05/08/2020

GEOPOLITICAL RISKS IN EURASIA

 

Eurasia, the region strategically located between Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and integrated, among others, by countries of great international prominence such as Russia and Turkey, should attract more attention not only for its wealth in natural resources, in particular energy, but –and fundamentally- for its capacity to impact on world geopolitics.

The persistence of numerous unresolved conflicts in the region affects, directly or indirectly, the relationship between the great powers and the countries with the greatest relevance at the regional level.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union exposed preexisting regional and sub-regional tensions: ethnic or territorial conflicts averted by imperial decisions of czars and Soviet leaders reemerged strongly when the new national entities were able to formulate ancestral claims.

The eruption of some of those claims has caused significant tensions at the international level: the global scene was particularly resented with the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and that nation's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. The sanctions of the western countries remain until today and Russia has fallen, albeit to a lesser degree, on the isolation that it had managed to overcome since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Consequently, Russia's search for a geopolitical balance has resulted in its greater prominence in areas where other powers -particularly the United States- exerted greater influence previously, such as Syria or the Middle East, as well as in its approach to China through the concretion of concertation mechanisms and large infrastructure projects.

Another nuance that is added to this general panorama is the fluctuating relationship between the two actors with the highest incidence in the Eurasian region, the Russian Federation and Turkey, between them as well as with the countries of the West. In the case of Turkey, the latter is particularly reflected in the contradictions between its membership in NATO and its disputed -and increasingly unlikely- European Union membership.

Today two “active” conflicts remain in the region: that in Eastern Ukraine between separatists supported by Russia and the central government; and the one that confronts Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories.

The first is part of a broader conflict between Russia and Ukraine, notably including the Ukrainian claim to regain the Crimean peninsula based on the principle of territorial integrity. The 2014 crisis in Ukraine, precipitated by the then pro-Russian President Yanukovych's refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, led to a change of government and the annexation of Crimea by Russian forces.

Shortly thereafter, separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, supported by Moscow, rebelled against the central Ukrainian government with the aim of declaring two independent republics. The armed conflict has caused more than thirteen thousand deaths and one million three hundred thousand internally displaced persons.

Today, Ukraine's claim to Crimea has little chance of being achieved in the short and medium term.

The situation in the so-called "independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk", on the contrary, is the subject of negotiations within the framework of the Normandy Group, constituted by Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. In recent months, direct contacts between Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski and President Vladimir Putin have resulted in the completion of some prisoner exchanges. This week, a comprehensive "ceasefire" was announced in the area, which -according to OSCE reports- is not being fully respected.

Furthermore, the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh has historical roots. Claimed by Azerbaijan under the principle of territorial integrity and occupied by a majority of inhabitants of Armenian origin, the territory was awarded to Azerbaijan during the Soviet era. In the 1990s, within the framework of the “Glasnost” promoted by Gorbachev, the Armenian nationalists demanded their independence and their annexation to Armenia, initiating a series of confrontations, the expulsion of a million Azerbaijanis from the territory and the unilateral declaration of independence of the "Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh", only recognized by Armenia.

The issue is especially delicate given the the parties’ commitments or endorsements to regional powers and neighbors of the subregion: Armenia is part of the Collective Security Treaty led by Russia -which has not intervened despite the Armenian request- and Turkey has declared its unconditional support to Azerbaijan.

To the aforementioned self-declared "republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh are added in the South Caucasus the equally self-proclaimed "republics" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, detached from the territory of Georgia after the brief Russo-Georgian war of August 2008.

This "frozen conflict" also recognizes its roots in territorial decisions of the Soviet era. When the government of Georgia, with a clear pro-western orientation, decided to regain full control of the territories, it had to face the immediate reaction of Russia, which intervened to "protect the interests of Russian citizens in those territories": in a usual Foreign policy strategy of surveilling disputed territories in its region of influence, the Russian Federation grants passports to its inhabitants, enabling their subsequent “protection” as Russian citizens.

This practice is repeated in conflict zones in eastern Ukraine and was massively applied in Transnistria, a self-administered entity located between Moldova and Ukraine which, although separated from a strict geographical definition of Eurasia, constitutes another derived “frozen conflict” derived from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and is integrated into this panorama of regional conflict, with actors who reappear in the various disputes.

In addition to its participation –be it a main role or conjunctural- in conflicts outside the territory of the Federation, the Russian government must maintain, within its borders, a close watch on radicalized groups for ethnic or religious reasons. An example of this are the historical claims of the Chechen nation for greater autonomy.

The other great Eurasian actor, Turkey, is currently pursuing a more active foreign policy at the regional level and in the Middle East, where its interests do not always coincide with the progressive participation of Russia. Turkey is also intensely involved in Syria, where it fundamentally pursues three objectives: to reaffirm its role as a regional leader, to reduce the flow of Syrian refugees to its country, and to prevent the advance of military forces by its secular enemy, the Kurdish people.

This brief enumeration of present or larval conflicts, as well as the complex interaction between the main actors in the region, demonstrate the strategic relevance of Eurasia as a factor of imbalance at the international level or, in an optimistic view, as the sovereign will that needs to be delicately managed with the aim of contributing to the maintenance of international peace and security.

 

Lila Roldán Vázquez is Ambassador (R) of the Argentine Foreign Service, Advisory member of the Argentine Council for International Relations (C.A.R.I), and Director of Contemporary Studies of the Eurasian Space at the noted Council.

otras entradas