Crimea is probably lost to Ukraine. Within the space of a few days, it has become the latest in a string of "frozen conflict" zones that Russia has used to strong-arm ex-Soviet neighbors ever since the Union collapsed.
The history of these unrecognized statelets suggests that authorities in Kiev are unlikely to regain control of Crimea for decades, if ever. There are few better ways of understanding events on the peninsula right now than to look at how these other "frozen" zones emerged.
Early in 1991, while the Soviet Union was still in one piece but beginning to rip along the seams of its Socialist Republics, I drove my dowdy blue VW Passat from Romania into Moldova and around the Black Sea to Georgia. Most of the route I took is today under the control of Russia’s frozen-conflict satellites. It is not impossible that they will soon join into a solid band of Russian-controlled territory along the entire northern Black Sea coast.
Already that January, there were roadblocks up within Moldova where pro-Soviet Russian speakers were trying to separate a strip of the Republic on the eastern side of the Dniester River. Stalin had bolted this narrow piece of territory onto his new Moldovan possession in 1940, to make it less Romanian, and the rebels were determined not to remain with Moldova if it broke away from the Soviet Union.
Their logic was the same as that of ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, once war broke out in Yugoslavia just months later: If the union was breaking up, they wanted to keep control of the territory they considered theirs. That, in essence, is what pro-Russians in Crimea are saying today.
Eventually, war flared in Moldova. It began as a semi-serious affair (I once ferried to safety a pair of drunken Cossacks in pantomime uniforms as they played catch with a hand grenade in the back seat of the car). But the conflict became bloody in 1992, ending only when Russia’s 14th Army, which had been arming and training the separatists from its base in the territory, joined the fight on their side. It was never clear to what extent the commander, Gen. Alexander Lebed, was acting on orders from Moscow, but his actions made him a hero for Russian nationalists and Soviet nostalgics.
Transnistria quickly became a smuggling haven, from which the 14th Army’s weaponry was sold around the world, and cigarettes, drugs and women were trafficked into Western Europe. The tiny, unrecognized territory has been a de-facto state, running on Moscow time and with Lenin statues still venerated, for more than 20 years.
The road east from Transnistria crossed into Ukraine and headed for the port city of Odessa (a site of recent pro-Russian and anti-Kiev protests). Many of Transnistria’s illicit exports would soon be passing through the underused docks here. Then the road bent south into Crimea, a solidly pro-Moscow region even then, where in August, coup plotters would put Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest at his villa.
I crossed by ferry into the Russian Republic from Kerch, a closed military zone where the Ukrainian flag on city hall has now been replaced with a Russian one. The drive down the coast, past Sochi and into the Georgian republic of Abkhazia, a favorite retirement home for Soviet generals and officials, was idyllic, reminiscent of California’s Route 1.
A year later, Abkhazia would be destroyed by war, triggered when ethnic Abkhaz leaders declared autonomy from the rest of Georgia. Unruly militias that passed for a Georgian army attempted to seize control of the territory, terrorizing ethnic Abkhaz as they went, but their success was short-lived. Cossacks, Chechen volunteers and Russian soldiers in unbadged uniforms poured into the fighting, backed by undeclared Russian air and naval power. A quarter of a million of the region’s majority Georgian population were ethnically cleansed and have yet to return.
At night, I passed the roadblocks that had already been thrown up in the neighboring Georgian region of Adjaria, which is sandwiched between Abkhazia and the Turkish border. Adjaria, too, was breaking away from the rest of Georgia, though ultimately it would fail.
In Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, I went to speak with the new president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a somewhat unstable nationalist who was less than three months away from declaring his republic’s independence from the fading U.S.S.R. He complained that Gorbachev was inciting local ethnic minorities to rebel, in order to deter Georgia from breaking away. Just weeks before, South Ossetians had taken up arms, so I went to see them.
Georgian security forces had the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali under small-arms siege. I crossed the lines in an armored personnel carrier belonging to the local Soviet army base. Oddly, the South Ossetian leader also told me he thought Gorbachev was using the conflict as a pawn in his larger bid to keep the Soviet Union together. He said that was why Gorbachev wasn’t supplying the heavy weapons the Ossetian rebels needed to win. It seemed a situation easily solved with a little good will, but there was none.
South Ossetia is tiny, with a population of about 70,000. It became famous with the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and together with Abkhazia has now been effectively annexed by Russia.
Now Crimea has become Ukraine’s South Ossetia, Abkhazia or Transnistria. It is a tool with which Russian President Vladimir Putin can keep Ukraine’s new authorities twisting in the wind, just as he has done with Georgia and Moldova. He need not launch an open, full-scale invasion of Ukraine – but he can, and that knowledge adds to his leverage. This is one way to understand his decision to call on Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament to give him permission to order military operations in Ukraine, should he choose to.
Crimea is different from these other frozen conflict zones in a number of ways. First, in all of the other cases, the local populations broke away at a time when there was little control from Moscow. Local Soviet military commanders helped out with arms, but not as part of any central strategic plan, and often not as much as the separatists hoped. In the case of Crimea, Putin’s hand in the seizure of control is barely masked: this is the work of unbadged Russian troops, not a local minority under attack. No blood has yet been spilled, meaning that again the situation could be rather easily resolved with good will, but there is none.
A second important difference is that the Russian military presence in Crimea is incomparably larger than its bases in the other frozen conflict zones. That also reflects the higher stakes and the reason why Russians in Crimea never took up arms – they felt secure. South Ossetia and Transnistria have zero strategic value to Russia, other than as irritants with which to punish and destabilize Georgia and Moldova, respectively. Abkhazia is nice coastline to have. But Crimea, home to the Russian warm-water fleet at Sevastopol, is a vital strategic asset.
A third difference is that historically and in terms of demographics, Russia has a better claim to own Crimea. Ethnic Russians form 59 percent of the population, whereas ethnic Abkhaz made up just 18 percent of the population of Abkhazia in 1991, and Russians comprised about a quarter of Transnistria’s residents. While none of these borders – of only administrative importance during the Soviet Union – have been settled for long, Crimea was written over to Ukraine from Russia as recently as 1954.
It is hard to imagine Putin or any other Russian leader ceding control of Crimea to Kiev again. At best, the de facto loss of Crimea will prove to be the price of Ukraine’s full independence.
The more worrying part of the frozen conflict analogy is the memory of the 2008 war in Georgia. Russian troops poured into South Ossetia after Georgia, egged on by Russian provocations, launched a foolish military offensive on the separatists. The Russian generals in charge of the response seemed to have no orders on where to stop. Once the tanks were rolling they saw no reason to stay within South Ossetia.
With Crimea under his belt, the temptation for Putin to add Odessa and a few other regions of Eastern Ukraine, creating a contiguous Russian-controlled zone from Transnistria to Abkhazia, will be similarly great. I doubt Putin will be able to resist. I suspect, however, that he would prefer to do it by subterfuge, providing him with leverage over the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, and avoiding the risks and costs of war. After all, he has a tried and tested model to use.
Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member.