldova is certainly concerned about its long-standing prolonged-conflict problem of Transnistria, a narrow strip of land on its border with Ukraine.  It is so concerned, in fact, that Foreign Minister Mihai Popsoi went to Washington in the third week of April to warn policy makers that if Russia wins in Ukraine, Moldova will most likely be Moscow’s next target.  Already, he said, the Kremlin has been squeezing Moldova’s economy and undermining its democracy, including by flooding the country with disinformation, training fake anti-government protesters, and funding pro-Russian opposition parties.  It’s doing all of this, he explained, hoping that Chisinau’s young democracy will fall to a pro-Moscow government obedient to the Kremlin.

And should pro-European Moldova fall, which country would Putin focus on next in his apparent effort to build a new Russian Empire?  Georgia is certainly of concern, as the Georgian Dream party promotes more and more anti-Western, pro-Russian views, further triggering social unrest in the country.  It’s worth remembering, too, that various Russian officials, including Putin himself, have called for the annexation of the northern third of Kazakhstan.  Both of these potential conflicts – Georgia and Kazakhstan – remain hypothetical but are worth watching closely.

AND U.S. POLICY?

We, the West, have entered a new period of history.  Immediately after their independence, Washington was absolutely certain that these new nations would quickly become free-market economies, a belief that Henry Kissinger eventually came to call “irrational exuberance.”  But that didn’t happen because their cultural, political, and economic histories were so different from the West.  And so the view in Washington calcified into an ideology of too often naming and shaming the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and, quite frankly, keeping them at arm’s length.

As a professional U.S. diplomat, my career focused on working in these countries, starting as early as 1993 in Uzbekistan and continuing to 2017 when I was the U.S. Co-Chair of the OSCE’s Minsk Group for Nagorno-Karabakh.  What I saw over this quarter century was that U.S. foreign policy tends to be more rigidly ideological the less we need specific countries or if they are not involved in significant international events.  But now Putin’s war against the independent and sovereign nation of Ukraine has caused many to suspect that his goal is to build a New Russian Empire and force the currently independent nations back under direct Kremlin control.  

It’s time for the U.S. government to reassess how to make its standard support for the independent nations that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union more clear and more specific.  It’s no longer adequate to intone that we support the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of these countries.  Of course, we do!  It’s now time for U.S. policy to become more concrete and, especially, more visible throughout the post-Soviet world.

 

 


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