Report Release: “Scripts of Sovereignty: The Freezing of the Russia-Ukraine Crisis And Dilemmas Of Governance In Eurasia”

January 30, 2015

With a possible frozen conflict developing in eastern Ukraine, Russia has begun to consolidate neighboring breakaway territories into a distinct group of semi-sovereign entities that frustrate Western efforts in the region. This Russian strategy, based on six identifiable “scripts of sovereignty,” has exposed a contradiction in the twin pillars of the West’s own approach: that of pursuing the Western integration of divided states while championing the preservation of their territorial borders. What steps can both sides take to turn the region into an area of cooperation – and will it require a new model for governance in Eurasia?

In “Scripts of Sovereignty: The Freezing of the Russia-Ukraine Crisis and Dilemmas of Governance in Eurasia,” Alexander Cooley, Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and Deputy Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, discusses the challenges facing Russia and the West in the post-Soviet space and offers recommendations for ways to mitigate conflict. This report marks the first publication of CGI’s After Ukraine program, which examines the long-term implications of the Ukrainian crisis.

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Report Highlights

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine present the strongest challenge to the norms, rules and institutions governing European security since the end of the Cold War. Russian officials have invoked six identifiable “scripts of sovereignty” to justify Russia’s territorial maneuverings in its near abroad: self-determination, responsibility to protect (R2P), upholding the rights of co-ethnics, accessing strategic assets, claiming sacred territory, and following the Kosovo precedent.

While these scripts seek to invoke international law, they in fact hold minimal legal weight and contradict previous official Russian positions on issues of sovereignty. Instead, the main aim of these justifications has been to forge a new Russian-led space – centered on the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea and now eastern Ukraine – whose political institutions, economies and normative values align with Moscow and thereby frustrate Western efforts in the region.

The creation of new “frozen conflicts” is thus itself becoming a new and distinct Russian-controlled model of alternative sovereign rules and organization within Europe, beyond the scope of prevailing international agreements and institutions. The West has contributed to this “freezing process” through its counterproductive efforts to isolate territories like Abkhazia and eastern Ukraine and its insistence on integrating politically divided states such as Georgia and Ukraine into transatlantic institutions. Ultimately the West must choose between upholding the recognized territorial borders of these states, which would involve conflict resolution in consultation with Moscow, or continuing to pursue the Western integration of divided states at the risk of their permanent dismemberment.

Four Scenarios For Eastern Ukraine

Scenario 1: The Crimea Model – Russian Annexation
Moscow may ultimately decide, as it did with Crimea, to annex eastern Ukraine. Despite Moscow’s involvement in the region, this event is the least likely to transpire because it would mean the certain retention and expansion of Western sanctions.

Scenario 2: The Georgia Model – De Jure Sovereignty, Russian Patronage
As in the 2008 conflict with Georgia, Russia would recognize the legal independence of eastern Ukraine and subsequently enter into a number of “bilateral” agreements to solidify its patronage of the territory. This scenario is also unlikely not only because it would keep the sanctions regime in place, but because Russia’s experience with “recognition diplomacy” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia yielded few results.

Scenario 3: Negotiated Settlement and Radical Decentralization
The third scenario would envision some form of negotiated settlement that would see eastern Ukraine remain under Kyiv’s juridical umbrella, thereby preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but would grant almost full autonomy to the region, including the right to forge relations with Russia along multiple fronts. Such an outcome would be hindered by significant mutual distrust between Moscow and Kyiv.

Scenario 4: Frozen Conflict, Divided State
Moscow would formally recognize Ukraine’s juridical sovereignty but in practice would subsidize, arm and exercise control over the separatist leadership in eastern Ukraine. While this scenario would reinforce the geopoliticization of the conflict, it appears to be the most likely way to restore political equilibrium given the conflicting aims of Russia and the West in Ukraine.


To Russia:

    1. Refrain from further upgrading or changing the status of the breakaway territories and their formal relations with Russia. Such changes damage nascent conflict management processes and generate “facts on the ground” that will become difficult to overcome.
    2. Understand that attempts to further network “frozen spaces” risks further isolating Russia and its regional institutions from Europe.

To the West:

    1. Refrain from further isolating or cutting off “frozen” areas from parent state capitals or the West. The freezing of conflicts merely serves to cement the hold of Russia over these territories.
    2. Separate out conflict management and resolution processes from broader efforts to integrate the post-Soviet states into transatlantic institutions. Transatlantic integration will not solve or unfreeze these conflicts.
    3. Recognize that supporting the “sovereign” choices of divided states to join Western security and economic institutions may lead to their permanent fragmentation and/or dismemberment.

To both sides:

Urgently identify potential areas of engagement between Western-led institutions (EU, NATO) and Russian-led bodies (EEU, CSTO) to mitigate the risk of zero-sum competition in the Eurasian space.


About the author:

Alexander Cooley is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Barnard College in New York and Deputy Director for Social Sciences Programming at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. His research examines how external actors — including international organizations, multinational corporations and NGOs — have influenced the sovereignty and development of the former Soviet states, particularly in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Cooley is the author of four academic books, including Logics of Hierarchy (Cornell 2005), Winner of the 2006 Marshall Shulman Prize by the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies. His latest book, Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (Oxford 2012) examines the multipolar politics of U.S.-Russia-China interactions in Central Asia. 

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