Russia has a penchant for frozen conflicts.

Its policy of backing separatist movements that lead to the creation of de-facto states inside its neighbors’ borders helps it control those neighbors. Today, there are several Moscow-backed frozen conflicts in the region — in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. And now, some pundits are worrying about a second conflict in Azerbaijan as well. 

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Russia recently poked a stick in the eye of those who are upset about these frozen conflicts —including the victimized countries and the West — by beginning military exercises in three areas it has occupied: Crimea, which it took from Ukraine, and the South Ossetia and Abkhazia enclaves it took from Georgia. The exercises also involve troops at Russia’s base in Armenia and the Black Sea naval fleet in Sevastopol. 

Frozen conflicts start out “hot” — that is, there is a war or conflict between the separatists and the armed forces of the countries they want to secede from.

By sending arms and troops to the separatists, Moscow prevents neighbors with secession movements from subduing the rebels.

The conflict settles into a cold peace that threatens to turn hot again. This situation prevents the countries with the secession movements from developing normally.

This instability not only limits international investment in the victimized country, but also discourages it from forging political or military relationships in dissonance with Russia. 

The threat that continually hangs over the victimized nation is that if the Kremlin becomes displeased with its policies, the frozen conflict will become hot again.

The first frozen conflict stemmed from a war in the late 1980s and early 1990s between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It involved Armenia’s claim, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, that the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in southwestern Azerbaijan should belong to Armenia, since most of its inhabitants were ethnic Armenians. 

This was despite the fact that the demographic situation favoring ethnic Azerbaijanis in the late 19th century was gradually changed by Moscow. The All-Russian Imperial Census from 1897 clearly identified an Azerbaijani majority in uyezds (administrative units of the Russian Empire) that covered the territory of today’s Karabakh region.

Russia backed Armenia in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended in 1994 with a separatist regime occupying the enclave.

The Moldova frozen conflict grew out of a war from 1990 to 1992 between Russian-backed separatists in the Transnistria region and Moldovan forces trying to suppress the rebellion. 

A truce was declared in 1992. Transnistria remains a breeding-ground for criminal and pro-Russian elements, as has also been seen in Crimea following its annexation.

The Georgia frozen conflict stemmed from a war in 2008 that separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia enclaves and their Russian allies fought against the Georgian military. Russia was only too pleased to help the separatists after Georgia declared its intention to join the EU and NATO.

The frozen conflict in Ukraine involves Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula in the spring of 2014. The invasion occurred after demonstrators in Kiev ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych for repudiating a treaty that would have brought Ukraine closer to the EU.

A separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine that also erupted in the spring of 2014 is still in the “hot” phase, but Russia’s ultimate aim appears to be to turn it into a frozen conflict as well, geopolitical experts say.      

The danger of a second Russian-backed frozen conflict in Azerbaijan involves the Talysh minority in the country’s southeast. Russia and its allies have repeatedly tried to manipulate the Talysh for political gain. 

Talysh nationalists fought a brief, unsuccessful conflict with Azerbaijani forces in 1993.

There have been hints that Russia may be thinking about fomenting another rebellion in the enclave that leads to a destabilizing separatism in Azerbaijan, geopolitical pundits say.  

A frozen conflict might help Moscow attain a level of control over Azerbaijan that it has been unable to attain so far.

Oil and gas have made Azerbaijan an economic power in the region. That means Moscow can’t use economic intimidation to bend Baku to its will, as it has other countries in the region. Its favorite economic weapon — threatening to cut off gas — won’t work with such a petroleum-rich country. 

Russia started buying billions of cubic meters of Azerbaijani gas in 2010 to try to decrease the reserves that Azerbaijan could allocate to the Southern Gas Corridor. That network of pipelines will begin supplying the EU in 2019 via the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. The Russian strategy failed, however, as Azerbaijan has since made additional discoveries of offshore natural gas.

Russia does not benefit from the fact that Azerbaijan has followed a balanced foreign policy that includes forging closer ties with the West. Baku’s decision to work with Georgia, Turkey, and the United States to build oil and gas pipelines to sell to Europe has infringed upon Russia’s self-declared privileged geopolitical area of interest. Much of this is tied to these energy pipelines, which have weakened the Kremlin’s ability to use oil and gas as a weapon.

Russia would love a less independent Azerbaijan, so it is perhaps not surprising that it has shown renewed interest in the Talysh.

One sign of its official interest is that the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, which is closely aligned with the Kremlin, supports the argument that there was once an independent Talysh khanate. 

Much of this activity is also stoked through Russia’s ally, Armenia, by way of the Talysh Studies Program at Yerevan State University. The program holds conferences on Talysh issues, while promoting the idea of an independent Talysh state. 

Russia’s interest in promoting Talysh separatism was also demonstrated in the Russian newspaper IAREX’s interview with Talysh leader Fakhraddin Aboszoda just last month. 

Aboszoda made the same argument about an independent Talysh khanate that the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies has supported, and contended that it justifies creating a modern Talysh state. Such an interview in a Kremlin mouthpiece might have been a trial balloon, but at worst it was a policy signal from Moscow that it embraces the separatist narrative.

What would be Moscow’s goals in fomenting more ethnic separatism in Azerbaijan?

Its first objective would be to prevent the country from pursuing an independent foreign policy that includes closer ties with the West, and instead adopt policy that reflects Moscow’s interests.   

Azerbaijan, the region and the world need to sound the alarm on any preparations that Russia makes to grow separatism in the country. The earlier such designs come to the world’s attention, the better. Efforts to undermine Azerbaijan’s stability would harm the region and the world.

Noonan is an independent analyst and frequent commentator on post-Soviet issues. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.