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Russia and the Frozen Wars

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
September 6, 2006

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Separation anxiety abounds in the former Soviet Union. The empire's dissolution led to turmoil in parts of the north and south Caucasus, and the status of a number of important enclaves remains unsettled. Some call for more autonomy from Moscow, while others want closer ties. As on-and-off wars in Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and northern Georgia illustrate, at times, these so-called "frozen conflicts" have heated up; more often, though, they simmer beneath the surface, leaving restless nationals in their wake. Experts agree on one thing: The road to resolve these conflicts goes through Moscow.

Yet with ethnic Albanian Kosovars calling for independence from Serbia, Russia finds itself in a bind, writes Chris Stephen of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. On one hand, Moscow supports, both with money and manpower, the struggles of separatists in Moldova's Trans-Dniester and Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. Yet there is an obvious "wariness about encouraging separatism elsewhere." Russians are worried that if Chechnya breaks away from the federation, then Dagestan, Tatarstan, and other Russian republics would follow in domino-like fashion. Not to mention Russia does not want to anger its best friend in the Balkans, Serbia, which refuses to accept statehood for Kosovo.

For its part, Georgia is keen to come to an understanding with Russia on its separatist problems. The leaders who took office after the Rose Revolution struck a quick deal with Russia to resolve problems with the breakaway Ajaria region but Moscow-Tbilisi ties have deteriorated with Georgia's unification push. Moscow has jacked up the price of its gas, as well as embargoed exports like Georgian wine and mineral water. Relations are also tense over Tbilisi's bid to join NATO. Yet Georgia can ill afford to provoke Moscow because, as the Economist reports, "it would in effect be war against Russia."

These frozen conflicts have far-reaching ramifications beyond their immediate regions. Many of them (Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia) are situated on important energy corridors. That partially explains recent Western calls for an international police force to monitor northern Georgia and the $295 million grant doled out by the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation. Meanwhile, Trans-Dniester remains a popular route for traffickers of drugs, arms, and sex workers (BBC).

Perhaps the most potentially hazardous of these conflicts is Nagorno-Karabakh. Ethnic Armenians took control of the enclave and a chunk of Azerbaijan in 1993 after a war that killed some 25,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. "This barely frozen conflict threatens a hot war that would devastate the region," write Ana Palacio and Daniel Twining in the Washington Post. They propose a "mini-Marshall Plan" to remove Russian bases from the southern Caucasus and end outstanding sanctions by some Western states against Azerbaijan.

Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation says Moscow has a "major incentive" to leave conflicts unresolved, knowing the West will not be interested in strategic partnerships "with rumps of countries that are open to Russian-orchestrated pressures" (Word doc). Hence, Russia's preferred strategy is to maintain the status quo, writes Nicu Popescu of the Centre for European Policy Studies. "The conflicts are not frozen at all," he says. "It is their settlement that is frozen."

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