Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Post-Soviet Wars: Part I

The Post-Soviet Wars: Part I


This essay is based on a presentation at the Butcher History Institute for Teachers on What is Eurasia? And Why Does it Matter?, October 21-22, 2017, sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Slavic Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania, and Carthage College.

Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008 and, more recently, in Ukraine awakened many in the West to a category of wars they had assumed to be resolved and, in any case, of little consequence to Western security: the post-Soviet Wars. These wars, which broke out in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine, merit further study, not only for the insights they can provide to students of war, but also for the lessons they can furnish to policymakers.

In this paper, I will argue that the legacies of Soviet ethno-federal policies left some post-Soviet states with institutionalized identity divisions. Where these existed, the collapse of the Soviet Union caused mobilization around these identities and escalation of conflict between identity groups. Escalating conflict invited international intervention, with the type of intervention depending on the geopolitical affiliation of the target state. States seen by Russia and the West as “Western” were targeted for intervention focused on the de-escalation of conflict, led most often by Western states and international institutions. States seen as “non-Western,” on the other hand, were targeted for military intervention by Russia, with Western states and international institutions paying scarce attention to the conflicts.

Overview of the Post-Soviet Wars

The collapse of the Soviet Union—despite the tendency to characterize it as a “peaceful process”[1]—was in fact attended by significant violence in a number of the newly independent states. In Azerbaijan, war began in 1988 in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, inhabited primarily by ethnic Armenians, and ended in 1994 with the de facto separation of the region from the rest of Azerbaijan. In Georgia, the region of South Ossetia sought to break away from the state in 1991, and the region of Abkhazia did the same in 1992. Both of these wars also ended with the de facto separation of these regions from Georgia, and renewed tensions in South Ossetia were the catalyst for the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. In Moldova, the region of Transnistria broke away from the state in 1992, with significant assistance from the Russian army, and has maintained its de facto separation since that time. Also, in 1992, war began in Tajikistan between factions composed of former Communists on one side and a loose coalition of liberal democrats and Islamists on the other. That war ended five years later with a power-sharing agreement and the presence of a significant Russian military force to keep the peace. In Russia itself, Chechnya tried to break away from the state in 1994, and by 1996 had achieved de facto independence, only for the war to reignite in 1999. By 2008, Russia declared the war ended and had reintegrated Chechnya into Russia, but only after ceding broad political autonomy to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Finally, in early 2014, war began in Ukraine, first with a Russian operation to annex Crimea and later with a Russian-supported separatist movement in the country’s east. That war continues today.

In all, over 130,000 people have been killed in the post-Soviet wars, and many more have been displaced. And this accounting does not include other cases of internal violence, such as the 2005 violence in Uzbekistan or the 2010 clashes in Kyrgyzstan, each of which killed at least 400 people. For the purposes of this paper, I apply the title “post-Soviet war” only to those cases in which battle deaths exceeded 1000 or in which international borders were changed by force. Even with these fairly restrictive criteria, it is clear that the collapse of the Soviet Union was far from peaceful and that these wars deserve serious study.

Relevance of the Post-Soviet Wars

The post-Soviet wars deserve more deliberate study for three main reasons. The first is that they represent a sub-set of internal wars, and internal wars are increasingly important to both scholars and policymakers. Their importance is borne out by an examination of the main databases focused on war, the Correlates of War Project in the U.S. and the Uppsala Conflict Database in Sweden. Both of these databases show that in the post-Cold War era, internal wars are significantly more common than inter-state wars.[2] Internal wars also tend to last longer and produce more casualties than inter-state wars.[3] The second reason the post-Soviet wars deserve greater attention is that they are understudied in comparison to many other forms of internal war, although they have the potential—if left unaddressed—to do serious damage to peace and stability in Europe. For instance, there are approximately twice as many scholarly studies of the post-Yugoslav wars as there are of the post-Soviet wars,[4] despite the fact that the process of the post-Soviet wars is still unfolding, as the wars in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) show.

The third reason the post-Soviet wars deserve greater study is that they provide an opportunity to bring the international relations and comparative politics scholarly literatures into closer contact with one another. In comparative politics, the bulk of the literature on internal war focuses on the level of the individual and the social group, or what political scientist Kenneth Waltz called the “first image.” This literature examines how group identities are formed, whether and how “ethnic entrepreneurs” use these identities to stoke conflict, and the role of economic factors in internal wars, among other topics. Much of the international relations literature, on the other hand, focuses on what causes states to intervene in internal wars in other states. This literature, located at what Waltz called the third image, or the level of the international system, tends to focus on whether states intervene for affective or instrumental reasons. Instead of providing a causal argument for intervention, much of this literature consists of “laundry lists” of factors that might influence intervention decisions.

What is missing in the literature is an approach that links factors inside the state with those external to it. After all, the relationship between internal violence and external intervention can be seen a mutually constituting: while it is true that a certain level of internal violence is required to gain the attention of external actors and cause them to consider intervention, it is also true that the prospect of external assistance can influence the willingness and ability of groups to rebel against the state. After all, even the weakest of states generally has the capacity to defeat rebellions that receive no support from outside. So the boundary between approaches grounded in comparative politics and those grounded in international relations—while useful for theoretical coherence and parsimony—limits the ability of each approach to provide a comprehensive explanation for internal war. An approach that provides a “transmission belt,” showing how internal and external factors interact with each other, should be able to provide a fuller understanding of the phenomenon of internal war, and do so at an acceptable cost to parsimony.

Scholarly and Journalistic Explanations

Scholarly explanations for internal wars focus on a number of factors, none of which adequately explain the outcomes in the former Soviet Union. Some scholars argue that the extension of political autonomy can make conflict more likely. In the context of the Soviet Union, Svante Cornell argues that the extension of autonomy to certain groups in the Soviet Republic of Georgia made those groups more likely to rebel once the Soviet state collapsed.[5] While this argument may help explain the cases of the wars in Georgia, it is limited in its ability to explain the larger set of post-Soviet wars. This is because the Soviet Union bestowed autonomy on dozens of regions in the Soviet Union, the vast majority of which remained peaceful after the Soviet collapse.[6]

Statistical studies have correlated internal war with a number of factors. For instance, Collier and Hoeffler find that states rich in natural resources, which they label a “lootable” commodity, are at higher risk for internal war.[7] Fearon and Laitin find that states experiencing internal war are characterized by weak institutions, large populations, rough terrain, and poverty.[8] Both of these studies reject hypotheses that attribute internal war primarily to ethnic or religious differences. While these statistical studies have contributed to our understanding of internal war by calling into question the claim that ethnic or religious diversity is sufficient to cause conflict and by highlighting correlations that are not otherwise obvious or intuitive, they fall short as a causal framework for the post-Soviet wars. The wars in the former Soviet Union simply do not line up with the correlations posited in the statistical literature. First, in the eight post-Soviet wars, none involved fighting over natural resources. Next, state weakness was endemic in the former Soviet Union, especially in the early 1990s when most of the wars began, yet most post-Soviet states avoided war. Third, among the six republics that experienced wars, only Russia and Ukraine can be said to have large populations. The rough terrain correlation applies to Russia, Georgia, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan, but not to Moldova or Ukraine. Finally, the only one of the six republics that can be characterized as impoverished is Tajikistan—the rest were middle or high-middle income Soviet republics.

Journalistic explanations tend to focus on the post-Soviet wars that began later, especially the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and the war in Ukraine that began in 2014. In many ways, these explanations reveal more about how the West sees these wars than anything about the actual causes of the wars themselves. Among the explanations for the post-Soviet wars advanced in policy and journalistic circles are the following: the wars constituted Russia’s reaction to the enlargement of NATO; the wars constituted Russia’s reaction to the “Color Revolutions,” which it believed were fomented by the West;[9] the wars were an inevitable result of Russia’s recovery of its power; the wars were an attempt by the Russian government to distract the Russian public from domestic economic problems; and the wars were a result of lack of Western reaction to previous Russian military interventions.

While many of these explanations appear plausible, all of them ignore the fact that the post-Soviet wars began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before NATO enlargement was publicly discussed, before any of the Color Revolutions occurred, and before Russia had recovered its military power. In addition, there is no clear pattern linking Russian military intervention in neighboring states to the state of the Russian economy.[10] Finally, although the idea that Russia’s interventions in neighboring states resulted from lack of Western reaction to previous interventions has some merit in explaining the 2014 intervention in Ukraine, it does not explain previous Russian interventions. In essence, what these explanations reveal is not the causes of the wars, but the fact that the West only started paying attention to these wars in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia, and only became seized with the after the 2014 Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Four Cases in Three Countries

To test my own explanation for the post-Soviet wars, I selected four cases in three countries: Georgia-Abkhazia, Georgia-Ajaria, Moldova-Transnistria, and Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority. These cases are similar in ways that make them highly comparable. All were union republics in the Soviet Union and gained their independence in the same period and in the same manner. All suffered social and economic turmoil and loss of state capacity. All were middle income Soviet republics with relatively small populations, and all had mid-level scores in indices of ethno-linguistic fractionalization.[11] Despite these high levels of comparability in factors found in much of the literature on internal war, two of these cases (Georgia-Abkhazia and Moldova-Transnistria) escalated to violent conflict, while the other two did not. The table below provides an overview of these factors and the outcome observed in each case:

Having established that the extant literature does not provide a complete explanation for the post-Soviet wars, I will attempt to do so here. I argue that the legacies of Soviet ethno-federal policies led to institutionalized identity divisions within some Soviet republics. Where institutionalized identity divisions existed, the sudden political transition of the Soviet collapse caused mobilization around these identity divisions and escalation of conflict between identity groups. This escalation of conflict drew the attention of external actors and invited international intervention. In turn, the geopolitical affiliation of the target state determined both who intervened (Russia or Western states) and the type of intervention (military or non-military). In the form of a directed acyclic graph, the causal argument looks like this:Red text indicates that this variable does not predict the outcome observed; green text indicates that this variable does predict the outcome observed.

In Abkhazia, the Soviet state institutionalized and strengthened a previously existing identity division between Georgians and Abkhazians. As Soviet power waned, this resulted in a high level of mobilization and escalation along this identity division, which erupted into large-scale violence between the groups after the Soviet collapse. Subsequent intervention by ethnic kin of the Abkhazians and eventually Russian troops allowed this conflict to escalate into a separatist war in which Abkhazia won de facto self-rule. The cause of the intervention in Abkhazia by Russia was the escalation of the identity conflict combined with Georgia’s geopolitical affiliation as a non-Western state.

In Ajaria, Soviet policies took a previously existing and rather stark identity-division based upon a religious difference and essentially erased it. Soviet policies emphasized ethno-linguistic identities and de-legitimized religious ones, with the effect that by the end of the Soviet period Ajarians, who speak a Georgian dialect, self-identified as Georgians. Thus, although there was a power struggle between the Ajarian government in Batumi and the central government in Tbilisi, this struggle was devoid of any significant identity division and therefore remained confined to the relevant political institutions, even though the Georgian state remained profoundly weak. This lack of mobilization and escalation provided no grounds for external actors to consider intervention, and the center-periphery power struggle was eventually resolved peacefully.

In Moldova, Soviet policies took a rather weak ethnic identity division and overlaid upon it divisions in regional and historical-symbolic identities. As Soviet power waned, the combination of these divisions in identity between Transnistrians and other Moldovans caused a high level of mobilization and escalation. As in Abkhazia, violence increased after the Soviet collapse, and intervention by the Russian 14th Army, along with volunteers from Russia and Ukraine, allowed Transnistria to win de facto self-rule. As in Georgia, the factor that determined the type of intervention by external actors in Moldova was its geopolitical affiliation as a non-Western state.

In Estonia, Soviet policies maintained an existing identity division between Estonians and Russian residents of Estonia. In a critical difference from the other cases, however, the Soviet government permitted Estonian Communists to exercise a degree of nationalist sentiment and even policy within Party structures. This allowed Estonian Communists to gain a degree of nationalist legitimacy with the Estonian people, meaning that many of them were retained in the first post-Soviet Estonian government. This shut out more extreme nationalists in Estonia; by contrast, such extreme nationalists did gain power in Georgia and Moldova. The fact that more moderate nationalists were in power in Estonia served to dampen the level of mobilization and escalation along the identity division, although it was still moderately high. What prevented external actors from exploiting the mobilization and escalation in Estonia was its geopolitical affiliation as a Western and therefore legitimate state. Indeed, instead of attempting to exploit the mobilization and escalation in Estonia, external actors sought to de-escalate the situation, leading to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Estonia and its Russian minority.[12]

As discussed in the introduction to this paper, a subsequent companion paper will examine the causal processes in these cases in greater detail. For purposes of brevity and comparability, that paper will compare the construction and institutionalization of identities in Abkhazia and Ajaria during the Soviet period, and will then compare the escalation of conflict and external intervention in Estonia and Moldova after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This paper, for its part, has provided an overview of the post-Soviet wars, has argued that the post-Soviet wars deserve more comprehensive study, and has examined scholarly and journalistic explanations for them. It has concluded by advancing a causal explanation for these wars, focused on the factors of institutions, identities and international intervention.

[1] Valerie Bunce, for example, begins her book, Subversive Institutions, with the question, “Why did Yugoslavia end in war, and the Soviet and Czechoslovak states through a peaceful process?,” (xi).

[2] For instance, the Correlates of War database lists 21 internal wars against two inter-state wars for the period 2000-2007, and the Uppsala database lists one inter-state war against nine “internationalized” internal wars in 2011. Both of these figures represent the latest years for which data are available.

[3] For example, in their article, “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil war,” James Fearon and David Laitin find that internal wars tend to last an average of six years while interstate wars last an average of three months. They put the total number of battle deaths in the 127 internal wars they studied at over 16.2 million, against 3.33 million in the 25 interstate wars they examined.

[4] Zuercher (2007), Toft (2003), Cornell (2002), and Kaufman (2001) are among the few scholars who have done comparative studies of the wars that broke out in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, whereas there are at least eight such works on the Yugoslav Wars. These include Mojzes (2011), Blitz (2006), Oliver (2005), Morton (2004), Andjelic (2003), Thomas (2003), Veremes (2002), Kourvetakis (2002), and Perica (2002). There are also a large number of cross-regional comparative studies that use one or more of the Yugoslav wars as a case for comparison; the number of such studies using a post-Soviet case is significantly smaller.

[5] Svante Cornell, Autonomy and Conflict (Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University, 2002).

[6] For instance, there were 20 Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics that existed for the entire period of Soviet rule, yet only two of these—Abkhazia in Georgia and Chechnya in Russia—experienced violent conflict after the Soviet Union collapsed.

[7] Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, “On Economic Causes of Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers 50:4 (1998): pp. 563-573; and “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers 56:4 (2004): pp. 563-595.

[8] James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War,” American Political Science Review 97:1 (February 2003): pp. 75-90.

[9] The “Color Revolutions” are comprised of the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. All of these revolutions overthrew authoritarian governments and replaced them with more liberal, Western-leaning governments, although in some cases this change was only temporary.

[10] Although Russia’s economy was contracting in the early 1990s, when it first intervened in the internal wars of its neighbors, when Russia intervened in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, its economy was rapidly expanding. Although those interventions were followed by economic contractions in Russia, the interventions themselves were at least part of the cause of those contractions. In 2008, Western capital fled the Russian markets after the invasion of Georgia, and in 2014, the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia after the intervention in Ukraine.

[11] Ethno-linguistic fractionalization is usually defined as probability that two randomly selected individuals in a society will belong to different ethno-linguistic groups. Georgia has the lowest level of fractionalization at .493, followed by Estonia at .526 and Moldova at .547. Data from Philip G. Roeder. 2001. “Ethnolinguistic Fractionalization (ELF) Indices, 1961 and 1985.” http//\~proeder\elf.htm, internet resource accessed September 15, 2013.

[12] The preceding four paragraphs are taken from my PhD dissertation “Understanding Violent Separatism: Institutions, Identities and International Intervention,” presented to the graduate faculty of the University of Virginia on September 29, 2014.

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