Note February 2016. These were done for the Russia Profile Weekly Experts’ Panel which I cannot find on the Net now. Many were picked up by other sources and I have given links where I can find them.
Let’s start with a little chronology. Abkhazia and South Ossetia won their wars against Georgia in the early 1990s and each declared independence. Moscow did not recognise them. The clock turned over: new decade, new century; Moscow still didn’t recognise them. Georgia attacked again in 2008; Moscow recognised them.
Moscow has its own potential territorial problems: Kaliningrad, parts of Karelia, the “Northern Territories”; the border with China; North Caucasus independentists. It is a status quo power that prefers that everything stay the way it is because it has other things to worry about. It has little sympathy with irredentist claims.
So why did Medvedev decide to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008? Let’s ask him: “We restored peace, but we could not extinguish fears and hopes of the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in a situation when Saakashvili continued (with participation of and encouraged by the US and a number of other NATO members) to speak of re-arming his military and re-establishing control over ‘the Georgian territory’…. Russia was left no choice” (Regnum News, 28 August 2008). In short: recognition was the only way Moscow could think of to stop Tbilisi attacking again.
But why does Moscow care whether Tbilisi attacks again? My personal conviction is that its real fear is blowback. The last time Tbilisi went adventuring in South Ossetia and (especially) Abkhazia, North Caucasian militias (particularly Shamil Basayev’s Chechen Brigade) intervened. In those days, there was a desire to recreate the short-lived “Mountaineer Republic” of 1918. Basayev and his fighters, having defeated Tbilisi and established the western end of the “Mountaineer Republic”, returned to Chechnya to create the eastern end. Thus we can connect the Georgian attack on Abkhazia with the first war in Chechnya, the second war and Moscow’s troubles in the North Caucasus today. Ergo, Moscow does not want that to happen again; ergo it must ensure that Tbilisi will not attack Abkhazia and South Ossetia again; ergo recognition means that Tbilisi will know that another attack means it faces Russia; ergo that should stop it from attacking again. QED.
The other ex-Soviet “hotspots” are still negotiable. Transdnestr needs a guarantee that should Chisinau join Romania, this former piece of the Ukrainian SSR does not have to follow it and Karabakhians need a guarantee that they won’t be massacred by “Turks”. These are still imaginable. These borders are Stalin-Jughashvili’s creations and there’s no reason the rest of us should take them as sacred and unchangeable.
Few Western capitals have figured this out. In the meantime the status quo is endurable from Moscow’s point of view. Therefore, as things stand today with fragile ceasefires holding, Moscow has no reason to recognise either Transdnestr or Karabakh.
Everyone should have followed Kiev’s wise and just treatment of Crimea or Chisinau’s wise and just response to Gagauz wishes.
But who in the West has ever heard of either?