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Russia’s recent behavior in the former Soviet space has surprised people in Europe and America as appearing too timid and passive. The template that a lot of Western observers have been operating from since 2014 is that of an aggressive Kremlin dependent for regime stability on a constant supply of new “Crimeas”: Donbas, Syria, Libya, and so on. Now the picture has abruptly changed, and the Kremlin that looked threatening only a few months ago appears weak, challenged, and indecisive. Contrasting views of Russia’s foreign policy are nothing new, of course, and have historically led to wrong conclusions about what the country might or might not do. The actual situation is more nuanced, just as the developments around the second Karabakh war suggest.
Take the idea of an aggressive Kremlin bent on reconquering the lands lost in the downfall of the Soviet Union. In fact, Moscow’s policies in Ukraine in 2014 were essentially a reaction to the surprise ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in the Maidan protests. There was no plan for reconquest. Crimea was seized for strategic reasons as the main base of the Black Sea Fleet and incorporated into Russia as an opportunity not to be missed. The mirage of Novorossiya—the Russian-speaking southeastern part of Ukraine escaping, with Moscow’s support, from Kyiv’s rule—appeared only briefly; Donbas was an improvisation gone awry; and even carving a land bridge to Crimea, never mind a march on Kyiv—both undoubtedly advocated for by some in Moscow—were never attempted. That said, the Baltic states and Poland were about as safe—or unsafe—after Crimea as they were before it.
Of course, Crimea’s return to Russia was widely celebrated in the country, but as much for the fact itself—“correcting [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev’s injustice” of transferring the peninsula to the Soviet Ukrainian republic—as for the fact that, as if by miracle, it happened peacefully, literally without a shot being fired, and—legalism aside—in accordance with the wishes of the vast majority of the local population. The so-called Crimea majority—80 percent of the Russian people—on which the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin personally could rely for a few years after 2014—came in very useful in domestic politics. The fact is, however, that the powers that be made full use of the effect of Crimea, not that the entire Crimea operation and the subsequent one in Syria were designed to buy popular support.
Russia is an autocracy. On the most important issues there is just one decider. Foreign and security policy is Putin’s private domain. This doesn’t mean, however, that his decisions are completely arbitrary. Russia’s operation in Syria was undertaken in such a way as not to create parallels in the popular mind with the tragic experience of the war in Afghanistan, which resulted in 14,000 Soviet deaths. So a U.S.-style air force-cum-navy engagement was ordered, with local and regional allies fighting on the ground. Russian battlefield involvement in Libya has been assigned to a private company: essentially, soldiers of fortune. Putin’s actions may be putting others off balance, but the risks he has been taking are calculated. Expecting him to be on an interventionist spree just to keep himself in place was at best a gross misunderstanding of the realities and constraints. So much for imperialist nostalgia.
Second, the news of Russia’s loss of influence in the post-Soviet space is very dated. The Baltic states have been in NATO for sixteen years; Ukraine has been pro-Western and anti-Russian since the Maidan revolution; so has Georgia, only for a decade longer; Moldova is torn in both directions, but leaning more toward the West; Azerbaijan is closely allied with Turkey; Uzbekistan is vociferously independent; and Turkmenistan is reclusive, shunning foreign connections. That leaves only Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—five out of fourteen ex-republics—as Moscow’s formal allies and partners. In many of those countries, however, particularly in Central Asia, China has long been a major outside player.
Moreover, since gaining independence from Moscow, all of Russia’s nominal allies have been pursuing what they proudly call multi-vector foreign policies. The Collective Security Treaty Organization that Moscow leads is an alliance in name only. There is no defense integration and only very light coordination. The allies do not always support Moscow in UN voting, and—very tellingly—none of them have recognized Crimea as part of Russia. They have no wish to get involved in the U.S.-Russia confrontation, so as not to be slapped with U.S./EU sanctions. As for the Eurasian Economic Union, it is little more than a customs arrangement, and many of its member states do as much or more business with China than with Russia. In cultural terms, in the last three decades Russian has been losing out there to the local languages and English.
Does this all mean that Russia is being diminished in its neighborhood, even as it seeks to project its influence farther abroad? Is it also a sign that it is getting weaker as an international player? The answer is that Russia is painfully adapting to the rapidly changing environment. Eight years ago, in my book Post-Imperium, I argued that Russia was leaving its historical empire behind. At a time when Putin had announced his vision of a full-fledged Moscow-led Eurasian Union that would include Ukraine, and Dmitry Medvedev was talking about a sphere of Russia’s privileged interests in the former USSR, this seemed counterintuitive. Hillary Clinton, then U.S. secretary of state, was sternly warning against attempts to restore the Soviet Union under a different name.
However, the historic trend was not reversed. At the turn of the 2010s, the empire was still very much at the back of many people’s minds, but certainly even then it was more of a memory of the past than a realistic vision of the future. A decade on, with the experience of Ukraine and also Belarus under its belt, Russia, I would argue, has turned post-post-imperial: one step farther removed from the historical pattern. It is getting used to being just Russia. Moreover, Russia is embracing its loneliness as a chance to start looking after its own interests and needs, something it neglected in the past in the name of an ideological mission, geopolitical concerns, or one-sided commitments built on kinship or religious links. This is a new model of behavior.
Russia has discovered that it doesn’t have allies who would stand by it in its hour of need, but it has also found out that it doesn’t really need allies to defend itself against adversaries. In Eastern Europe, of course, Belarusian territory separates the heart of Russia from NATO territory, but the scenario of a massive overland invasion along the lines of Napoleon’s or Hitler’s incursions is very far-fetched today. The United States is a formidable adversary, but the basic stability of the U.S.-Russia relationship is assured by deterrence, which requires above all that Moscow maintain credible nuclear capabilities that deny the Pentagon any chance of winning a war against Russia. Stability in Europe may be potentially challenged in the future by U.S. INF deployments, but these will undoubtedly be parried by asymmetrical countermoves that create a similar level of threat for the United States.
In the South Caucasus, Russia’s military presence is limited to land-locked Armenia, but its solitary base there has served the only purpose of protecting Armenia from a Turkish invasion. Moscow never committed itself to defending Armenian positions in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which Russia has always legally recognized as part of Azerbaijan and where it sought to mediate between the two sides. For its part, the Armenian leadership under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had since 2018 been distancing itself from Russia and reaching out to the West.
The Azeri victory in the second Karabakh war with the Armenians in November 2020 has ushered in a new regional order. Russia was able to negotiate a truce between the warring parties. It has also expanded its military presence in the Caucasus by becoming the sole peacekeeper between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, the war has not only highlighted Turkey’s role in the region as a very close ally of victorious Azerbaijan. Moscow has had to legitimize that role by accepting Ankara’s participation, alongside Russia, in the monitoring mechanism for Karabakh.
With U.S. influence in a commanding position in Tbilisi, and Turkish influence and prestige standing very high in Baku, Russia faces an uncertain political future in Armenia, its defeated nominal ally. Moscow is learning to see the region, which used to be part of the Soviet state, and before that of the Russian empire, not from a position of regional dominance, now gone, but through the prism of its vital interest of maintaining stability in its own Northern Caucasus borderland. Vis-à-vis Georgia, the border is protected by Russian military outposts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Vis-à-vis Azerbaijan, a degree of cooperation with Baku is required.
This doesn’t mean that all alliances are useless. In Central Asia, Russia keeps air and army bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which provide for a forward presence with an eye to Afghanistan. With the impending final withdrawal of U.S. forces, Russia needs to be ready for an upsurge of radicalism and extremism in Afghanistan, which might again become a haven for transnational jihadis. With the enormous territory of Kazakhstan separating—and shielding—Russia from the areas of turbulence down south, Russia needs both outposts of its own and logistical support from its allies. The stability of Kazakhstan itself, which is going through a political transition, is of the utmost importance to Russia, but Nur-Sultan, while generally friendly and cooperative toward Moscow, pursues an independent course in domestic and foreign affairs.
Moscow also came to realize long ago that in Central Asia, it would have to accommodate the growing Chinese presence and influence and learn to collaborate with Beijing on keeping things stable, security-wise. Beijing has already selected Tajikistan as its point of entry for a security presence, but has been advancing incrementally. Moscow doesn’t feel threatened. The clash between Russia and China that so many Western scholars have been expecting and predicting for decades is not in the cards for the foreseeable future.
The Eurasian Union was first designed by Putin as a Moscow-led 200-million-people-strong geopolitical, economic, and military power bloc in Eurasia. Today, it is essentially an economic arrangement which plays a generally useful but limited role facilitating relations among several former Soviet republics. Crucially, Russia has proven unwilling to become the donor of the union, and its partners equally unwilling to cede parts of their sovereignty to supranational bodies that would be dominated by Russia. This dual refusal has put an end to the outsize ambitions of some, and unrealistic expectations of others.
With Belarus, Russia set out to build a union state back in 1999. Since the start, that union has been little more than a cover for special deals that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was able to get from Moscow in exchange mostly for pledges of unity, solidarity, and loyalty—while carefully but clearly distancing the country from Russia. When, in 2019, the Kremlin indicated that it would stop subsidizing Belarus unless it agreed to real economic integration, Lukashenko’s bluff was called. The political crisis that engulfed Belarus following the August 2020 presidential election has allowed Moscow to try its hand at helping Minsk to carry out constitutional reform, political transition, and economic liberalization while integrating it closer with Russia. It is not clear how successful Moscow will be. As for the union state as such, it will probably remain an empty shell.
The dynamic of separation within the former Soviet/imperial space runs very deep. With changing generations, Ukraine is increasingly seen as a big, if presently troubled, neighbor full of virulently anti-Russian elements. In the Russian public mind, particularly among younger people, it is fast becoming a foreign country. For those who care about traditional symbols, the birthplace of the Russian state has been conveniently transferred in the official history narrative from “Kiev, the mother of Russian cities,” to Novgorod in Russia, the Vikings’ first stronghold and operations base. Even the “official” place of Russia’s baptism has been moved from Kyiv (as it is now transcribed), where Prince Vladimir ordered the townsfolk baptized in the River Dnieper, to Khersones on the outskirts of Sevastopol in Crimea, where Prince Vladimir himself was baptized in the Black Sea.
Georgia may still attract Russian tourists and its wines are back on the Russian market after being banned for several years, but in both categories, it is far behind its competitors. Russians today get most of their knowledge of the other former Soviet republics, from Armenia and Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, from those who come to seek work in Russia. There is virtually no desire to go back themselves and try to reassemble the empire. The reason is simple: the Russian empire, and particularly the Soviet Union, used to buy the loyalty of the borderland regions using the resources of the ethnically Russian core. Today, Russia’s per capita GDP is 2.5 times that in Ukraine and 50 percent higher than in Belarus. Thus, the idea of the former Soviet Union is following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union itself: it is disappearing.
The three crises that have almost simultaneously broken out in Belarus; the Nagorno-Karabakh region disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan; and Kyrgyzstan, where popular protests recently toppled the ruling regime, have demonstrated Russia’s maturing approach to its neighborhood. Some of Moscow’s new rules include:
Russia first: Russia’s principal interest in the world is Russia itself. As Putin mentioned in connection with a different subject: we are not interested in a world without Russia. Faced with the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia preferred to maintain stability at home, given the existence of large Armenian and Azeri diasporas in Russia (2 million strong each); to keep an important relationship with Azerbaijan intact; and to avoid a collision with regional power Turkey. By involving itself in the war on the side of its nominal ally Armenia, it would have lost all of the above. Russia did send forces to Karabakh, but as peacekeepers between the two sides.
The former Soviet Union doesn’t exist: As far as Moscow is concerned, all the countries that emerged from the ex-Soviet republics are on their own. To Russia, thirty years after the breakup of the USSR, they are all foreign states; emotions are kept apart from politics: there are no special attachments, and no free discounts. Each bilateral relationship will be judged on its own merits.
Bilateral relations with allies are becoming less dependent on personalities: In the context of recent elections in allied nations, Moscow has indicated that it is not tied to any particular leader, be it Belarus’s Lukashenko or Kyrgyzstan’s toppled Sooronbay Jeenbekov. This was already evident from the two previous Kyrgyz revolutions (2005 and 2010) and the 2018 street protests in Yerevan that overthrew the leadership in Armenia, and had long been the attitude regarding tumultuous local practices in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia primarily cares about its own interests in the countries concerned and focuses on protecting those.
Commitments are not open-ended and are always reciprocal: As Moscow has demonstrated in the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia will do what it is formally obligated to do, but no more. Russia sent similar messages during the acute phase of the Belarus crisis. It will also insist on its allies being more loyal in order to deserve Moscow’s support. If an ally engages in a “multi-vector” foreign policy, they should expect a similar attitude from Russia.
Third powers cannot be excluded from the neighborhood; they must be dealt with. Russia has no way of barring third players from what used to be the territory of the Soviet Union. Rather, it must deal with them to minimize threats to core Russian interests. With regard to the West, Russia has used unresolved conflicts in Donbas, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia to stop Ukraine and Georgia from securing NATO membership; with regard to China, it has managed to divide up economic/security responsibilities in Central Asia; with regard to Turkey, it is competing in a hard-nosed way for a favorable balance of interests in the Caucasus and the Middle East. Conditional support for Lukashenko is being used to shut out Poland and Lithuania from interfering directly in Belarus, while the self-proclaimed Transnistrian republic supported by a small Russian garrison and economic subsidies should prevent at least that region of Moldova from folding into Romania.
These new rules did not just suddenly appear in Moscow; they are the product of at least a decades-long process that has seen many Kremlin ambitions severely curtailed and many plans nixed. The Russian Federation is learning to mind its limitations and to match its ends to means; to repel and repress residual nostalgia; and to think straight, putting issues before personalities, and staying focused on its own interests. This doesn’t suggest that Russia is withdrawing into itself or is ready to make concessions to others. It simply means that its modus operandi in the neighborhood is changing, and its posture across Eurasia is being reconfigured, leaving the empire farther and farther behind.
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