Putin’s Frozen Conflicts

By Robert Orttung and Christopher Walker as it appeared on foreignpolicy.com on Feb. 13th.


High-level negotiations in Minsk have just produced a new ceasefire in the war in Ukraine. Few believe that the agreement will hold for long. But even if it does, the Western powers are showing little inclination to make efforts to roll back the separatist enclave in the beleaguered country’s east. Russia, meanwhile, shows no real sign of curtailing its debilitating “hybrid war” in support of these separatists.

The war in Ukraine is a stark reminder of Russia’s long-established role in destabilizing its neighborhood. The recent separatist offensive there suggests that the Kremlin may be aiming to create a prolonged “frozen conflict” that would keep Ukraine in a state of uncertainty in order to prevent the government in Kiev from achieving desperately needed reforms. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin would be quite pleased if the conflict in Ukraine rumbled on at current levels.

Russia’s attempt to subvert Ukraine cannot, however, be seen in isolation.Russia’s attempt to subvert Ukraine cannot, however, be seen in isolation. Its tactics are part of a wider pattern in which the Kremlin uses separatist conflicts as engines for corruption and criminality, and as Trojan horses to block progress in reform-minded countries on Russia’s periphery.

Take the case of Georgia, which faces Moscow-inspired disruption in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moldova is similarly hobbled by Transnistria, another breakaway state sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. Russia maintains military bases in all three of these territories. With an eye on deepening its influence, the Kremlin is now working to bind Abkhazia and South Ossetia closer to it by signing strategic treaties with these territories that increase Moscow’s ability to determine their foreign and security policies.

During his time in power, Putin has made Russian state sovereignty a central value. But when it comes to Georgia, Moldova, and now Ukraine, Putin is using frozen conflicts to deprive these reform-minded countries of their territorial integrity in order to upset their development and prevent them from joining western institutions. A basic prerequisite for democracy and democratic state-building is control over one’s territory. By undermining its neighbors’ territorial integrity, Russia seeks to distract the governments in Kiev, Kishinev, and Tbilisi from successfully pursuing reforms to reduce corruption and build representative institutions.

Instead of concentrating on improving their own governance, these disrupted countries must deal with the charged and emotional issues associated with territorial conflict. Such disputes stir up strong nationalist passions, bringing to the surface deep anger toward Russia and embroiling local politicians in existential political debates. This makes it extremely difficult for reform-minded politicians to govern effectively.

Moreover, separatist conflicts serve as Kremlin patronage vehicles, fueling the organized crime and corruption that is the oxygen of Putin’s system of governance. The conflicts provide opportunities for transferring money and power to Russia’s Federal Security Service and its military. These institutions are Putin’s main base of power, and the spoils seized in these territories yield new resources for buying their loyalty at a time when his regime can no longer count on a flood of petrodollars to meet such needs. The Kremlin portrays the annexation of Crimea as a national imperative to safeguard the rights of Russian speakers beyond Russia’s borders. It is better understood as a major asset grab.

Because this archipelago of disputed territories is rife with criminality and corruption, it poses a growing security threat to the European Union, which is already wrestling with the threat of Islamist terrorism. In eastern Ukraine, Russian-linked organized crime has been deepening its hold, building on the extensive corruption that flourished in former President Viktor Yanukovych’s home region. The same holds true for Transnistria and South Ossetia, which are hotbeds for organized crime and where these systems are controlled by elites loyal to Moscow. As Russia scholar Mark Galeotti observes, metastasizing organized crime has been a central feature of what could be called “the para-militarization” of eastern Ukraine.

The melding of local gangsters with Russian-backed forces has become a fixture of that landscape and the growth of these militarized criminal networks will intensify the challenge that Kiev faces in getting a handle on its own corruption. Such networks will inevitably seek connections with corrupt bureaucrats and crime groups inside Ukraine and work with them to undermine efforts to build up the legitimate economy.

Crimea, for its part, has been subjected to mass confiscations, property seizures, and deepening corruption since its annexation by Russia. The peninsula’s de facto leader, Sergey Aksyonov, who was installed by force of Russian guns, has long been linked to criminal networks, which among other things makes him vulnerable to Russian manipulation. In this instance and in the other puppet statelets, Moscow would rather deal with a discredited figurehead it can “own” than a democratically elected leader with an independent power base.

Above all else, the Kremlin fears the rise of democratic governments on its borders that could serve as an alternative model to Putin’s “vertical of power.”Above all else, the Kremlin fears the rise of democratic governments on its borders that could serve as an alternative model to Putin’s “vertical of power.” To prevent the emergence of such alternatives on Russia’s periphery, the Kremlin uses the destructive power of separatism, and the corruption and crime that accompanies it, to obstruct reform.

With these objectives in mind, it is no coincidence that Russia backs separatist activity against the most promising democratic reformers, all of which are actively pursuing closer relations with the EU: Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

Recently released Freedom House findings tell the story. On its 1 to 7 scale of political rights and civil liberties, with 1 being best and 7 worst, Crimea is pegged at a dismal 6.5. Ukraine, by contrast, is a 3, as are the reform-minded countries of Georgia and Moldova. South Ossetia and Transnistria are 6.5 and 6, respectively, making these breakaway territories among the world’s worst performers. The level of democracy is dramatically lower in the separatist regions allied with Russia than it is in the countries from which these areas are trying to secede. One can expect that under Moscow’s tutelage, these territories will become even less accountable and transparent, and will descend further into criminality and corruption.

Putin cannot allow the rebels in eastern Ukraine to fail because it would threaten his grip over the security forces and military at home. At the same time, he cannot permit the government in Kiev to succeed because that would show to the people of the Russian Federation a successful democratic alternative. Triggering instability is critical to the Kremlin’s strategy. Ukraine urgently needs to reform its economy and, to some extent, the Russian invasion is serving as a catalyst for the government in Kiev to make needed changes. However, the ongoing conflict in the East serves as a distraction that forces the Ukrainian authorities to devote much of their precious time to war fighting.

In Georgia, the government is trying to win back the lost territories by making life in the rest of the country more attractive so that the separatists will eventually lose their appeal to the populations they currently rule. However, the constant harassment from Russia, and the uncertainty created by the fact that the government in Tbilisi does not control its own territory, places enormous obstacles in the way of Georgia’s path to reform. Moldova, for its part, faces the prospect of Moscow-backed provocations in Transnistria that create serious, ongoing challenges for the authorities in Kishinev.

Russia’s use of frozen conflicts has grim implications for Ukraine, as well as Georgia and Moldova. In the fight for Ukraine, Putin will strive for a holding pattern, where he retains leverage over Kyiv’s ability to reform, while waiting in the hope that the price of oil will rise.

But as the Russian economy continues to deteriorate, Putin’s survival strategy suggests that he will create bigger strategic challenges for the West, using the statelets that pockmark the EU’s eastern flank to export crime and corruption, and to block the emergence of democratic alternatives in his neighborhood.