RD Interview: The Ukraine conflict is much more dangerous than any of the other conflicts in the post-Soviet space, says Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment, because of the risk that it could become a proxy war.

"There is a geopolitical dimension to the Ukrainian conflict which makes it much more dangerous." Photo: Reuters

Washington officials, who are in the process of considering providing military aid to the Kiev government, are one step away from escalating the conflict in Ukraine and turning it into a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, says Thomas de Waal, a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment.

It was reported earlier this month that the U.S. is considering sending so-called "defensive lethal aid" to help the Ukrainian government fight against pro-Russian rebels in the East of the country. The military assistance could include anti-tank, anti-air and anti-mortar systems.

For now, in an attempt to show their support for the government in Kiev, the U.S. and its NATO ally, the UK, have announced that they are sending military personnel to provide training for the Ukraine army.

Russia Direct sat down with de Waal, who specializes primarily in the South Caucasus, to discuss the conflict in Ukraine, how this crisis has influenced American strategy in the post-Soviet space and Moscow’s relationship with other states in the region.

Russia Direct: How did the Ukrainian crisis influence the situation in the Caucasus?

Thomas de Waal: The Caucasus has been a bystander witness to the events. Because Russia’s time resources are so consumed by Ukraine, there is less left for the Caucasus.

I think the main negative phenomenon we see at the moment is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is heating up again. Last year about 70 people died on the cease-fire line between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In January of this year, there were heavy casualties on the line of conflict – which is unusual in winter.

We see the escalation of rhetoric between the two sides. [Armenian President Serzh] Sargsyan the other day said Armenia could take preemptive strikes against Azerbaijani positions.

This is in the context of a breakdown in trust between Russia on the one hand and France and the U.S. on the other, who are the mediators in the Minsk Group in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.So, the situation is quite worrying. We are not in the stage of war but we are drifting a long way from peace agreement, and there is a lot of violence on the cease-fire line. The cease-fire line is already more heavily militarized than what it was five-ten years ago.

RD: Are there any other conflicts in this region that could be triggered by the Ukrainian situation?

T.D.W.: I don’t think so. Abkhazia and South Ossetia were frozen [conflicts] since 2008 by Russian recognition. [Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008. – Editor’s note].

I don’t think Georgia is going to do anything with those regions. When it comes to Transnistria [a breakaway region located on a border of Moldova and Ukraine. – Editor’s note], that’s not a hot conflict but more of a political dispute.

I don’t expect any trouble there. Transnistria doesn’t have a shared border with Russia and it’s trying to keep up relations with Brussels and Moldova.

RD: You don’t think that Russia might try to use these conflicts, political disputes in its interest, do you?

T.D.W.: There is a possibility but I think people on the ground don’t want to be used. Also I think that Ukraine is just consuming everything at the moment. It’s bad but it’s also good because there is no time for action elsewhere.

RD: What are the chances of Eastern Ukraine turning into a new Abkhazia or South Ossetia?

T.D.W.: The trouble with Eastern Ukraine is that there are no clear borders of the conflict; there’s a much bigger population than in any of those conflicts from the 1990s. Also, these conflicts of the 1990s were local conflicts whereas now there is a geopolitical dimension to the Ukrainian conflict which makes it much more dangerous.

For all these reasons I think that the Ukraine conflict is much more dangerous. We see that the cease-fire was signed but is not being observed.

RD: What is your personal feeling, how will this conflict develop?

T.D.W.: I don’t think anyone can predict. I think a lot depends on what Vladimir Putin decides is in his interests. But it’s not completely up to him. There are also local actors on the ground whose attitudes are quite extreme and who do not necessarily obey orders from Moscow.

RD: Right. And it also depends on the U.S. and their decision to offer military help to Ukraine…

T.D.W.: Yes, exactly. The U.S. is one step from escalating the conflict, which would also be quite dangerous because it would become a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.

RD: Do you think the U.S. might change its strategy in the post-Soviet space after what is happening in Ukraine?

T.D.W.: I don’t think so. I don’t think there is any appetite for NATO expansion in Georgia.

The key issue is what the European Union does. Whether or not it can make what has been signed with Georgia and Moldova and in the future with Ukraine into deep and comprehensive free trade agreements. [The EU’s Eastern Partnership, launched in 2009, aims at integrating six post-Soviet countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — in Europe's economic space. – Editor’s note]

This can be a success and that would be good for all of these counties.

The trouble is that before NATO was the red line, NATO was the enemy for Moscow and now, unfortunately, the European Union also is seen as a geopolitical actor. This is unfortunate because these countries should have economic relationship with the European Union and with Russia.

RD: What are the consequences of this shift in perception?

T.D.W.: I think it’s a long period of confrontation between Moscow and Western capitals. This is an end of a period of possible cooperation in Eastern Europe, which I think is bad for the locals of Eastern Europe.

RD: How did the Ukrainian conflict change Moscow’s relations with former Soviet states, particularly with Georgia?

T.D.W.: I think there was a normalization process going on with Georgia. It continues in areas like trade and transport; there are flight services between Moscow and Tbilisi. But certainly there is a lot of suspicion in Georgia towards Russia. That has been strengthened by the two [border] treaties signed between Russia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia [in February 2015].

So, the Ukraine crisis did worsen the relationships between Moscow and Georgia.

The relationship between Moscow and Azerbaijan is now stronger than it was a year ago. I think President [of Azerbaijan Ilham] Aliyev is worried about a possible Maidan happening in Azerbaijan, and he sees Russia as an insurance policy against that, as ‘strakhovka.’

There has been a big crackdown in Azerbaijan against any manifestations of opposition.

Relations with Armenia are now stronger. President Sargsyan suddenly went on attack against the leader of the opposition Gagik Tsarukyan. He’s now having his business investigated. I think President Sargsyan wouldn’t do that if he didn’t believe he had the support of Moscow.

RD: You mentioned agreements between Moscow and Abkhazia and South Ossetia. How significant are they?

T.D.W.: I don’t think they changed much on the ground. They were drafted by [top Kremlin aide] Vladislav Surkov, who I don’t believe cares much about the Caucasus.

I think he saw it as a countermove against the West, against the European Union. He saw it as a parallel [as if thinking]: If the EU signs the agreement with Tbilisi, we sign the agreements with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

This is the spirit behind these agreements.

RD: So would you disagree with those who said that that was the step towards a full annexation, a full union with Russia?

T.D.W.: I think that’s not the case in Abkhazia, and South Ossetia is so small that there is no real autonomy left anyway. In South Ossetia the population is about 40 thousand [about 50 thousand, according to the 2013 census cited on the website of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Editor's note]. North Ossetia has a population of 700 thousand. Basically North Ossetia is already controlling South Ossetia. Generally it’s a negative development. All these lines of division in the Caucasus are getting stronger but I wouldn't say it’s a watershed moment yet.

RD: What is the influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Gretaer Syria (ISIS) on the Caucasus. Should Russia be concerned?

T.D.W.: In general, it certainly should be. But in general, in the North Caucasus we have actually seen a decrease in violence. Paradoxically, in the short term, this may have been beneficial for the North Caucasus because some of the jihadists, the crazy Islamic warriors may have moved from North Caucasus to Syria to fight. I guess the task of Russia is to stop them from coming back.

The threat is real but the border security is better than 15-20 years ago. I think if Russia finds ways of stopping these people from coming back, the situation is, paradoxically, getting better than it was.

RD: Last year Russia commemorated the 20h anniversary of the Chechen war, what’s the situation there today?

T.D.W.: Chechnya has become a sultanate with a very strong one-man rule and strong obedience to [Head of the Chechen Republic] Ramzan Kadyrov. He is obviously a very important figure in the Russian elite.

Levels of violence have gone down. Chechnya is much more peaceful now than [Russia’s neighboring region of] Dagestan. This is now. We can presume out of Chechen history, out of Chechens’ sentiments towards Russia that this peace and stability will not last forever.

RD: So the current situation will continue until…

T.D.W.: …Until there is a change of regime in Chechnya.