DEATH OF THE SOVIET UNION: The borders drawn in the 1920s are serving Russia well in the 2020s

DEATH OF THE SOVIET UNION: The borders drawn in the 1920s are serving Russia well in the 2020s
Ruins in the town of Shusha, Nagorno Karabakh.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow December 17, 2021

Some of the borders drawn up in the 1920s when the newly formed Soviet Union was divided into its constituent republics are still serving Russia today, as the conflicts over contested borders give Moscow a reason to stay involved — in some cases militarily — in the region. Yet the arguably valid role of Russian peacekeepers in countries such as a Georgia or Moldova in the early days after the breakup of the Soviet Union has given way to a more openly aggressive approach in Ukraine. 

In the late colonial age, the Russian empire expanded east and south, gobbling up the khanates of Central Asia. After the 1917 revolution and civil war that established Soviet control over the former empire, there were plans to divide the new communist superstate into ethnically-based republics though a process called National Territorial Delimitation (NTD), under the control of Joseph Stalin. The resulting borders that left many ethnic minorities on the wrong side of the new dividing lines are viewed as a deliberate attempt to weaken national elites and maintain Moscow’s control over the new republics. Having only recently vanquished the Basmachi rebels, the Soviet leaders wanted to guard against pan-Turkic nationalism in particular in Central Asia and the Caucasus. 

It wasn’t solely a cynical exercise in divide and rule, however. From the Poles in Ukraine in the west to the Koreans in the Far East; the reindeer herding Eveks and Dolgans in the Arctic to the Afghans in the south, there were hundreds of ethnic groups, large and small, in the Soviet Union, only a handful of whom got their own republics. Centuries of migration intermingled ethnic groups, resulting, for example, in large Tajik populations in the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand that ended up in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). This situation was further complicated by a lack of local knowledge on the part of Soviet officials, who had the difficult task of ensuring the new republics had a balance of industry and agriculture to make them economically viable at the same time as drawing borders along ethnic lines. 

Whatever the balance of deliberate gerrymandering and well-intentioned confusion, the presence of large numbers of people outside their national republics’ borders only really became problematic with the eruption of nationalist independence movements in the late 1980s followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly what were intended as internal dividing lines became international borders, something that had never been anticipated by the 1920s planners. 

Further complicating the situation, there had been decades of migration within the Soviet Union — not just the forced deportations of millions of people, including some entire ethnic groups, but also the voluntary migration of enthusiastic workers to build new industries in all the corners of the union. That, for example, led to the Kazakhs making up just short of a majority of the population in newly independent Kazakhstan. 

State fracture 

The most explosive situation was in the Caucasus, where the lifting of political repression with the glasnost policy out of Moscow in the 1980s allowed festering historic conflicts to reemerge. 

The small and mountainous territory of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan is of deep historic importance to both Armenians and Azeris. Although its population is mainly Armenian, Soviet planners placed it within the Azerbaijani SSR, mainly for the sake of relations with neighbouring Turkey. As unrest — initially sparked by environmental issues — started to foment across the Soviet Union, the Karabakh movement pushing for Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence emerged in Armenia and the enclave itself. After several years of clashes, a 1991 referendum in which Armenians voted for independence prompted the outbreak of full-scale war, with Azerbaijani forces on one side pitted against Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians supported by Yerevan on the other. At the costs of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands displaced by the time a Russian-brokered ceasefire was declared in May 1994, Armenians took control not just of Nagorno-Karabakh but large swathes of Azerbaijani territory bordering the enclave, while Azerbaijan held some areas of Armenian territory.


Ruins in Shusha, a former Soviet mountain resort that was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the 2020 war in Nagorno Karabakh. 

Neighbouring Georgia is also home to sizeable ethnic minorities. Separatist movements gathered force in the regions of Abkhazia, Adjara and South Ossetia, the last hoping to unite with North Ossetia, just across the Russian border. Soviet troops were sent to South Ossetia to keep the peace in 1989, but fighting broke out right after Georgia broke away from the Soviet Union, until another ceasefire brokered by Russia entered force. In Abkhazia, the armed rebellion caused most Georgians and some of the Russians and Armenians living there to flee, as the rebels defeated Georgian forces and took control of the region. A ceasefire was declared in May 1994 and a mainly Russian peacekeeping force was sent to the region. 

There is another long-frozen conflict in Moldova, also dating from around the breakup of the Soviet Union. Transnistria, a thin sliver of land between the Dniester river and the Ukrainian border, has been de facto independent from Moldova since the early 1990s. It has a somewhat different history from the rest of Moldova, as the territory broadly aligns to the part of Moldova that was part of the Ukrainian SSR in the inter-war years, when the rest of what is now Moldova was part of Romania. It also has a larger population of Russians and Ukrainians than western Moldova, many of whom moved there during the communist era. 

As in other parts of the ex-Soviet Union, a national movement emerged in Moldova in the late 1980s. To the consternation of many of Transnistria’s residents, this movement favoured leaving the USSR and uniting with Romania, where the communist regime was toppled in 1989. Laws adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian SSR in August 1989 worried Transnistria’s population by making Moldovan (rather than Russian) the official language and stipulating a return to the Latin alphabet used in Romania. This was followed by changing state symbols, adopting Romania’s tricolour flag and national anthem. 

Russian peacekeepers deployed

Just as Chisinau was seeking to assert its independence from the Soviet Union, secessionist movements emerged in both Transnistria and Gagauzia. They initially wanted more autonomy within Moldova but went on to declare independence from Chisinau. Fighting initially broke out in November 1990, but the conflict between forces controlled by Chisinau and the Russia-backed separatists intensified in spring 1992 until a ceasefire was declared in July that year. 

As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Moscow relinquished control over the former Soviet republics. Yet in the conflicts of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russia remained important. Chisinau’s weakness at the end of the fighting in Transnistria meant the new government had no choice but to accept the deployment of Russian ‘peacekeeping’ troops along the de facto border with Transnistria. They have remained there ever since, despite diplomatic efforts by Moldova to have them removed. Transnistria itself is visibly very different from the rest of Moldova, and retains many of the symbols of the old Soviet Union, with statues of Lenin still standing and a hammer and sickle on the national flag. 

The Dniester river at Tiraspol, capital of the self-declared republic of Transnistria. 

Russian peacekeepers were also stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the end of the conflicts in Georgia in the early 1990s, despite requests from the Georgian government for them to leave. In Nagorno Karabakh, Russia was part of the OSCE Minsk Group process along with France and the US, yet unlike the two western powers Moscow generally backed the Armenian side and kept both sides supplied with weapons. A 2017 paper from the Carnegie Foundation described this as “an effort to keep them [the post-Soviet republics] clearly in its orbit and maintain a role as the primary mediator”.

"The unresolved nature of all these conflicts, however, provides Russia with the ability to exert influence over warring factions and play a key role in peace negotiations. This forces some breakaway regions to remain highly dependent on Russia for their economic development and security, while the conflicts often have complicated the political, economic, and democratic development of the parent states,” adds the paper. 

Natalia Otel Belan, regional director for Europe and Eurasia at the Center for International Private Enterprise, pointed in an interview with bne IntelliNews following the election of Moldova’s new president in 2020 to “Russia’s constant meddling” in Moldova over the last three decades. “Since the beginning, Russia had influenced the country in many ways, primarily by creating ‘crises’ that it would then step in to ‘solve’,” she said. “The most significant example is the long-standing Transnistria conflict. Russia used the conflict to constantly put Moldova’s sovereignty under question and extend its influence on Moldova’s state institutions, legislation and economy, resulting in a generally weak state.

“Over the years, Russia used its influence over Moldova as leverage to advance its own interests in the wider region, including in negotiations with the West on other issues, not always related to Moldova,” Belan added. 

Russia’s wars in Georgia 

All these conflicts remained frozen for years, with periodic hikes in tensions that sometimes boiled over into small-scale violence. 

Ajara, which was made an autonomous republic within Georgia, came closest to the brink in 2004, the year Mikheil Saakashvili became Georgia’s new president. Saakashvili took an increasingly assertive stance towards Moscow and pledged on coming to power to restore control over the breakaway republics. Adjara’s leader Aslan Abashidze refused to recognise his authority and ordered the severing of transport links with the rest of Georgia, claiming an ‘invasion’ was imminent. However, demonstrations followed and Abashidze resigned and left for Russia, leaving the authorities in Tbilisi to take Adjara back under control. 

Four years later, a very different story unfolded in the other restive republics in 2008. By this time relations between Russia and Georgia’s western-leaning government had deteriorated seriously. Georgia had long accused Russia of supporting separatism and also criticised Moscow for issuing Russian passports to people who were, at least officially, Georgian citizens. A formal request from Tbilisi in 2007 that Russia remove its peacekeepers fell on deaf ears. 

After a series of border incidents and confrontational rhetoric from all sides elevated tensions through spring into early summer, war began when South Ossetian soldiers started shelling Georgian villages, prompting Tbilisi to send in the army. Georgian forces initially advanced to Tskhinvali, the region’s capital, before being driven back into Georgia proper and comprehensively routed by Russian forces in a matter of days. Fighting also broke out between Russian-backed Abkhaz separatists and the Georgian army in the Kodori Gorge. 

Post-war, Russian officially recognised both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, and stepped up its presence in both states, not least through its military bases. 

The timing of the escalation of the long-frozen conflict into war was interesting. It came shortly after western powers recognised Kosovo, formerly part of the territory of Russia’s Balkan ally Serbia, as independent. Georgia’s Saakashvili had been increasingly assertive against Russia, and perhaps most importantly at the Bucharest Summit in April 2008 Nato members promised that Georgia would eventually join the alliance — apparently a red line for Moscow. The presence of large numbers of Russian soldiers within Georgia makes the prospect of its entry to Nato extremely complicated as under the collective security guarantee in Article 5 of the Nato treaty this would immediately trigger a war with Russia, even though there has been discussion of ways to get around this.

Balance of power changes in Nagorno Karabakh

In the conflicts in both Georgia and Moldova, Russia used its leverage as the backer of the breakaway de facto states to punish and pressure their governments when they started moving towards more integration with the West. Russia’s role has been less clear in Nagorno Karabakh — it is more closely allied with Armenia, but also sells arms to Azerbaijan, and needs to balance the interests of Turkey and Iran in the region. 

As in Georgia and Moldova, the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh was a largely frozen one with sporadic outbreaks of fighting such as the four-day war in 2016. Then, on September 27, 2020, large-scale fighting broke out around Nagorno-Karabakh and the conflict re-activated. With a vastly better-equipped army, Azerbaijan reclaimed large parts of the disputed enclave in the six weeks of war that followed. 

As bne IntelliNews reported at the time, Moscow also stood by while Turkey took an obvious role in the conflict in support of Azerbaijan. However, there was a clear win for Russia in that President Vladimir Putin achieved a more than two decades-old ambition of inserting Russian peacekeepers into Nagorno-Karabakh on a renewable five-year basis.

The Russian peacekeeping force comprises 1,960 troops, 90 armoured vehicles, 380 other vehicles and special equipment. It is deploying along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the so-called Lachin Corridor, the main road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. It has a five-year mandate that is automatically renewable if neither side objects six months in advance. 

Dividing the Fergana Valley

In contrast to the western parts of the former Soviet Union, Russia has shown little interest in getting more closely involved in another area where the borders drawn in the 1920s have led to conflicts among states and local residents, the Fergana Valley. Admittedly, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which share the fertile and densely populated region uneasily among themselves, don’t aspire to move into the western sphere of influence by joining the EU or Nato. However, Russia does face growing competition for influence in Central Asia from its other big power neighbour, China. 

The borders drawn in the Fergana Valley are complex, with no less than seven enclaves and exclaves, three Tajik and four Uzbek. Of these, the most contentious have been the Uzbek Sokh and Tajik Vorukh enclaves within Kyrgyzstan. Many border areas remain disputed, and as the enclaves lie along the southern east-west route in Kyrgyzstan, the western tip of the country is periodically isolated. Added to competition for water and land that is intensifying in the face of growing populations and climate change, there have been frequent spikes in tensions and occasional border violence. 

A cafe destroyed in the ethnic violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. 

The post serious violence has been in and around the Kyrgyz city of Osh that has a large Uzbek population. Hundreds of people were killed in the riots in Osh and Uzgen in June 1990, sparked by a dispute between Kyrgyz and Uzbek nationalists over the land of a collective farm. Two decades later, deadly clashes erupted again, when street fights between Kyrgyz and Uzbek youths in June 2010 escalated into large-scale ethnic violence in Osh and Jalal-Abad. Several hundred people lost their lives and large areas of both cities, mainly Uzbek-owned homes and businesses, were destroyed.

Since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in Uzbekistan, he has sought to improve relations with Uzbekistan’s neighbours including by working to settle border disputes. However, other conflicts continue in the area. Earlier this year, fighting between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards near the disputed Golovnoi water intake facility on April 28-29 led to dozens of deaths and hundreds injured after skirmishes erupted between the residents and soldiers of the two countries’ border areas. The most tense area was in the Isfara-Batken zone, where the Tajik enclave of Vorukh is located inside Kyrgyz territory and around 70 disputed areas remain. 

“The uneven distribution of resources in the Fergana Valley, divided during the Soviet era between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the lack of jobs, poverty, and then the pandemic and the crisis caused by it, left their mark on the situation,” IWPR Central Asia regional director, Abakhon Sultonazarov, wrote after the fighting. He stressed the importance of taking into account the underlying causes to current problems, as historic border issues have been fed by ‘othering’ rhetoric by local politicians. 

The unpaved road that skirts the Uzbek enclave of Sokh within Kyrgyzstan. 

Russia has been less involved in the Fergana Valley and — unlike in the southwestern parts of the former Soviet Union — hasn’t appeared to take sides or play an active role in the conflict. Indeed, following the April clashes analysts were left trying to interpret signs such as Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s attendance at the 76th Victory Day celebrations in Russia shortly afterwards for hints as to Moscow’s position.

With both states already to an extent clients of Moscow — as the poorest countries in the ex-Soviet Union their governments frequently turn to Russia for handouts and Tajikistan relies on Russia to help secure its southern border with Afghanistan — this extra lever of control is not needed. Moreover, parts of southern Central Asia are viewed as breeding grounds for Islamic fundamentalism, and escalating conflicts would only encourage this: the opposite of what Moscow wants from the region.

Crimea and eastern Ukraine 

While the ethnic conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Armenia around the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union provided a pretext for Russia to get involved, there was no obvious justification for Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, followed by its backing for separatist groups in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Despite rather transparent efforts to make the annexation of Crimea look like it was prompted by local residents’ demonstrations, in this case Russia was clearly the aggressor rather than merely fuelling and taking advantage of a pre-existing conflict. The protests were followed by the arrival of masked Russian fighters that occupied key infrastructure and military facilities. Putin then dispatched troops to Crimea, on the grounds they were needed to protect the ethnic Russian population. This put Russian forces and local pro-Russian paramilitaries in effective charge of the peninsula until the situation was formalised by a vote in the Crimean parliament in favour of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.

What the Crimea power grab and the Russian backing for separatists in Moldova and Georgia have in common is the westward shift of power in those states. Crimea had been part of Ukraine for 60 years until in 2014 Russia launched its covert invasion to annex the peninsula. The invasion took place days after former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country after his government was ousted by months of mass protests. 

The same year as the invasion of Crimea, the armed conflict started between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. By 2015, part of the Donbas region was held by the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. As well as causing the deaths of 14,000 people, the war has devastated the ego’s economy and forced millions more people to relocate.

Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Russia’s role in Ukraine caused concern in Kazakhstan, further fuelled by a comment from Putin at a press conference in August that year that “The Kazakhs never had any statehood”.  

Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan has a large Russian minority concentrated in areas bordering with Russia, in the north and east of the country. Back in the 1990s, the government moved the capital to a small northern city, now named Nur-Sultan after its long-serving president, in what was seen as a pre-emptive move against a Russian land grab. Moreover, Kazakhstan had long been one of Russia’s closest allies while at the same time pursuing warm relations with other powers, western and eastern. Yet in recent years there have been a series of worrying statements from the Russian establishment concerning north and east Kazakhstan, encouraging local separatists. Potentially this prepares the ground for an eastern Ukraine-type scenario should there be a colour revolution or loudly pro-western government in Nur-Sultan.

Hot or cold war? 

In recent months there has been intense speculation that Russia could be preparing for an invasion of Ukraine. A buildup of Russian forces in areas close to Ukraine has been observed. Yet despite the talk of an imminent invasion — initially pushed by US officials and based on US intelligence reports — the purpose of the buildup remains unclear. As bne IntelliNews' military expert Gav Don pointed out, Russia has redeployed forces to positions closer to Ukraine from where they could invade and easily take eastern Ukraine, but would have a much more difficult job taking western Ukraine and holding it. Russian officials have denied the reports, and relations with the West have eased somewhat following the summit between Putin and US President Joe Biden earlier this month. 

Until now, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has become increasingly frozen, just like those in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova were for many years. This holds Ukraine back from full-on western integration by giving Russia an effective veto on major policy shifts it doesn’t approve of. An invasion of Ukraine, blatantly illegal under international law, would be very bad for Russia in human, political and economic terms. On the other hand, keeping the conflict frozen would deliver just what it requires. 

Without needing to invade any country or try to re-create the Soviet Union, Russia has given itself a permanent lever over all of the post Soviet states with long-frozen conflicts; their governments are eternally wary of taking radical westward steps for fear of an escalation in border tensions. This has not prevented politicians like Moldova’s President Maia Sandu from voicing a commitment to western-leaning policies like integration with the EU with a view to eventual accession, but this is always done with one eye on not provoking Russia unnecessarily. The borders between the Soviet republics drawn up in the 1920s weren’t envisaged as international borders by their architects, and have proved highly problematic for the states that inherited them, yet for Russia they are a gift that keeps on giving.

This article is part of a series marking the 30th anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Read the other stories in the series here: 

A green revolution brought the USSR down

Mountain-dwelling Old Believer reflects on the USSR that passed her by

Widespread nostalgia but no going back

Remembering Moldova's children of the Gulag

Strong institutions are better than a strongman leader

BOOK REVIEW — Reassessing the causes of the Soviet demise