The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine’s breakaway region is becoming a de facto country

Pro-Russian militants patrol on an armored vehicle, on Sept. 15, 2014 on a street in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, as shelling continues between pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian army. (Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images)

Many policy practitioners who have worked on Eurasia’s several long-standing territorial conflicts know one thing: that the party most interested in resolving the dispute is often the external negotiator. Several east European and Eurasian countries — Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan — have not had much “territorial integrity,” to use a common phrase, for more than a quarter century. At the same time, the breakaway regions that have sought to exit these states — Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh — have received virtually no international recognition. (Only Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognized as independent by Russia and a handful of other countries.)

One might think that both homelands and secessionists would want to end these disputes, but all of them have instead settled into a kind of shaky equilibrium of no-war, no-peace. Violence can sometimes flare, as it did between Georgia and South Ossetia in 2008, which in turn prompted the brief Georgia-Russia war and subsequent Russian recognition of the secessionists. It may flare again between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that has seen a worrying uptick in killings along the line of contact separating forces in this three-sided conflict.

But this basic equilibrium has been a disincentive to doing the hard work of real conflict resolution. The experience of these regions also carries important lessons for Ukraine, where a similar process seems to be getting underway. In Ukraine’s southeast — the area that Russians and some locals have come to refer to as “Novorossiya” — a cease-fire declared on Sept. 5 has prompted some observers to hope for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine’s brief but bloody war with Russian-backed secessionists. On Sept. 15, the Ukrainian government introduced legislation to allow considerable local autonomy for the conflict zones as a way of dampening some of the secessionists’ demands.

But experience points in a different direction. Novorossiya may yet become the latest member of Eurasia’s archipelago of unrecognized states: an entity that is not strong enough or legitimate enough to garner international support but not weak enough to be meaningfully controlled by the former homeland.

Where did these de facto countries come from? Five elements were crucial in their emergence out of the ruins of the old Soviet Union.

First, they involved the empowerment of local institutions against some perceived threat from the center. In three cases (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh), local parliaments and administrations — which had been created during the Soviet era — became the germ of a separate state. In Transnistria, work collectives and the regional leadership of the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union played a similar role. In other parts of the world, guerrillas might try to bomb parliament buildings and police stations; in Eurasia, fighters take them over or convince their occupants to come over to their side — and they always seem to have a ready-made flag to hoist on the roof. What looks like chaos in its early stages actually ends up being a form of state-building. In turn, while external negotiators urge the parties to engage in some kind of “conflict resolution,” the task before them is in fact much more difficult: a quixotic effort to reintegrate two functionally separate states.

Second, Russian support for the secessionists was critical, and this support long predated the advent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, in Ukraine, Putin has used many of the moves pioneered during the administration of former President Boris Yeltsin. The use of “volunteers” sent across the border, the leaking of material from Russian weapons stores, and the dispatch of Russian administrative personnel to staff local offices (especially in the security sector) were defining features of the brief wars in Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia in the early 1990s. Some of these individuals have now decamped to Novorossiya, bringing nearly two decades of experience in running the military, security, and economic establishments of countries no one actually recognizes. All of this does not bode well for pulling Novorossiya back into the Ukrainian fold.

Third, the experience of war cemented a local narrative of liberation and sacrifice. School children in Transnistria and Abkhazia are today taught history in ways very different from their colleagues in other parts of Moldova and Georgia. But that history is not simply a matter of state-imposed propaganda: their parents and grandparents can actually remember when artillery from the central government was trained indiscriminately on their homes. The inhabitants of Eurasia’s conflict zones are not simply in the thrall of manipulative leaders. They have an experience of war and violence that has made them wary of the entreaties of recognized governments — even if those governments have the backing of the international community and a seat at the United Nations.

Regardless of the balance of bad behavior in the Ukrainian conflict, the central government has committed a singular act: It is the only party to the conflict that can be said to have used heavy weaponry against its own citizens. That fact will now be repeated in the emerging narrative of Novorossiya’s struggle for survival — just as it has been for the better part of a generation in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and elsewhere.

Fourth, no external power besides Russia has an incentive for deep involvement beyond helping to stop the fighting. Ukraine has actually fallen into precisely the trap that Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan stumbled into in the early 1990s. The Kiev government chose to use force against a secessionist threat, but it had neither the resolve nor the capacity to overcome it on the battlefield. The result has been increasing pressure from the international community to agree to a cease-fire, which has now held (with serious violations) for more than a week.

But if the past is any guide, this pressure will not extend beyond the cease-fire line. International organizations have few means to influence the secessionists on the ground, apart from targeting their single largest supporter, Russia. What has emerged in the other conflict zones is a seemingly endless — or at least a quarter-century-long — series of talks, conferences, negotiating sessions, and summits. None of them has moved any closer to the professed goal: fully reintegrating the secessionist region with the recognized state.

Fifth, most citizens care more about getting on with their lives than worrying whether other people believe they live in a legitimate country or an illegitimate one. This fact has been perhaps the most difficult challenge for Eurasia’s recognized governments. If the inhabitants of places such as Transnistria or Abkhazia were suffering beneath the heel of a regime they considered overbearingly oppressive, or looked longingly at the old homeland from which they had been tragically separated by war, the central governments would have a reasonable chance of convincing them to bring their territories back into the fold.

Neither of these is the case, however. Indeed, apathy and inertia have led to situations in which most people seem to have accommodated themselves to the reality of living in a de facto country. They buy property and get married. They start businesses and send their children to university. They manage to get travel documents to journey abroad and back home again. Even if everyone agreed that a truly just outcome would be a “territorially integral” Moldova, Azerbaijan, or Georgia — and, of course, they don’t — the more time that passes, the harder it is to change the status quo around which average citizens have oriented their lives.

It is easy to dismiss the historical reality of a place called Novorossiya. Denouncing it as little more than Russian propaganda has become a common refrain among Western journalists and policy commentators. But the experience of Eurasia’s other disputed regions points to a sobering prospect for Ukraine: Cease-fires and last-ditch promises of a “special status” have traditionally been the starting points for the creation of a durable de facto state — one that the international community cannot unbuild, that the central government cannot defeat, and that average people come to accord a certain degree of loyalty.

Charles King is Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University. His latest book is “Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul” (W.W. Norton, 2014).