Wed, Nov 19, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Russian frozen conflicts show no signs of thaw

By Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev

Global temperatures are rising, but the former Soviet Union’s frozen conflicts show no sign of a thaw. On the contrary, the ice is expanding.

Russia’s support for the election held by separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk — key cities in Ukraine’s Donbas region — indicates that the Kremlin has decided to create another semi-permanent “mini-Cold War,” this time in rebel-controlled areas of Russia’s most important neighboring country. However, freezing Ukraine’s legitimate government out of the region is potentially far more destabilizing than the Kremlin’s support for the other ex-Soviet breakaway territories: Moldova’s Transnistria and the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

By blurring its border with Ukraine, Russia is creating a new relationship with an anomalous, internationally unrecognizable entity that belongs, culturally and historically, not to the imaginary “Novorossiya,” New Russia, proclaimed by the separatists, but to the “undead” Soviet Union. The question is why Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage view a frozen conflict in Donbas, created to preclude a political settlement or lasting peace, as a positive outcome for the country.

Within their current borders, Donetsk and Luhansk are of negligible geostrategic importance to Russia. Moreover, an independent Donbas would impose substantial costs on Russia, which would presumably be forced to rebuild and sustain an economy deprived of all other foreign investment.

Unlike Transnistria or Abkhazia, Donbas is heavily industrialized and dependent on subsidies; its infrastructure is devastated; and its businesses are largely owned by oligarchs, who have fled to Kiev, London, or Paris, rather than Moscow, to escape the conflict. Add to that the irregular legal status of these self-proclaimed “people’s republics,” which makes it impossible for Donbas’ industrial producers to trade with the world, and the region’s economic (and social) prospects seem bleak.

Citizens of the other Russia-backed breakaway regions have long been subjugated by their squalid “feudal democratic” systems, in which local leaders routinely stage sham elections and base their power on mafia-style corruption and patronage. After months of empty promises by separatist leaders, the citizens of Donetsk and Luhansk are unlikely to acquiesce quietly to Donbas’ transformation into another internationally isolated pariah entity that benefits Russia-based criminal networks.

By establishing a frozen conflict in Donbas, Russia has jammed a thorn into Ukraine’s side and, in the short run, complicated relations between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. However, it has also guaranteed that, in the longer run, the Ukrainian state will be reconsolidated around anti-Russian sentiment and policies — meaning that Russia will be unable to normalize its relations with Ukraine for decades.

Furthermore, Putin’s support for the Donbas separatists is the final nail in the coffin of his regional integration project, a Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Ironically, Russia’s economic ambitions are what fueled its forceful response to Ukraine’s Westward drift, with Putin recognizing that, without Ukraine, the bloc could not fulfill his vision as a viable rival to the EU. Yet Russia’s flagrant and unapologetic violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity has not only poisoned relations with Kiev; it also implicitly threatens prospective EEU members, especially Kazakhstan, whose independent statehood Putin has openly questioned.

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