How the US can confront Moscow’s frozen conflicts

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Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and the emergence of pro-Moscow separatist territories in eastern Ukraine have created a new set of conflicts, and the U.S. response since 2014 constitutes an unprecedented turning point for political involvement and support to the region. In the past, Moscow faced little-to-no direct policy response from the U.S. government for stoking separatism. With risks of further crisis in the former Soviet Union likely, the U.S. government should reassess its tools to thwart and mitigate Moscow’s support for separatism and conflicts in the future.

Implications of frozen conflicts

Since the 1990s, a number of separatist movements and conflicts have challenged the borders of the states of the former Soviet Union and created quasi-independent territories under Russian influence or control: Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.

{mosads}These seemingly disparate frozen conflicts across former Soviet republics are interconnected. Together, they demonstrate a pattern of Russian foreign policy, which manufactures frozen conflicts by inciting ethnic tensions and separatism as a means of increasing Moscow’s long-term influence and leverage over target states in its near abroad. Challenges to their territorial integrity hinders the integration efforts of such states into Western organizations and alliances.

The resulting separatist territories create “gray zones” that are problematic for the international community and international law. They challenge the post-Cold War political order, destabilize Europe’s frontier states, and are often used by local and transnational groups for money laundering, organized crime, and human and arms trafficking. They are also problematic because no one knows how to “unfreeze” them.

Frozen conflicts enable Russia to gain long-term control over the separatist territories and achieve leverage over the target states without necessarily resorting to annexation. With annexation comes costs: isolation in the international community, the threat of sanctions, a lack of legitimacy in international law, and the direct costs from assuming control and responsibility for the breakaway region. In short, resorting to frozen conflicts rather than annexation mitigates Moscow’s near-term costs of fomenting separatism.

US policy responses

For the past 25 years, the U.S. government has supported the territorial integrity of post-Soviet states facing separatism and sought to contain the fallout from these frozen conflicts, although its efforts by and large have failed.

Past responses of the U.S. government to these frozen conflicts have centered on non-recognition policy, foreign aid, people-to-people diplomacy, establishment of international forums and sanctions. In the framework of its policy of “engagement without recognition” in Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s separatist territories, Washington has pursued public diplomacy and people-to-people initiatives to counter their isolation. Likewise, the U.S. participated in various international bodies and forums to seek to resolve and monitor the conflicts, such as the U.N. Geneva Format in relation to Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Peace Process for Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine.

The U.S. government has also pursued sanctions. Initially, sanctions were targeted toward the separatist regions and their leadership, as in Transnistria. Following Crimea’s annexation, these U.S. policies evolved to include sanctions against the Russian government, including against companies, individuals and some sectors of the economy.

If Moscow stirs up separatist sentiment again — which is likely — what can Congress do? It can rely on three policy instruments: legislative power to pass resolutions, bills, and treaties and agreements; declaratory power to express condemnation of conflict and to raise awareness through hearings and investigations; and funding power.

There are a number of important factors to consider for future U.S. policies toward these frozen conflicts. First, Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are likely to continue seeking closer integration into the Russian Federation. In the near term, the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk will continue to seek greater autonomy from Ukraine, and in the longer term, they could likewise seek integration with Russia. The U.S. government will have to be prepared to address such processes.

Second, the uptick in violence in Nagorno-Karabakh since mid-2016 shows that frozen conflicts are anything but frozen. The United States should be prepared for reignited conflict and seek policies that discourage a return to violence. Third, none of the post-Soviet conflicts has been resolved or shows prospects of resolution, so Washington needs to pursue a long-term strategy in the region.

Finally, past U.S. policies have not deterred Moscow’s efforts to further manufacture separatist territories. Thus, while Washington has a weak hand to play and Moscow is ready to resort to its old game of encouraging “independence movements,” lawmakers need not be caught flatfooted again like they were with Crimea in 2014. An assessment should be carried out to identify potential vulnerabilities where Moscow might stir up ethnic conflict and policies put in place to counter such developments before they happen.

Long-term, the picture is not entirely bleak. The U.S. government should pursue a strict non-recognition of separatist regions until the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the targeted state is restored. Here, an example could be taken from the half-century-long non-recognition policy of the U.S. government to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, which, as part of the Stimson Doctrine, created the basis for the legal and moral support of their eventual independence in 1991. So that Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine would not have to wait decades until their territorial integrity is restored, the U.S. government should combine non-recognition with creative policies of engaging, supporting and spreading democratic values to people who reside in frozen conflicts to promote their eventual return. The United States needs to stop conceding frozen conflicts to Moscow and step up its game before it is too late.

Grigas is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire.” Her Atlantic Council report on frozen conflicts will be launched on Capitol Hill, 122 Cannon House Office Building, on July 6, 2016 at 1 p.m. Follow her @AgniaGrigas.

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