The coronavirus pandemic has put a heavy strain on governance in unrecognized and breakaway territories across the former Soviet Union. Due to conflicts and sovereignty disputes, these de facto administrations already suffered from a lack of capacity and limited access to international funds even before the pandemic, making them ill-equipped to deal with a major public health crisis. All told, the pandemic has had very different effects on the various protracted, unresolved territorial conflicts in former Soviet states.
Different Breakaway Territories, Different Fates
The coronavirus was a contributing factor to Azerbaijan’s decision to restart the long-running Nagorny Karabakh conflict on September 27. The world was distracted by other issues, and person-to-person diplomacy—which had averted previous attempts to restart the conflict—was not possible. Azerbaijan was able to launch a military offensive that largely achieved its aims—at the cost of around 6,000 lives lost—forcing the Armenian government to sign a new agreement very much in Azerbaijan’s favor on November 10.
The dynamic was different in Georgia’s disputes. In Abkhazia, which seeks greater international engagement, the pandemic opened up channels for rapprochement between the authorities in Abkhazia on the one hand and international agencies and the Georgian government in Tbilisi on the other. The World Health Organization provided medical supplies and public health assistance to Abkhazia via territory controlled by the Georgian government. However, South Ossetia, the other territory that de facto broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and now prioritizes deeper relations with Russia, redoubled its stance of international isolation and non-cooperation with Tbilisi.
Beleaguered Governance Structures in Eastern Ukraine
In eastern Ukraine, events developed differently again. After Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan protests, two regions with traditionally pro-Russian sentiments sought to break away from Kyiv with strong support from Russia. More than 13,000 have died in the ensuing fighting, and the conflict remains unresolved.
As noted in a previous Carnegie paper, these areas of eastern Ukraine not controlled by the Ukrainian government were especially vulnerable to a pandemic due to weak governance structures; a failing healthcare system; and large, elderly populations. The two regions, which call themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), escaped the worst of the earlier phase of the pandemic, but they were hit badly in the fall of 2020.
In the week of October 11, for example, Donetsk’s de facto administration reported 717 new infections and sixty-five deaths. However, these numbers are almost certainly underreported. There was a severe lack of testing capabilities, and in October the DNR began reporting “some 200 daily pneumonia cases.” (The overall population may now be 2 million in both regions, having dropped sharply after 2014 as a result of the conflict).
The local healthcare system came under severe strain. On November 1, the DNR-administered health ministry announced the death of the region’s leading intensive care physician, Natalya Smirnova. (The cause of death went unstated.) Hospitals were reported to be understaffed and overcrowded.
The pandemic also further damaged the economies of Donetsk and Luhansk, which were already weak. In September 2020, the International Crisis Group reported that the regions were plagued by “mass unemployment, with Russian subsidies and Ukrainian pensions filling the gaps.” In November, one of the largest employers in Luhansk, the Alchevsk Metals Factory, which had 13,000 workers in 2018, reportedly shut down.
Thus far, the impact of the crisis on the conflict in eastern Ukraine itself has not been fully visible. The two de facto administrations in Donetsk and Luhansk have not collapsed. However, over the long term, the hollowing out of governance structures is likely to make these regions less viable, more reliant on Russia for support, or potentially more open to cooperation with the rest of Ukraine.
In 2017, the Russian government was estimated to be footing the bill for about half of Donetsk’s budget and 80 percent of Luhansk’s budget. Those figures are likely to be even higher now. Overall, Russian subsides are close to $2 billion a year. Russia also provides discounted gas and reportedly has given more than 300,000 passports to local residents in Donetsk and Luhansk, granting them many of the rights of Russian citizens.
In the long run, Russia may find this level of support unsustainable as its political dividend is questionable. In theory, the Ukrainian government should be able to exploit the failure of these breakaway regions to make a case for their reintegration. However, trade and people-to-people communication was reduced in 2020. Through most of the year, Ukraine suffered from the effects of the pandemic itself, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky endured a series of domestic crises, limiting his ability to spearhead a new initiative on the conflict.
By undermining the legitimacy of the two self-described people’s republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, the pandemic has in theory made the conflict easier to resolve, but it will be a long process. Political realities in both Kyiv and Moscow constrain both sides from discussing compromise measures. Moreover, both Ukraine and Russia have been hit hard by the pandemic and must focus primarily on their domestic responses to the crisis rather than engaging with the dispute in eastern Ukraine.
Having had very different impacts on all the post-Soviet conflicts, the pandemic has been the catalyst for more diplomacy and genuine engagement in only one of them, Abkhazia. Elsewhere, it has generally sown more confusion and conflict.