top of page

On the Edge: Breakaway States and Borderlands

Lucy Gardner

It is often helpful in international relations to imagine the world as a primary school playground: a gossip-girl style pecking order with hegemonic states like the United States acting as the playground bullies, clubs and cliques such as NATO, and worn-out teachers like the UN. 

In the corner are those that few in the class talk to. These are the breakaway states, apart from a few fairweather friends and broadly ignored, and the debate about whether this is their fault is continuous and bitter. 

Most breakaway states are geographically isolated from other parts of the country they have broken away from. Donetsk’s location on the eastern border of Ukraine makes it provincial. The physical marginalisation of borderlands makes them more easily influenced by exterior positions – a larger population of ethnic Russians live in eastern Ukraine simply because it is a shorter distance to travel to return to Russia, trade with Russian speakers, and see family. 

The distance and mentality of those ‘on the edge’ often leads to animosity toward the centre. Jokes common in Western Ukraine about the Donbas express the area's marginality. The region is often referred to as ‘Luhanda’, which suggests that the economic poverty of Luhansk is comparable to Uganda. 

The Donbas has long been a source of economic deprivation compared to the rest of Ukraine: between 2003 and 2013, for example, only 65% of the working population was economically active, and problems such as brain drain were commonplace. However, this is an issue of geography. 

Generally, the further a region is from the economic centre, the worse off it is. For example, in the UK, regions further from London, such as Durham County and Cornwall, are far more deprived than areas closer to London, such as Surrey and Buckinghamshire. 

This is also reflected internationally. The unwillingness to engage with quasi-states on any level goes beyond hesitancy to the extent that travelling to a place like Transnistria is like walking off the edge of the map. 

This distant and isolated positionality is not blameless. Extreme violence and organised crime are often home-grown issues in breakaway peripheral states. For instance, the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh turns into civil war every few years and smuggling in South Ossetia sparked conflict in 2008, leading to Russian intervention in Georgia. However, geographical marginality creates economic neglect, which in turn leads to a higher crime rate and radicalisation.

It is a vicious cycle caused by a combination of geographical and cultural issues but is also self-inflicted.

Quasi-states - and the breakaway mentality - are similar everywhere. Donetsk, Luhansk, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are all borderlands and have issues with political and ideological extremism.

Aside from asking for fairytale solutions, what can be done to aid these breakaway states? As with many international and domestic issues, the unfortunate answer is nothing. 

No condemnation or sanction will change a widespread racist view in Abkhazia about ethnic Georgians. Nor will it convince Luhansk or Donetsk to move away from their affiliations to Putin. For many, the breakaway mentality is a way of life that manifests itself violently and is often attractive when economic conditions are poor and ethnic tensions are high. 

Creating and imagining an enemy group is a powerful way for politicians, media and often ordinary civilians to convince themselves as blameless and to simplify a complex problem. It is a phenomenon that is not unique to states with breakaway regions but is nevertheless prominent in those areas. Again, geography and the fear of marginalisation play a considerable role here. 

In a school playground, there will always be outsiders and squabbles, which often carry no more repercussions for the belligerents involved than a telling-off by a worn-out teacher. International politics, sadly, is not much different. The UN will often wag its finger when civil conflict erupts and the international community starts to take sides, but it’s down to the hegemons involved whose gang wins. 

The solution, therefore, is that there is yet to be an immediate solution. Instead, many states worldwide that like to take sides, in both the Global North and Global South, should adopt a stop-and-think policy. 

Geographic isolation and the breakaway mentality are just part of a broader problem in international politics. Governments making policy decisions often look at the map and forget the people. The ordinary civilian is far too often overlooked in constructivist discussions of friends and enemies: materialist and realist debates about capability and reliability. 

Image: Abkhaz World


bottom of page