MOSCOW – As Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy meet for the first time Monday, many wonder what Moscow’s long-term goal is in strife-torn eastern Ukraine.
The talks, mediated by France and Germany, will focus on implementing the Minsk accords — agreements drawn up in 2015 to end the fighting and find a political solution for Ukraine’s separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.
In providing moral, economic and allegedly military support to the separatists, Moscow has been following a playbook it has used elsewhere in the ex-Soviet world.
Its tactics in other frozen conflicts in the region — in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria — could provide a glimpse of the future for eastern Ukraine.
The 1991 collapse of the USSR sparked a series of separatist movements, as borders drawn up by the Soviets left behind a patchwork of ethnic and linguistic tensions.
Russia fiercely opposed separatists on its own territory — the war in Chechnya is the prime example — but in other cases backed what it said were calls for self-determination.
In Georgia, Moscow supported two breakaway regions: Abkhazia on the Black Sea and South Ossetia on the edge of the Caucasus mountains.
Ethnically and linguistically distinct from Georgians, the Abkhaz and South Ossetians declared their independence in the early 1990s and fought against Georgian forces.
When Mikheil Saakashvili became Georgia’s president in 2003 and vowed to bring his country into NATO and the European Union, Moscow’s support for the separatists intensified.
And when Georgia launched a military attempt to retake South Ossetia in 2008, Russia sent in its troops, defeating Georgian forces in five days. A few weeks later it recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.
In Moldova, Moscow has backed Russian-speaking separatists living in an industrial area east of the Dniester river.
They proclaimed an independent republic — Transnistria — shortly before the Soviet collapse and battled Moldovan forces in 1991-92. Units of the Russian army fought with the separatists until a cease-fire agreement was signed in 1992.
The separatists in Ukraine emerged much later. After a pro-Russian president was ousted in public protests in 2014, Russia moved quickly to annex Crimea in Ukraine’s south and clashes broke out in Donetsk and Lugansk in the east — all largely Russian-speaking regions.
Heavy fighting erupted after the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics declared their independence in May 2014. Large-scale battles have subsided, but deadly clashes persist on the front line.
Winning hearts and minds
Moscow has a varied arsenal for exerting its influence in separatist regions.
Economic support is crucial.
In Abkhazia, more than a million Russian tourists descend on the coast every year to relive the days when it was known as the “Soviet Riviera.”
South Ossetia’s economy has been closely integrated with the economy of North Ossetia across the mountains in Russia.
And in Transnistria, steel and electricity plants are fueled by supplies of cheap Russian gas.
Abkhaz, South Ossetians and Transnistrians can also obtain Russian passports, and Moscow provides them with social assistance and even pensions.
Eastern Ukraine has followed much the same pattern. Russia has sent nearly 100 convoys of humanitarian aid across the border, including medicine and food.
And it fast-tracked Russian passports for eastern Ukrainians earlier this year, with the governor of a neighboring Russian region saying last month that more than 170,000 had been issued.
Freezing the conflict
The conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria have settled into uneasy stalemates.
Initially deployed as peacekeepers or monitors, Russian forces have established a permanent presence in the regions. In 2016 Abkhazia and Russia agreed to a joint military force.
The territorial disputes have meanwhile held Georgia and Moldova back, especially in efforts at closer integration with the West, as interminable negotiation processes make little headway.
However some differences make eastern Ukraine distinct — its vast size and population and proximity to the European Union, the West’s stronger support for Kiev and sanctions against Moscow, and the potential drain on Russia’s resources.
Those differences will complicate negotiations too.
The Geneva International Discussions (GID) on Georgia — which is much smaller and less strategically important than Ukraine — have plodded on, largely forgotten, since the 2008 war. A 50th round of talks is due later this month.