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.

Abkhazia: Russian construction troops repaired railroad tracks damaged by bombs last week in the rebel statelet.
Rich Clabaugh

Tensions are again spiking here on the lush, subtropical Black Sea coastal plain, where heavily armed Russian troops aided by United Nations observers have held apart the warring armies of Georgia and insurgent Abkhazia for 15 years.

Last Wednesday, two powerful bombs exploded in the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi, destroying a section of a railroad recently repaired by Russian construction troops that Georgia says are illegally in the rebel statelet, which Tbilisi – supported by most of the world – views as Georgian territory.

The next day, a few miles from this border post, Georgian police arrested four of the Russian peacekeepers, who have been in place under a 1994 cease-fire deal, leading a top Russian general, Alexander Burutin, to warn that if it happens again, "the consequences will be grave and there could be bloodshed."

If the fragile 1991 settlement that enabled the former Soviet Union to break relatively peacefully into 15 countries starts to unravel, the flash point may well be right here. But the antagonists would not be ragtag irregulars of the 1993 war but real armies, probably backed on one side by a resurgent Russia, on the other by NATO.

Peering over the half-mile-long bridge that separates Abkhazia from the Georgian town of Zugdidi, Ruslan, a burly Abkhaz border guard, says he helped to drive the fleeing Georgian Army across that bridge 15 years ago and expects to see them – now trained and equipped by the US – attempt a return any day now. "We will never agree to be part of Georgia again," he says. "I intend to live as an Abkhazian in a free country, and I'll fight for as long as it takes."

Most of the world breathed a sigh of relief when the USSR's collapse did not bring vast Yugoslavia-like upheavals, and cheerful scenarios seemed to be borne out when the former Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the European Union and the NATO alliance in 2004.

Little-noticed wars

Amid the hopeful 1990s, few people noticed the savage wars of secession that rocked the Caucasus region, leading to the emergence of fiercely pro-Moscow statelets like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

Along with Transdniestria, a rebel Slavic republic in Moldova, these little pieces of post-Soviet unfinished business were tagged "frozen conflicts" because it seemed unlikely that any big country, even Russia, would ever recognize their de facto independence.

But dramatic geopolitical changes are threatening a return to hot war, this time with an oil-rich, stronger Russia standing unambiguously behind the separatist territories.

After many Western countries recognized the former Serbian territory of Kosovo earlier this year, despite Moscow's angry opposition, Russia eased its 14-year-old economic embargo on Abkhazia and the State Duma passed a resolution demanding full recognition. The prospect of NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine – a question that was postponed at NATO's Bucharest summit in April – has prompted Moscow to crank up its rhetoric against Georgia and send construction troops, not covered by the 1994 agreement, into Abkhazia. Those troops were tasked with reopening a dormant railroad link that runs from Rostov, Russia, through Sochi to Sukhumi, and would be crucial for supplying troops in the event of a conflict.

Though war does not appear to be on the immediate horizon, many here fear that it's coming. "Tensions are growing very fast, and we find ourselves on the line of confrontation between Russia and the West," says Oleg Damenia, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, an official think tank in Sukhumi. "Georgia's military budget is now 10 times larger than Abkhazia's. In this situation, we have no choice but to turn to Russia for support."

The Kremlin says the existence of separatist statelets in Georgia should make Europe wary of admitting such a fissiparous country to NATO. At the Bucharest summit, then-President Putin reportedly told President Bush that Ukraine is a similarly unstable place, whose pro-Russian east could tear away.

"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.

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.

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