The geopolitical price of frozen conflicts in Moldova and Azerbaijan for Russia

The viability of Russia’s geostrategic interests in almost the whole former Soviet sphere is severely harmed by its military aggression against Ukraine. 

Members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EUU) are reevaluating their relations with the Russian side. This is defined by the “devaluation” of Russia’s geopolitical standing and the extension of Western sanctions’ repercussions on the Russian state’s economic partners.

One exception to this tendency is Belarus, which has been absorbed into the sphere of Russian influence since the crackdown on post-election protests against Lukashenko in 2020. The current Georgian government’s geoeconomic opportunism, centered on strengthening its economic connections with Russia, also gives potential for unfavorable interpretations. The Georgian government supports policies like the “foreign agents law” while denouncing Russia’s annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, 20% of the country. This departure risks damaging democratic institutions in Georgia and jeopardizing attempts at European integration. Other times, the countries of Central Asia (Armenia and Azerbaijan), the South Caucasus (Ukraine and Moldova), and Eastern Europe (Ukraine and Moldova) showed movements that were unfavorable to Russian geopolitical interests.

Crisis for reputation

In the first instance, the Central Asian nations attempt to forge closer connections with the US and the EU. Building energy sovereignty and reducing reliance on vital Russian infrastructure are issues that concern both the EU and Russia. European policymakers are committed to funding initiatives linking the Central Asian area to trans-European energy and transportation corridors. In this regard, the EU engages in an undercover rivalry with Russia and China for influence in Central Asia through the European global platform (Global Gateway), which has a budget of about 300 billion euros.

The second procedure, which affects Armenia and Azerbaijan, was started in Prague in October 2022 after they joined the European Political Community (EPC) along with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Armenia has widened its discussion with the EU beyond security concerns in response to Russia’s decoupling from the EU in the context of Russia’s conflict against Ukraine. With France’s assistance, the Armenian side and the EU agreed to deploy the EUMA, which started operating on Armenian soil in February. For EUMA and the Russian military installation, which has been present in Armenia since 1992, to live peacefully, Yerevan must create a balanced political and diplomatic environment.

The EU decreased pipeline deliveries of Russian gas to below 10% of total imports in October and November 2022 (from 40% of imports in 2021) to prevent further occurrences of gas weaponization. Baku overshadows delicate concerns relating to the intimidation of the opposition or civil society as its influence in Brussels’ geopolitical calculations grows. The gas might enable the Azerbaijani administration to gain more allies in Europe. The allegations against the Azeri side regarding involvement in scandals involving cross-border political corruption inside the Council of Europe (2.9 billion euros in bribes) appear to be ignored by the EU.

Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

The Russian “peacekeeping” mission (1,960 soldiers) in Nagorno-Karabakh, established due to trilateral agreements mediated by Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2020, is in jeopardy of losing its credibility because it is unable to guarantee the operation of the Lachin Corridor. Under the guise of environmental protests, the Azeri authorities began to obstruct the normal process of the Lachin corridor in the middle of December 2022. This route depends on transporting persons and products between Armenia and the separatist territory. The Russian peacekeepers shared equal responsibility for blocking the way during the initial stage of the blockage. However, due to the International Court of Justice’s (UN) intervention this February, only Azerbaijan is recognized as accountable for blocking access to Nagorno-Karabakh.

The activities of the Azerbaijani side, whose declared strategic objective is to capture control of Nagorno-Karabakh, determine the precarious equilibrium in the region and, consequently, the condition of the Russian troops. Baku maintains that Armenia would contravene the trilateral accords made with Russia in 2020–2021 if it supplied Nagorno-Karabakh with weaponry through Lachin. The Azerbaijani government requests the construction of a customs checkpoint at the entry to the Lachin corridor on the country’s border with Armenia under this pretext (Interfax, March 2023). The breakaway territory cannot function without this corridor, and if Azerbaijan took control of this vital infrastructure, Armenia would be more dependent on Russian soldiers.

Transnistrian question

When Russia propagated unfounded allegations that the Ukrainian government was preparing a military attack, worries about the destabilization of the breakaway territory of Moldova (Transnistria) have once again come to light. Oleg Serebrean, Moldova’s deputy prime minister for reintegration, disputed the idea that Chisinau and Kyiv would coordinate a military invasion in Transnistria. The Ukrainian government’s decision to increase its military presence along the Transnistrian section in order to defend itself against Russian threats is simultaneously acknowledged as legitimate by the authorities in Moldova.

There are some scenarios for Transnistria

Most probable: Each party maintains their current political, social, economic, and military clout.

Negative: Whether or not players with a direct stake in the separatist regime are involved, Moscow coordinates efforts. Because the events are occurring on the Dniester’s right bank, Ukraine does not intervene. The involvement of diverting organizations from Transnistria would astound the Chisinau authorities. 

Escalation: In Transnistria, Russia deployed its military forces. Ukraine will employ its modernized military capacity to neutralize any impending threats in the Transnistrian region, specifically to undermine Russian military capabilities. Serious repercussions, such as a refugee or humanitarian disaster, will befall Moldova.

Source: Dionis Cenușa

Threat to European security

As a result of Russia’s war of mass devastation against the Ukrainian state and its people, relations between the two countries have irreversibly deteriorated. Energy blackmail has worsened things, but future political conditions in Moldova will determine how Russia and that country will interact. Russia’s geopolitical shortcomings are being taken advantage of by the South Caucasus and Central Asia to create geo-economic and geo-strategic alternatives with the help of the West. At the same time, Belarus is a Moscow-controlled satellite.

The state of “frozen conflicts” is sensitive to Russia’s military presence and the unpredictable nature of its geostrategic actions in a climate of extreme regional instability. Russia’s regrettable strategic and tactical calculations and choices, whether unintentionally or on purpose, have impacted the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistrian, which have implications for regional security.

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