Strength and Insecurity

Nicole Jackson considers what past Russian interventions in the former Soviet region can teach us about today.
By: /
June 16, 2014

After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia became militarily involved in civil and separatist wars throughout the former Soviet region. It intervened in separatist conflicts in Moldova (Transdniestria), Georgia (Abkhazia and Ossetia), in the civil war in Tajikistan and, also indirectly in Nagorno-Karabakh—the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. At the time, the West essentially ignored these conflicts and paid very little attention to Russia’s role in them. Today, by contrast, the West is closely monitoring and indeed struggling to devise a united and measured response to the latest Russian incursions into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

In light of these events, it is worth asking a few fairly basic questions. Namely, what explains Russia’s military involvement in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014? Why is it acting now in Ukraine, when it did not in the 1990s?

A review of Russia’s interests and military actions (and inaction) towards separatist conflicts in the 1990s, and an examination of what has changed since then, reveals some significant similarities and differences in relation to the situation today. It also highlights some persisting threat perceptions and explanations for Russian actions and indicates possible ways forward in the current crisis in Ukraine.[1]

This essay argues that, as in Ukraine today, Russia in the 1990s took both indirect and direct military action to prevent Moldova and Georgia from slipping out of its influence. Today in Ukraine the overall end-goal is the same: to retain a degree of Russian control over the region. And, although the specifics of the conflicts in the 1990s were different (in terms of history, interests, and development, etc.), Russia’s justifications of its national interests were similar to those today. To varying extents, Russia had a mix of historical, diaspora, security, and even economic interests in the separatist regions. Russia in the 1990s wanted Moldova and Georgia in CIS (the Commonwealth of Independent States made up of  former Soviet Republics) institutions just as today it envisions Ukraine in a future Eurasian Union. In the case of Georgia, there was also an overriding interest to prevent the civil war on its border from escalating and affecting Russia (and especially Russia’s North Caucasus). This broadly parallels Russian interest in Eastern Ukraine in April/May 2014 (and is the justification for the tens of thousands of troops it stationed on the border).

In terms of military actions, in each case in the 1990s, similar to Ukraine today, there was significant uncertainty about complicated facts on the ground. Initially, there was unofficial Russian military involvement (i.e. not officially directed by Russian state) which was later replaced by a more coherent policy in which Russia’s military acted officially on behalf of one, and sometimes even the other, side of a given conflict. Then, eventually, Russia sought foreign approval for its status as “peacekeeper.” Today, 23 years later, these so-called “separatist conflicts” of the 1990s remain frozen. The separatist regions are in effect de facto independent states (with all the formal trappings of statehood such as their own governments, state symbols etc.) and are still looking for political settlements. Overall, they have remained tilted towards Moscow, even as ties have waned over time.

In Crimea today, Russia has a strikingly similar range of interests (diaspora, military, economic) stemming from the remnants of its former empire. These material and related psychological interests do not, however, explain the timing of Russian involvement. While the controversy over closer relations with the EU and the abrupt change in Ukraine’s government sparked the current conflict, both occurred in the context of Russia’s heightened sense of geopolitical (and domestic) insecurity which, in some ways, is as strong as it was in the 1990s following the dissolution of the former USSR. This deep insecurity, coupled with an assertive foreign policy consensus as well as economic and military revitalization since the 1990s are largely to blame for the current conflagration.

Russian Interests in the Transdniestria-Moldova Conflict in the 1990s

Russia’s military became involved in Transdniestria during a period in which Transdniestrian separatism was growing in reaction to a new government in Moldova as well as in response to the introduction of a law which diminished the status of the Russian language.[2] These two events in Moldova set a precedent of Russian involvement on the side of the Transdniestrian separatists. They also revealed a complex web of personal contacts between the elite in Moscow, Transdniestria, and the Soviet 14th army stationed there.

As in the case of Crimea 2014, Russia argued that it was defending its diaspora. The Russian diaspora in Transdniestria, however, was not as significant as was argued by Russian politicians. It was relatively small in number, much smaller than in Crimea, and not directly threatened. In 1989, 500,000 ethnic Russia (13 percent of the total population) lived in Moldova with 153, 400 Russians in Transdniestria, the third largest population after Romanians and Ukrainians. However, many ethnic Russians were alarmed at the possibility of suddenly becoming a minority in an enlarged Romania, and the Transdniestrian leadership repeatedly requested unification with Russia. (In 2006, Transdniestrians voted for independence and free association with Russia. The vote was 97 percent in favour, but was rejected by Russia).

Just as Russia’s security interests in Crimea today include a naval station in Sevastopol, Russia’s 14th Army was then (and it still is) stationed in Transdniestria’s capital, Tiraspol. It had been positioned there by the Soviet Union in 1945 in case of a possible conflagration in the Balkan Peninsula. In the early 1990s, it was still a formidable force consisting of armoured infantry, artillery, tactical missile, air defence, Spetsnaz (Special Forces), chemical, air reconnaissance, and engineering units. My research showed that, at the time, there was a consensus within Russia’s government to keep its army there to protect Russia’s strategic position vis-à-vis Ukraine and the Balkans and also to secure a close relationship with Moldova.

Russia’s economic interests in Transdniestria in the 1990s also have similarities to its interests in Eastern Ukraine today. Moldova’s industry was concentrated in Transdniestria and major oil and gas pipelines passed through the region. Transdniestria had also been a key part of the former Soviet Union’s military industrial complex. Russia and Transdniestria thus had mutual economic ties, but Transdniestria (similar to Crimea) had arguably more to gain from a close relationship than Russia did. [3]

More significantly, Russia in the 1990s also had a real interest in persuading Moldova to join the economic Union of the CIS—just as one of Russia’s key goals in the past few years has been to have Ukraine join its Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan (rather than move closer to the EU). At the beginning of its rule in Moldova, the new Popular Front government was actively pro-Romanian and anti-Russian, and refused to join CIS agreements. Thus, Russia’s continued military presence was seen as necessary leverage on Moldova to take a more pro-Russia stance and to ensure Russia’s continued political and economic (if not military) influence in the region. Russian pressure and indirect military involvement in eastern and southern Ukraine in early 2014 appear to have relatively similar goals. The comparisons are striking.

Russia’s Military Involvement in the Moldova-Transdniestria Conflict

Simmering tensions and sporadic fighting between separatists and the Moldovan government erupted into three months of armed conflict from March-June 1992, known as the Moldova-Transdniestria war. Russia was militarily and then politically involved in the Moldova-Transdniestria conflict from the beginning of the conflict to the 1996 peace negotiations. Moreover, historical relations facilitated the unofficial support of the separatists as early as 1991—including the transfer and sale of weapons, training of troops, and fighting on their behalf.[4] As in the current case of Ukraine, this occurred without an official, publically acknowledged, government policy. The 14th army, with strong domestic support, helped Transdniestria win the war, consolidate new state structures and avoid further major outbreaks of fighting, with Russian peacekeepers later assuring the peace.

This military involvement in Transdniestria has clear parallels with today’s Ukraine crisis. At the beginning of 1992, Transdniestrian leaders expanded their control over Moldovan villages in what Romanians described as a “creeping putsch.” When Transdniestria originally requested Russian help, Russia officially ignored the situation. Unofficially Russian troops helped arm, and even fought alongside, separatists, even as officially the Russian government vocally supported the territorial integrity of Moldova.

As the conflict progressed, military actions were increasingly directed by Moscow. With support of 14th Army, Trandniestrians were organized into paramilitary units and dispatched into rural areas to take over administrative buildings and police stations. After months of these raids, on 24 March, 1992, the 14th Army crossed the right bank of the Dniester River and forced Moldovan troops out of city of Bendery. Eighty percent of Russia’s 14th army were local inhabitants. Army reserves employed in the area’s defence industry and military veterans also formed a privileged group that supported Russia. The 14th Army armed and trained 8,000 members of the Transdniestrian “Republican Guard” which later fought against Moldovan government forces. Most of the Guards were Russians from formal transfers or informal loans form the 14th Army, and many of the weapons were from the 14th Army. This also helps to explain how difficult it was to later arrange a genuine withdrawal of the 14th Army, when they could just transfer into the republican guard. A Spetsnaz unit, internal security troops and border troops also reinforced Russia’s military involvement. Several thousand Russian Cossacks and other soldiers of fortune also arrived in early 1992 to oppose the Moldovan government (for which they were granted resident permits, apartments, funds, etc.). Army reserves employed in area’s defence industry and military veterans formed a privilege group with common interests and support for Russia.

Lessons learnt by Russia at the time included that the West would not intervene, and that military force could be effective in solving conflicts and protecting Russian interests. Multiple ceasefires led to the July agreement for a multilateral peacekeeping force and gave Transdniestria de facto independence. A bilateral agreement concluded that all forces including the 14th army would withdraw (this soon became conditional on political settlement) and that the territorial integrity of Moldova would be ensured. The result was that Moldova entered the CIS economic union (after Russia imposed tariffs on Moldovan goods) and agreed that Transdniestria would retain considerable autonomy within Moldova.

Russian Interests and Military Involvement in the Abkhazia-Georgia Conflict in early 1990s

In the case of Georgia in the early to mid-1990s, Russia had one major interest—to stop the violence and prevent the dissolution of the Georgian state. There was a civil war in Georgia at the time, and Russia’s real and stated interests were to stop the war from spilling over the borders into Russia’s North Caucasus, creating a security vacuum that other powers (e.g. Turkey, Iran, or the United States) could fill. Along with violence in Georgia’s South Ossetia threatening Russia’s North Ossetia, it became increasingly clear that war could spread into Russia. Similarly, today, as violence has expanded beyond Crimea into Eastern Ukraine, Russia has also been increasingly concerned about repercussions for the Russian diaspora and has used this fear of an emerging civil war to justify amassing tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders.

In Georgia, Russia also inherited a large military presence. The former Soviet Transcaucasian Military district included five military bases and ports of the Black Sea. Similar to Transdniestria and Crimea today, in Abkhazia there were ties between the local army and the separatists but they were much weaker. There was a small Russian diaspora of 341,000 people—roughly 6 percent of the population. However, unlike in Transdniestria or Crimea, it was not been a dominant group nor was it then the (perceived) target of anti-Russian policy. Nevertheless, many Russian politicians still used the presence of ethnic Russians (and Russian speakers) as a justification for Russian policy.

Finally, Russian economic interests in Abkhazia were minimal and included rich agricultural lands, coalmines and the port of Sukhomi. More significant than these resources was Georgia’s location and, once again, access to the development and transportation of oil and gas from the Caspian and Central Asia.

The second conflict in which Russia became involved militarily began only a few months after the beginning of the Moldova-Transdniestriawar. Once again Russia played a leading role, both militarily and in conflict negotiation. As in the Moldova-Transdniestria conflict, Russian troops acted independently on the side of the separatists (to counter Georgian advances) at first and then, as policies developed, military actions fell in line with official policy and supported the Georgian government in Tbilisi. Russia then played a role as peacekeeper. One particular event, the shooting of a Russian helicopter, helped to popularize the view in Russia that Russia should protect its interests, localise the conflict, prevent spill over, and discourage involvement of other powers.

Military actions on the ground were less one-sided than in Moldova. In September 1993, the Abkhaz led an offensive on Sukhomi with unofficial help from Russia even while Russia officially condemned Abkhazia. Then when Tbilisi asked for Russia’s help, it supported Georgia and helped President Shevardnadze to regain control. When Georgia could not solve its separatist problem, it was forced into a short-term partnership with Russia, which, as will be seen below, imposed some limits on its sovereignty. This is in some ways akin to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine today. There is a high likelihood that Russia, which has indirectly supported separatists through a variety of means, and is now (May 2014) calling for talks between Kyiv and the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, will help to initiate negotiations which will end the conflict and ultimately impose some limits on Ukraine’s sovereignty (e.g. through a federal model which gives Eastern regions more autonomy).

As is the case in Crimea, Russian actions on the ground in Georgia, especially at first, were difficult to attribute. The local Russian army’s support began voluntarily and for cash. Volunteers from North Caucasus and Cossacks (Russian citizens with little or no allegiance at the time to Russia) also supported the Abkhazians. Transdniestrian separatists fought in Abkhazia as a gesture of support for fellow separatists or in support of re-creating the Soviet Union. Indeed, many in Eastern Ukraine today are remain nostalgic for the security of the old Soviet Union.

There is considerable evidence that the Abkhazian offensive of July 1993 had the support of Russian troops who also provided arms to the supporters of Georgia’s ousted President Gamsakhurdia.[5] However, it is difficult to know whether this was part of official Russian policy or was simply an example profiteering on the political situation in the country. Certainly, it seems that (as in the other CIS states) the incentive to earn money through the sale of weapons was significant. Officially, the Russia government responded by condemning the Abkhaz’ actions and then refusing to send in troops to separate the two sides.

Georgian President Shevardnadze was forced to ask for Russia’s help due to the deteriorating military situation on the ground. It was at this point that Russian troops switched to officially supporting the Georgian government’s attempts to end the offensive. In February 1994, Georgia signed a Treaty of Friendship, Neighbourliness and Cooperation with Russian, as well as 24 other agreements that included provisions for the right to establish five Russian military bases and the stationing of Russian border guards along Georgia’s borders with Turkey. The subsequent April 1994 declaration drew the lines for a future common state that would include Georgia and Abkhazia and establish a 3km demilitarized zone. Both parties to the conflict asked for CIS peacekeepers to be deployed there. Russia then increased political and economic pressure on Abkhazia, to allow the return of Georgian refugees and urged Abkhazia to agree to some type of federation (as mentioned, there is still no political resolution to date). In October 1994 Georgia signed CIS agreements.

Russian Involvement in Crimea: Explaining why military inaction in the 1990s has evolved into annexation in 2014

In the early 1990s, there was a growing secessionist movement in Crimea and considerable debate and controversy in Russia concerning how to react to it. Although the Russian diaspora in Crimea was much larger than that of both Moldova and Georgia—and Ukraine itself was perceived as historically and culturally part of Russia—the Crimean secessionist movement never flared into an outright conflict and nor did Russia become militarily involved. Despite some inflammatory rhetoric, and controversy over the leasing of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Russian government did not encourage or help the Russian diaspora in Crimea, even though the loss of Ukraine was the most bitter of many it endured in the early 1990s.

Why didn’t Russia act militarily in Crimea in the 1990s, as it did in Transdniestria and Abkhazia? What changed from 1990 to 2014 that would explain why Russia would act now? The reality is that the material context in Crimea has remained essentially the same. It is home to a very large Russian diaspora (roughly 60 percent of the population) and the Russian Black Sea Fleet. These major interests are rightly recognized by Russians and Western media as justifications for Russia’s actions, but they are not new. They have existed since the Russian Federation and Ukraine were thrust into statehood in 1991.

The first significant change since the 1990s is the status of the government of Ukraine. In the early 90s, President Kuchma, a comparatively pro-Russia president, governed from Kyiv and the status of the Russian language was not threatened. Compared to Georgia and Moldova, Ukraine was stable and there was no emerging civil war. Ukraine’s domestic political context has changed radically since 1990s, and perhaps more significantly, Russia’s threat perceptions (real and manufactured) have evolved—and Russian economic and military power realities have increased.

In 2014, a pro-Western Ukrainian President and government took power in what Moscow viewed as a coup. Besides promising to move the country further towards Europe and the United States and to negotiate a developing relationship with the EU, one of the new Ukrainian parliament’s first moves was to try to change the constitution and take away the status of Russian as the second language of Ukraine. This agenda was used to rally separatist feelings that, until then, had been dormant. Russian state media and government also expounded the myth of Ukraine’s government being fascist. Certainly there are now more members of right-wing groups in government, but it is not a “fascist government."

In Russia today, there is also much more of a consensus (and less debate) over foreign policy in general and towards Crimea specifically. Within Russia in the early to mid-1990s, there were open, diverse, and complex debates about whether Russia should respond to separatist conflicts and, if so, with what means. A variety of possible policy options were discussed among a wide variety of actors. This kind of wide-ranging debate had not existed during the Soviet era and nor does it exist today.

The result is that there are now fewer options being considered in the wake of (perceived and real) crises on Russia’s borders compared to the 1990s. In the 1990s, there was also an overt debate and power struggle between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). In the current Ukraine crisis, the MFA is marginalized and there is much more consensus concerning the direction of Russian foreign policy among the various governing institutions (which, as is now well-known, are also dominated by various security services).

Since President Putin came to power, this foreign policy consensus has included a strong emphasis on non-interference in domestic politics and on Russia being a “sovereign democracy” that must follow its own path of development. Putin’s third term has become characterized by support for a significant role for the Russian state in international relations, espoused in ideological terms that resonate with traditional themes of Russian nationalism. Russia today is especially interested in differentiating itself from “the West”—in terms of policy and morals (seen in the growing coalition between the government and the Russian Orthodox church as well as the government’s increasingly nationalistic tone).

The growing consensus over a mix of “pragmatic nationalist” and “fundamentalist nationalist” ideas have evolved into what we might call “Pragmatic Nationalism 2.0.” These ideas were officially articulated in Russia’s 2013 foreign policy concept that states that Russia will become more active in international affairs and that the post-Soviet area would still be its top priority. The concept claims that Russia now faces a decentralized international environment, but also that the transition to a “polycentric” world will be turbulent and competitive. There is a new emphasis on civilizational diversity and on competition over values, which have often been referred to by Putin in relations to Russia’s various disagreements with the West, including the current crisis in Ukraine. The concept further notes that Russia needs to enhance its soft power and public diplomacy, while acting to counteract “information threats” to its sovereignty and security. This can clearly be seen in the 2014 media and propaganda war in Ukraine. While media and propaganda were used in the 1990s, they are playing an even greater role today.

Based on these ideas and now with more resources to act, Russia is once more re-creating parts of its old union through both old and new institutions. When he came to power, Putin resurrected the old CIS security alliance that became the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In his third term, he has been actively pushing his vision of a Eurasian Union to further advance the current Customs Union. Retaining a close relationship with Ukraine is key to further developing that vision and is a central consideration in Moscow’s calculus vis à vis the current conflict.

Heightened insecurity coupled with economic and military revival

In the past two decades, Russia has established itself as an independent state; a regional but limited power. But it is also more geopolitically insecure. This insecurity is derived from the fact that since 1991 the former Soviet states have to varying degrees all increased their bilateral ties away from Russia. Today, many in the Russian elite perceive that Russia’s legitimate interests in the former Soviet region are actively being encroached upon and that Russia is being increasingly encircled by foreign powers.

In particular, Russia perceives NATO’s continued expansion and the development of partnerships with former Soviet states as threatening. It is (and has been) adamantly against Ukraine becoming closer to NATO. Increasingly the level of concern in Moscow, NATO has developed ties with Central Asian and Transcaucasian states over the past decade. The EU has also developed partnerships in the region and, as noted previously, its push towards Ukraine sparked the current conflict. Indeed a major change since the 1990s is that the West and Russia now have intertwined interests in the wider region.

Put simply, Russia today is encircled by former foes even more so than in the early 90s, and it has less influence on much of the former Soviet region than it had then. At the same time—and as the current Ukraine crisis shows—it is still dealing with crises arising from the remnants of empire. Russia has also perceived the “coloured revolutions” in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine as threatening its interests and as products of direct and indirect nefarious Western actions. The current regime has also faced a growing (albeit still small and now largely silenced) opposition movement that, until recently, had been on the rise across the country. Hence, there has been concern about a domino effect from the ‘coloured revolutions’ (not to mention the possible radicalization of Russia’s growing 25 million plus Muslims) threatening the stability of the government in Moscow, just as in the 1990s there was concern that separatist conflicts on Russia’s borders could have domino effects on the new and fractious Russian state.[6]

While in many ways Russian insecurity has reverted to its 1990s basis, Russia’s military has been revived considerably under Putin and its economy is much stronger than under Yeltsin, though these developments are predicated on oil, gas, and mineral prices and GDP growth rates that now remain stagnant. Europe today is also closely tied to, and dependent on, Russian trade, particularly oil and gas. These strengths have bolstered Russian confidence and contributed to the dangerous combination of insecurity and power that helps to explain Putin’s aggressive moves in Ukraine and his popularity among the elite and the general public, which has risen dramatically since Russia’s annexation of Crimea.


In many ways, Russia’s involvement in today’s “Ukraine crisis” is even more complex than in the separatist conflicts in the 1990s. The West (including the United States, EU and NATO) is now a major player in the region. The former Soviet states, including Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, are all more mature states and less dependent on Russia than they had been. The territories that suffered through the “frozen conflicts” of the 1990s are now de facto independent states and are less close to Russia today than they were then.

Nevertheless, there are parallels and lessons to be learnt. Russia in the 1990s had a variety of real and perceived diaspora, security, and political and economic interests in emerging separatist conflicts. The overarching interest of the Russian government was to retain influence over the region (by cajoling these states, through various means, into Russian dominated institutions and bilateral agreements). The result, twenty years later, is that the separatist regions are still searching for political settlements. Compared to them, Crimea is unique because it was annexed by Russia largely due to its much closer historical, ethnic, and cultural ties. Eastern Ukraine may or may not remain part of a federalized Ukraine, but Russia’s goal there remains the same—to destabilize the country in order to prevent it from threatening a myriad of Russian interests. The fact that Russian actions have turned many Ukrainians away from Moscow and secured the election of a pro-Western President of Ukraine does not change what Russia’s major goal has been, but it may make it more difficult for it to be achieved.

A review of Russia’s military actions in the 1990s demonstrates that the current combination of indirect military and political involvement and support and the use of referenda in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are not indicative of a new kind of war. Multifaceted strategies have long been used by Russia and specific actions have often been difficult to attribute to direct orders given by the Russian state. Officially supporting the territorial integrity of a state while indirectly acting to destabilize it is also not new; nor is actively supporting separatists and then turning around to help “create the peace.” The trend for Russian military involvement in separatist conflicts in the former Soviet Union is for it to begin with independent actions and indirect support and then for the state to increasingly direct military actions and play a central role in negotiating an outcome favourable to Russian interests.

Russian policy is once again being driven by heightened geopolitical insecurity. This time, however it is dangerously coupled with a lack of foreign policy debate and a resurgence of comparative economic and military might. If trajectories similar to those of the 1990s occur, then Russia will be an active participant in the negotiations between Kyiv and Ukraine’s separatist regions, and will increasingly encourage international involvement to resolve the conflict. Russia’s goal is to create the conditions for a weakened Ukraine with a Russia-leaning East. Russia can be expected to retain Crimea, continue to search for ways to draw Kyiv into relations that favour Russian interests, and persuade Ukraine not to forgo ties with Russia even as it leans towards Western institutions. The result will not offer a long-term solution for Russia’s various economic, demographic, and political challenges.

Western sanctions and NATO military manoeuvres in nearby regions will not change this likely outcome. And while they are designed to make Russia hesitate in taking similar actions in the future, they are just as likely to be perceived (and manipulated) by Russia to justify any future aggression.

The solution to the Ukraine crisis does not lie in the West. It needs to come from Moscow, Kyiv, and the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine. It also depends on whether Poroshenko and Putin can reach a compromise about how to stop the violence and move forward. Of course, this will require all sides, Moscow, Kyiv and the separatists (who Moscow calls the “protestors”) to be clear about their intentions and to reach difficult compromises on key issues. The West needs to encourage this process.

These compromises include Moscow recognizing Poroshenko as the legitimate head of state and all sides acting to defuse the current armed confrontation in south eastern Ukraine. Russia will have to seal its border with Ukraine and Ukraine will have to end its military efforts to roll back the separatists. A safety corridor for civilians will need to be monitored. Both countries also need to directly address Russia’s concerns about Ukraine developing an association with the EU. Eventual full membership is perceived to not only threaten Russian dominated institutions but also Russia’s dependence on the Donbass region (and the heavily subsidized production of military and industrial hardware there). Ukraine, in turn, may have to agree not to join NATO (which it had in any case taken off the table) leaving Ukraine economically tilted towards Europe but militarily neutral. Finally, on the most difficult issue, the status of Crimea, it is unlikely that Russia will agree to give it up. It is also unlikely that Ukraine can retake it by force, or that the West will help them do so. Thus, the Crimea question should remain off the table for now.

The West can help by encouraging diplomacy and tough compromises. Washington and Ottawa have pledged to defend Eastern Europe, to conduct military exercises and to seek additional funds bolster regional defences. This will help reassure East European allies. However, more importantly, they need to work to convince all the parties to the conflict that negotiation and difficult compromises are required.

The G7 have announced that they will add more punishing sanctions unless Russia recognizes Poroshenko as the legitimate head of state, ceases to support separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and cooperates with Kyiv in drafting constitutional reforms. They are necessary compromises, but, as the analysis above suggests, the West also needs to acknowledge the complexity of “Russian” involvement and events on the ground, and to pressure Kyiv to cease military action.

The EU could help to negotiate a compromise whereby Putin would tolerate Ukraine’s association with the EU, and in return the factories in the Donbass would be protected for a time. NATO itself may also need to compromise. It is in its interest to continue its “reassurance mission” to East European states by deploying air and ground troops there. However, the current crisis suggests that it should rethink its “open door” policy in the case of Ukraine. It would be helpful for Ukraine and NATO both to assure Russia that full entry into NATO remains off the table.

Long-term, NATO needs to rethink how to manage “not like-minded” countries. In other words, how could it have better managed Russia over the past twenty years and how it can help Russia find a role that it is comfortable with (beyond being anti-NATO). The options here range from giving such countries special status (increasing dialogue and cooperation), simply treating them as any other state, or ignoring them. NATO also has to better manage the expectations and needs of partners, and to articulate a convincing political narrative about what NATO is for. The reality is that many states don’t believe NATO will protect them, and see the Ukraine crisis as a “wake-up call” illustrating that NATO might not protect their sovereignty.

Ukraine is a deeply divided, nearly bankrupt, country. With Poroshenko announcing at his inaugural ceremony on June 7th that there can be “no compromise on the issues of Crimea, European choice and state structure”, and with Russia indignant at Ukraine’s military efforts to regain Eastern Ukraine, the current opportunities for compromise are greatly reduced. A violent confrontation in Donetsk between Ukrainian forces and separatists may well make it impossible to reach a compromise with the Russian-speaking population and could even provoke Russia into using military force that would result in an even wider war. The West needs to be pragmatic and careful not to give false assurances to Kyiv. The current civil war has the ingredients that could turn it into an international one, or simmer along until a kind of status quo is eventually reached as in the conflicts in the 1990s.

[1] The following analysis is based on the research undertaken for my book on Russian military involvement in the conflicts in the 1990s. Nicole J Jackson, Russian Foreign Policy and the CIS: Ideas, Debates and Actions in Civil and Separatist Conflicts, Routledge, 2003.

[2] The Transdniestriaseparatist movement began in 1989 as a spontaneous reaction to Moldovan policy. Although Transdniestrians have never been completely independent, they can appeal to a period of autonomous existence from 1924-1944. On 31 August, Moldova passed a law that made Romanian the state language. Many Russians and other ethnic groups felt threatened and feared the pan-Romanian movement led by the Moldovan Popular Front. On Sept 1990 TD leaders proclaimed the TD Socialist Republic to be a separate part of the USSR. Earlier, as a result of the spring parliamentary elections of 1990, the Moldovan Communists had lost to the Popular Front, a largely Romanian dominated coalition. The Communist Party retained support only in the Transdniestrian and Gagauz areas. TD rejected Moldovan sovereignty and declared its own independence on 2 Sept 1991.

[3] During the Moldova-Transdniestria war, Transdniestria became economically separated from the rest of Moldova and Russia (initially) provided the region with access to Russian markets and materials. In the case of Crimea, the new Ukrainian parliament had been about to pass a new law that would have diminished the status of the Russian language, if the new President had not vetoed it. This foiled attempt was used as a spark to revolt against what was widely seen an illegitimate and anti- Russian government.

[4] For details, see Nicole J Jackson, Russian Foreign Policy and the CIS: Ideas, Debates and Actions in Civil and Separatist Conflicts, Routledge, 2003. Also see Vladimir Socor, “Russian Forces in Moldova”, RFE/RL Research Report, vol.1, no.34 (28 August, 1992), pp. 38-43; “Press Briefing by Georgy Marakutsa, Chairman of the Dniester Supreme Soviet”, Official Kremlin International News Broadcast, June 23, 1992.

[5] See Erika Dailey, "Human rights and the Russian Armed Forces in the Near Abroad", Helsinki Monitor, vol.5, no.2 (1994), p.14; and George Hewitt, “Abkhazia, Georgia and the Circassians (NW Causasus), Central Asia Survey, vol. 18, no.4 (1999), pp.463-499, footnote 3, p.498.

[6] Nicole J Jackson, ‘Trans-Regional Security Organizations and ‘Statist Multilateralism’ in Eurasia”, Europe-Asia Studies, January 2014; Nicole J Jackson, “The Role of External Factors in Advancing Non-Liberal Democratic Forms of Political Rule: Analysis of Russia’s Support of Authoritarian Regimes in Central Asia”, Contemporary Politics, 16:1, 2010. Russia has also been very upset about what it interprets as the West’s hypocritical use of international law and military intervention. In particular, they point to Kosovo (which they interpret as Western military action to secure the separatist aspirations of the Kosovars from Russia’s ally Serbia) and Libya (where Russia perceives that NATO went beyond its Security Council mandate and, against Russia’s wishes, and used military force to bring on regime change) as examples which they perceive as justifying, or at least somewhat paralleling their current actions in Ukraine.