Breaking Away

Looking for the next South Ossetia.

Late one Saturday night last month, I found myself in a Greenland bar conversing with an extremely drunken member of the Royal Danish Navy. When he found out I was American, he lurched over and shared his belief that the United States was preparing to invade and annex Greenland, which currently belongs to Denmark, though it is peacefully moving toward independence. Washington, he explained, was worried about its key missile-defense radar site in far northern Greenland and didn’t trust politicians in Denmark or Greenland to guarantee continued American access.

“Of course, we know that the Danish military is a lot weaker than the U.S. So you know who we’ll have to call? Russia. They’re the only military that can stand up to the U.S. Think about it,” he said leaning into me, his breath reeking of Tuborg. “Think about it.” I thought about it, and it seemed like a pretty improbable scenario. But back then, so did the return of the Cold War over South Ossetia, a tiny separatist enclave in Georgia that almost no one had heard of. After the events of the last two weeks, it behooves us to take another look at those obscure regions around the world that could also explode into global conflicts. Here’s a list—in no particular order—of some of the most dicey:

Nagorno-Karabakh: The former Soviet republics of the South Caucasus—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—lead the world in separatist enclaves per square mile. Georgia has South Ossetia and Abkhazia and only regained control of Adjara, on the Turkish border, in 2004.

Nagorno-Karabakh (population 192,000, capital Stepanakaert) is legally part of Azerbaijan, but in the early 1990s, ethnic Armenians wrested control of the territory in a bloody war and now retain de facto power, propped up by funds from Armenia. No one recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as a country, and Azerbaijan—which has been getting rich on oil and natural gas and now has a military budget three times the size of Armenia’s—sees the loss of its territory as a national humiliation and often acts like it’s spoiling for a fight. In March 2008, after a skirmish between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, Azerbaijan’s president said, “We are buying military equipment, aircraft, ammunition, to be ready to liberate our territories. Our military budget has reached $1.3 billion and will continue to grow. Force is the decisive factor.”

A resumption of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh could draw in the United States and Europe, which have significant petroleum interests in Azerbaijan: A Western consortium led by British Petroleum developed the rich oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Azerbaijan. The presence of Western oil companies rankles Russia, which sees the Caspian as its sphere of influence. Further, the gas and oil are shipped through Georgia and Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe via pipelines that were built—with strong backing from the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations—for the exclusive purpose of bypassing Russia.

Armenia, on the other hand, has been an ally of Russia for centuries, and today the Armenian military relies heavily on aid from Moscow. Russia—rightly—sees the U.S.-backed pipeline as an attempt to weaken its thriving oil and gas business and would certainly have an interest in disrupting it.

Transdniestria: This thin slice of Moldova (population 550,000 out of a total of 4.1 million, capital Tiraspol) broke away during the chaotic last days of the Soviet Union and is home to a majority of ethnic Russians. Moldovans, who are closely related to neighboring Romanians, form a majority in Moldova proper. As in South Ossetia, Russia uses Transdniestria to retain a little bit of its empire as an outpost of authoritarianism and anti-Western politics. Transdniestria is home, for example, to the Che Guevara School of Political Leadership, which the Economist calls “a youth movement that aims to funnel Transdniestria’s young people into constructive activities such as NATO-baiting.” The territory hosts about 1,200 Russian troops.

Meanwhile, Moldova has been inching closer to the West, expressing an interest in joining NATO and sending a handful of troops to Iraq. The International Crisis Group sniffs that “Moldova’s relatively new commitment to a Western-oriented policy is opportunistic rather than deep-rooted,” but you can make the same argument for Georgia, and that didn’t stop it from becoming Washington’s best friend in the former Soviet Union. The conflict in Transdniestria has been frozen for some time, and there’s not much at stake in Moldova, but if the situation heated up, the United States and Russia would definitely take opposing sides, and in the post-South Ossetia world, who knows?

Xinjiang and Tibet: Both these provinces on China’s western border (population 19.6 million and 2.6 million, capitals Urumqi and Lhasa, respectively) are home to ethnic minorities who are becoming increasingly resentful of Beijing’s attempts to “develop” them by moving in ethnic Han Chinese and suppressing separatist political activity.

Xinjiang is populated primarily by Muslim minorities, mainly Uighurs, who have long had a contentious relationship with the Chinese government. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. State Department put a shadowy Uighur nationalist group on its official list of terrorist organizations, signaling support for China’s crackdown in Xinjiang. But since then, Uighur human rights issues have become a cause célèbre in Washington. In the last year, President Bush has met twice with Rebiyeh Kadeer, a prominent Uighur activist. Like many Uighurs, Kadeer advocates an independent Uighur state to be called East Turkestan.

The situation in Xinjiang has gotten hotter recently, with attacks against police and other security forces increasing over the last few months. Presumably, the Afghanistan experience has soured Washington on trying to undermine rival superpowers by backing Muslims who may have Islamist sympathies. But coming out on the side of the Uighurs in a more serious conflict could be seen as a way to prove to the world that the United States isn’t anti-Islam, so you can’t count it out.

Even the peaceable Tibetans have lately become more restive, and it’s hard to imagine more sympathetic freedom fighters. Although most influential voices in the Pentagon advocate engagement with China rather than confrontation, there is almost certainly an anti-China Charlie Wilson wannabe somewhere in Congress plotting to send weapons to the Tibetans.

Somaliland: Somalia has vexed the United States ever since 1993, when the U.S. military was kicked out of the country, tail between its legs. Washington has long been concerned that the  world’s most failed state could be harboring Islamist terrorists and has not been shy about getting involved again. The United States established a base in neighboring Djibouti soon after Sept. 11 with the aim of keeping an eye on Somalia and trying to minimize the chaos that it could spread around the region. When Islamists with ties to al-Qaida took over Mogadishu in 2006, Washington backed an Ethiopian invasion intended to restore a feckless, but secular, government and conducted airstrikes against al-Qaida suspects.

Lately, the Pentagon has bandied about the idea of using Somaliland (population 2 million, capital Hargeysa), a relatively stable breakaway territory on the northwestern tip of Somalia, as a sort of foothold into the country. Somaliland is just one of several breakaway territories in Somalia with its own government, currency, and flag. Its friendly government and relative stability have appealed to some in the U.S. military, who argue that Washington should offer security assistance—i.e., training for its military—as a bulwark against Somalia proper. The Pentagon believes that “Somaliland should be independent,” one defense official told the Washington Post in December 2007. “We should build up the parts that are functional and box in” Somalia’s unstable regions, particularly around Mogadishu, the official added. It’s not clear that any other big power thinks Somalia is worth the trouble, but we’ve seen before that Somalia doesn’t need help to cause problems for Washington.

Southern Sudan: This majority-black, Christian, Texas-sized part of Sudan (population 7.5 million, capital Juba) won substantial autonomy from the Arab Muslim-dominated central government in 2005, ending a 22-year civil war. Darfur gets the headlines, but Southern Sudan now has its own government, calls itself New Sudan, and plans to hold a referendum in 2011 to decide whether to secede. To complicate matters, Southern Sudan and Sudan proper don’t agree on the border between the two entities. Naturally, this border area is where a large portion of Sudan’s oil is buried. Southern Sudanese leaders accuse Khartoum of cheating it out of oil revenues the two governments are supposed to share and of taking too long to withdraw its military from the border areas.

China’s ties with the Sudanese government are notorious, and the government of Southern Sudan is friendly with Washington. There is internal dissension within Southern Sudan about whether to seek independence or participate in the central government. It’s not clear if the United States would support independence for the south, but there are enough points of contention for this to get messy again and draw in the United States and China.

Of course, this is only a partial list. It doesn’t include Taiwan, Dagestan, the Basque region, Catalonia, Gorkhaland, eastern Bolivia, or Kurdistan. Not to mention disputed territories like Gibraltar and Kashmir; peaceful independence movements like those of Flanders, Scotland, or Vermont; or disputed sovereignty over unpopulated territories like the Spratly Islands, the Hanish Islands, Perejil, or Aksai Chin.

And then there’s Greenland (population 56,000, capital Nuuk). On Nov. 25, voters are expected to approve a referendum to redefine the island’s relationship with Denmark, its colonizer, most likely leading to eventual independence. That will have implications for the U.S. missile-defense site, as well as the substantial oil and mineral reserves that are only just starting to be exploited with the help of foreign companies. There’s a lot at stake. Think about it.