THE FORMER SOVIET UNION (FSU) remains a zone fraught with conflicts on the political map of the world. Political instability and festering disputes, including territorial disputes and disputes between political elites, prevail in many countries of the region.
The developments in Ukraine show the realness of bringing into play the military factor to achieve political objectives. Russia and Ukraine, whose peoples have a shared common history over many centuries and who boast close cultural and economic links without precedent anywhere in the rest of the world, have nearly ended in the state of an armed conflict.
Very relevant in this context appears to be the search for an answer to what causes the periodical recurrence of the factor of military-political conflicts in the immediate vicinity of Russia, a factor, as developments surrounding Ukraine show, can appreciably destabilize not just the regional but also world political process.
According to expert evaluations, armed conflicts, throughout the 1990s, involved one third of the FSU territory with a combined population of 30 million. There were 400 armed units totaling 30,000 men in more than 80 seats of potential conflict.1
In time, the temperature of conflicts in Russia’s neighboring states began to gradually drop, largely due to diplomatic and military-political measures taken by Russia.2 There were also organized international formats of cooperation to fend off threats to military security of the CIS countries.
Despite this, there military-political conflicts there still remain a possibility. Neither Russia nor other heavyweights on the international political scene have proved able to neutralize these possibilities. What is more, Western leaders see the military-political factor as one of the main resources for consolidating their geopolitical domination.
In the past years, the West focused on provoking ethno-political conflicts mostly in third world countries. One telling example is the Greater Middle East project which touched off a wave of military coups and civil wars in Arab countries. In the post-Soviet republics, the United States mainly gambled on the so-called nonviolent action techniques even at the time of Republican administration.
One possible exception was the militarization of Micheil Saakashvili’s regime in Georgia. The ensuing “reset” of the Russia-U.S. relations, one hoped, brought stability in the FSU. The attempt at a fresh start was actually over when Atlantists followed with resolute steps to undermine Russia’s positions in the zone of its vital interests. The unrest in Ukraine steered and funded by the West is an attempt by the United States and the European Union to finally harness the near abroad of the FSU economically, militarily and politically.
The unrest in Ukraine, steered and funded by the West, is an attempt by the United States and the European Union to finally harness the near abroad of the FSU economically, militarily and politically.
There are solid foundations for possible conflicts in the post-Soviet republics. There is a combination of several factors, each of which is capable to destabilize the FSU region. Hard to resolve contradictions between separate clans, ethnic groups and cultures exist at the same locations and at the same time.
The model of a relatively smooth transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, which came to be termed a “conventional” paradigm, did not work back during the formative period of sovereignty in the ex-Soviet republics.3 Unlike the majority of postcommunist countries of Europe, the political forces of the CIS disregarded the reaching of consensus before embarking on democratic reforms. The conflicts were resolved through violence which sparked serious foreign policy complications.
For this reason, the reliance on various paramilitary structures, including illegal and semi-legal structures, becomes a key resource in political struggle. There are many instances where the “military wing” of a political movement demands power over the country’s internal affairs as well as its foreign policy.
One typical example is the activities of paramilitary forces during the government crisis in Ukraine in 2013-2014. They forced on the protesters their own view of Ukraine’s state system, issued declarations containing territorial claims to neighboring nations and thereby significantly destabilized international relations in Eastern Europe.
The emergence of paramilitary forces is a graphic indication of the deep-seated cultural, inter-civilizational, ethno-religious and clan-related differences mentioned above.
The intercultural differences can be put down to the invisible borders dividing the post-Soviet republics into several segments which do not coincide with the official borders. The fault lines between civilizations run through all of Eurasia, dividing people with respect to their mentality even if they have the same citizenship or, sometimes, the same ethnic origin. A graphic example is the Transniestria conflict where the idea of independence from Moldova and, by the same token, from “united Europe” is backed by all ethnic groups of the left bank of the Dniester river and Gagauzia.
It is evidenced also by the divergences within some formally united communities of the west of Eurasia – in the Baltic States, Ukraine and Moldova. Considerable proportions of their populations and political elites have opted for protection from Euro-Atlantic organizations. Also popular in these states is the idea of belonging to the Russian world. This idea was especially popular during the developments in Crimea and in Ukraine’s southeast in spring of 2014.
Intercultural differences are being aggravated by ethnic and religious differences. The strongest factor that can generate conflicts in the post-Soviet republics is ethnic hostility which traces its roots back to distant centuries. In many instances, ethnic hostility, even if it does not lead to direct armed violence, creates political tensions which also spread to international relations.
The CIS and Baltic countries took on their administrative and territorial contours only in the Soviet era while they continued to be distinct as regards their landscape, economy and culture. The borders within which the nations live are, however, stable enough while they, far from always, coincide with the borders of their states; this poses, and will pose, a threat of ethnic and territorial redrawing.
Many of the CIS countries have proved unable to preserve their territorial integrity and formalize the legitimacy of borders. Acute confrontation inside the “political class” is characteristic of the majority of them.
One suggested way out is to redirect the fellow citizens’ protests to somewhere outside and thus achieve consolidation of society by creating the “common enemy” image.
The relatively low level of combat readiness of armies in the post-Soviet republics is no obstacle to flaunting them as attributes of state sovereignty. The armies of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Uzbekistan have the capabilities of taking part in low-intensity conflicts and operations as components of international coalitions. The armed forces of the other CIS countries and the Baltic States mainly perform showcase functions. The ruling circles, however, make up for the low efficiency of their armed forces by militarist rhetoric and jingoistic propaganda. Radical nationalists are urging their governments to join NATO and take part in its future military interventions.
As they did at the dawn of perestroika, the political elites are capitalizing on their public’s patriotic sentiment. They are pushing programs of revanche for foreign policy fiascos of previous years when territories like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Transniestria were forfeited. The latest similar instance is Crimea and Ukraine’s southeast. The factor of armed violence, if not for practical purposes, then at least for ideological or propaganda purposes, is likely to be in great demand for a long time to come.
In the republics with vestiges of patriarchal lifestyles, above all in Central Asia and Transcaucasus, potentials for conflict vary mostly with the intensity of tensions between tribes and clansy All these republics are in fact a patchwork of culturally and geographically diverse regions which presupposes tough infighting for dominance.
Clans and parties provide themselves with their own armed and paramilitary structures, the so-called private armies. Their national armed forces are in fact combinations of paramilitary movements which destabilize the political process.
The most influential political actors there are the groups built along patron-client or territorial lines. For years, there was virtually no official governance in the gray zones: Gorno-Badakhshan (Tajikistan), Svanetia, Mingrelia, and the Pankisi Gorge (Georgia), Kadar Zone (Russian Federation), Osh region in the Fergana Valley (Kyrgyzstan). The existence of gray zones attracts groups of extremists to set up bases for international terrorism. Therefore, sources of military and political conflicts in the post-Soviet republics should be looked for in the specifics of the acquisition of sovereignty by regional states which was accompanied by armed con
flicts. In the absence of national political governance traditions, the dominant factor in international relations in this space was and is armed violence.
The cause of existing and possible conflicts in Eurasia boils down to the array of contradictions formed over centuries. It is apparent that this array has inter-cultural, ethno-religious, and clan-related levels.
The first of them, manifested in civilization fault lines between the Russian world and the Euro-Atlantic Community, spans the territories of several countries and regions. This type of contradictions is most obvious, and the world’s leaders assess their threat objectively on the whole. As a rule, international organizations readily join in to resolve conflicts sparked by civilizational factors. On the other hand, many such conflicts are caused precisely by the shortsighted policy of the West which seeks, as it did during the Cold War years, global expansion and triumph of its cultural values to the prejudice of other nations’ interests.
The second level of contradictions is related to ethnic and religious tensions. Inter-ethnic conflicts are also evident. The world community has developed political-legal and military ways of settling them. However, the U.S. and its allies widely apply double standards in this field. This results in unconditional defeat for one of the sides in the conflict. That is why Russia relies on its own capabilities in addition to cooperation with international organizations to settle conflicts.
The clan-related source of conflict is in evidence in the regions with seriously deformed patriarchal society. Conflicts arising in this connection are protracted and uncontrollable. They involve many actors and amorphous coalitions with diverging interests and often without rational foundations.
They are also notoriously hard to resolve. International organizations, national governments, and commanders of peacekeeping forces are bureaucratized and not equipped to promptly react to conflicts. The onus of resolving conflicts lies entirely on diplomats, bureaucrats, and middleechelon military people. They, however, operate depending on the situation, their own experience and with practically no officially approved methods and legal tools available to resolve conflicts between clans and tribes. In the end, let me say that possibilities for conflicts in the FSU tend to hang on and replicate. The clash of interests of the world powers based on hidden geopolitical motives is supplemented with conflicts on national and sub-national levels. Each of the described types of sources of conflict is unique and this calls for a comprehensive approach to resolve them by the Russian Federation and the world community.
1 Maslyuk S.G. “Voyenno-grazhdanskiye otnosheniya: otechestvennyi i zarubezhnyi opyt,” Armiya i obshchestvo. 1999. No. 2, p. 41.
2 Vartanyan V.G. Yevropeisky soyuz i strany Kavkaza: novyye gorizonty sotrudnichestva v XXI veke. M.: Sotsial’no-politicheskaya mysl’, 2007, p. 182.
3 Karozers N. “Konets paradigmy tranzita [Thomas Carothers. The End of the Transition Paradigm],” Politicheskaya nauka. 2003. No.2, pp. 44, 60.