Russia won a one week war with Georgia over the South Ossetia during the 2008 Olypmic games that extended to Georgia proper. Russia had previously provided military support to the de facto government of the breakaway region for a couple of years or so, and the fighting started when Georgian troops tried to retake control of the region. The U.S. has supported militarily and otherwise the pro-Western government that controls the bulk of Georgia. Georgia was also one of the biggest supporters of the "Coalition of the Willing" supporting the U.S. in Iraq (second only to the U.K. and comprising roughly 43% of the non-English speaking foreign troops) but has withdrawn its 2,000 troops as a result of its recent war at home.
Omniously, Russia is now suggesting similar military action in separatist areas of the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. Russia's ambassador to Moldova has cited Georgia in saber rattling in connection with the Russian supported Moldovan region of Trans-Dniester
[The] Moldovan region of Trans-Dniester, which is mainly populated by Russians and Ukrainians, differed from that of the Caucasus. . . .
Unlike the Georgian regions, neither Trans-Dniester nor the rest of Moldova, whose population is mostly Romanian-speaking, borders Russia.
Trans-Dniester, a long strip of territory on Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine, broke away from Moldova in 1990 and a war between Moldovan forces and separatists in 1992 left 1,500 people dead.
It is not recognized internationally, but is supported by Russia, which has 1,500 troops stationed there to guard weapons storage facilities left by the Soviet military. . . .
[Russia's ambassador] said, "Moldova should draw its own positive conclusions after the conflict in South Ossetia."
"It is simply impossible ... to have Moldova behave in a similar way to Georgia," he said in Russian.
"I believe that (in Moldova) the leaders will use their wisdom ... to not allow such a bloody and catastrophic trend of events" here, he said.
But he added he was glad "there is no intention to escalate the situation in the security zone (a demilitarized area along the Dniester River) and I believe that there shouldn't be any."
Russia's President Medvedev met with Moldova's President Vladimir Voronin on Monday in the Black Sea port of Sochi to discuss Trans-Dniester.
After the meeting, Voronin said the issue would only be solved through negotiations. He said a solution to the conflict will be drafted based on current law that gives Trans-Dniester gives broad autonomy but within Moldova's borders.
Tensions between Russia and Moldova rose when an earlier proposal from Russia was rejected by the Moldovan government.
Georgia and Moldova aren't the only post-Cold War territorial disputes that retain potency.
Ukraine is fiercely divided between its Western and Eastern regions. As I noted in a previous post about their 2007 elections, "the 'blue' regions are overwhelmingly Orthodox and Russian, while the 'yellow' regions are Catholic (outright or Eastern-rite) and anti-Russian. Indeed, some territories - the Donbas and Crimea, for instance - were Russian lands given to Ukraine by Communists." These factions have backed away from talk about division of the country, unilateral succession or civil war that was seriously mulled in 2004 in the heat of a disputed election.
The disputed Transnistrian region of Moldova runs East along the Ukraine's southern boundary from a place starting just east of the approximately boundary between Ukraine's pro-Western West and pro-Russian East. The de facto independent region is ethnically diverse and has roughly the population of Denver proper and has a land area a little smaller than Grand County, Colorado.
Most of Moldova is Romanian speaking, and Romania's desire to strengthen its ties with NATO and the West could help it serve as a patron for Moldova proper among other Western powers in resisting Russian influence. The fact that no country other than Russia has recognized Transistria illustrates how tenuous its power is in this region, particularly while pro-Western forces have the upper hand in the Ukraine, which also feels threatened by Russia's growing expansionist tendencies.
Russia's assertion of supremacy in Georgia's two autonomous regions seems likely to hold. The locals seem to have no love of Georgia, the regions abut Russia proper, Georgia lacks the military might to challenge the situation, and Georgia's allies aren't willing to risk invoking Russia's nuclear capability. Geographically, Georgia is also capable of continuing as a geographically contiguous functional unit without these two regions. The autonomous region of North Ossetia-Alania (formerly North Ossetia) seems to have found a separate peace with Russia to secure unification with South Ossetia, despite having mixed feelings in the 1990s about continued involvement with Russia, although it may now want to join South Ossetia whose independence Russia has recognized (although South Ossetia might be happy to join North Ossetia and in the same vein join Russia as part of that autonmous Russian region).
Other conflicts in the region are less easily resolved.
The Chechnyians fought a long bloody war to leave Russia that has lulled into a low intensity guerilla war after major combat ceased in 2005, and other caucasian autonomous regions within Russia (like Dagestan, Ingushetia) are also restive. Chechnyia is landlocked which makes independence difficult to sustain unless it manages to secure support from less restive Dagestan. The inclinations of other autonomous Russian regions in the area such as Kalmykia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria is unclear.
Azerbaijan has issues with autonomous regions similar to Georgia already territorially discontinuous, with an autonomous region loyal to the central government and suffering from an Armenian blockade called Nakhchivan (population roughly 383,000 and area roughly the same as Colorado's Routt County) bordered by Armenia to the north and east, Iran to the south and southwest, and Turkey to the west. Armenia is basically in the same position vis-a-vis Azerbaijan as Russia was with Georgia; Nagorno-Karabakh, along with 7 other districts in Eastern Azerbaijan's southwest, have been occupied by Armenia since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994. As a result of the war, Nakchivan is more ethnically Azerbaijani than it once was, while Nagorno-Karabakh, which now has about 138,000 residents and is also about the size of Colorado's Grand County, has gone from being about 76% Armenia at the end of the Soviet era to being 95% Armenia now.
Turkey and Iran have largely kept aloof from the conflicts in these regions (although some of the restive forces have sought to institute Islamic Republics on the model of Iran and possibly with Iranian support). However, "In 1993 Turkey sealed its border (though not its air links)" with Armenia "after Armenia occupied a chunk of Azerbaijan in a war over Nagorno-Karabakh." (From here, citing The Economist.) But, both of these countries face Kurdish dissent in the general area.
Clean Breaks From Russia
While Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have made relatively clean breaks from Russia and turned toward the West, which only intermittenly urges respect for the rights of Russian identified people in the country, Belarus has retained strong tied to Russia and could easily reunite with it.
The former Soviet Republics in Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan appear to have no serious territorial disputes and to have largely settled into petty dictatorial regimes on a neo-Soviet model. Their independence does not seem to be threatened by Russia, in part because they are firmly allied with it.
Beyond The Former USSR
Meanwhile, while most of former Yugoslavia has sorted itself out, with Kosovo and Montengro being the most recent seemingly stable resolutions, the former Yugoslavian Republic of Bosnia remains effectively divided between a Serb Republic and a Bosnia-Croat federation, which have de facto independent regimes from each other.
Poland's territorial integrity isn't at issue, but recent Russian diplomatic sparring over Western plans to put air defense systems in the country because they feel they are being caged in by the West, has also raised tensions in the region that could lead to war.
A Grand Bargain?
Could there be a grand bargain to resolve almost all of these disputes, as much as possible by recognizing realities on the ground?
It might begin by allowing the Serb Republic in Bosnia to gain independence from Bosnia and join the rest of Serbia if it wished, in exchange for Russian and Serbian recognition of Kosovo's independence.
The world, including Georgia, would recognize the independence (and freedom to join Russia if they wished) of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Ukraine could be split along the lines that already exist politically, with Eastern Ukraine joining Russia as an autonomous republic, and Western Ukraine remaining fully independent and on a fast track to join Western Europe including the E.U. At the same time, Transistria could join Russia as another autonomous Russian Republic (continguous with the split of Ukraine), while Moldova would cede it in exchange for peace and stability.
Belarus, could, if it chose freely to do so, perhaps in a referrendum, join Russia as an autonomous region.
Ingushetia, Chechnyia, and Dagestan could each be granted independence from Russia. And, Armenia could lift its blockage of Azerbaijan in exchange for sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and a thin sliver of land to provide access to the otherwise landlocked enclave, while providing a guarantee of safe passage over its territory from Azerbiajan proper to Nakhchivan.
The deal as a whole could end most of the territorial disputes and military conflicts remaining in Europe in a stable way, and would also make countries like Western Ukraine, rump Georgia, Bosnia, and rump Moldova easier to govern. The deal would also virtually eliminate the terrorism that Russia has had to endure, and generally, would make Russia easier to govern which in turn would reduce the perceived need of Russian leaders to shift to a more authoritarian form of government. From Russia's perspective, the deal as a whole would also be a plus because gaining parts of Ukraine and Moldova back would be a big gain to achieve at the cost of giving up some restive caucasian regions.
Ideally, the deal would also be accompanied by arms control treaties.