The post-soviet space as the sphere of influence of Russia: “Compelling to friendship” mission

Today some political analysts note that the key character of current foreign policy strategy of Russian Federation is a reconstruction of the “Yalta system” (post-war international order made at Yalta in February 1945) with a division of the world between Great Powers and determination of significant sphere of influence and a buffer zone.

The post-soviet space as the sphere of influence of Russia: “Compelling to friendship” mission - GEOPOLITICA.info

As a clear example of trying to give the second life to the concept of sphere of influence, we see an attempt of Russian Federation (RF) to restore its dominion on the post-soviet area, the belt area around RF that formed after the collapse of USSR. There is no secrets that Putin’s foreign course looks to recreate of such sphere of influence; another thing is that the interpretations of such diligent actions are different: from statements about the need to protect the national interests of Russia to accusations of Putin in an attempt to restore the Soviet Union in a milder form. Many accuse Mr. Putin in the lack of softness/“soft power”, Russians – in the imperial chauvinism, Russian Federation – in the continuation of militaristic traditions of the USSR, and Moscow – in the colonial aspirations and feudal practices. Let us try to check all these accuses.

From USSR to CIS

The key event here is the collapse of the Soviet Union, which, by the way, according to president Putin is “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. It would be wrong to say that the dissolution of USSR occurred by constitutional means, with respect of all the necessary procedures, and therefore it can be interpreted ambiguously. On the other hand, the collapse of the Soviet Union is the organic completion of the centrifugal degradation processes in all areas, which could be hardly stopped by anyone (especially, by ‘too diplomatic’ Gorbachev) or anything, and the situation made impossible to comply with all procedures to withdraw from the USSR (remembering the August Putsch).

The passage from the USSR to the CIS, called the “civilized divorce” or “political suicide”, was not so smooth and characterized by the democratic deficit, and in the eyes of former Soviet citizens was not only illegitimate, but also treasonous. The creation of the CIS did not correspond to the people’s will, because on March 1991 a popular referendum held in the nine republics fixed that 76% of voters supported maintaining the federal system under the name of The Union of Sovereign States. Therefore, the CIS organization from the very beginning had the low legitimacy. Nevertheless, it was a political compromise between the personal ambitions of the leaders of the new states and an objective reality – the existence of the constructed over-the-years architecture of the interdependence between countries.

“Post-Soviet syndrome” or what do post-Soviet states have in common

It is possible to talk about post-Soviet space as something homogeneous considering a common historical path of these states and common results got at the end of “this way”. Even though December Agreements meant that “the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence”, unfortunately the problems and resentments generated during 70 years of its existing have not disappeared immediately and probably even after were never resolved. People-citizens of new states inherited from the Soviet regime all accumulated problems: from the Stalin-designed bizarre border and forced deportation of  entire nations and social groups to long policy of Sovietization (in fact, Russification); from the lack of middle class to destroyed economy and necessity to convert immediately the plan economy to open market system; from negative environmental effects of low-tech research methods (the Semipalatinsk Test Site) and the extensive method of farming (lake Aral) to real ecologic catastrophes (Chernobyl, 1986); from ethnic confrontation multiplied by poverty and forced secularization to the growth of separatism, tribalism and violent disorders (Jeltoqsan, 1986; Sumgait,1988). All these critical moments, not mentioning the consequences of “turned out to be unnecessary” war in Afghanistan, accumulated and understandably led to indignations and displeasure, which immediately arose between the newly formed states.

Much criticism directed against Moscow, as it was associated with the Communist top leadership. In particular, states were not satisfied of the national policy that was essentially based on Russification. Also, during short transparent democratic period in the end of 80’s and at the beginning of 90’s in Russia and other post-Soviet states were opened historic archives, so it was possible to know about some “not pleasant truth” like Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Holodomor 1932-33 in Ukraine, Katyn Forest massacre, pre- and post-war mass deportation of Baltic nations to Siberia. Well, we know that in 1992 were born not only 15 new states, but also 15 new national myths. In fact, in post-Soviet states there was no attempt at the state level for rethinking the past. No de-Stalinization, no de-communization, no lustration, no investigations of communist crimes and so, there was neither condemnation nor renunciation nor repentance. ‘Rewriting of history under state control’ practice created mutual accusations between ex-USSR nations – Russophobia vs Great-Russian chauvinism.

Characteristics that are common for post-Soviet space (excluding Baltic states) do not end with the features identified above. All these countries are similar also by a failure in attempts to build democracies. According to L. Diamond all these states have a “hybrid regime” that combine democratic and authoritarian elements, according to T. Carothers this countries are blocked in the grey zone, and so we can talk about “failed democratic transit”. Sure, some of them were more successful, but the general performance is not optimistic (no free country among them, according to Freedom House) unlike for ex-communist Eastern Europe countries or for Baltic States (so-called “Baltic way”) integrated in EU.

In addition to this, in all CIS countries there are serious problems with corruption, which unfortunately is a truly systemic problem. The typical phenomenon for all CIS-states is the increasing gap between rich and poor, oligarchy class, forming of governing inner circle of national leader, clan economy. All these features have made it possible to speak of the existence of so-called “the post-Soviet syndrome”.

From USSR to Russian Federation

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia declared itself the legal successor of the Soviet Union, maintaining a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, so as not to destroy the existing fragile world balance. From economic point of view, Russia actually “bought” the preservation of its positions at the United Nations and the property of the USSR abroad (embassies, etc.) for the recognition and taking over the obligations under the external debts of the Union. There was a question about the nuclear potential, it touched the four post-Soviet states – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – in whose territory was located nuclear weapons of the Soviet Armed Forces. The only one state disagree with Russia being the only legal successor to the Soviet Union was Ukraine, but in 1994 firmed a political agreement the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances on which Ukraine abandons its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a commitment (taken also by Russia) of respect its sovereignty and territory integrity (including Crimea peninsular).

There is no doubt that from the beginning of 90’s either Russian Federation itself or the West perceived CIS-counties as an exclusive sphere of influence of Russia. Russia called it “near abroad” and spread its dominance without encountering on the way counteractions from the West. This can be said about Russia’s domestic affairs (two Chechen wars), as well as various military interventions or involvement in conflicts in the former Soviet Union (Transnistria 1992, Civil war in Tajikistan 92-97, NagornoKarabakh 92-94, Abkhaz–Georgian conflict 92-93, First South Ossetian war 91-92). Nonetheless, this does not mean that Russia was trying to unleash a new conflict, but on the contrary, Russia’s efforts during Yeltsin’s presidency (1991-1999), were aimed at maintaining order, searching compromise decisions and so based on the peaceful settlement of inter-ethnic conflicts trying to stop separatist movements. The logic was simple, the stability in the neighboring country – stability at home, actually, it was important in the early 90’s, when Russia itself had a headache represented by Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

I think this is a very important point, the beginning of the second Chechen war (1999), which has not only changed the situation inside Russia, but also changed its approach to neighboring countries. With the solution of Chechen separatism problem (in the beginning of 2000s) that, in fact, also coincided with a declaration of “war against global terrorism” – Moscow began to feel confident in its own and in the regional and international arena. “Rising from its knees” Russia felt that the establishment of regional hegemony within the borders of the former Soviet Union – is a prerequisite for the conquest of the world prestige and the Great power status. Probably that is true, but was it mandatory to use any means, as Russia did? Or could it be done more selectively? Let us analyze multilateral and bilateral relations between ex-USSR republics in order to understand it better.

“Post-Soviet neighbors”

At the level of multilateral relations there are different forms of integration on post-Soviet area (non-Baltic states): beginning from the CIS as a common political-normative framework for 9/12 states (except Georgia, Ukraine and Turkmenistan), criticized as “an organization on the paper”, “club of dictators” or “the organization of consumers of Russian gas”, continuing with intergovernmental military alliance CSTO and with frequently transforming and proliferated economic projects (the recent one is Eurasian Economic Union).

These all Russian-led organization maintain consensus and empower legitimacy of the existing hierarchy between countries. On the other side, we can find such projects like GUAM (founded in 2001, also often called as a “club of miffed with Russia”; it includes Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) or “Eastern Partnership” EU Program launched in 2009, which both have one (anti-Russia) vector. EU decision was an important moment, because at the same time Europe are abandoned the policy of promising the membership for Russia and offered its assistance to buffer zone states, assistance based on “good proximity” approach.

In the same time, the attitude of post-Soviet countries toward Russian claim of having dominant control role is various from state to state. I think that it is opportune, for the first, to classify these states by possession of energetic resources and their position in network of transit of Russian gas, so we can see:

– rich countries/”reinter state “ (mostly of Caspian basin) like Turkmenistan (have 11% of the world’s proven reserves of hydrocarbons; in 1995 it declared to be a “permanent neutral state”, in 2005 converted its membership in CIS into associated member, and then from 2009 pursuing a policy of diversification in the gas sector, in defiance of Russia and Iran, since 2010 its main economic partner – China), Azerbaijan (in 2011 officially became part of the movement of non-aligned countries; in 1994, Azerbaijan signed so-called “Contract of the Century” – with a Western consortium for exploitation of large oil fields in the Caspian Sea, and in 2005, was finished the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline – a real anti-Russian axis), Kazakhstan (is one of the loyal ally of Russia, a strategic partner; having the big offshore oil field in the North of Caspian Sea – Kashagan, Nazarbayev tries to reduce the infrastructural dependence from Russia firstly via alternative projects with China like Turkmenistan–Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China gas pipeline) and Uzbekistan (the 2° economy in Central Asia after Kazakhstan shows to have its ambitions to be a regional power in Central-Asian space with 30 million people and the most numerous army);

  • transit dependent countries/energy-transit hub” – Belarus (Belarus forms with Russia quite fictive political-economical association – Union State – that can never be an equal partnership as Belarus totally depends on Russian loans and Russian energy), Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia (oddly enough, having the most critical and complicated relationship with Russia, perhaps because on these countries largely depends the profit of the Russian Gazprom, which the most profitable direction is an export to European countries; thus, the main efforts of Kremlin are aimed to maintain the existing status quo and so consolidate the status of these countries as buffering states);
  • and absolutely dependent poor countries/”political outsider”– Tajikistan, Armenia, Kirgizstan (are also ones of the smallest post-Soviet economies and the poorest countries of this area; Gazprom has 100% share in the national Armenian and Kirgiz gas company; also all these three countries have highest – 87%-100% – shares of remittances from Russia, most of which comes from migrants working in Moscow).

Summing up the strategy toward RF and political orientation of ex-USSR countries, we can say that among the post-Soviet countries – at the level of bilateral relations with Russia – are found:

1) The West-oriented outspoken opponents that openly resisting to Russian ambitions (Georgia of Saakashvili 2003-2013, Ukraine of Yushenko and now Poroshenko, Moldova, obviously 3 Baltic states), and apply to Western organizations such as NATO or EU for the help. The Kremlin, in turn, does not hesitate to warm the “frozen conflicts” on the territories of these countries in order to keep them in its orbit of influence.

2) Pragmatic-oriented players with pendulum behavior (Uzbekistan, Georgia after 2013, Azerbaijan) or states called itself “neutral” (Turkmenistan) – both types actors pursuing a policy of balance and trying to maneuver between EU-U.S. and Russia or between China and Russia as for Central Asian countries. These countries try not to irritate the Russian neighbor, that is actually their main economic-trade partner, but, more importantly, it is their fears about Russian military power – they have refused to accept Moscow’s troops on its territory, considering them as a danger to their statehood. On the other hand, RF has to use an approach that is more flexible than with others.

3) Relatively stable partners of Russia, representing the core of the CIS organization and participating in all Russia-led integration projects in the post-Soviet space (Kazakhstan, Belarus), that, however, does not mean consent to Russian course.

4) Faithful followers of Kremlin which security (sovereignty) is depending on Big brother (Armenia – for Karabakh issue and its isolation by Turkey and Azerbaijan, Tajikistan – for borders-control against the penetration of Islamic radicals from Afghanistan, Kirgizstan – for Fergana Valley ethnic conflicts).

How does Russian supremacy convert into influence?

There is no doubt that Russian among all former soviet (non-Baltic) states has privileged place, with more than 50% of population of all CIS zone (144 million / 277 million, watch it in table below) and with GDP (PPP) about $2.092,2 mlrd against $2.906,9 mlrd, not saying about Russian language preponderance, its territory size or nuclear arsenal. What kind of linkages does it establish and with what means to dominate on all CIS-region? That is only a little attempt to identify some of elements of Russian domination system:

1) in military field – there are Russian military bases like Gyumri in Armenia, Kant air base in Kirgizstan, 201° Dushanbe in Tajikistan, Russia covers 95% of the military spending of CSTO and does not shy to use peacekeeping forces and protecting civilians motivations for promoting its dominion;

2) in security field – Russia keeps troops (collective rapid reaction force of CSTO) in Central Asia for protecting borders, has covering network of communication/radar stations; Kremlin sells weapons, provide armament support (it is curious that in case of Nagorno-Karabakh Russia being an active participant in the peaceful settlement between countries “forced” both sides of conflict – Armenia and Azerbaijan – to engage in arms race, and so provides weapons to both sides);

3) in economic field – Russia leads and coordinates main economic integration projects (Customs Union, EaEU etc.), finances investment and development projects (hydroelectric complex projects Rogun HPP in Tajikistan and Kambarata HPP in Kirgizstan; the nuclear power plant in Belarus), provides loans and debt restructuring ($3 mlrd Ukraine debt to Russia), conducts “trade (food) wars” with neighbors are frequent: for example, Kremlin banned Moldavan wine or Georgian mineral water, as well as it does with EU-products today;

4) in energetic field – Russia through Gazprom, Transneft and others buys shares in national energy companies (lately, effect of such policy we saw during Armenian Electric Yerevan Maidan protests on June 2015), buys the pipeline networks, dictates the prices on the energy market (so-called “gas wars” with Ukraine, with Lithuania);

5) in labor field – Russia remains the main center of attraction of labor migrants from post-Soviet countries, mainly they are Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz citizens, but not only. Some post-Soviet economies heavily dependent on such remittances of migrants in home economics (for example, about 40% of Tajik GDP in 2011). Russia can put a pressure on so dependent countries by restricting migration rules, organizing mass seasonal deportation, all in order to “struggle against illegal immigration”;

6) in cultural field – through the Russian-speaking media, and in general by the Russian language, Moscow spreads its influence, as it was in the USSR. Russian language is second official language in, Belarus, Transnistria, South Ossetia; is official language of state institutions in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Abkhazia; it’s spoken in different administrative districts of Ukraine, Moldova. This heritage left by the Soviet Union  together with idea of “Russkij Mir” conception – support of 25 million Russian people left abroad and Russian-speaking minorities formed the ideology of nowadays regime in Russia;

7) In diplomacy and high policy field – Russia almost has absolutely immunity thanks to its veto power in UN Security Council and non-ratification of Rome Statute. Thus, Russia can block not-comfortable for itself draft UN Resolutions. Russia also practices the use of the counter-sanction (blacklist, grocery embargo) as the response to U.S., EU and other countries’ countermeasures put on Russia as realization of the concept ‘Erga Omnes’ responsibility, trying to contradict to the “Western diktat”;

8) In civic field – there is a mutually beneficial relation existing between Russia and Central Asian authoritarian regime, there is no doubt that Russia is representing the “model to be and to do” for other post-Soviet states and as Kremlin is not characterizing of high attention to the problem of Human rights or good governance, it can give a clear message to other CIS-leaders that even in quite democratic constitutional frame find techniques to prolong their presidential terms, to concentrate more power in the executive branch, to use elections and referendums in the way they need: we see here presidentialised regimes and leaders that keep ruling for decades (Niyazov 1991-2006; Rahmon, Lukashenko from 1994; Karimov, dinastia Aliyev and Nazarbayev from 1991).

That’s surely not the whole list of tools used by RF for legitimate its power on post-Soviet states, but it is quite representative one. Summing up, I would like to say, that it is clear that every state try to get more power on others and that it is normal to protect national interests. That is realpolitik, and Mr. Putin is (iper-)realist, for sure. But I don’t think that this can be done by any means. Using hard power can be efficiently at a short interval, but for a long time it causes irritation only. Therefore, some political analysts called Putin a good tactician but not a strategist. Assertive policies can be also double-edged instruments.

Thus, we see, that the main characteristic feature of the Russian system of domination on the post-Soviet area is an application of the hybrid methods: undeclared wars; closed ban-lists; the imposition of sanctions, which has a direct negative impact on its own population; participating in frozen conflict resolution, termination of which is not in the interest of Russia; protecting of compatriots abroad, highlighting the Russian ethnic population, while the Constitution declares that the state is multinational and others. In short, the most critical is fact that Russia prevents the passage of countries in the Western or some other camp, but does not offer its positive model. To Putin is missing the soft power.

Three main event of the Putin era in the post-Soviet space

  1. Colorful revolutions 2003-2005: Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Ukraine

What is the role of Russia for domestic policy issues of CIS states? Can we consider Russia as a guarantor of non-democratic regime in ex-USSR states? Is Russia maintaining the status quo on post-soviet space? So, the issue is that authoritarian style of governance in post-soviet Russia can impact heavily on domestic dynamics in other countries of CIS-region, we have already talked about this before. We said that from the dissolution of Soviet Union RF has positioned itself as a guarantor of the stability (status quo) in CIS-region. However, what kind of stability is it?

Well, “Colorful revolutions” were not met with enthusiasm by Russian authorities, on the contrary, Russia has accused the West of financing the protest movements and named events as coup d’état.  Most likely, Russia projected the events of so-called “Bulldozer revolution” 2000 when Milosevic was deposed, to the protests of 2003-2005 when the Old Guard, Shevarnadze, Kuchma, Akayev, were overthrown. It should be noted that it became just traditionally to blame Russia on supporting dictatorships of the World. In short, can we put the blame for the lack of democracy exciting in post-soviet states on Russia? Well, we cannot be sure of this, better to say, it is partially correct (we see authoritarian trends in ex-USSR states coincide with regime’s changing in Russia), because we can see some examples of states that are out of Russian orbit but not democratic at all (Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, but especially Turkmenistan).

These countries can be characterized as states with Oriental political and civic culture that presumes strong authoritarian leader. At the same time, there is, for example, Belarus ruled by “last dictator of the Europe”, yes, significantly dependent from Russia, but that is not an excuse. In the end, the primary responsibility rests with the people themselves, perhaps intimidated or brainwashed by propaganda.

  1. “5 days war”, or Russo-Georgian conflict on South Ossetia, 7–12 August 2008

Last two decades events happened in this region showed low interest of other great powers (except Russia) and of international community in general on the problematic of CIS zone. Different post-Soviet ethno-national conflicts often splitting in ethnic cleansing, separatism are seemed to be not noticed by international community, seemed to be ignored. The post-soviet space was considered almost as the exclusive sphere of Russian responsibility, and so of Russian influence. Oddly enough, attempts of Russia to solve problems in post-soviet space led to the appearing of new type of conflicts (became a typical post-soviet conflict development model) so-called “frozen conflict” (Abkhasia, South Osetia, Transnistria, Nagornyj Karabakh, Crimea). In international relations, it is a situation in which active armed conflict has been brought to an end, but no peace treaty or other political framework resolves the conflict to the satisfaction of the combatants. Therefore, legally the conflict can start again at any moment, creating an environment of insecurity and instability.

It became a commonplace to think that frozen conflicts is another arm of Russian domination strategy. We will just say, that usually Russian involvement in frozen conflicts about dispute territories turn such situation to be a choice between Independence and Recognition. Why does Russia recognized the independency of Abkhazia and Ossetia only on 26 August 2008? And why did Russia do it exclusively for this two territories? Also we can notice that Russian initiative was poorly supported by other states (only Nicaragua, Venezuela, Tuvalu – lately refused, Nauru), the CIS countries also have not met it with great enthusiasm as well as the recent “Crimean comeback”.

  1. Ukrainian crisis, 2014-nowadays

How much is it important – the issue of Russian-speaking minority in CIS states? Do they really need Putin’s help or defense?

All the time of his rule, president Putin has continued to repeat about necessity to protect compatriots remaining in the CIS space after USSR dissolution, especially, in his opinion, it is vital for Russian-speaking minority that counts 25 milion. With the crisis in Ukraine, this position became such as Putin doctrine and got an upgrading, i.e. it has been implemented in the case of Crimea.

At the same time, many, and not without reason, began to talk that in fact the population of Crimea didn’t want to comeback in Russia, but in USSR, so Russia took advantage of such nostalgic feelings. And this once again confirms that the greatness of modern Russia is largely based on the legacy/heritage left by the Soviet Union, including the attractiveness of the Soviet model for some generations. So if you ask me: “Does Putin have a soft power?”, I would rather say that this invisible 25 million-strong army is, in fact, his soft power. And here, perhaps, we should go back to where we started – to talk about what kind of problems in the post-Soviet space, to my opinion, have not been resolved yet for all 25 years. Among them particularly stands never carried out until the end de-stalinization.

Conclusion

The post-Soviet space leaves a vast zone for maneuvering. Surely, we had not goal to talk about all of this, but to draw a conceptual framework useful for its understanding. Summing all, we can answer the main question of this article, which can be briefly outlined in the following way: How much ‘hard’ is Russian influence in the post-Soviet space? You may have already guessed, what should be the answer. In Russian actions there is a lack of “soft power”, there are populist justifications that contradict to International Law, Russian national interests and its domestic policy that makes RF to be unpredictable for its partners of CIS and world partners too. Such policy is just not constructive, not efficient for the long term. Sometimes it seems “compelling to friendship”. In general, it seems impossible today that some states can have their exclusive sphere of influence, and if some Great Power have impact on other states, this is achieved not by military means (the war is too expensive today), but by “soft power” methods.

Why post-Soviet space matters? Actually, the post-Soviet space in a global context plays an important role for several reasons: firstly, by geopolitical scientists and thinkers like Mackinder it was always considered as the pivot area, geographically very important, secondly, it is important for its natural resources (the New Great Game is about Caspian basin-region), especially, in the light of the EU problem of diversification  of its energy market. That it why, in addition to Russia we see some other actors pretending to have an influence in post-Soviet space: EU, U.S., Turkey, China, Iran. This area is also important for the containment of the terrorist threat coming from Afghanistan or Caucasus. And at last, it is important to observe how Russia acts in its own backyard, where we can see the real face of the “Russian Bear”, just because no one knows us better than our neighbor.

Ilmira Galimova is a political science student at Sapienza Università di Roma