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Post-Soviet 'frozen conflicts' heat up as big-power interests collide

Tensions are growing as NATO and a resurgent Russia divide over future of breakaway statelets.

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"Russia is trying to demonstrate the possible price of NATO expansion, by warning that Ukraine is an extremely fragile entity," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "If NATO will push toward Ukraine, Russia might turn to very ugly means. There is huge potential for Russian irredentism in Ukraine," he says.

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Last month Moscow's nationalist mayor, Yury Luzkhov, was declared persona non grata in Ukraine after he said that Moscow should take back Crimea, a Russian-populated peninsula that is still headquarters of the Russian Navy's Black Sea fleet and which was a "gift" to Ukraine from former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

Some Russian nationalists go further and suggest the time is approaching for a wholesale redrawing of the post-Soviet map, to gather in Russian minorities and other pro-Moscow ethnic groups who felt stranded on foreign soil by the USSR's collapse.

"NATO expansion endangers our national interests, but at the same time Russia has grown much stronger and is in a position to revisit the status quo in the post-Soviet space," says Alexander Dugin, head of the International Eurasian Movement, a Moscow-based group of nationalist intellectuals, businessmen, and policymakers. "Russia understands that we cannot allow Ukraine to enter NATO as a whole state. We will witness a wave of separatism in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Russia is no longer weak and at the West's mercy; it's on its way to recreating itself as an imperial power."

Future redivision of territory?

Mr. Lukyanov says that such extreme views are unlikely to get much traction in the Kremlin, but neither do Russia's leaders rule out a future redivision of post-Soviet territory. "The Russian elite does not consider the current status quo as final," he says. "All the countries of this region are highly unstable, and subject to unpredictable shocks. No one here believes that the transition of the post-Soviet space has reached its final destination."

The new tone in Moscow is music to the ears of Abkhazia's rebel leaders, who believe all the attention now being paid them after 15 years of isolation could be their ticket to full statehood.

"Until now the world community has only recognized the partial collapse of the Soviet Union. But why can't the captive nations inside those states also have their freedom?" asks Garry Kupalba, Abkhazia's deputy defense minister.

"The world thinks we don't exist, but we do. We're building our own state, with all the attributes of a state, including armed forces. And Russia is helping us," he says.