Nagorno Karabakh war threatens to unfreeze other post-Soviet conflicts

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is putting Russia’s preeminent role of security guarantor in its former territories (the ‘near abroad’) in danger. Up to now, the Kremlin has relied on the instigation and ‘management’ of ethnic separatism in certain regions – the so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ – as a mechanism of political control. This dynamic is now under threat and will invite further challenges to Russia’s immediate sphere of influence.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is ongoing. The ‘fog of war’ makes accurately assessing the situation on the ground complicated, but at present it appears that Turkish and Azeri forces have gained the upper hand. Russia has not only not intervened, it has given little indication of what it’s ‘red lines’ are, even as the fighting has escalated to civilian areas of Azerbaijan and Armenia proper.

Managing chaos

During the chaotic breakup of the USSR, ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus and the Transnistria region of Moldova created unrecognised statelets under Russia’s protection, giving Moscow a foothold and lever of influence over the newly independent states.

While Russia did not instigate the ’frozen conflicts,’ they provided a check on the foreign policy aspirations of states such as Georgia and Ukraine, where, to maintain its influence, the Kremlin intervened militarily in 2008 and 2014 respectively.

The shortcomings of this strategy are clear. ‘Managing’ the frozen conflicts is a complex task, and even in countries with large Russophile constituencies, military action has turned public opinion decisively against Russia. This was seen most clearly in Ukraine, where Russia has struggled to effectively control its proxy forces, leading outside observers to query whether ‘the tail is wagging the dog’ and undermining Russia’s ability to engage in good faith negotiations.

'Frozen Conflicts' in the former Soviet Union

Conflict Disputants Status Notes
Abkhazia and South Ossetia Georgia vs Russia and self-declared states Frozen Georgia suffered a decisive defeat in 2008 after attempting to regain control of its breakaway territories and is unlikely to attempt to do so again absent a decisive collapse of the Putin administration and Russia’s military capabilities
Transnistria Moldova vs Russia and self-declared state Frozen Transnistria is physically remote from Russia and borders Ukrainian territory. A Ukrainian-Moldovan military operation is possible if Chisinau and Kyiv regard Russia as unable to intervene effectively.
Donbass Ukraine vs Russia and self-declared states Ongoing stalemate The self-declared “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk were established by local militias in 2014 with Russian military support. The conflict has been marked by periodic skirmishing along the line of contact since 2015. The Ukrainian military is very likely to push for a renewed offensive if Kyiv determines Russia cannot or will not reintroduce its own troops into the conflict zone.
Crimea Ukraine vs Russia Under de facto Russian control Russian forces are well entrenched and supported in Crimea, but Ukraine would likely attempt to reconquer the territory if it judged the regional balance of forces to have decisively shifted, or if it was aided by a sufficiently powerful ally.

Here comes another contender

Until now, Russia has avoided another potential pitfall of the managed conflict scenario – a third power intervening on one side, as has happened in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow is now faced with the option of either intervening in the conflict and risking a direct military conflict with Turkey or standing by and losing its credibility as a security guarantor.

If Russia does intervene, and is unable to prevail militarily, this will also undermine Russia’s standing and encourage other post-Soviet states to seek alternative security regimes. Turkey has managed to effectively challenge Russian security hegemony over Armenia and Azerbaijan. This will encourage further challenges from other regional competitors, as well as dominant players such as China.

Outlook points to instability, competition and potential conflict on Russia borders

Russia is involved, directly or indirectly, with a number of territorial disputes across its frontier which have the potential to flare up into violence, particularly if third parties get involved. Following Turkey’s intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran has stepped up its engagement with Armenia. If Russia is perceived as withdrawing from the Caucasus in the face of external challenges, this will present an opportunity for Georgia to attempt retake South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Similarly, If Moldova and Ukraine calculate that Russia is unable or willing to continue supporting the separatist statelets on their territory, they will seek to retake them, either alone or with the support of states in Central and Eastern Europe.

Currently, there is a remote probability of Russia getting directly involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Rather, we expect that Moscow will attempt to prevent a complete Armenian rout, in the hopes that a ceasefire can be achieved which the Kremlin can take credit for. However, as in domestic politics power is based as much on perception as it is ‘concrete’ factors. If Turkey and Azerbaijan can determine the terms of a peace settlement in the Caucasus without Moscow’s input, the perception of Russia as a reliable security guarantor in the post-Soviet space will quickly evaporate.

In addition to the potential ‘unfreezing’ of territorial conflicts described above, this will encourage states currently in the Russian security orbit to seek alternative partners. Moscow, of course, will seek opportunities to re-establish the perception of security hegemony. This not only portends a prolonged period of instability along Russia’s periphery, but direct competition with other major powers and potential military conflict.

Daragh McDowell

Principal Analyst, Europe & Central Asia