Once a hot conflict, Ukraine is now frozen in place. Despite the Minsk ceasefire agreement signed in 2014, and again in 2015, war rages on. Shelling, mortaring, and small arms clashes have increased on both sides this year, displaying a total lack of order and a vicious cycle of violence. Although the conflict dynamic is complex internally, this stagnation may not be due to Ukraine’s inability to fight for and solve its own political issues. The hurting stalemate we now see in the country is more likely a purposeful creation of Putin’s Russia.
When both political fervor and violence were high during the Euromaidan Revolution and subsequent annexation of Crimea, the world’s eyes and pocketbooks opened to Ukraine. However, while the Ukrainian people remain locked in crisis, global attention has been redirected to more dramatic, ongoing armed conflicts like those in Syria and South Sudan. A “frozen conflict” refers to this type of hurting stalemate where active and armed violence has ended, but no political resolutions have abated tensions to satisfactory levels. By their very nature frozen conflicts are prone to linger, and the goal of resolution loses international support. Ukraine is a current example of the many frozen conflicts Russia has created in its peripheries. While this seems like an unnecessarily prolonged drain of resources and time for all involved, the instability of border states actually stabilizes Russia and legitimizes its influence.
The creation of brutal pro-Russia versus pro-Western separatist conflicts in Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia in Georgia, and most recently, Crimea in Ukraine have all followed a similar narrative. Initially, Russia would promote its morally- sound mission of bringing all ethnic Russian speakers under the Russian Federation, appealing to common values like the Russian Orthodox Church and common language; as many peripheral states already contain culturally and linguistically distinct Russian- speaking areas within their borders. The Federation then provides incentives like healthcare and Russian citizenship to these minorities. Putin is able to play up these divisions until polarization reaches the point of violence, often in the form of areas heavily populated with ethnic Russian speakers declaring independence from their state and seeking closer ties with Russia. Drawing ethnically Russian-dominated provinces away from their domestic governments has created these separatist states unrecognized by the international community but recognized by Russia.
The instability of border states benefits Russia in a few ways. The crime and corruption that runs rampant in war zones, especially the enormous underground economy that is created in the long- lasting tensions of Eastern Europe, monetarily fuels Russia’s military and security services. By creating separatist conflicts in states attempting to democratize, Russia effectively deters the people and leaders from pursuing liberal reform as they must turn their attention towards regional conflict and survival. It is no coincidence that Russia has instigated and intervened in separatist wars in newly democratizing countries. The liberalization of the region as a whole potentially undermines Putin’s authoritarian regime, and may lead to a democratizing movement within Russia itself. Retaining a series of other autocratic buffer states works to isolate the Russian people, legitimizing Putin’s way of governance. When frozen conflicts are used to separate Eastern Europe from Western liberal ideals and economics, even prolonged regional wars are far preferable to democratization.
The current conflict in Crimea looks much like the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgian President at the time, was a close American ally who sought NATO membership for Georgia. As a vocal spokesperson for democracy and closer ties with the West, he was hated by Putin, and by August 2008, Russia began bombing campaigns and an open war with Georgia over the pro- Russian breakaway state of South Ossetia. Similarly, when the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine called for democratization and unity in 2014, Russia moved into Crimea. Since then, demands for reform have quelled as people struggle to live their everyday lives in this strange sort of stagnated war zone. So what is next for Ukraine?
Although the peninsula was handed to Kiev in 1954, the autonomous region of Crimea has held contentious relations with Moscow due to its strategic location, considerable population of Russian speakers, and the continued presence of the Russian Navy. For the United States however, there are a few policy steps that could aid in drawing Ukraine out of the Kremlin’s pocket and influence. Without ever engaging in military action, the United States could continue strict non-recognition of Crimea as part of Russia until the sovereignty of Ukraine is restored. Monetary aid from the United States and regional allies can be provided to Ukraine to keep the benefits of illicit economies and economic incentives, like healthcare and citizenship under Russia, from drawing further Ukrainian territory towards Russian control. Economic sanctions have been used before on both breakaway provinces and Moscow, but as we have seen from Cuba and Iran, sanctions hurt the people more than the decision makers, possibly leading to a continued lack of action. Ultimately, the manipulation of Ukraine by a regional superpower calls for another world superpower like the United States to counter. However, this is not a proxy war, and the catalyst for real change will come from the grassroots level and the powerful civil society that Ukraine displayed in 2014.