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Frozen conflicts and the Eastern front

Introduction

The end of the Cold War brought a profound change with regard to conflicts and wars, in addition to the known consequences related to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the period of opposing blocks and the famous “Iron Curtain”, there was a sort of overall predictability, both in the modalities and in the actions of the main actors involved. The whole system was stable, although there have been periods or particular events in which this balance seemed to have to break.

During the Cold War, it can be said that the two main actors, the United States on one side and the Soviet Union on the other, stuck on an East-West direction, moved according to basic rules.

In fact, there was fear of a large-scale attack by the troops of the Warsaw Pact against the West, which was preparing traditional counter-moves. The risk was somehow calculated.

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the risk became uncertain, indeterminate and wavering, as did the actors involved in the conflicts.

In recent years, the very concept of safety has also been transformed, extending and incorporating new factors, such as environmental, geo-economic or IT, just to name a few. To date, the global threats and the main contemporary dangers are the possible use of weapons of mass destruction, which however takes up the concept of the Cold War, and terrorism, in all its forms.

On the other hand, the probability of a war between states has been considerably reduced, even if, especially the great powers, in some cases do not give up on using force to obtain strategic advantages over other countries. It is at this juncture that to describe these situations we use terms that are often heard lately: “hybrid”, “asymmetrical”, “unconventional” wars. Terms born in the early 2000s and which, especially after the Russian operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014, have returned to vogue.

A “hybrid war” can be defined as a war in which conventional actions and modalities are mixed with other unconventional ones. Both military and non-military actions, with the use of regular and irregular troops, computer, economic and propaganda actions. Throughout history, these modalities have always existed but the thing that probably distinguishes contemporary wars and conflicts in a precise way from past ones is the effect that the manipulation of information can cause on the development of the conflict.

New technological means and tools, let’s just think about social media, manage to make global participation in the conflict easier, and consequently more meaningful. For this reason, the control of the behaviour and thinking of the populations involved in a conflict has become an important factor. The ‘information war’ aims precisely to disturb or modify what a certain population knows or thinks they know about specific topics or events; the phenomenon of the famous “fake news” is one of the indirect tools mostly used in this area.

Certainly, the role that will have more and more importance in modern conflicts is that of “cybersecurity”, whose borders are rather blurred, but which is now fundamental for the adequate functioning of the critical structures for the security of a State. In fact, today any infrastructure, industry, organization has a computer system that often regulates its functioning. Crimes and “cyber” attacks can make these systems unsafe, even by physically acting on the other side of the world.

The so-called “frozen”, or protracted conflicts, on the other hand, are those conflicts characterized by stall phases during negotiations to arrive at a real political solution, or those situations in continuous evolution within disputed territories.

Crimea

The Crimea story is probably the most recent and most famous one. In October 2012, new elections for the Rada were called in Ukraine, again strongly criticized by Western observers who denounced various forcing: the use of government resources to favour the candidates of the ruling party, interference on access to the media of the candidates of the opposition, the treatment constantly reserved to them. The consultation saw the winner of the Party of Regions, of incumbent president Yanukovych, whose leader Azarov was appointed prime minister. The majority formed by the government party, the Communist Party of Ukraine and some independents, was an expression of the country’s Eurosceptic and pro-Russian orientation.

The backward step of President Yanukovych, who refused to conclude the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU in November 2013, in favour of economic ties closer to Russia, generated strong street protests by Euromaidan movements. The use of violence by the executive to quell the protests in February 2014, harshly condemned by the international community, in fact only led to multiple battles within various cities of Ukrainian territory and the death of dozens of demonstrators. Believed to be responsible for the massacre for the bloody suppression of protests, President Yanukovych fled to Russia on 22 February. A few days later, Russian President Putin ordered the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, justifying it as an action aimed at protecting the Russian minorities in the region, threatened by the outbreak of the internal conflict.

On March 16, 2014, despite strong condemnations and reactions from the West, a “referendum on self-determination of Crimea” was held which sanctioned, with 97.3% of the votes, the annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation.

Although still today considered illegitimate by the Ukrainian government, the EU, the United States and the United Nations General Assembly, the outcome of this consultation was strongly supported by Moscow also thanks to the continuous supplies to the separatist forces in the eastern regions of the ‘Ukraine. These operations are clearly emblematic of a hybrid war. All of this has led to a stalemate, with none of the forces on the field willing to review his positions. In September 2014, diplomatic efforts led to the signing of the Minsk Protocol (or Minsk I) by separatists and the Kiev government.

In a renewed attempt to resolve tensions, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France (the so-called Normandy Format) negotiated a peace attempt in 2015 known as the “Minsk II Accords”, setting military and political burdens on the satisfaction of which is subject to the termination of mostly economic sanctions. In November 2018, a further crisis occurred between Ukraine and Russia, with the latter seizing three Ukrainian military ships in the Kerch Strait, between the Azov and Black Seas. Following this incident, the government of Minsk imposed martial law in the border regions with Russia.

The agreement is still not implemented today due to various difficulties, while in some areas of Ukraine scanty armed fighting continues between separatist and government forces for the reconquest of illegally occupied territories.

Nagorno-Karabakh

Another case of today’s frozen conflict is that relating to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, born in the late 1980s due to tensions between the different ethnic groups present in the territory, and turned into an interstate war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The USSR, following the principle of “divide and rule”, included in the 1920s, the region with a very strong prevalence of Armenian inhabitants within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.

The Parliament of Karabakh asked to be annexed to Armenia in 1988. A few years later, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and therefore the end of the iron control of the region, tensions erupted forcefully.

The population of the region, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijani territory, claimed its autonomy from Azerbaijan and declared itself independent on January 6, 1992. At the end of the same month, the Azeris began bombing the region.

The ethnic Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh, obviously supported by the Armenian Republic, finally got the better of it and after two years of intense conflicts, full of episodes and violent actions by both sides, the conflict came to an end. On May 5, 1994, the Bishkek agreement, brokered by Moscow, was signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and the republic of Nagorno Karabakh, and a week later, on the 12th, the defence ministers signed a “ceasefire” starting from May 17. The region proclaimed itself independent and Azerbaijan thus effectively lost a substantial part of its territory. Although the current Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev declared in 2008: “Nagorno-Karabakh will never be independent and Armenia must accept this reality”. The disagreement between the parties involved is not a new problem in the course of history: does respect for the self-determination of the region’s population come first or the inviolability of the country’s borders? Neither a solution nor a definitive agreement has yet been found and indeed, in recent times there has been a general rearmament. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has still not been recognized by the international community and therefore, also for international law, it responds to the government of Baku.

In fact, the situation is currently still extremely tense and there have been many occasions when hostilities resumed, such as in April 2016, when there were several gun battles on the border that caused more than 30 victims. It was the main incident since the official end of hostilities in a conflict that caused a total of around 30,000 deaths and nearly a million refugees.

Transnistria

The case of Transnistria, or in Russian “Pridnestrovie”, is another of the current frozen conflicts that is also intertwined with the theme of hybrid warfare.

Transnistria is a region that borders Ukraine to the east and is bordered by the river Nistro to the west, it currently has about half a million inhabitants of which the majority of Slavic ethnicity (Ukrainians and Russians) and occupies about a tenth of the territory of Moldova. The area of Transnistria in the early 1900s was part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine and then became the Moldavian Autonomous Republic in 1924. In August 1940 it became part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, which had annexed part of Bessarabia, taken from Romania. Thus, an important work of Russification of the region began, due to the presence of large Soviet industries, in which the communist authorities sent workers from other areas of the USSR.

Transnistria has given itself a government, a parliament, a currency and its own bank, but internationally it is still considered under the government of Chisinau.

The recent Ukrainian crisis, and the annexation of Crimea to Russia in 2014, have given new vitality to the secession intentions of the region. Consequently, in the same year Transnistria officially requested to be annexed to Moscow, and since the same year negotiations for a resolution of the frozen conflict have been more frequent by the actors involved. Despite these efforts, even here, a real and lasting solution seems to be still very far away.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia

In the Caucasus region, and more precisely in Georgia, there are two distinct situations of frozen or protracted conflicts, similar to each other in terms and timing, affecting the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. During the Soviet period these two regions they had the status of republic and autonomous region respectively within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia.

 

Following the dissolution of the USSR, Georgia became independent in 1991, and shortly afterwards the secessionist wars of the two regions broke out. Two ceasefire agreements were signed with the Ossetian separatists in 1992 and with the Abkhaz ones in 1994, but a real peace agreement was not reached. In this way and over time, a disconnect was created between what could have been the “de facto” control of the regions, held by the separatist groups still well present in the territory and supported by Moscow, and the “de jure” control, held by Tbilisi. In both cases, Russia granted its citizenship to almost all the Abkhazian and Ossetian populations, and Russian troops are still present on the territory of the two regions.

Abkhazia unilaterally proclaimed independence from Georgia in 1999 and endowed itself with a constitution and an institutional apparatus. In the world there are very few states that officially recognize the state of Abkhazia, and of course Russia is one of them. Also, because it can be said that the survival of this region is given above all by the aid, economic and otherwise, that comes from Moscow. Abkhazia has, in addition to several bilateral agreements with its Russian neighbour, even a joint military force with Russia, created after a close agreement between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the President of Abkhazia Raul Khajimba in 2014.

Also, in South Ossetia, following the separatist conflict that ended in 1992, the population had begun a process of state and constitutional development, which reached its peak in the referendum on independence held in November 2006.

A little less than two years later, in August 2008, the conflict “thawed”. Georgia tried to militarily regain control of South Ossetia but headed for a quick defeat, the war lasted only five days, from 7 to 12 August. The Ossetian separatists were strong in the support of the troops of Moscow and also of the Abkhazian separatists. On August 12, the parties to the dispute, mediated by the European Union, signed an agreement for peace.

Since September of that year, a European civilian monitoring mission has been present on the Georgian territories, the “European Union Monitoring Mission”, which aims to promote the stabilization and normalization of the country. Among other things, in 2009, the Council of the EU published a report in which blamed Georgia for the ‘five-day’ conflict but condemned the immeasurable reaction that the Russian troops had.

It is no coincidence that in almost all these frozen conflicts there is a strong influence of Russia, not too disguised. In fact, Moscow has strong interests in funding and supporting separatist forces in the various countries of the former USSR. This is because instability and chronic weakness within the state structures of the former Soviet countries, and therefore of the countries close to the Russian borders, are playing the game for the Kremlin. Considering that these states are newly formed, it often doesn’t take much to undermine the main systems. Furthermore, in the logic of the opposition that Moscow has with NATO, being able to “defend” the states that surround it, from a possible enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance, is one of the primary Russian objectives. Having ‘outposts’ and regions with a strong Russian majority fighting for annexation to Moscow is an absolute advantage.