The holding of elections by the separatist Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in November 2014 meant another step away from a peaceful reconciliation with the rest of the country.
The restive eastern provinces, instead, remain steadfastly pro-Russian and refuse to yield to calls from Kiev, Brussels and Washington to reunite with the rest of the country. Russia unsurprisingly supported the polls being held.
While the Ukrainian situation is critical in its own right, both for Ukraine and for broader Russo-European relations, it also casts light on a frequently overlooked element of European international affairs: the continent’s legacy of unresolved or “frozen” conflicts.
Russia’s recent resurgence in antagonistic relations with the west, including an increased naval and aerial presence in the Baltic Sea, has caused vague talk of a “new Cold War.”
While a disturbing pall of finality hangs over the use of such a loaded term, Robert Legvold for one, writing in Foreign Affairs, argues that the Ukraine crisis and the ensuing animosity between Russia and the United States “has pushed the two sides over a cliff and into a new relationship, one not softened by the ambiguity that defined the last decade of the post-Cold War period, when each party viewed the other as neither friend nor foe.”
This being the case, it would seem prudent to assess other potential flashpoints involving Russian influence, ambitions or populations which could lead to Ukraine-type situations in other corners of the continent.
It will not be far from the minds of Western strategists that it was only 2008 when Russia last fought a border war over territorial claims, in that case the South Ossetia region of Georgia.
It was the secessionists in the pro-Russian region of Northern Georgia who instigated hostilities, but the Georgian military response and rapid Russian rejoinder demonstrated how quickly events in such tense settings could develop.
That conflict also saw Russian reinforcement of Abkhazia, a second region caught in a tug of war between Russia and Georgia. So far, open conflict has not resulted from this particular location, once revered as the go-to holiday destination for the Soviet elite.
However, Abkhazia itself has maintained that it is independent since 1999, and has remained under de facto self-rule, despite Georgian ideas to the contrary. Further, it appealed to Belarus earlier in 2014 for recognition of its sovereignty, something it has so far received from only Russia and a small handful of close Russian allies.
These cases, Ukraine and Georgia, sit on Russia’s geographical borders, which, at the very least, are logical places for international sores to occur. The world is not short of festering flashpoints on recognized border regions; just look at Kashmir.
However there are also less immediately obvious areas where pro-Russian sentiment has led to bizarre and potentially troubling situations. The Transnistria region of Moldova, sandwiched between the landlocked East European nation and western Ukraine, begs particular attention.
While having retained de facto independence since the 1992 civil war, itself a result of Moldova’s newfound independence from the USSR, it has no status under international law.
This tiny pro-Russian enclave sits in an international grey area, physically and metaphorically, and Western strategists have become increasingly concerned that it will be the next bound in Russia’s attempts to “retake” Europe.
Russia maintains a garrison there, with the consent of the Transnistrian authorities, and an arms cache, supposedly enough to act as a resupply base if Russian troops on the east Ukrainian border could reach it.
So far this has not happened, but the presence of this proto-Communist, pro-Moscow island sandwiched between the beleaguered Ukraine and poverty-stricken Moldova (while already heaving under the weight of Russian economic embargoes), presents a very difficult regional quandary.
Between Transnistria in the west and Abkhazia, and the again-dormant South Ossetia in the east, Russia has shown how dangerous life can be for countries bordering the belligerent Putin regime.
That these frozen wars are again relevant in a broader regional security context is only emphasized further by events such as the abduction of an Estonian security officer on the Russian border by agents of Russia’s FSB security service in September 2014, and supposed naval probes by Russian forces into the Baltic Sea.
If Europe’s frozen conflicts are to erupt, one way or another, into open warfare, there is no way analysts can be entirely certain how far or how quickly the dominoes will fall.
So far, Russian action has been carefully engineered to avoid a triggering of NATO’s Article 5, defining an attack on one member as an attack on all and triggering a collective response. Were such a level to be reached, the nature of any NATO response would likely depend on the event that triggered it.
Such is the nature of the economic interdependence between Russia and what it regards as “the West,” and mutual fear of each others’ military capability. An all-out military conflagration of the kind feared by old school Cold Warriors is highly unlikely to be the immediate outcome.
However, that is not to say Western strategists and foreign policy officials can rest on their laurels. The awkwardness of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, in which Russia rapidly and effectively seized the initiative, is a demonstration of the plain fact that the end of the Cold War did not put paid to the threat of armed conflict between East and West.
While traditional Western paradigms see Ukraine as almost analogous to Russia in terms of culture and geography, for the purposes of this situation, it is essentially Western.
The ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, his predictable flight to Russia and the emergence of a more pro-Western regime in Kiev were all the result of his reneging on a pro-EU agreement and the seeking of closer ties with Russia.
The pro-Russian secessionist movement in the east of the country spiraled out of this political chaos, making it a war centred on the East/West fault line.
Transnistria may yet prove to be one to watch in the unfolding saga of the “New Cold War,” given its propensity for courting Russian support and its geographic location.
Abkhazia, were a new round of hostilities to occur, would be seen more as symptomatic of Russia’s unstable borders than a direct tie to the game of chicken currently being played by NATO and the Kremlin.
These frozen conflicts are not themselves likely to be the triggers of any grand confrontation in the near future (although, the lessons of June 1914 should not be forgotten), but are both emblematic of the havoc that could be wrought to the European continent in future and potential wild cards in a strategic game which is already being played out.
Ukraine may yet prove to be the latest addition to this collection of immovable wars, or may become the one that unfreezes them all at once.
Read more: http://elitedaily.com/news/politics/new-cold-war-russia-playing-dangerous-game-ukraine-beyond/906518/