Some in Moscow View Karabakh Settlement as Model for Donbas, Transnistria

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 163

Russian peacekeepers in Moldova's separatist Transnistria region. (Source: Sputnik)

Whenever a major development occurs in one area of the post-Soviet space, many Moscow officials and analysts often hurry to ask whether it will be repeated in another. And when Moscow becomes involved, some in the Russian capital are inclined to think that the Kremlin can and should repeat such activity elsewhere. While these types of Russian arguments typically understate the diversity of the situation across post-Soviet Eurasia, their almost inevitable appearance simultaneously reflects the continuing dominance of Soviet-era notions about the homogeneity of the region and drives Moscow’s policies in understandable but often flawed directions. That is exactly what appears to be happening now that Moscow has proclaimed a settlement for the Karabakh dispute (see EDM, November 12 [1], [2], November 13) and is beginning to think about potentially copying the arrangements there in Ukraine’s Donbas and Moldova’s Transnistria. To compound this threat, some in the Russian capital apparently believe outside powers in the West, especially in Europe, might accept such arrangements, including the official injection of Russian peacekeepers on the ground, as the best (under the circumstances) possible solution to resolving the other “frozen” conflicts. And if Russia can successfully push this notion, it could deepen preexisting policy divides between the European Union and the United States.

In an article entitled “The Division of Karabakh May Become a Scenario for Donbas and Transnistria,” Svetlana Gamova, a leading specialist on the former Soviet space for Nezavisimaya Gazeta and someone well connected with the Russian foreign policy elite, argues that all this is possible because the outcome of the Karabakh war represented such a victory for Russia. As such, she opines, it would be surprising if Moscow did not try to use it as a model in other frozen conflicts. Though acknowledging that Ukraine, Moldova and, likely, the West will oppose such moves, she nonetheless insists that the “Karabakh model” offers a chance for the resolution of those conflicts—albeit under Russian terms (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 10).

According to Gamova, the outcome in Karabakh has changed the balance of forces, which in turn has shifted the calculations of governments not only within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) but also in the West over how to approach the former Soviet space. She writes that an end to the war in Karabakh is “undoubtedly” a diplomatic success for Russia in a double sense: On the one hand, it has allowed Russia to return its military presence to the region as well as win support from Azerbaijan because Baku has regained full control of four of the seven districts Armenian forces had occupied and part of Karabakh as well. (She does not add what has long been known: for Moscow, Azerbaijan is a far more important prize than Armenia—see EDM, December 13, 2019 and October 29, 2020.) And on the other hand, by allowing Turkey to extend its influence in the region in the way that it has, Moscow has blocked the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the region, something which for the Russian leadership is “important” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 10).

At a minimum, these steps increase Russian influence in Azerbaijan, something Moscow has long desired, albeit at the price of alienating Armenia, which will ultimately have to come to terms with the situation because it was on the brink of a military disaster and had no choice but to make these concessions. Additionally, it boosts Russian authority in the region by showing that Moscow and none of the Western powers involved in the Minsk Group conflict resolution process can play a decisive role. And it further expands Russian sway with Turkey, which is obtaining the foothold in a region it has long felt was part of its patrimony. That may look like a Russian concession, but it is in fact another element of the Russian victory, Gamova suggests, even if, five years from now, Turks end up replacing Russians as peacekeepers in Karabakh. But in the intervening period, much can change.

She quotes Aleksandr Rahr, a Berlin-based commentator, as saying that while all this is going on, there has been a shift in the West. The European Union is refocusing away from the post-Soviet area, giving up on its Eastern Partnership, and deferring to the US, which will now act, “instead of the EU, in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.” That, too, changes the geopolitics of the region and means that Moscow has even more interest in finding some kind of a settlement to frozen conflicts in Ukraine and Moldova lest these reignite in ways that harm Russia. The Karabakh model could be a model for this, at least from a European perspective.

Kyiv and Chisinau officials and experts are sensitive to this issue (Euromaidan Press, November 10). In both capitals, people are following what has been going on in Karabakh with extreme care, recognizing that what Moscow does in one place it may do in others, the Nezavisimaya Gazeta journalist says. Most do not believe that their governments or the United States will agree to similar arrangements even if they accept the idea that Moscow is going to push for that as part of a “new look” peace campaign. What happened in Karabakh certainly lays the groundwork for such a move and might well be viewed positively in EU capitals, especially given their refocusing of attention away from the region.

That sets the stage for a heightening of tensions between Russia, on the one hand, and these countries and the United States, on the other. But at the end of the day, three reasons explain why Moscow is unlikely to succeed in such an effort. First and most important, the other two conflicts pit Russians (or at least Russian speakers) against non-Russians rather than being a contest between members of non-Russian nations. That makes it far more difficult for Moscow to maneuver “neutrally.” Second, the US may well read the Karabakh accord not as a Russian triumph but a Turkish one, and Moscow will not wish to repeat the drawing in of outside powers anywhere else (UNIAN, November 13). And third—and perhaps most importantly—whatever the Kremlin believes, the post-Soviet space is not only far more diverse than it thinks (IPN, November 14) but is increasing dominated by centrifugal rather than centripetal forces. The Karabakh accord does nothing to reverse that broader pattern.