The article analyzes the evolution of Russia’s policy in secessionist conflicts in the post-Soviet space in 1991–2018. The authors differentiate the patterns of Russian policy between the “first” and “second” generation of frozen conflicts. The “first generation” includes four conflicts of an ethno-linguistic nature that arose out of the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Pridnestrov’e and Karabakh). Most commentators interpret Russia’s actions in the “second generation” conflicts as centralized, directly controlled by the president of Russia, and driven by Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion, and some extend this logic back to the conflicts of the 1990s. However, this article argues that this was not true of Russian policy for the “first generation” conflicts in the early 1990s. In that period the policies of the Yeltsin administration were a product of struggle of different forces both in Moscow and outside of it. The “first generation” conflicts all primarily originated as a result of local grievances. Gradually, shifts in the broader geopolitical landscape in Eurasia, especially the growing confrontation between Russia and the West, led to a reconfiguration of the logic of these conflicts, turning them into the elements of Russian-Western geopolitical opposition.
The article challenges the view that Russia’s goal in the post-Soviet space is to make the region an exclusive zone of Russian influence and keep other world powers out entirely. In fact, Russia has two policies towards the influence of other powers that are active in the region: a ‘business as usual’ approach, applied to China and Turkey; and a securitized ‘New Cold War policy’, applied to the US and West (especially towards their presence in Ukraine). Growing Chinese and Turkish influence has not been ‘securitized’, although the presence of both powers creates clear obstacles to the reintegration of former Soviet countries around Russia. The article draws on three bodies of literature (Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism) to explain this variation. While Moscow perceives growing Western influence in Ukraine as a threat to its domestic regime and identity as a great power and regional leader, it finds common ground with Beijing and Ankara in its concerns about the Western liberal democracy promotion agenda and views both powers as potential allies in the construction of a ‘multipolar world’.