You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 54: Border Battles in Eurasia

Border Battles in Eurasia

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, its republics were established as countries with internationally recognized borders. But borders are only as stable as the people within them will allow them to be. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has seemingly opened the floodgates for revisiting old conflicts and tensions, sparking border clashes among other former Soviet republics in the region known as Eurasia. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Keith Darden, an expert on Eurasian politics, joins us to explain the (literal) lay of the land, why tensions are so high, and why each of these border conflicts is unique.

Professor Darden discusses how the post-Soviet borders were settled (2:00) and explains the rationale for Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea (4:14). He talks about why Russia invaded Ukraine and how the different, recently annexed regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson can be viewed as “historically Russian” (11:32).

How has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impacted the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region (13:37)? Why have Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan disputed their shared, semi-undemarcated border since it was established (22:15)? Darden answers these questions and discusses the impact of demographics and geography on these current border clashes. The episode concludes as Darden shares his thoughts about Putin’s future role in the region and the future of borders and border clashes in Eurasia more broadly (28:30).

During our “Take Five” segment, Darden shares policies and procedures he would enact to create and settle international borders more effectively (17:30).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World where we talk about something in the world that really matters. The eyes of the world have been focused on Ukraine since February of this year, when Russian aggression that began with the annexation of Crimea eight years ago escalated into a full-scale invasion into Ukraine. The loss of life and property has been enormous. The bright spots for those who support Ukraine have come and seeing the Ukrainian military mount an unexpectedly intransigent resistance. And the Ukrainian government successfully pull the levers of diplomacy to marshal nearly unlimited assistance from the West, both in the form of weaponry and aid.

0:46      KS: But while the world has monitored the war in Ukraine, other old disputes among former Soviet states have flared up. Azerbaijan and Armenia have renewed their enmity over the Karabakh-Nagorno region, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have clashed along their undemarcated border in recent weeks. So today we're talking about that area of the world known as Eurasia, specifically parts of it that used to be called by another name, the Soviet Union. I'm joined by Keith Darden. Keith is a professor here at the School of International Service. His areas of expertise include the politics of Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. He's frequently featured in the media for his analysis of the area, and his forthcoming book is titled Resisting Occupation in Eurasia. Keith Darden, thanks for joining Big World.

1:31      Keith Darden: Hi, Kay. It's good to be with you again.

1:33      KS: Just to get us in the right place and time. The Soviet Union was, while it existed, the largest nation in the world in terms of land area. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Soviet states were divided into 15 independent nations. Keith, going back to the nineties, how were the borders of these nations determined? Who led the process and what issues were or were not considered in setting up the borders of the countries in Eurasia as we know them today?

2:00      KD: So these borders were the internal republic borders of the Soviet Union. So they were kind of never intended to be international borders in a real sense. They were just administrative units. So if you imagine, if the United States broke up the border between Iowa and Nebraska, it's kind of arbitrary. And in general, the way in which those internal borders within the Soviet Union were crafted were somewhat related to kind of the demographics on the ground. In other words, you tried to put Uzbeks in Uzbekistan or put Ukrainians in Ukraine, or Belarusians in Belarus.

2:43      KD: But much more the process was actually trying to make Belarusians in the territory of the Belarusians Soviet republic, and make Uzbeks in the territory of that republic. And so these were just administrative units, and the agreement was that the Soviet Union, because it was a union of these union republics, when it dissolved, it would dissolve into those 15 Union republics. And there was a lot of international pressure at the time to choose this strategy, because if you recall, 1989, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the effort to make those republic boundaries conform to the underlying identities of people on the ground led to a horrifying and bloody war. And there was the hope that, that could be avoided in the case of the Soviet Union. And so, there was US pressure, there was European pressure, and in general, it seemed like a good administrative solution, if the Soviet Union no longer exists, its former republics should be independent states.

3:53      KS: And it sounds good in theory, but we have tensions and clashes along the border between Ukraine and Russia. These are not a new occurrence. I mentioned the annexation of Crimea in 2014 as one of the most notable. Can you explain Russia's rationale for annexing Crimea in 2014 briefly?

4:14      KD: There were kind of two rationales. One rationale was that what happened in spring of 2014 or February of 2014, was that the elected leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown. And the Russians viewed that as an illegitimate seizure of power. They called it a coup. And they believed that the people who came to power were radical nationalists, which they call Nazis. And that those people would endanger the lives of the Russian speaking population of Ukraine, which was about half the population of Ukraine that had supported Viktor Yanukovych. And so, Crimea was the largest concentration of ethnic Russians. In other words, people who identified as Russian on the census. And that's partly for historical reasons that Crimea had previously been part of the Russian Republic of the Soviet Union prior to its transfer to Ukraine in the 1950s. And so, Russia was saying essentially, these are endangered people. They have the right to self-determination. So Crimea voted for secession from the Ukrainian state, and Russia decided to add them. That was one version. But there was also another narrative that came out then that has become much more prominent now, which is that Crimea was never legitimately Ukrainian. That this was all historically Russian land. And so that, you were kind of bringing Crimea back home and that Crimea had been the historic seat of lots of important moments in the Russian Orthodox Church, and that there were deep ties to Crimea. And that more nationalist narrative of Crimea is Russia having nothing to do with political changes in Ukraine or threatened populations. And more about of an irredentist model of we're going to incorporate all Russians under the Russian state. That was also there at the time. And so, there were these two kind of competing narratives, neither of which were accepted by the international community.

6:42      KS: The annexation, it was incredibly controversial, but there really was no intervention from other countries, and it was allowed mostly to stand. And he opened the bridge in 2018 with big ceremony linking Crimea to mainland Russia. Why in your opinion, did Putin again escalate tensions and invade Ukraine in February of this year? And was it at least in part, because nothing substantive really happened to Russia when they annexed Crimea?

7:15      KD: So I don't think it's that nothing happened to Russia when they annexed Crimea, because we did impose sanctions then. But you're right in the sense that at the time there was more of, even if no one accepted the Russian logic for the annexation of Crimea, I think most people kind of recognized that the population of Crimea, even if the referendum was not legitimate, kind of did favor joining Russia at that time. And so, there was a kind of sense that self-determination is a bad idea, but if we had really exercised self-determination, Crimea probably would've joined Russia. And so, there was kind of an acceptance that this was not going to be, this was as bad an outcome as we saw this year, for example. And so, I think that the Russian rationale for escalating was the failure to resolve that 2014 conflict. So, part of what happened is that as a result of the succession of the Donbas, not Crimea in 2014 and the ensuing war, Russia intervened then and successfully defeated the Ukrainian military in a couple of different engagements. That led to the Minsk accords and the Minsk accords called for constitutional change in Ukraine, the reincorporation of the Donbas, but kind of a creation of almost a Confederate Ukraine where different regions would have a veto over Ukraine's foreign policy orientation and major decisions, language rights would be allowed at that local level.

9:03      KD: And so, that agreement never got implemented. And so, part of Russia's story in the lead up to the war this past February, was that Ukraine refused to implement the Minsk agreements that they had signed onto and which had been endorsed by the Security Council of the United Nations. And their failure to do that meant that Russia needed to impose those Minsk agreements through force on Ukraine.

9:35      KS: The four areas that were just annexed in October, Donetsk, Luhansk Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, are those the areas that were covered by the Minsk accords that was never implemented? Is that the territory that was just annex, or is that different?

9:51      KD: This is territory that was just annex. So, it was Donetsk, Donetsk and Luhansk were covered in the Minsk accords, but the Minsk accords were supposed to be a general shift in the Ukrainian constitution to allow for regional autonomy and also, a regional say in Ukraine's foreign policy. And so, in a sense, yes, everything was included, but those really were about the Donbas. This is more in the vein of including Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. And I think had they managed to seize those territories, it would've included all of Ukrainian territory, all the way to the Romanian border through Odessa. These are areas that they see as historically Russian. And so, part of the claim is we Russia are gathering in the Russian people, and these are all, have always been legitimately part of the Russian state. They were just illegitimately under the control of Ukraine for the last 30 years in the post-Soviet period. But we're bringing them back.

11:01      KS: If you are just an average news consumer and you're reading this as it happens, it sounds as though Putin simply wants to chip away at Ukraine until there's no Ukraine left, as you said. And that his rationale all along the way will be that this region or that region of Ukraine identifies more with Russia and really wants to be a part of Russia. So, I guess the question is that an oversimplification? And then also, are there other areas in former Soviet states that he might also consider truly Russian?

11:32      KD: Yes, there are many areas in the former Soviet states that he would also consider to be truly Russian. And so, depending on how you define Russia, it could include all the territory of the former Soviet Union and large parts of Poland. And so, the Russian Empire was a very large entity. And so, if he defines it in kind of an ethnic Russian terms, they're sort of like all of the East Slavs are Russians, which includes the Ukrainians, the Biala Russians, and the Russians that also would pull in most of northern Kazakhstan, which is also heavily Slavic, heavily Russian and Biala Russian and Ukraine. And so, just defining Russia in that way is extremely threatening and destabilizing to the other countries in the region. And you see, Kazakhstan also reacted very rarely to that Russian narrative that Putin was putting out at the onset of the invasion. But Putin has also been talking about Russia as a multi linguistic, multi-faith entity lately.

12:49      KD: And so, then if that's how you define Russia, Tajikistan is Russia. Kyrgyzstan is Russia. Russia is just this idea and heavily influenced by where Russia used to be at the peak of its territorial control. Then we're really talking about quite a lot of territory.

13:12      KS: So, we could definitely talk for a lot longer about Ukraine conflict. I want to move to the South Caucasus. Armenia and Azerbaijan have a long history of clashes over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. How has post-Soviet Russia influenced this region since 1991, and has the war in Ukraine impacted or even allowed the recent fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan to break out?

13:37      KD: Yeah. That's a good question. Russia's played a huge role in that region since 1991, and part of the challenging of those post-Soviet boundaries began at the end of the Soviet Union with Armenians challenging the boundaries of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and trying to claim Nagorno-Karabakh, and that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, who were majority Armenian, it was an autonomous region within the neighboring republic of Azerbaijan wanting to become part of a greater Armenian republic. And so, in some ways, we've seen this kind of nationalist tensions and sort of chafing at those post-Soviet boundaries all the way back to the early 1990s in this region. And Russia, in the post-Soviet period played a role of stabilizing the De facto boundaries that came about as a result of the Armenian Azerbaijan wars in the late 80s and 90s. And so, Russia has kind of been playing the role of guarantor of Karabakh as an Armenian enclave, autonomous Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan formally, but obviously connected very much to Armenia.

15:06      KD: Russia switched sides and developed a better relationship with Azerbaijan and so ceased to play that guarantor role, which is why we had the war of a, I guess a year and a half ago now, almost two years ago, where Azerbaijan took back much of Karabakh by force and was defeating the Armenian forces in Karabakh in some sense, with a Russian blessing it seemed. And so, Russia put the breaks on that process and sort of tried to reestablish its role as a defender of Armenia in the region. But the problem is that Russia is not in a position to guarantor,

16:00      KD: ... as a guarantor of anything. In other words, it can't even guarantee the defense of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine against the Ukrainian military.

16:11      KD: And so now that's really, to the extent that Russia sort of enforced the de facto boundary lines in the South Caucasus, the removal of Russia from that role, and in particular the active role of Turkey in undermining those defacto boundaries in concert with Azerbaijan, has meant that we've seen a lot of movement in the South Caucasus now. So if Russia was kind of like a stabilizing force for about 30 years in the post Soviet period and it was using its military power and capability to kind of maintain the defacto borders that had emerged in the wake of the Soviet Union, now that Russia has sort of flipped a switch and really shifted its perception of the borders in the region and kind of dissolved them in favor of a broader Russian imperial concept, it's no longer playing that stabilizing role. It is now the revisionist power. It is destabilizing. And other powers are also seeking to revise those borders now that Russia is no longer in a position to sustain them.

17:30      KS: Keith Darden, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to daydream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. We're talking about border conflicts. This is obviously not an exact science, but what five policies or procedures would you enact to create and settle borders more effectively?

17:54      KD: So scholars of international relations talk about something called The Territorial Integrity Norm that has existed since 1945, which is basically the idea that you should not mess with borders. And that under no circumstances should borders ever be changed by force. And if they are changed by force, the international community should react and under no circumstances accept the legitimacy of those border changes.

18:23      KD: And so I guess my first policy would be a change of principle to where we accept that there are conditions under which the boundaries of states should change other than self-determination and secession, right? Because we did that with [inaudible 00:18:41]. We do that with some other cases. But that there might be other reasons that the international community should not have a fixation on preserving existing territorial boundaries. We don't want to go back to the bad old days of territorial conquest where every boundary change except to this legitimate and that you rule essentially by right of conquest, which is actually how many of the world's boundaries came to be.

19:08      KD: So I would say we could create a kind of arbitration court, much as the League of Nations used to do these kinds of boundary arbitration. And I think we could possibly get UN security council members to commit to supporting a binding arbitration court for some of these territorial disputes. But I think that you could possibly have cases put forward about how a boundary might be revised in a way that would enhance stability and the interests of peace while taking into account that maybe we shouldn't be stuck with these boundaries that we simply inherited and that don't necessarily serve a logical purpose and might make governance actually difficult. In addition to an arbitration court, a binding arbitration court, I would say that we should have a kind of time period after which we just recognize boundary changes regardless of how they came about. So I would say maybe a 20 year timeframe is a reasonable one, but that after, let's say two or three decades, we just accept that the boundary has changed and we move on. One way to settle borders that might work is just to make them less significant. And this was always the hope of the liberal internationalists is that if you allow free movement of people across borders, free movement of goods, then the existence of the border doesn't really matter as much. And that can be a good thing. In other words, it's sometimes when you try to harden those borders and make them more real that their significance is increased and that sort of lack of functionality of them, the tensions that come from drawing that particular line in the sand or the forest or the field, really comes to the fore. And so I do think kind of doing what we can to generally liberalize and make the differences between states less significant and the sort of softening of those borders will probably reduce the tension around those borders and hopefully lead to fewer border clashes.

21:39      KS: Thank you.

21:44      KS: Continuing our lightning tour of the region in Central Asia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have disputed their shared border since it was established. And it sounds like swaths of it are un-demarcated.

21:55      KS: With both of these nations allied to Russia, how has the war in Ukraine affected them? And do you think their recent border clashes are influenced by Russia's invasion of Ukraine? Or is it just that there's just a vacuum and weird things are happening? What's going on there?

22:15      KD: I do think that this, like the South Caucuses, Russia played an important stabilizing role in that region. Russia has bases in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Historically, the base in Tajikistan has been much more important. That was... They control essentially the Taji border with Afghanistan and that's basically manned by Russian troops. But if Russia is preoccupied and shown to be incapable, militarily, of intervening effectively in local conflicts, then that stabilizing force for the borders in the region breaks down. And so, obvious that all of the Soviet borders were arbitrary. The ones in the Fergana Valley of Central Asia were especially arbitrary.

23:11      KD: In other words, these boundaries were largely just determined as... If you look at the Fergana Valley and the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan kind of a swirl, and it really looks gerrymandered. And that's because it was. In other words, it was basically designed so all three of those republics got a piece of the fertile, productive, historically important Fergana Valley. And that valley itself was divided up and not in a single center of power.

23:43      KD: So it was partly a way for the Soviets to deal with what had historically been an Islamic center of power in Central Asia by dividing it among these three republics. But it was also sort of a reward, giving each of these three republics a piece of that pie. But the boundaries,

24:00      KD: Boundaries, the borders themselves, actually turning those into hard borders that are monitored and where passports are checked is very inconvenient because it is really a single valley that is very much tied together in terms of water, in terms of agricultural usages, in terms of trade, in terms of religious pilgrimage. There's some very important religious sites there. And so if that opens up where some of the countries in the regions start to try to shift that gerrymander, in other words, to get more of the Fergana Valley then that they were given by the USSR, were really going to have some significant problems in the region. People thought this was going to happen in the 1990s that Central Asia would erupt in warfare. But I think that Russia has played a very good mediating role there, and they're no longer in a position to play that role. And so we might continue to see instability in the Fergana Valley in particular.

25:04      KS: And I am wondering, we talked about the fact that Russia would be distracted right now, obviously, we've passed the 30th anniversary of the Soviet Union's disillusion last year. You talked about people who were born on and around that time who know nothing but the world as it was post-Soviet Union, post-Cold War. And then you have leaders who remember that time, some perhaps more fondly than others. So I do wonder if there's anything to do with the timing of generational shifts of power of people trying to hang on to things or reclaim things, basically, why do you think all of this is happening now in these post-Soviet states? Is it really just as simple as Russia invaded Ukraine and now just chaos is breaking out because they're not mediating, or is something else going on?

26:02      KD: I do think that it is partly Russia opening that Pandora's box in 2014. As I said, sort of Russia was the guarantor of these boundaries, and then it itself basically decided those boundaries were not legitimate and were open to revision. And so that opens up all of the parts of Eurasia to revision. And then so there's one part which is initiated by Russia. And we could see this really beginning in 2014, that it was going to just be a lot more difficult and a lot more costly to sustain the territorial settlement that took place in 1991 with the collapse of Soviet Union, which is those Union Republic boundaries. There were just going to be a lot of pressures to revise those boundaries through force. But the other part of it is that Russia has been shown to be weaker than anyone thought, and less capable than anyone thought.

27:04      KD: And so that's opened up neighbors, Turkey, but also post-Soviet states to be a little bit riskier and more having their own of regional power ambitions that they seek to realize through force. And so I think Tajikistan trying to move the border posts a little bit deeper into Kyrgyzstan, that has to do with struggles within the Tajik elite and trying to claim new territories and distract from other problems associated with Tajik politics. So once you don't have that kind of the blanket of Russia maintaining the territory and the boundaries in the region, there can be lots of local motivations that will lead to conflict as different actors start to chip away at that post-Soviet settlement.

28:08      KS: Last question, and it's unanswerable, but give it a shot. What do you think the future looks like for this region, considering all the border clashes that are happening, the history of tension? What does it look like and how much of the region's future lies with the future of Putin and however long he might remain in power?

28:30      KD: I think that we had a good run with those post-Soviet boundaries. They were never particularly functional as states. And for the most part, even monitoring and controlling those boundaries was more than a lot of these states could handle financially. And so all post-imperial boundaries are arbitrary to some extent. Very few of the boundaries in Africa or Latin America are meaningful in the sense that they track on the underlying demography or necessarily the geography of those regions.

29:22      KD: But I think in this region, there's much more appetite for revision and much less ability of the international community to kind of close that Pandora's box again, that even if Putin dies, there will be other Russian leaders that come to the fore who also seek to rejoin parts of Ukraine with Russia. That I think now that we've sort of gone down the slope towards territorial revision in this region, and I don't think we're coming back from it, I actually expect that we're going to have more border clashes and we're going to have more involvement from other regional powers. China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, first and foremost, and we're going to be seeing a lot more of what we've seen in the last two years.

30:19      KS: Keith Darden, thank you for joining Big World to discuss borders and conflicts in Eurasia. It's been great to speak with you. I learned a lot. Thank you.

30:27      KD: Thanks.

30:29      KS: Big World is a production in the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, we'll be like a Thanksgiving potluck where you thought no one brought the green bean casserole with the crunchy onions on top but then you see that someone did. Our theme music is It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Keith Darden,
professor, SIS

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