Robert E. Berls Jr., PhD
Senior Advisor for Russia and Eurasia
Strengthening Russia’s Influence in International Affairs, Part II: Russia and Its Neighbors: A Sphere of Influence or a Declining Relationship?
In Part I of this essay on Russian foreign policy, I examined the Kremlin’s quest for great-power status from a global perspective. For those far from Russia, both geographically and politically/diplomatically, the country’s status as a great global power may be questioned.
In Part II of this essay, I examine Russia’s relations with those living in its shadows—neighboring countries that over the centuries have had a special relationship with Russia and view its intentions, capabilities, and policy objectives from the perspective of a geopolitical environment dominated by Moscow. For them, the reality of Russia’s power and influence is undeniable.
As I explained in previous essays, Russia—whether Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, or post-Soviet Russia—views the security of its frontiers as essential for the security of the homeland. In Moscow’s view, security can be ensured only if Russia maintains a reliable sphere of influence over bordering countries. Although Russia’s western frontier has been the most important bulwark against foreign aggression—real or perceived —the south and the east have also played an important role in assuring the security of the Russian state.
Over the centuries, Russia’s sphere of influence has ebbed and flowed as geopolitical confrontation and diplomacy have either favored or disadvantaged Russia. Those countries that have been victims, finding themselves pawns in great power politics, have often sought the protection of Russia’s adversaries. Few have willingly and readily accepted Russian domination for they realized that security for Russia often meant insecurity for them.
A study of the map of Eastern Europe during the centuries reveals a hodgepodge of states, ethnic groupings, and rising and falling empires that cover a wide expanse of territory with few natural frontiers. Power determined the landscape and the fate of millions. Imperial Russia was one of four empires—along with Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire—that vied for control over this valuable real estate during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Borders shifted, countries emerged and disappeared, and allegiances shifted from empire to empire, which eventually led to the emergence of independent countries, but many of those states remained within the sphere of influence of the most dominant neighboring power.
During the last 100 years, Europe has experienced three geopolitical tectonic shifts that have had a colossal impact on the power relationships in the region—World War I, World War II, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes of Eastern Europe. World War I resulted in the disintegration of the four powerful European empires (the Ottoman Empire—or as it was referred to at the time as the “Sick Man of Europe”—had been gradually weakening during much of the 19th century; its death knell came with its defeat in World War I).
For the Russian Empire, the impact of defeat reverberated within the homeland and throughout the region. Russia lost huge swaths of territory, and with the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, its political system underwent an upheaval that was to threaten the entire world. Many countries and regions that had been absorbed into the Russian Empire over the centuries broke away from Moscow’s control. Finland and Poland regained their independence; Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania emerged as sovereign countries. Even Belarus and Ukraine succeeded in briefly separating from Russia, as did the states of the South Caucasus—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—and Turkestan (present-day Central Asia) before they were reabsorbed by the Soviet regime as it formed a new empire in the 1920s—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
World War II brought immense devastation to the lives of millions of people and turmoil to Europe’s geopolitical structures. The notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its Secret Protocol of August 23, 1939, divided much of Eastern Europe between Adolph Hitler’s Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. What appeared on paper became a reality almost immediately as Hitler invaded western Poland on September 1, 1939, and Soviet forces moved into eastern Poland two weeks later. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as part of Romania, were conquered by Soviet forces shortly thereafter, and Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union in what became known as the Winter War of 1939–1940.
The fruits of the Soviet and Allied victory over the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and its collaborators were codified at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Stalin. Although arguments abound about the real intentions of the three leaders and their ability to follow through with their commitments, Stalin’s brazenness and the reality of geographic proximity won out and resulted in the reestablishment of Soviet control over previously lost territory—the Baltic States, parts of Finland and Romania (present-day Moldova)—and the subsequent subjugation of most of Eastern Europe to Soviet domination. Moreover, it resulted in the installation of Communist regimes that, except for Yugoslavia and Albania, were subservient to Moscow. Although cracks in this compliant relationship appeared over the years (Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980–1981), Stalin and his successors were able to secure and control a large arc of territory adjacent to the Soviet Union that provided a sphere of influence that to a large extent assuaged the Kremlin’s concerns about the imminent vulnerability of the Soviet heartland to foreign aggression. But this fixation on threats to the homeland was not mitigated just by territorial expansion and the installation of compliant regimes. Soviet leadership’s obsession with the expansion of their military capabilities and the militarization of Soviet society itself was eventually to become a major factor that led to the demise of the Soviet Union—the third and most recent geopolitical tectonic shift in Europe.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was preceded by the fall of the Communist system and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe two years earlier. The sphere of influence that the Kremlin had fought so hard to establish and maintain shattered. Not only did the outer perimeter of the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe cast off their Communist rulers, but they joined the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—something that was inconceivable just a few years earlier. Even worse for Moscow was the fact that the once-mighty Soviet Union—a country consisting of 15 union republics—was no longer, and in its place, 15 independent countries emerged. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been independent between the two world wars, and their incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 had never been recognized by the United States and many European countries. Therefore, their reemergence as independent nations was easier for the Kremlin to accept, although it was still a bitter pill to swallow. The separation of the other republics, most of which had enjoyed only brief moments of freedom in the past and had been conjoined to Russia for centuries, was inconceivable to most Russian leaders. Russia’s weakness and vulnerability were exposed to all. In the ensuing years, Moscow worked hard to maintain formal and informal relationships among the former constituent republics of the Soviet Union to preserve the complex, interconnected economic, political, and social ties that were critical to the functioning not only of Russia but also of the newly independent countries themselves.
The history of the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the establishment of new relationships is a complex one and is beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, I will focus on how Russia views its ties with its neighbors whom it often refers to as “the near abroad”—a term implying not true independence—and how it views those ties through the lens of its perceived sphere of influence.
Speaking on Russian television several weeks after the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, the new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, spoke about Russia’s spheres of “privileged interests” and the obligation of the Russian government to defend Russian citizens residing abroad. Medvedev said,
Russia, just like other countries in the world, has regions where it has its privileged interests. In these regions, there are countries with which we have traditionally had friendly cordial relations, historically special relations. We will work very attentively in these regions and develop these friendly relations with these states, with our close neighbors.
When asked if these “priority regions” were those that bordered on Russia, Medvedev replied: “Certainly the regions bordering [on Russia], but not only them.” Several months later Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued a statement about the “unique relations” that bind Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. He spoke about the “civilizational unity” of the territory that comprised the former USSR and, previously, Imperial Russia.
“Spheres of privileged interest” and “sphere of influence” are terms that appear to be synonymous. Although the former may be a slightly milder, more acceptable diplomatic variant than the latter term, which has a negative connotation, there is little doubt—particularly from the perspective of those who are within Russia’s “sphere of privileged interest” or “sphere of influence”—that their freedom and independence may not be assured and may depend on the whims and policy decisions of their more powerful neighbor.
It has been one of the Kremlin’s highest priorities to preserve as much influence and, where possible, control, over its immediate neighborhood as it can. It has done so through formal institutions and various informal mechanisms—one of which is setting the terms by which it and the outside world define that neighborhood.
When the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991, a new, looser organization was established under Moscow’s tutelage—the Commonwealth of Independence States (CIS). Although this organization, made up of former Soviet republics minus the three Baltic States, never achieved the goals its founders had set for it, it nevertheless established a framework for Moscow and the outside world to continue defining that part of the world as a closely interrelated and mutually advantageous entity. This reinforced Moscow’s efforts to see itself and to be seen by the outside world as the dominant power in the region.
The international community has also struggled with how to define the post-Soviet world. Although it tried to avoid the most odious term the Kremlin employed in referring to the other former constituent parts of the Soviet Union—“the near abroad,” it commonly used “the former Soviet Union” or the CIS as a reference term, thereby maintaining a collective concept of the region. The exceptions were the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which, because of their previous independent status, were regarded as having completely separated from Moscow.
A new term—“Newly Independent States (NIS)”—was popularized by the U.S. State Department and others in an attempt to remove the implication of Moscow’s domination. Nevertheless, the name still encompassed the region as a collective entity and did not fully break with past relationships. Another problem with the term was how long one could refer to those countries as “newly independent”—five years, 10 years? Over time, the term outlived its usefulness and made little sense.
As the West’s concept of the region evolved, NIS was replaced with “Russia and Eurasia,” or just “Eurasia.” This showed progress in moving toward a new concept for the region, but it continued to have flaws. Russia was still closely tied to the other countries included in the term “Eurasia.” In reality, the only country that could be called “Eurasian” was Russia itself since it straddled both continents. Furthermore, why should other countries of the former Soviet Union still be viewed collectively as part of “Eurasia” when they had increasingly little in common, viz., Moldova and Kyrgyzstan?
Finally, decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, the outside world has reached a point that it now views the former Soviet republics as separate entities not tied to Moscow. If they are grouped at all, it is geographically: the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Eastern Europe (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine), Transcaucasia (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan).
The outside world’s difficulty defining the region that replaced the former Soviet Union helped to reinforce the Kremlin’s view of its sphere of influence and may have strengthened Moscow’s claim to its domination of the region. When the Soviet Union was on the verge of breaking apart, President George H.W. Bush in his famous “Chicken Kyiv” speech on August 1, 1991, cautioned against “suicidal nationalism” and urged Ukraine not to declare itself independent. Despite the president’s warning, Ukraine did so three weeks later. During the Clinton Administration, as aid and technical assistance poured into the countries of the former Soviet Union, deferential treatment appeared to be given to Russia over other former Soviet republics. This was visible, for example, in the preference the West showed Russia in some of the early decisions on the exploitation of energy resources in the countries of Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Although the Clinton Administration developed a more balanced approach to the entire region over time, its early decisions set a tone that strengthened Moscow’s hand among its “lesser partners” in the former Soviet Union. In fairness, it could be argued that there were expectations that heavy investment in Russia could turn the former Communist giant into a democratic state that would be integrated into the West. The smaller countries would be less of a challenge and would not require investment on a scale commensurate with what was being made in Russia. As time passed and it became apparent that Russia was not going to meet the West’s expectations, other countries of the former Soviet Union became more important as possible counterweights to Russia. Consequently, Western interest and investment in them increased.
Many in the Kremlin believed that the West’s early policy directions and certain concrete steps were signs that Russia’s interests in the region would be respected and that there would be no serious resistance to Moscow’s efforts to maintain hegemony over what it considered to be its vital regional interests. This proved to be wrong. It would not be long before Russia and the West resumed their confrontational relationship. Whatever mutual trust had been built in the initial post-Soviet years evaporated. Russia once again found itself in an adversarial relationship that threatened its security and reinforced the need to maintain and strengthen its sphere of influence along its periphery and beyond.
Moscow has traditionally preferred security arrangements in Europe and beyond as something that resembles the 19th-century division of the continent into spheres of influence. In this context, President Vladimir Putin (and his temporary replacement Dmitry Medvedev from 2008–2012) insisted that the international community recognize the post-Soviet space as within Russia’s sphere of influence and that any attempt to bring countries like Ukraine and Georgia into the West—particularly into the Western security structure (NATO)—would be met with fierce resistance. Putin’s Russia, like previous Russian states, sees itself surrounded by enemies, particularly by NATO in the west. For this reason, any effort by states within what Russia considers its sphere of influence to strengthen their ties with the West is viewed as a hostile act that requires appropriate countermeasures.
Russia’s position is motivated by a paranoid siege mentality, by regional economic and social relationships, and by the need to maintain economic prosperity and domestic social stability. The collapse of the Soviet Union significantly weakened all of these elements and disrupted, and in some cases destroyed, the traditional relationships needed to maintain them. During President Putin’s tenure, a concerted effort has been made to repair the damage done by the destruction of the Soviet system and to build new relationships. Much progress has been made, but in the past few years new threats have appeared. A declining economy, growing social dissatisfaction, and a changing international political environment pose new challenges to the Kremlin and its ability to maintain its traditional sphere of influence in a way that reinforces rather than detracts from efforts to provide for physical security, economic prosperity, and social stability of the country.
Post-Soviet Russia has been confronted with two serious challenges to its hegemony over its self-declared sphere of influence—Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. In both instances Russia used military force to confront the real and perceived threats that emanated from those challenges, namely that the countries were colluding with the West, posing a direct threat to Russia. Although the Kremlin was able, at least temporarily, to put the brakes on Georgia’s and Ukraine’s efforts to embrace the West and join Western institutions, the repercussions on Russia’s relations with its neighbors and across its sphere of influence were shattering. As the Carnegie Endowment’s Dmitry Trenin put it, “A process of disintegration—of not only the empire but also the historical core of the Russian state—has become irreversible. Ukraine’s break with Russia in political, economic, cultural, and even spiritual terms precludes any possibility of their integration.” Even Russia’s closest allies—Belarus and Kazakhstan—have drawn lessons from the Kremlin’s actions and have begun gradually and cautiously to seek a more independent role for themselves.
Other events during the past year have put further strain on Russia’s relations with its neighbors. The so-called “Velvet Revolution” in Armenia in spring 2018, the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine at the end of 2018, and the failure to advance real political integration of the “Union State” between Russia and Belarus have further weakened the Kremlin’s hold over its sphere of influence. Nevertheless, Moscow remains a formidable force—politically, economically, militarily, and culturally—within the region.
Russia maintains military bases in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and in Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region, and it plays an active role by serving both as a “peacekeeper” and fostering instability within zones of so-called “frozen conflicts” or “managed conflicts,” such as Donbas (Ukraine), Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia and Azerbaijan), and Transnistria (Moldova). Russia’s outright annexation of Crimea demonstrates Moscow’s determination to maintain and expand its sphere of influence, particularly when it believes that its vital national interests are threatened by the West or powerful internal forces. This message has not been lost on Belarus and Kazakhstan. Moscow remains convinced that it can still intervene militarily and politically without risking a direct military conflict with the West, although Moscow would expect a serious political and economic reaction. The exception is the Baltic States, which are NATO members. Any Russian attack on these three countries would automatically trigger Article 5 of the NATO Treaty and the intervention of NATO forces.
Russia seeks to apply pressure on the countries it considers to be in its sphere of influence through regional organizations, international cultural and ethnic suasion, and most importantly, bilateral relations.
Over the years, Moscow has established several regional and international organizations designed to promote closer cooperation and enhance Russia’s economic, foreign, and security objectives. Designed in some respects to mirror Western international institutions, the regional organizations the Kremlin has created have largely fallen short of expectations. The reasons are many, but one of the most glaring is that the heavy hand of Moscow aimed at promoting integration under Moscow’s tutelage has retarded the full and unencumbered development of these organizations.
The CIS was established immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The original members included 12 of the former republics of the Soviet Union: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan (associate member), Ukraine (associate member),and Uzbekistan. The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declined the invitation to join. Georgia resigned after its 2008 war with Russia, and Ukraine quit the organization in 2014 after Russia seized Crimea and invaded Ukraine’s Donbas region. CIS headquarters was established in Minsk, Belarus. The CIS was charged with promoting cooperation on political, economic, military, and environmental policy and law enforcement. Attempts by Moscow to reintegrate the former Soviet republics have had only limited success. With the loss of Georgia, and particularly of Ukraine—the strongest economic and military power after Russia—the CIS, to quote Dmitry Trenin, has “turned into a mechanism for post-imperial dissolution….” Although the CIS has fallen short of Moscow’s expectations of maintaining a dominant role in the post-Soviet space, Russia has not abandoned its aspirations to pursue aggressive integration plans. Recently, the Kremlin appointed its former ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, as Deputy Minister for Economic Development tasked with coordinating Moscow’s efforts to oversee the integration process. This does not come as good news to Belarus and other CIS members. As Russia’s former ambassador in Minsk, Babich had aggressively sought to promote the subordination of Belarus to Russia’s interests and domination. In so doing, he alienated the Belarusian senior leadership. This created such a tense situation that the Kremlin had to recall Babich back to Moscow.
The Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union was signed by Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan on May 29, 2014, and entered into force on January 1, 2015. The EEU has since expanded to include Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. It has one observer-member (Moldova) and several free-trade partners (China, Iran, and Vietnam). Mongolia, Syria, and Tajikistan are being considered as prospective members.
The EEU grew out of a Customs Union among Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan that aimed to eliminate tariffs and non-tariff barriers and establish a common external tariff policy. The EEU was later developed in part as a response to the growing economic and political influence of the European Union (EU) and to prevent encroachment of the latter, as well as of China, into a market dominated by Russia.
The EEU has had some success in promoting Eurasian economic integration among the members, and the organization does enjoy broad support in all EEU countries. The organization, however, has gone through frequent trade disputes, not all of which have been settled in Moscow’s favor despite the Kremlin’s frequent heavy-handed attempts to dominate the proceedings of the EEU’s Commission and its court.
But for all its usefulness, the EEU, according to Carnegie’s Trenin, “has not become the center of power in Eurasia that Moscow had hoped would emerge.” As China expands its role in the economic development of many of the member states of the EEU, Russia, as the leading power in the Union, finds it increasingly difficult to compete with its powerful neighbor to the east. Consequently, the EEU, as Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment describes it, remains “an unhappy union of coerced members and frequent trade spats.”
Over the years there has been considerable discussion about establishing relations between the EU and the EEU, but they have failed to materialize. Yauheni Preiherman, a noted Belarusian expert explains why:
The attitude toward the EEU in the West is still based on the perception that this is “an attempt to recreate the USSR.” As a result, the EU refuses to start substantive negotiations with the EEU. Brussels considers it to be a Russian project that threatens the sovereignty of other countries. But if the EU representatives meet with colleagues from Belarus (and Armenia) more often and at a higher level, they will hear the opposite argument more: If you really care about our sovereignty, then let’s develop relations between the EU and the EEU. After all, the more successful the EEU is, the stronger our economics will be and the better it is for our sovereignty.
Despite its shortcomings, the EEU remains an effective tool for Russia to maintain its influence, particularly economic, in the other member states—and they, in all fairness, benefit as well. In some respects, the EEU can be compared to some former Soviet organizations in which Moscow dominated, but the periphery often benefited more than the center did.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did the Warsaw Pact—the military and security alliance the Soviet Union established as a counter to NATO. Now the member states of that alliance, except for Russia, are members of NATO. Russia has lost its military allies (although many were reluctant allies at best) and is facing a strong and expanding military alliance to its west.
To create a collective defense system to support Russia and some of the newly independent states and to address new threats that arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin created a new security alliance. On May 15, 1992, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan signed the Collective Security Treaty. Ten years later, on October 7, 2002, they institutionalized this arrangement by establishing the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The main tasks of the CSTO were the collective defense of the member states against internal and external threats, particularly international terrorism and extremism, illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, organized transnational crime, illegal migration, and other threats that the member states identified. In 2005, the CSTO added “color revolutions” and hybrid war as new threats to the region.
Membership in the CSTO has fluctuated over time. Currently, its members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, with Afghanistan and Serbia as non-member observers. Uzbekistan was a founding member of the CSTO but later quit as Tashkent became increasingly concerned over Moscow’s dominance of the organization. Azerbaijan and Georgia joined the CSTO after it was founded but subsequently left the organization. Ukraine—the most important state of the former Soviet Union from Russia’s perspective—refused to join the CSTO. This left a significant void in Russia’s effort to have an effective security pact that could serve its interests vis-à-vis the West and NATO.
The CSTO is frequently criticized in the West as being nothing more than a security instrument Russia wields to impose its hegemony over the post-Soviet space and to recreate, at least partially, the defense and security structure that existed during the Soviet Union. This is not a fully accurate assessment. Although it would be naive not to consider the CSTO as an important tool in Russia’s geopolitical machinations, particularly within its neighborhood, and that the other member states of the CSTO do not defer to Russia and see it as the dominant force managing the defense and security of the region, the “correlation of forces,” to use an old Soviet term, is not moving in Russia’s favor. Without a doubt, the CSTO has become an important multilateral defense and security structure under the Kremlin’s leadership and has strengthened Russia’s authority and capabilities with the other member states. Nevertheless, there are both internal and external challenges to the organization and especially serious divisions among its members that, despite Russian domination, restrict its effectiveness.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is worth mentioning because it is an important multilateral security organization, but it should not be characterized as a tool that Russia principally uses to manipulate its neighborhood and enhance its sphere of influence. Certainly, Russia is a major player in the SCO, but unlike the CSTO, Russia must compete with its principal partner, China, for authority and influence. In addition, both India and Pakistan are permanent members, together with the Central Asia states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, thereby making the SCO a more diverse organization. Furthermore, the SCO has four observer members: Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia, and six dialogue partners: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. This diversity inevitably precludes a strong, unified organization.
The SCO was established in Shanghai in 2001 and has both a security and an economic agenda. In the security realm, the goal is to promote military and counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing. In the economic arena, the CSTO focuses on trade and regional economic cooperation initiatives, such as supporting China’s Belt and Road Initiative (discussed later) and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. The SCO supports cooperation on culture, education, energy, and transportation. The SCO has been plagued by chronic underfunding and has limited power to operate independently, often focusing on the agendas of the twin-engine driving forces of the organization—Russia and China—though they have different visions of the SCO.
Both Russia and China have hosted military “antiterrorism” exercises that have involved other members of the SCO. In 2019, Russia invited member states from both the SCO and the CSTO to participate in the Russian Armed Forces’ annual strategic operational exercise called Tsentr (Center) 2019, which was held on September 16–21, 2019, and included forces from China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. According to a report by Roger McDermott, a noted expert on the Russian Armed Forces, this exercise was focused mainly on counter-terrorism operations and was designed to defend Central Asia against an Islamist insurrection; it was not allegedly aimed against a third-party country. It took place mainly in the Orenburg region of Russia but also spilled into other central parts of the country. It reportedly involved 128,000 military personnel, 20,000 pieces of equipment and weaponry, 600 aircraft and helicopters, and 15 warships. According to McDermott, some Russian analysts noted that Tsentr 2019 “looks less like preparing for counter-terrorist actions, than for inter-state war; this has been a feature of all Russian strategic exercise in recent years, though not an exclusive dimension….” McDermott questions the circumstances “in which Beijing, Delhi, and Islamabad would all join forces with Moscow, given the differences between these powers. Yet, by staging its annual strategic-level exercises to include SCO members in this way, Russia clearly wants to raise the specter of alliance building.”
The “Russian World” is not an institution; it is, instead, a common cultural, religious, and sometimes political concept designed to reconnect the Russian diaspora with its homeland. It is an important instrument in the Kremlin’s toolbox and is frequently used to rally Russian public opinion and Russian expats throughout the “near abroad” and beyond to serve the interests of the Kremlin and reinforce Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence. With some 30 million Russian compatriots now living beyond the borders of the Russian Federation—most in Belarus, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, —the concept of the “Russian World” has proven to be a useful vehicle in pursuit of the Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives.
The “Russian World” has frequently been used by Moscow in countries with a significant Russian population to garner support for its compatriots in their struggles with what they consider discriminatory policies in the host countries, such as restrictions on the use of the Russian language, “unfair” requirements for citizenship, or “disrespect” for Soviet war memorials and other monuments to former Soviet and Imperial Russian rule. Protests by members of the Russian diaspora against such policies have the full support of the Russian Government and its propaganda outlets. Vladimir Putin has spoken out repeatedly in support of Russian protestors in other countries. According to Paul Goble, a long-time Russia-hand and a one-time special advisor to former Secretary of State James Baker, “last October  Putin told the Congress of Russian Compatriots that Moscow will increase its efforts to defend Russians living abroad, something that he hopes will lead to an expansion of the “Russian World” (“Russkii Mir”).”
The Russian Orthodox Church is an active player in the “Russian World” concept. In the words of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch who was imprisoned for 10 years and is now a prominent, outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin,
[T]he Kremlin relies on the Orthodox Church as the main unifying force in the country and provides it with generous financial support. In return, the church has been the key promotor of a ‘Russian World’ concept that casts the Kremlin as a defense of Russians outside of Russia. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has gone so far as to call the Putin era “a miracle of God.”
The Russkii Mir Foundation, which was created by a decree signed by Putin in 2007 to promote this concept in Russian civil society, is supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and several Russian governmental agencies. Its official founders are the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Science. Funding for the Foundation comes from the federal budget, voluntary contributions and donations, and other unnamed sources.
Although much of the focus of the “Russian World” has been on promoting Russian soft power, the concept has also been used in the service of more aggressive pursuits—most notably in the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Separatist forces and their Russian supporters seized upon Russian nationalist sentiments among certain segments of the population to claim that parts of eastern Ukraine were historically part of Russia; they referred to the region as “Novorossiya” (New Russia)—a term used to designate part of southern Russia during Tsarist days. In spring 2014, this idea was supported directly by Putin who said in referring to Donbas: “I’ll remind you, this is Novorossiya: Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa were not part of Ukraine during Tsarist times. These were all territories given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government.” Although Putin did not say that Russia should reclaim these regions, he encouraged the separatist cause and those who sought to recreate Novorossiya. Following Russia’s initial involvement in hostilities in eastern Ukraine, excitement over establishing Novorossiya peaked. But the hope of reconstituting Novorossiya was short-lived as political and military efforts failed. Nevertheless, the concept remains alive as an element of the “Russian World.”
No country of the former Soviet Union is more important to Russia than Ukraine. This has been true for more than 300 years and remains true today. However, the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013–2014 caused a cataclysmic rupture in that relationship and has shaken Russia’s view of the world, its security, and its future to the very core.
The Euromaidan Revolution was marked by months of protests in the streets of Kyiv that became increasingly violent as riot police and unknown shooters opened fire on demonstrators, resulting in over 130 deaths. The events culminated during the week of February 18–23, 2014, in the ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and the collapse of the Ukrainian Government.
The spark that ignited the revolution was the controversy over Ukraine’s future ties with the European Union. Several Ukrainian governments, including that of Yanukovich, had sought to achieve an association agreement with the European Union that would have provided Ukraine with much-needed loans in return for Ukraine adopting liberalizing reforms—a position that the protesters strongly supported. Yanukovich indicated that he intended to sign the agreement but then started to waiver and delay, apparently under pressure from the Kremlin. Russia was Ukraine’s biggest trading partner. If Ukraine signed the agreement with the European Union, Moscow feared that it would have complicated their trade relationship.
As tensions rose and the protests became more violent, Yanukovich decided that his safety was at risk. On February 22, 2014, he fled Ukraine for Russia. The Ukrainian Rada (parliament) immediately relieved him of his duties as president by a vote of 328 to zero. The Euromaidan Revolution had triumphed, or so it seemed, with the removal of a corrupt, pro-Russian president. But the Ukrainian people were not ready for the immense challenges that lay ahead. Victory in revolutions is generally measured in the destruction of past evils, but the victors are usually ill-prepared for what to do the day after the revolution. That only comes with trial and error as the new authorities attempt to chart a path forward.
There was much jubilation in the streets of Kyiv and many other cities, but not everywhere. Ukraine has always been a divided country, with a history of multiple orientations and allegiances as well as cultural and linguistic differences. Not everyone welcomed Euromaidan. Many felt threatened and looked for reassurance elsewhere to ensure that their lives would not be thrown into chaos and despair. Russia was seen as their savior.
Russia was in shock. How could have the events in Kyiv and the overthrow of Yanukovich been possible? Had not Russia and President Putin personally taken numerous measures over the years to ensure that Ukraine would remain a reliable and trusted ally of Russia? Now not only Ukraine was in turmoil, but so was Russia.
The history of Russia and Ukraine has been perceived by many as the history of one people. Kyiv was the birthplace of the first East Slavic state—Kyivan Rus—and the center of culture, religion, and trade for the region for centuries. Putin has spoken of “commonalities” of Russians and Ukrainians and stressed that they are the same people and speak the same language.
Ukrainians today have a very different view. The current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said that “all that remains ‘in common’ between us is one thing, the state border.” Noted Russian commentator Gleb Pavlovsky described the Russia-Ukraine relationship since independence as a “geopathological embrace.” He sees them “not as sovereign entities but as an involuntary dyad in which each side sees the other both as a model and as an adversary.”
For Russia, the changes have been abrupt. Ukraine was for centuries an integral component of the Moscow-centric state, and it served as a key element in the county’s defense, security, and economic development. Ukraine’s post-Soviet aspiration to seek closer integration with the West and to strive for membership in NATO and the European Union is unimaginable for most Russians for it strikes at the very heart of the essence of the Russian state—its heritage, its culture, and most importantly, its security. Ukraine has always been a buffer between the Russian heartland and the West, but now that buffer has been severely weakened. This is an excruciatingly painful situation and one that the Kremlin cannot tolerate. The events of Euromaidan and the replacement of the pro-Russian government with the Western-oriented government of President Petro Poroshenko (2014–2019) demanded immediate action and led to Russia seizing the Crimean Peninsula—the home of a critically important Russian naval base—and materially and militarily supporting separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
The Russian propaganda machine went into high gear at home and easily convinced an overwhelming majority of the Russian people as well as many Russian-speaking Ukrainians that the Euromaidan Revolution was not democratic, was a menace to the Ukrainian people and was a threat to Russia. The Kremlin quickly garnered nationwide support for its annexation of Crimea. Putin’s approval rate soared to more than 80 percent. On March 18, 2014, Putin made a jubilant address to the Russian Federation Council on Crimea’s “reunification” with Russia, asserting, “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” Others were more bellicose in their denouncement of Ukraine’s Euromaidan “treason.” Aleksandr Khramchikhin, the deputy head of the Moscow Institute for Political and Military Analysis, writing in the Russian weekly newspaper Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, expressed the opinion of many of his compatriots: “Ukraine is Russia’s mortal enemy and will continue to constitute a serious threat unless and until it is reabsorbed by Russia or broken up into a number of less-threatening mini-states.”
Moscow’s propaganda message was clear and simple. As Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council explained: “The Kiev authorities are doing everything to split Ukraine, implementing the West’s scenario to break Ukraine away from Russia, while ignoring the interests of its own people.” It was a message that convinced many that Ukraine had become Russia’s enemy and the West was responsible for making it so. It was a message that worked.
The Kremlin’s ultimate goal is to ensure that Ukraine remains in Russia’s sphere of influence and that it serves Russia’s interests by, at a minimum, not threatening or damaging Russia’s security. Barring that, the Kremlin seeks to weaken Ukraine as much as possible, including by breaking up the country. As time passes, these goals become increasingly difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, since 2014 Moscow has been doggedly pursuing both objectives simultaneously.
Putin and his cohorts are pragmatic and are more responsive to tactical opportunities than to pursuing a long-term plan. Although Moscow continues to dominate events and military activities in Donbas, it is paying a price for its aggression. Western economic sanctions on Russia are taking a toll. Russia’s initial seizure of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine in support of the separatist-established statelets of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics brought some initial success. Now, however, the ground game has reached an impasse, unless Russia resumes major military action. It appears that the Kremlin is willing to play the long game and turn Donbas into another “frozen or not-so-frozen conflict.”
On the political front, the Kremlin continues to play a coy game. It presents itself as a peacemaker in the negotiations led by the West, although Russia is the principal belligerent. It actively participates in the war in Donbas, and it continues to integrate Crimea into the structure of the Russian Federation. It seeks to influence internal Ukrainian politics in its favor, to weaken the Ukrainian government and the will of the Ukrainian people. It conducts propaganda campaigns within Ukraine, Russia, and the West, and it engages in economic warfare, espionage, contract murders, and other nefarious deeds. It even recently began handing out Russian passports to Ukrainians from separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. President Zelenskiy has mocked the passport offer. He said,
We Ukrainians have freedom of speech, a free media, and internet in our country. Which is why we clearly understand what a Russian passport really offers someone: the right to be arrested for peaceful protest; the right to not have free and competitive elections; the right to forget about your natural rights and human freedoms.
The war in Ukraine has been going on since 2014. Many are growing weary of it and are more earnestly considering how to bring it to an end. Ukrainian President Zelenskiy appears to be more flexible than his predecessor. Recently, Ukraine and Russia exchanged 35 prisoners on either side. Many see this as a win for Russia since those released by Ukraine are considered actual criminals, but those freed by Russia are simply Ukrainian hostages. Moreover, Russia continues to hold other Ukrainian hostages in Russia and Crimea. Nevertheless, this move is viewed in Ukraine and Russia as a possible first step in reducing tensions.
Others are less sanguine. Most concur that the agreements achieved so far—Minsk I and II and the so-called Normandy process—have benefited Russia. They fear that the resumption of negotiations will put pressure on Ukraine to agree to conditions that are not in its favor. A recent flurry of diplomatic activity between Ukraine and Russia and an initiative by French President Emmanuel Macron to move the stalled peace process have reinforced this concern.
The most recent controversy over bringing peace to Donbas centers on the so-called Steinmeier Formula—a proposal advanced in 2016 by then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (now president of Germany) to get Ukraine and Russia to agree on a sequence of events outlined in the Minsk accords that will allow for the special status of Donbas after elections are held in the separatist-held territories based on Ukrainian law and under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). After lying dormant for three years, the Formula was signed by Ukraine and Russia on October 1, 2019, raising much consternation in Ukraine and leading to protests on the streets of Kyiv and elsewhere. The timing of the withdrawal of Russian troops and the return of Ukrainian control over the border with Russia are not clearly defined. There is fear in Ukraine that signing on to the Steinmeier Formula will result in capitulation. Nevertheless, President Zelenskiy’s acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula has opened the door to the next round of negotiations by the Normandy Group—France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine—a precondition that Russia insisted on before the group could resume consultations.
President Zelenskiy has addressed the concern of his fellow citizens about the sequence of steps that need to be agreed upon before Ukraine will implement the Steinmeier Formula. He insists that “there won’t be any elections under the barrel of a gun. There won’t be any elections there if the [Russian] troops are still there.” As in the past with other proposals, this one could collapse. Ukrainians are nervous that their new president, who is inexperienced in the complexities of diplomacy, could surrender the negotiating upper hand to Putin.
The United States has not been a direct participant in the peace process and is currently sending mixed messages regarding its position on Ukraine. President Trump has been encouraging Ukrainian President Zelenskiy to work out a deal with President Putin. Putin, however, appears to be playing the long game. Although Russia is suffering from isolation from the West and the sanctions that have been imposed on it, the Kremlin is willing to outwait the West and the relatively inexperienced new Ukrainian president and his government. Too much is at stake for Russia—its national security and what it considers to be the jewel in the crown of its sphere of influence, Ukraine—for it to agree to measures that will seriously jeopardize its national interests.
But will Russia succeed in bringing Ukraine back into the fold? Few believe it will. Instead, they believe that Russia will have to adjust to a new reality, one in which its traditional sphere of influence will be weakened and will seek compensation in other forms. As far as Ukraine is concerned, the Kremlin may decide that the best option is to create as much chaos in Ukraine as possible to thwart its aspirations for closer integration with the West. As for further compensation, the Kremlin may attempt to strengthen its influence in other states that border the West and Ukraine, most notably Belarus and Moldova, to maintain a strong security posture along its western frontier.
Ironically, Russian aggression against Ukraine has achieved the opposite of its intended goal. It has pushed Ukraine closer to the West and brought about Ukraine’s exit from the Russian-dominated post-Soviet world. It has turned a once-friendly, dependent neighbor into an enemy that no longer relies on Russia economically or strategically. Any Russian hope that Ukraine would become a member of the Eurasian Economic Union is dashed. Informally, many Ukrainians and Russians still maintain close personal bonds, but Ukrainian aspirations and ties increasingly are shifting westward. Ukrainians today are less likely to live and work in Russia, moving instead to Poland and other Western countries. More than ever before, Ukrainians are identifying themselves as Europeans.
In addition, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has declared itself independent of the Russian Orthodox Church, and its autocephaly has been blessed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the nominal senior patriarch in the Orthodox world. This means not only the loss of millions of parishioners for the Russian Orthodox Church but also a large loss of church property and revenue. Moreover, it delivers a major blow to the concept that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, one church, and one culture and that they all belong to the “Russian World.”
The Ukrainian language is experiencing a resurgence. It has become the lingua franca in the public space, mass media, and education. Ukrainian culture—always a distinct and proud aspect of Ukrainian society—has become a very prominent part of life.
Ukraine’s goals to join NATO and the European Union have been enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution. Ukraine has established a strategic partnership with the United States, which hopefully will survive the stress placed on it by the current political scandal involving the Trump Administration. Ukraine has built a capable army, is successfully holding its own in the war in eastern Ukraine, and is participating in the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The transformations taking place in Ukraine pose a direct threat to the Kremlin and its rule. Because most Russians view Ukraine as virtually indistinguishable from their own country, significant changes in Ukrainian society and movement toward European integration could inevitably lead to calls for similar developments inside Russia. As former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul recently tweeted:
The contrast between Ukrainians voting in free and fair elections…and Russians getting arrested for wanting free and fair elections…is striking. The challenges posed by Ukraine’s democratic changes to its political system, the emergence of a vibrant and influential civil society, and the battle against corruption (still a formidable task) pose a direct threat to the autocratic and increasingly repressive regime in Moscow.
There is no indication that the conflict with Ukraine will end anytime soon. It will most likely persist for years, if not for decades. Even if a modus vivendi is found, and Russia and Ukraine end their overt confrontational relationship, the age-old relationship between Ukraine and Russia will never be the same. Although they share a common border and a history from which they cannot escape, Ukraine has now chosen a very different path. It sees its future tied to Europe, and it will no longer tolerate the heavy hand of the Kremlin in its political, economic, social, and religious life. Today, Ukraine is no longer part of Russia’s sphere of influence and will not tolerate—if it is able—any attempt by Russia to reassert its dominance over Ukraine.
Belarus is one of those small European countries few people know much about. For centuries it was part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. When it gained independence in 1991, it remained so closely associated with Russia—politically, economically, socially, culturally, and linguistically—that it could, without much exaggeration, be called Russia’s “mini-me.” But such an appellation may be unfair. Although much of it emanates from policy decisions taken by Belarus’s leaders and supported by a large majority of the population, part of Belarus’s close connection to Russia is dictated by geography and history over which Belarusians have no control. From the Russian perspective, Belarus is the linchpin in its sphere of influence along its western periphery and has gained enhanced importance since 2014 as a consequence of Russia’s “loss” of Ukraine.
Belarus is a landlocked country wedged between Russia and Poland, bordering also on Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia. Throughout most of its history, Belarus has been controlled by different states, including the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Belarus enjoyed a very brief period of independence before it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarus regained its independence and started on a path toward freeing itself from its Soviet past and associating more closely with the West. In 1994 Alexander Lukashenko—a former Soviet collective farm director—was elected president. He quickly cracked down on the opposition forces and their attempts to introduce democratic reforms and returned Belarus to the Russian fold. Lukashenko’s autocratic rule earned Belarus the label of “Europe’s last dictatorship.”
Belarus plays a critical role in Russia’s defensive calculus. Due to its flat terrain with few natural impediments to the movement of military forces across its territory, Belarus has been a natural invasion route into Russia from the West over the centuris—most recently during World War II. Therefore, maintaining a friendly regime in Belarus that is deferential to Russia’s interests and agrees to play a key role in supporting Russia’s security policy is of paramount importance to the Kremlin.
For its part, Belarus has been a willing and subservient partner. It recognizes the overwhelming power of the Russian state and Belarus’s dependence on Russia for many of its economic and development needs. Since independence in 1991, Belarusians have accepted the inevitability of this relationship—one that is enhanced by the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic affinity of the Belarusian and Russian people. The Russian language and culture predominate in Belarus, and most Belarusians, although proud of their heritage, accept the reality of Russian domination in everyday life. Svetlana Alexievich, the noted Belarusian Nobel Prize-winning writer, described her and her countrymen’s quandary this way: “Of course, I am Belarusian and my mother tongue is Belarusian—though I don’t speak it because the whole practice of my life has been the Russian language and Russian culture. But I feel myself Belarusian; I am Belarusian; and this is my land.” This close identification of Belarus with Russia has traditionally diluted Belarusians’ sense of community apart from Russia and has facilitated Russia’s ability to manipulate and use Belarus as an essential ally in its foreign policy pursuits.
But will this tight relationship continue unchallenged? Are cracks already appearing? Have events in Ukraine affected Belarus’s view of, and relations with, Russia? Is President Lukashenko able to manipulate the Kremlin to Belarus’s advantage? And is the Belarusian President attempting to move his country closer to the West, thereby evoking fear in Moscow that Belarus, if left unchecked, could pose a threat to Russia’s sphere of influence? These are some of the questions I will address below.
Although the Russia-Belarus relationship remains the most extensive and closest one Russia has in the post-Soviet space, it is increasingly plagued by challenges posed by a less compliant and more assertive government in Minsk. This tight relationship has come at a heavy price to both parties: for Russia, it has meant committing large financial resources and subsidies to Belarus; for Belarus, it has meant largely subordinating its geopolitical interests to those of Russia. Over the years this bilateral relationship has been perceived as generally beneficial to both parties. Below the surface, however, the partners have often been at odds. When disagreements have erupted into public disputes, Presidents Putin and Lukashenko have managed to tamp down the worst aspects of their differences.
Since Russia seized Crimea and incorporated the peninsula into the Russian Federation—a move that Belarus has not recognized—and engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine that resulted in the drastic deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, Belarus has been feeling increased pressure from Russia to be more accommodating to Russia’s strategic interests. There is a concern in Belarus that Russia might take some drastic steps, including military action, to ensure that Belarus remains steadfastly within Moscow’s orbit.
Feeding that concern is the fact that Moscow has recently increased its economic, political, and security pressure on Minsk in what Belarusian security analyst Arsen Sivitsky describes as “a quite aggressive and unfriendly manner toward its chief ally.” One important element of this pressure is Russia’s attempts to establish a military base in Belarus. Russian officials have repeatedly stated that they consider any attack on Belarus as an attack on Russia, and they use this argument as justification for a permanent military presence in Belarus. So far Lukashenko has successfully fended off those Russian efforts. Many Belarusians fear that the establishment of a Russian military installation in Belarus could serve as a base for the Kremlin to annex Belarus, just as it did with Crimea.
Russia’s increased aggression in the region has not only affected Belarus’s political and security concerns but has also awakened Belarusian civil society and pride in their own identity. Shortly after Russia annexed Crimea, President Lukashenko delivered a speech for the first time in Belarusian, instead of Russian, which most Belarusians use as their first language. Lukashenko said: “We are not Russian—we are Belarusians.” This speech, followed by other measures to instill pride in Belarus’s history and culture, has had a positive impact on Belarusian society. Even some of the most ardent Belarussian opposition figures see Lukashenko less as “the last dictator in Europe” and more as the strongest guarantor of Belarus’s independence.
Lukashenko has survived in large part because of his cunning and manipulative skills and by being an astute student of the Russian scene and Kremlin intrigues. He recognizes that Belarus holds the weaker hand and that his country’s economic dependence on Russia limits his options. He is also well aware of Russia’s weaknesses and knows how to exploit them to his advantage. He understands that Russia’s isolation on much of the international stage offers him new opportunities. Russian political analyst Kirill Rogov offers a Russian perspective:
[Belarus] is the last bastion. Considering the sharp conflict with the West, Moscow understands that at any moment the West could start pulling Belarus toward its sphere of influence and this creates some uncertainty. In the isolation that Russia is now experiencing, it is losing some of its influence, including over Belarus.
The Kremlin is well aware that “its last bastion,” the linchpin in its sphere of influence that serves as a buffer between Russia and the West, may no longer be as pliant as it has been in the past. This is a troubling development and one that the Kremlin is attempting to address through one of the original mechanisms that was established after the collapse of the Soviet Union—the Union State of Russia and Belarus.
Russia and Belarus have had a close relationship since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. On December 8, 1999, they signed five documents to create what is now called the Union State of Russia and Belarus. This agreement, which was based ostensibly on the principle of parity, sought to integrate the two countries by creating a single economic space, a single currency, and a Union State legislature sometime in the future. Despite plans for certain integration, the two states were to remain independent and maintain sovereignty over key governmental functions. Since the Treaty was signed, many discussions and negotiations between the parties have taken place, but little progress has been made in implementing the agreement. The issue of parity has been a major stumbling block. As Belarusian analyst Yauheni Preiherman explains, “Moscow would not agree to parity-based decision-making in key economic areas, whereas Minsk would not go for anything else.”
In December 2018, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev declared that Moscow wanted to revise the 1999 Treaty and take steps to fully implement it. One can assume that Moscow is seeking to prevent Minsk from straying from its orbit, resolve some of the vexing economic problems in its favor, and perhaps solve the problem of what happens to Vladimir Putin after his final term as president ends in 2024. There is speculation that he could become president of the Union State and continue to rule not only Russia but also Belarus—a situation that Belarus would reject. For this reason, according to Belarusian analysts, any discussion of revising and implementing the Union Treaty would be acceptable to Belarus only if its scope is limited to an economic union.
Few experts believe that Russia will attempt to annex Belarus outright. It would be too steep a price to pay, even for Vladimir Putin. Rather, analysts are more inclined to predict that Russia will increase pressure on Belarus, seek to coerce it into following a more subservient role, and reduce its sovereignty so that it resembles the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet days. President Lukashenko has reaffirmed Belarus’s determination to remain independent. In a statement to the press in 2019, he said,
They [the Russians] would like to tie Belarus to Russia in a guaranteed way. I understand that. They cannot lose Belarus. But it is a different matter as to how this is being done. I told Putin, if there is any thought that we are ready to become part of Russia, just get it out of your head.
In response to Medvedev’s call, negotiations on a roadmap for integration between Moscow and Minsk began in 2019, but they failed to meet their deadline of June 21, 2019, and deferred the projected completion date to the end of the year. Minsk is focused on economic issues and seeks to stabilize and extend the fiscal advantages it currently enjoys from Russia. Moscow is aiming to consolidate and enhance its political influence over Belarus. This dispute does not seem to have a solution.
On September 17, 2019, Russia and Belarus announced that they had initialed a roadmap to form “an economic confederacy” by 2022. The document does not address integration between the two countries’ defense, security, and legal bodies. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that this document is just a preliminary plan of action. Much negotiation still needs to take place before the end of the year. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Belarusian President Lukashenko said that the roadmap does not threaten Belarus’ sovereignty and independence.
There is little expectation that this attempt to implement the Union Treaty will be any more successful than previous ones. Presidents Putin and Lukashenko may sign an agreement, but the parties will likely run into the same roadblocks as in the past—mutual distrust and an inability to share power. There is also the possibility that negotiations will fail and the initialed documents could be torn up. In that case, the sides may decide to pull back and proceed at a slower pace, taking a step-by-step approach.
As a sign of Lukashenko’s growing concern that the Union State may represent a real threat to Belarus’s independence and sovereignty, or, more likely, as a negotiating ploy, Lukashenko said in a conversation with journalists on November 17, 2019, that Russia tries to impose more and more conditions on Belarus every year and that “we constantly lose something in the economy—lose and lose.” Then he asked rhetorically: “Sorry, but who the hell needs such an alliance?” It is hard to imagine with such sentiment expressed openly that an amicable resolution of the negotiations over the Union State will be achieved any time soon.
Belarus’s relations with the West, particularly with the United States, have been strained for over a decade because of Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule, his violent crack-down on his political opponents, and the resulting sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe. In recent months, clear signals emerged from Minsk that Lukashenko wants to improve relations and increase investment in his country. China has already established a sizeable financial and commercial presence in Belarus. Lukashenko would like to see the same from the West and recognizes that an improved political relationship is a prerequisite. This will not be an easy task given the historical lack of trust between Belarus and the West, but it is a growing imperative for Minsk. Belarus is under increased pressure from Russia, which is using its economic leverage to get Belarus to comply with its political demands. Furthermore, Russia’s own economic decline has repercussions for Belarus because, even under the most favorable conditions, fewer Russian resources are now available to Belarus. Thus, Lukashenko understands that he needs to develop economic and political opportunities elsewhere, while at the same time maintaining a good relationship with Russia. It is a delicate balancing act—one that Lukashenko must execute carefully because Moscow takes a dim view of any signs of a pro-Western direction or even neutrality by Minsk.
Signs of a more independent Belarusian foreign policy have been more apparent in recent weeks and months. Late last year President Lukashenko reportedly told a group of visiting U.S. analysts that “the U.S. military and political role in Europe was crucial to regional security,” and he emphasized that he did not want a Russian military base in his country. On August 29, 2019, Lukashenko told former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton that he wanted to reset ties with Washington. Less than three weeks later, on September 17, 2019, the United States and Belarus announced that they had agreed to exchange ambassadors after diplomatic relations were downgraded 11 years ago. In making this announcement, U.S. Undersecretary of State David Hale emphasized that “we are not asking Belarus to choose between East and West. The United States respects Belarus' desire to chart its own course and to contribute to peace and stability in the region.”
Recent steps by Belarus to improve relations with Washington cannot be viewed by Moscow as anything but troubling. Moscow is displeased that its most loyal ally is taking more independent positions and may be attempting to transform itself into a normal East European state and a possible intermediary between Russia and the West. Minsk has already carved out a diplomatic niche for itself as a host of negotiations on Ukraine. Further steps to play a more neutral role in helping to resolve East-West issues could impact Russia-Belarus relations in a negative way, especially in view of Moscow’s growing anxiety over the fact that, as Dmitry Trenin notes, “virtually the entire western border of Russia, from Norway to Ukraine, has turned into a new line in the military standoff between Russia and NATO countries and their partners and wards.”
Prospects for Russia-Belarus relations appear to be more tenuous than at any time in recent history as Russia’s key ally and the linchpin in its sphere of influence along its western frontier increasingly shows signs of independence and change. It is not clear how much longer President Lukashenko will remain at the helm in Minsk, and what will follow when he leaves office is impossible to predict. How much Moscow will try to orchestrate his succession is a fundamental question and one that troubles the authorities in Minsk.
Prominent Russian think tanks closely aligned with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are already offering forecasts for the next several years. Some experts warn that in the event of further deterioration in relations between Russia and the West and the possibility that the United States may deploy a permanent military contingent in Poland, the Kremlin will insist on greater integration of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus and the establishment of a permanent Russian military base in Belarus. Others advocate applying more pressure on Belarus to gain concessions that would undermine Belarus’s independence and force greater integration with Russia. Still other analysts suggest that to prevent Belarus from withdrawing from Russia’s sphere of influence, Moscow should orchestrate regime change in Minsk, replacing Lukashenko with a more pro-Russian president, or even annex Belarus as it did Crimea in 2014. The latter scenario is least likely, but it could become more actual if the Kremlin fears it is conclusively losing Belarus.
Moldova is the third and smallest component of what Russia has traditionally considered its sphere of influence along its western frontier. It is also the home of the longest “frozen conflict” in Eastern Europe.
Moldova, known as the poorest country in Europe, is situated between Romania and Ukraine. Over the centuries what is modern-day Moldova has been controlled by the Ottoman Empire; Romania, when Moldova was known as Bessarabia; the Russian Empire; and the Soviet Union. Like other former Soviet republics, Moldova became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke apart. A small tract of land known as Transnistria bordering on Ukraine and inhabited largely by a Russian-speaking population declared its independence from Moldova in 1990. A civil war broke out, and a cease-fire was declared in 1992. Russian troops, who were stationed in Moldova during the Soviet days, occupied Transnistria as “peacekeepers” and guard over an old Soviet munitions base. Although negotiations over Transnistria have been conducted intermittently for decades, no resolution to this “frozen conflict” has been found. Many believe that Russia does not seriously seek an end to the conflict for fear of losing its influence and leverage over Moldova.
Romanian-speaking Moldova struggles to define its identity. The population is divided between those who are pro-Russian and those who are pro-Western. The younger generation predominantly sees its future tied to the West. The older generations—the ones that grew up as part of a Soviet society that was dominated by Moscow—have a more ambiguous view. The ruling elite has been largely pro-Russian. Even those who are Western-oriented understand that they cannot ignore the views of the Kremlin. The leadership in Chisinau (Moldova’s capital) has little flexibility. Moldova is poor and has few sources of revenue other than remittances for Moldovans working abroad (many in Russia) and its agricultural exports—principally wine. When the Kremlin decides to apply pressure on Moldova, it often declares a boycott of Moldovan goods. This can have a devastating effect on Moldova’s weak economy. Furthermore, the presence of Russian troops and the political control the Kremlin exercises over separatist Transnistria put Moldova in a very weak position vis-à-vis Russia. In addition, Moscow periodically stokes another potentially explosive ethnic issue—that of the Gagauz, an Eastern Orthodox Turkic people living in southern Moldova. A provision in a 1994 agreement between the Moldovan government and the Gagauz specifies that the latter has the right to pursue independence if Moldova decides to unite with Romania, as some Moldovan officials have proposed in the past. Consequently, Russia’s hold over Moldova remains for the most part steadfast.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been leading an effort to resolve the Transnistrian conflict for over twenty years. In 2011, the 5+2 group—Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, Chisinau (capital of Moldova), and Tiraspol (capital of Transnistria), with the United States and the European Union as observers—was established as the “Permanent Conference for Political Questions in the Framework of the Negotiating Process on the Transnistrian Settlement.” According to an OSCE statement, the goal of the 5+2 talks is “… to work out the parameters of a comprehensive settlement based on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova within its internationally recognized borders with a special status for Transnistria within Moldova.”
In 2016, the OSCE developed a “small steps” package when German Foreign Minister Steinmeier was chairman of the OSCE. This Berlin Package, as it is called, proposed eight small steps to build confidence and advance the settlement process. Most of the steps addressed relatively minor economic and societal issues between Chisinau and Tiraspol. On the broader political front, the OSCE seeks agreement according to which Transnistria would enjoy a “special status” (a euphemism for federalization—a word that is anathema to Moldova) in a unified Moldovan state. Russia demands the “permanent neutrality of Moldova under reliable guarantees” and refuses to withdraw its troops from Transnistria until a final political resolution is found and is agreed to by all parties. The parties are still far apart from reaching an agreement, and it is clear that Russia has the upper hand in these talks. Russia is not only a direct participant, but as a member of the OSCE, it can exercise veto power over anything the OSCE proposes. There is little doubt that Russia plans to stay in Transnistria for the long haul.
The Moldovan government went through a political crisis in 2019 that was resolved in an unusual way—by the intervention of the United States, the European Union, and Russia supporting the same forces.
For years Moldovan politics were dominated by a notoriously corrupt oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, who has been described as the richest man in the poorest country in Europe, and his Democratic Party that claimed to support integration with Europe and the fight against the “Russian threat.” He enjoyed support from the West because of his battle against pro-Russian forces in the country and his efforts to prevent them from coming to power in Chisinau. Nevertheless, in December 2016 Igor Dodon—head of the pro-Russian Socialist Party—was elected president.
Following a political crisis in June 2019, the Socialists united with a new pro-Western democratic alliance—ACUM—to oust Plahotniuc and form a new government. The leader of ACUM, Harvard-educated Maia Sandu, became the prime minister, and Dodon remained as president. Plahotniuc’s resistance was brief. Representatives from the United States, the European Union, and Russia met with Plahotniuc and convinced him that it was time to leave. Moldova’s oligarchic regime, which had seemed to be indestructible, collapsed under outside pressure.
There is little doubt among Moldovan politicians and analysts that the Russia-West cooperation over Moldova will last. Moscow still maintains the predominant leverage over the country, supported by increasingly assertive measures undertaken by pro-Russian President Dodon who has received a wide foreign policy mandate from the new governing coalition. This further strengthens Moscow’s belief that it can contain the pro-Western orientation of the new prime minister. As Carnegie’s DmitryTrenin has said, with the oligarch Plahotniuc out of the way, “the West and Russia have no compelling reason to cooperate” any further. Although Moldova will continue its efforts to seek a more balanced position between Russia and the West, there is little doubt that Chisinau will remain largely within Moscow’s orbit for the foreseeable future.
Although the vulnerability of Russia’s western frontier has been Moscow’s most important security concern since it has been the main route for invasions over the centuries, Russia’s southern border has also posed unique challenges. During the heyday of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, wars were frequently fought for control of the valuable territory around the Black Sea and to its immediate east. Once Russia defeated the Turks and conquered the local populations, it established its authority over large swaths of territory. Areas with predominantly Slavic populations, such as southern Ukraine, were incorporated into the Russian Empire relatively peacefully. Other areas, notably the very ethnically diverse lands of the Caucasus, posed unique challenges to Russian domination.
The Caucasus region is divided in half by the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The area on the north side of the range is home to a multitude of nationalities, both Muslim and Orthodox. Known as the North Caucasus, it has been part of the Russian Empire for several centuries and has a history of turmoil and conflict. Even today the Kremlin must devote considerable attention to maintaining control and peace in the region.
Transcaucasia, or the South Caucasus, is home to three countries—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—with long histories of both independence and subservience to stronger powers in the region, namely Russia, Turkey (Ottoman Empire), and Iran (Persia). Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are ethnically, linguistically, and religiously very different. Georgia is predominately Orthodox, as is Armenia. Its two peoples speak languages that are distinct and unique to the region. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country. The population speaks a Turkic language, and the people and government have close ties to Turkey. Azerbaijan also has a special relationship with Iran, which has a large Azeri population in northwestern Iran.
All three countries were incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 19th century and became part of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. When the USSR collapsed, they regained independence but struggled to emerge from the Soviet legacy and Russian domination. Each country has followed a unique path, and each has developed its formula for dealing with Russia and the pressures the Kremlin applies to keep them within its sphere of influence.
Georgia fought a five-day war with Russia in August 2008 over the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia and immediately thereafter broke off diplomatic relations with Moscow. Armenia has remained a loyal ally of Russia, and the two have a close economic and political relationship. Russia has a military base in Armenia and provides arms to the country, which is locked in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh—an Armenian-populated area located in Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1988, resulting in a bloody conflict that lasted until a ceasefire was declared in 1994. Azerbaijan is an oil-and-gas rich country on the Caspian Sea. Despite Russia’s military support to Armenia, Azerbaijan has been able to maintain friendly relations with Russia, owing in large part to the powerful economic role the country plays in the region.
In the three decades since independence, each of the three countries has gradually restructured its relations with Russia. Significant changes have occurred in all three countries, and the legacy of the Soviet Union is disappearing. The Russian population in each country has decreased to an insignificant level, as has the use of the Russian language. Today, other countries—including China, the European Union, Iran, Turkey, and the United States—vie with Russia for economic, political, and social influence in the three countries
Russia, however, has not given up its attempts to influence the countries of Transcaucasia. It remains the most powerful neighbor in the region and has a closely interwoven history with all three countries. Widespread poverty and corruption still plague the region, which make the countries vulnerable to Russian manipulation and exploitation. Although the three countries are determined to map out independent paths for their future, they recognize the need to deal with a Kremlin that is increasingly uneasy about a region that once was firmly in its sphere of influence but now poses a serious challenge to its domination.
The Republic of Georgia has a long and proud history as an independent kingdom, but it has also been repeatedly occupied by its more powerful neighbors—the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian Empires. In 1801, Georgia became part of the Russian Empire and remained subservient to Moscow until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Over almost two centuries, Georgia and Russia enjoyed a relationship that was in some ways unique. Georgians and Russians share the Orthodox faith, which has played a prominent role in both societies and has helped the two peoples to coexist generally on friendly terms. Georgians held positions of prominence in both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The most notorious Soviet Georgians were Joseph Stalin (his real name was Djugashvili) and Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s last KGB chief. Eduard Shavardnadze was the Soviet Foreign Minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. Previously, he was First Secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia and returned to his homeland after the Soviet Union collapsed to rule as Georgia’s president from 1992 to 2003. Georgia was also unique in that it was the only republic within the Soviet Union that was allowed to retain its native language as its official language. All other Soviet republics had to adopt Russian as their official language. Georgia also was known for its air of “independence” and unique way of doing things (often bordering on the illegal) that were not considered “Soviet.” It was often said that if one wanted to escape from the drab existence of Soviet life, one went to Georgia.
After Georgia regained its independence in 1991, a civil war erupted that led to the secession of two formerly autonomous regions—Abkhazia and South Ossetia that comprise approximately 20 percent of the territory of Georgia—and internal turmoil that subsided only after Shevardnadze regained control over the country.
In recent years, particularly under the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili (2004–2013 and 2015–2016), Georgia has pursued pro-Western foreign and economic policies, aspiring eventually to join NATO and the European Union. Georgia has established close ties with both organizations and has committed troops to NATO operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.
Georgia’s Western orientation has drawn the ire of the Kremlin, which frequently exerts pressure on the Georgian government and the Georgian people. Moscow has been successful in blocking Georgian membership in NATO (Georgia continues to cooperate with NATO, but membership discussions are no longer active), and has made clear that if Georgia were to join NATO, this would be a red line for Moscow that would result in disastrous consequences for Georgia. Although Georgia and its Western partners insist that Georgia, as an independent country, can pursue its foreign policy as it wishes, they realize that Georgia must tread carefully so as not to totally alienate Moscow. Georgia learned this bitter lesson in August 2008.
On August 7, 2008, in an attempt to restore Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia, a brief war broke out between Russia and Georgia. Russian troops moved into Georgian territory and advanced on the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. A ceasefire was declared on August 12, 2008, followed by successful negotiations led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Two weeks later South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared their independence, which Moscow immediately recognized. Georgia and Russia broke off diplomatic relations, and they have not yet been restored.
Today, Russian troops remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and relations with Georgia are still tense. On numerous occasions Russian and South Ossetian forces have provocatively moved the border fence between South Ossetia and Georgia deeper into Georgian territory, often dividing villages and even homesteads. Some Georgian farmers have gone to bed in Georgia and woken up in South Ossetia. Others have found their livestock suddenly in another country and have had to milk their cows through the border fence. There is little that Tbilisi can do. The Georgian government issues protests and raises the issue at a negotiation forum established in Geneva after the declaration of the ceasefire in 2008, but to no avail. Russia remains nonresponsive.
Tensions between Russia and Georgia eased somewhat after the departure of President Saakashvili, who was abhorred by Moscow. The Kremlin publicly blamed Saakashvili for starting the war and claimed that he was vehemently anti-Russian. Subsequent Georgian governments have sought some accommodation with Moscow, but with limited success. The Russian and Georgian people have tried to maintain normal contact (Russian tourism in Georgia has thrived), but the Kremlin is hypersensitive to any moves in Tbilisi that it interprets as anti-Russian.
In June 2019, a protest erupted in Tbilisi over the presence of a Russian legislator who sat in the speaker’s chair of the Georgian Parliament during a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy hosted by Georgia. The protest, led largely by Georgia youth, turned violent and resulted in numerous injuries. The Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili described it as a “manifestation of the very strong, deeply entrenched feeling of the Georgian population that is not accepting the status quo,” meaning the consequences of the 2008 war with Russia.
The Kremlin and Putin himself, who many believe was embarrassed and angered by the incident, reacted quickly to the protesters, whom they described as Russophobic and warmongering. Moscow issued a ban on direct flights between Russia and Georgia that was allegedly done “to ensure Russia’s national security and protect Russian nationals from criminal and other unlawful activities.” The ban, which occurred at the height of the tourist season, had an immediate, negative effect on the burgeoning tourist industry in Georgia.
Tensions further escalated when a Georgian TV anchor went on an obscenity-laden rant against Putin. The Russian Duma threatened to introduce additional sanctions, including renaming the famous Georgian cheese pie khachapuri with the Russian name pyshka, which does not at all resemble the Georgian delicacy. Wiser heads prevailed, and the ban was not adopted, although the flight ban remained in place.
Russia remains intensely concerned about the future direction Georgia may take. Georgia is key to Russia’s southern security perimeter and, together with Armenia and Azerbaijan, plays an important role in Russia’s ability to remain a strong player in the region. Russian policy and Georgian aspirations are in direct conflict and affect the ability of both countries to effectively realize their objectives. Russia still has considerable leverage that it can exercise over Georgia. Embargoes, travel bans, and restrictions on Georgian workers in Russia have hurt the Georgian economy. Russia has been less successful in using soft power to influence Georgians, particularly the younger generation, which sees its future tied to the West rather than Russia. English and other Western languages have largely replaced Russian as Georgia’s second language, and soft power efforts through the Russian media have been largely ineffective. In commenting about Russia’s attempts to use soft power in Georgia, President Zurabishvili said: “It [Russia] just doesn’t know how to exploit that. It’s probably a legacy of empires.”
Russian troops are deployed about 50 miles from Tbilisi, and only a mile or so from Georgia’s strategic transportation networks of rail, roads, and pipelines. Europe and the United States are far from Georgia, and in the event of a conflict with Russia would most likely be unable to respond in time to prevent another successful Russian incursion. Although the chances of a direct military conflict have been reduced, the situation remains volatile and could change rapidly and unexpectedly.
Russia has lost Ukraine. It has also lost Georgia. The prospects for repair to the latter relationship seem remote. As Russian analyst Andrei Sushentsov explains,
This long-standing conflict [between Russia and Georgia], which has lasted two decades, is so profound and irreconcilable that the parties have abandoned looking for a compromise.…The parties have accepted the fact that in the near future, there will be no solution. They have even stopped making attempts to approach it creatively, as they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
With the loss of these two key countries, Russia’s sphere of influence has suffered severe damage.
Like its northern neighbor Georgia, Armenia has a rich and proud culture and history, but it is surrounded by powerful neighbors—Iran and Azerbaijan, and Turkey, the latter of which was responsible for the genocide of an estimated one million Armenians during World War I. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a state of war for more than three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh (called the Republic of Artsakh by Armenia)—an Armenian-populated region within Azerbaijan that is now occupied by Armenian forces who also control seven Azeri-populated provinces that they seized during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has been a steadfast ally of Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia. Thus, Armenia is wedged in between two hostile neighbors.
Given Armenia’s precarious geopolitical situation, it is no surprise that Armenia has been a staunch ally of Russia on whom it relies for defense (Russia has a military base in Armenia and provides arms and equipment to the Armenian Armed Forces). Russia also provides much-needed economic and financial support to Armenia and is a principal supplier of Armenia’s energy needs—critical to Armenia because it is resource-poor in a region dominated by its energy-rich enemy, Azerbaijan.
Politically, Armenia has been a compliant and dutiful ally of Russia. It is a member of the various multilateral organizations Russia dominates in the region and largely supports Moscow’s political positions in the international arena. This does not mean, however, that Armenia does not try to maintain good relations with the European Union and the United States. Relations with the West have generally been positive and have given Armenia opportunities to expand its support and seek new prospects for financial and economic development.
Since independence in 1991, Armenia’s political elite has been dominated by former Soviet functionaries and ideological conservatives who are more comfortable with authoritarianism than with western democracy. Moscow has benefited from this system and has found the entrenched political elite in the capital city of Yerevan to be acquiescent and supportive of its policies in the region. Armenia has been a reliable partner and has not challenged Russia’s sphere of influence, that is, until 2018 when opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan led a successful, peaceful revolution that forced out the old elite. On December 8, 2018, Pashinyan’s victory was capped by a landslide victory in parliamentary elections that resulted in the formation of a new government headed by 43-year old Pashinyan and filled with many young, exuberant men and women who are determined to build a new Armenia. Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment cites an Armenian analyst who describes how different Pashinyan and his supporters are from those who have ruled Armenia for decades. Pashinyan, the analyst explains, “… is of a generation that is not so much Soviet, anti-Soviet, or post-Soviet, but simply un-Soviet.” What we are witnessing is not just a change in political leaders, but a major shift in the ideological, historical, and cultural underpinnings of the new leaders of the country.
Moscow has viewed the changes in Yerevan with caution and suspicion. It did not try to directly interfere in events in Yerevan but is deeply concerned that Yerevan could pursue a more western-oriented policy, further weakening Moscow’s influence over Transcaucasia and beyond. Pashinyan has been careful not to take steps that would result in a serious reaction from Moscow. Russia still holds formidable economic, political, and military leverage over Armenia, thereby limiting the flexibility Pashinyan and his supporters have in pursuing European-style democratic reforms. The challenge Pashinyan faces is balancing the aspirations and expectations of his supporters with the geopolitical and economic reality Armenia faces. No matter how impatient western-oriented Armenians may be in their push for fast-track changes, they must still contend with a formidable Russia that can, and most likely will, affect the course of events in Armenia for some time to come.
The third and strongest country economically in Transcaucasia is Azerbaijan. It is also the most corrupt and the most authoritarian. It has been led since before the demise of the Soviet Union by one family—the Aliyevs. Haydar Aliyev was the leader of Soviet Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1987 and a member of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo. In 1993, he became president of independent Azerbaijan and ruled the country until he died in 2003. He was succeeded as president by his son Ilham Aliyev in 2003 who was reelected in 2008, 2013, and 2018. Future succession is unclear, but the Aliyev family will undoubtedly seek to retain power. There have been rumors that Ilham’s wife Mehriban, who currently serves as First Vice President, might eventually take over the reins of power.
Azerbaijan derives its wealth from generous oil and gas deposits that the world’s major petroleum companies have vied to develop. Pipelines have been built across the Caucasus through Georgia (avoiding Armenia) that transport oil and gas to Black Sea ports, Turkey, and Russia. Azerbaijan’s elites have benefited enormously from the exploitation and sale of oil and gas. The capital city of Baku has been transformed into a showy, modern city, but the majority of the population still lives in poverty. Corruption is rampant, and autocratic rule dominates the country. Advocates of democratic reform and freedom of the press are systematically arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. Although the West protests the political abuses and lack of democratic processes in Azerbaijan, its leverage is limited. Azerbaijan plays a very important geopolitical role in the region, and its rich oil and gas resources benefit powerful western companies that do not want to lose access to these important revenue streams.
Both Russia and Azerbaijan have played a coy game in pursuing their respective national interests. Both sides recognize the leverage the other possesses, and they have been successful in managing and manipulating economic and political resources to take advantage of available opportunities. Although Azerbaijan possesses great wealth in oil and gas, it has been challenged in developing export routes, particularly in the early years following independence when Russia actively impeded this process.
Russia also remains an important factor in managing and eventually resolving the frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia is a powerful force that can influence the political and military outcome of that peace process not only as a supplier of arms to Armenia but also—along with France and the United States—as co-chair of the OSCE’s Minsk Group that oversees a so-far ineffective peace process. Moscow is adept at using the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a pressure point against both Armenia and Azerbaijan whenever it chooses to do so, causing anxiety in both countries that the Kremlin could tip the scales in the other’s favor if they do not comply.
Azerbaijan shares a border with Iran. Like Iran, Azerbaijan is an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim country, although, unlike Iran, it is a secular country and is tolerant of other religions. Historically, Azerbaijan has had an influential Jewish community and maintains good relations with Israel.
Azerbaijan borders on the Caspian Sea. Together with the other literal states—Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan, —Azerbaijan shares a common interest in the equitable exploitation of resources and the economic development of this important body of water and the surrounding region.
Thus, Russia and Azerbaijan have important reasons to maintain good working relations. Azerbaijan has been able to establish a central, independent role in the region. It recognizes the power that Russia still wields and is deferential to Russia’s national interests. It is strong enough, however, to pursue its objectives without being seen as part of Russia’s traditional orbit. Azerbaijan has emerged into its own, but not to the detriment of Russia. Both countries seem to have found a modus vivendi.
The five countries of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—have been closely integrated with Russia since the region was conquered over the course of the 17th through the 19th centuries and incorporated into the Russian Empire and subsequently the Soviet Union. This region, situated on Russia’s southern frontier, separates the Russian heartland from South Asia and the Middle East. It is a critically important region for Russia from security, economic, and political perspectives. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of these countries in 1991, relationships with Russia have changed significantly. The challenges today are even greater than in the past. Russia no longer has direct control over the region, but it is still the dominant military and political power. Economically, however, China is emerging as a new force and is vying for influence. How these two great powers and the five countries of Central Asia adjust to new conditions and realities in the region will have a significant impact on Russia’s relations and influence over what has traditionally been an important link in its sphere of influence.
Security of the Russian homeland is the Kremlin’s paramount concern, and Central Asia is a key component in Russia’s defense strategy. Terrorism represents a real threat to Russia, and Central Asia serves not only as a transit point for potential terrorists coming from the south, but it also hosts its own home-grown terrorists—all of whom could threaten Russia. For this reason, Russia works closely with the Central Asian states on counterterrorism and training their security and armed forces. Russia also maintains military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Russian and Central Asian law enforcement units also work closely together to interdict drug trafficking coming from Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Russia has important economic interests in Central Asia. It relies heavily on guest workers from the region who provide much of Russia’s unskilled labor. Russia has joint energy projects throughout Central Asia and is strengthening the work of the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members.
Russia sees the United States and the European Union as threats to its interests in Central Asia and its sphere of influence in the region. Although it welcomes the reduced U.S. presence following the closure of a U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan, it is concerned about the eventual withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO troops from Afghanistan and the potential consequent increase in instability in the region.
The degree to which Russia maintains a significant presence and influence in Central Asia depends not so much on the United States and the European Union, but on China, which is rapidly and extensively expanding its activities in all five Central Asia states.
China sees Central Asia as an important link in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—an ambitious vision to build a massive transportation infrastructure across Asia. The leaders of Central Asia enthusiastically support the BRI because of the prospects it brings to revitalizing their stagnant economies and attracting major investments into their countries.
Russia appears resigned to China’s economic penetration into Central Asia. With its own weak economy and China’s growing dominance, there is little Russia can do to compete.
Until recently, China has left Central Asian security issues to Russia as it pursues its economic interests. Now, however, there are indications that China is beginning to expand into the security sphere as well. China borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and is increasingly concerned about how security issues in the region could affect China. According to press reports, China is building a military base on the Tajik-Afghan border. It is also increasing its security assistance to Kyrgyzstan and is selling weapons to Turkmenistan, which is China’s main supplier of gas.
How long China will remain deferential to Russia in the security arena while undertaking its own initiatives is hard to say. Russia and China are expanding their political, economic, and military cooperation. Both countries value this cooperation and respect each other’s national interests; however, the pursuit of their own objectives may supersede deference to the other party. Russia, to a large extent, represents the past. China, on the other hand, is an economic powerhouse that represents the future. Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia, like that along its western border and in the Caucasus, is undergoing a transformation and is weakening.
Kazakhstan is the largest state in Central Asia and is the only one that shares a border with Russia. In fact, the Russia-Kazakhstan border is the longest in the world—about 7,000 kilometers. Kazakhstan separates Russia from the other republics in Central Asia, where radical Islam is more prominent, and governments are less secure.
Russia and Kazakhstan have enjoyed a stable relationship since independence in 1991, although potentially serious tensions are brewing below the surface. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan had a significant Russian population (38 percent of the population) that was concentrated in the north of the country, close to the Russian border. Over the years, there has been a large out-migration, so that by 2016 the Russian population dropped to 21 percent. This is still a significant portion of the population of the country and raises concerns, particularly after the Russian annexation of Crimea, that Russia may instigate a similar action against northern Kazakhstan, either directly or indirectly through indigenous forces. This concern is amplified by the fact that the remaining Russian population has done little to integrate itself, at least culturally and socially, into Kazakh society. It is reported that only 2 percent speak Kazakh fluently, while 33 percent say that they do not know even one word in Kazakh. Mindful of the potentially dangerous situation in northern Kazakhstan, the government has launched a resettlement program to bring more Kazakhs from the south into the northern region which, although still dominated by Russians, is losing population as more and more Russians leave the country.
At the same time as concern about what might happen in northern Kazakhstan grows, nationalism is rising among the Kazakh population. This is fueled in large part by mistrust of the ethnic Russians, the rise of a new generation that has no ties to the Soviet Union, and changes that are taking place politically and economically within Kazakhstan.
One of the important changes underway that has both a domestic and an international impact is the Kazakh government’s decision to switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. This is viewed as an important step to modernize the Kazakh language and distance the country from Russia and its Soviet past. This move has not been well received in Russia, and the Kazakh government has been careful not to take further steps that might cause Moscow to increase pressure against Kazakhstan, particularly in the north of the country. The Russian language still retains its prominent position in Kazakh life. It remains an obligatory subject in the school curriculum, as is Kazakh, and now also English. Nevertheless, with changes in government policy and the rise of a new generation, de-russification is gradually spreading in Kazakhstan.
Throughout the post-Soviet period, Kazakhstan has pursued a multi-vectored foreign policy by maintaining and balancing a good relationship with Russia, China, and the West. Although it is a resource-rich country, particularly in oil and gas, it remains heavily dependent on Russia for security and economic activities. Kazakhstan is a member of the various multilateral security and economic agreements and organizations that Russia dominates and has a web of bilateral agreements with Russia that have proven to be mutually beneficial.
Kazakhstan seeks to benefit from China’s Belt and Road Initiative through investment in its dilapidated infrastructure and diversifying its economy. Expanding ties with China also serves as a counterweight to Russian pressure on the country; however, there are limits to the warming relations between Kazakhstan and China. Kazakh nationalism is an important factor. Many Kazakhs are very concerned about China’s crackdown and the detention of at least one million Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. Ethnic Kazakhs have also been swept up in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Xinjiang. This has caused a growing backlash against China in Kazakhstan.
In the years to come, Russia will continue to figure prominently in the political and security life of Kazakhstan. Its economic role will most likely diminish because it will not be able to compete with China. As a landlocked country, Kazakhstan has natural limitations that will continue to challenge the country’s leadership as it seeks to maintain a balance between the leading nations of the world. Barring any catastrophic military-political event in northern Kazakhstan, Russia’s relations with the country should continue to grow toward one of equal partners rather than one dominated by Moscow, as in the past.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are two of the most loyal allies of Russia and most dependent on Moscow for economic and security assistance. Both countries house Russian military bases and rely on Russia for military equipment and training. Although Kyrgyzstan has experimented with certain aspects of democracy, it retains, like all the Central Asian states, remnants of the Soviet legacy and its associated authoritarianism. Tajikistan has been ruled by the same person—Emomali Rahmon—since 1992, in what is considered a dictatorship. Much of Tajikistan’s economy is supported by remittances sent home by Tajik guest workers who perform a large share of the unskilled labor in Russia. Currently, they number over one million.
China is making significant economic inroads in both countries, which share a common border with the Asian powerhouse. China is the largest investor in Tajikistan. China has also been holding joint military exercises with Tajikistan. This is a direct challenge to the monopoly Russia has had until recently in the military/security sphere.
Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan present unique challenges to Russia’s domination of Central Asia. Uzbekistan was ruled by a powerful autocrat—Islam Karimov—from 1989 until his death in 2016. Karimov was deeply suspicious of Moscow and avoided getting too close to Russia and Russia-dominated organizations. Uzbekistan is rich in natural resources, but it is a poor country and has had to rely on Russia and others for economic assistance and cooperation. Its current rulers are reportedly looking more favorably on improving relations with Russia and are considering joining the Eurasian Economic Union, which could be quite beneficial to the Uzbek economy.
Turkmenistan is officially a neutral country and for that reason does not participate in any organization that could compromise its neutrality. Turkmenistan is also one of the most oppressive countries in the world and has been led by some of the oddest dictators the world has ever seen. President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006. He was very erratic and severely damaged the Turkmen economy and society. As a sign of his infinite personality cult, he had a giant monument to neutrality erected in the capital, Ashgabat, topped with a 39-foot-tall gold statue of himself that rotated so that it always faced the sun. His successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has developed an equally bizarre cult of personality. He is frequently seen in videos engaged in feats of strength, demonstrations of sports prowess, and versatile musical performances—all to the joy and amazement of his faithful admirers who loudly and enthusiastically applaud his wondrous accomplishments.
Despite this absurd and depressing situation, Turkmenistan is important to the region because it possesses the sixth-largest gas reserves in the world and is a key supplier to the region, including to China. Turkmenistan’s challenge is to develop export routes—routes that must traverse hostile political and/or natural environments. Russia’s relations with Turkmenistan have been reserved, cautious, and have centered principally on issues related to gas: pricing, export routes, etc. Russia cannot count on Turkmenistan as a faithful ally, but it does not view the country as hostile or an impediment to its overall objectives in the region. The Kremlin’s military strength and political sway still dominate the region.
Moscow’s sphere of influence over its immediate neighbors and in many parts of the Third World peaked during the Soviet era. The Soviet Union projected its power over half of Europe and parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. For decades the world knew only a bipolar world, with the United States and the Soviet Union vying for influence around the globe. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s ability to project power diminished precipitously, and its sphere of influence contracted drastically.
In this essay, I have outlined how the Kremlin still plays a significant role in the economic and political life of most of the countries that were part of the Soviet Union. In some cases, those relationships have undergone significant changes, viz., Ukraine and Georgia. In other countries, relationships with the Kremlin, although hardly static and are still evolving, have remained more stable.
But what about those countries that were formerly part of the Soviet empire but are now no longer under Moscow’s tutelage? In the final section of this essay, I examine how the Kremlin attempts to maintain influence over them as well.
Mongolia is a unique case. It was never a part of the Soviet Union, but Russians tended to view Mongolia as the 16th republic of the USSR. The Mongolian People’s Republic, which was established in 1924, slavishly followed Soviet laws, practices, and conduct, including the use of a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet and the widespread promotion of the Russian language in education and the media. The Mongolian economy was closely integrated with that of the Soviet Union, and the Kremlin exercised a dominant role in Mongolia’s political life.
In 1990, a peaceful revolution took place in Mongolia, and a multi-party system and a market economy were introduced. A new constitution was adopted in 1992, and the words “People’s Republic” were dropped from the country’s name. Mongolia adopted a more balanced approach to its two powerful neighbors—Russia and China. Although during most of the 20th century Mongolia was dominated by the Soviet Union, the Mongol nation has always had close ties with China, which has controlled Inner Mongolia for centuries. As relations between Russia and China warmed, the utility of Mongolia as a political tool became less important. Nevertheless, Mongolia remains a geopolitical pawn in the great game of power and influence in Asia.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Russia and Mongolia have undergone a transformation. In recent years, Mongolia has introduced internal changes that have raised concerns in Moscow. The use of the Russian language has declined significantly. In 2003, English replaced Russian as the required foreign language in schools, and knowledge of the Russian language is no longer a requirement for admission into Mongol universities. Among the older generation, Russian is still the most widely spoken foreign language, but a generation that does not know Russian is now growing up in Mongolia. There is also a move underway to replace the Cyrillic alphabet with the old vertical script that the Mongols used for centuries. This is troubling for Moscow because it means a loss of influence in Mongol society, and it could have implications for Russia’s own Mongols—the Buryats—who closely follow events across the border in Mongolia.
As part of the Kremlin’s effort to retain a close relationship and influence with Mongolia, President Putin visited the country on September 3, 2019, and signed a new intergovernmental accord on friendship and a comprehensive strategic partnership with Mongolia. Mongolia values its relationship with Russia, but it is also diversifying its ties with major powers around the world. It has signed accords on strategic partnership with India, Japan, and the United States. China, however, has now become Mongolia’s most important trading partner and serves as the principal transit route for Mongolia’s trade with the rest of the world. There is little doubt, given China’s economic might, that Russia will no longer be able to compete with China for dominant influence in Mongolia.
August 23, 2019, marked the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its Secret Protocol, which divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. It also was the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, when two million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians joined hands to form a 400-mile-long human chain across the three countries to demand freedom and independence from the Soviet Union. These two events—the first cataclysmic, the second heroic—marked major turning points in the lives of the people of the three Baltic nations and their relationship with Russia.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania recently celebrated their 100th anniversary as independent countries, although they spent half that time as unwilling members of the Soviet Union. These three Baltic nations gained their independence at the end of World War I after centuries of Swedish, Polish, and Russian rule. The notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the ensuing occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union in June 1940 put an end to their independence until they regained it in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 2004, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined NATO and the European Union, thereby affirming their commitment to become an integral part of the West, rejecting past ties with Moscow, and ensuring that the Kremlin would not be able to reassert its claim over the region without consequences. Nevertheless, concerns remain that Russia has not given up revanchist aspirations of regaining influence over these three small but strategically important countries. The Kremlin’s efforts to undermine, subvert, and destabilize these countries have not abated. Furthermore, how Moscow has treated the recent anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—officially known as the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—has reinforced the Baltic States’ concerns.
There has been much controversy over this agreement and its Secret Protocol, which allowed Russia to annex Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, seize eastern Poland, and grab territory from Romania. The Soviet Union denied the existence of the Secret Protocol until 1989 when Communist Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev ordered that its existence be officially confirmed. This acknowledgment was reconfirmed by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who wrote in a letter to the Poles in 2009 that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was “immoral” and “without doubt, it is fully justified to condemn it.” Since then, Russian officials have wavered on condemning the agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued an official statement on the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that lacked Putin’s earlier denunciation. He blamed the Western powers for forcing the Soviet Union to reach agreement with Nazi Germany. He claimed that the Western powers “tried to steer Hitler's aggression eastward. In those conditions, the USSR had to safeguard its own national security by itself.” Given those circumstances, Lavrov stressed, “…the conclusion of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was an urgent, forced and extremely difficult decision for the USSR.” A recent official Russian statement failed to mention the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland, which occurred on September 17, 1939, just two weeks after Hitler’s troops crossed into Poland from the west. At the time, the Kremlin blamed the Poles for refusing to accept a Soviet ultimatum to allow Soviet troops to enter Poland to protect their Ukrainian and Belarusian brethren who resided on territory “illegal seized by Poland.” This justification for the Soviet invasion of Poland is still propagated today by some Russian officials and commentators.
The current Russian revisionist narrative about this infamous agreement, which facilitated the start of World War II and led to the demise of the Baltic States’ independence, serves as a reminder of the power that still resides in the east. It is also a reminder that history in Russia is frequently rewritten to fit more conveniently with current policy imperatives. This can be illustrated by a popular Soviet joke: “The future is known. It is the past that keeps changing.” Similarly, George Orwell, writing about a dystopian future in his epic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, said: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
The struggle to recount and interpret history objectively is a universal challenge. “Alternative facts” and distorted interpretations abound. It is wise to recall the words of Orwell when studying historical events, particularly as they are expounded by political leaders and their supporters. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had such a devastating impact on the lives of millions of people, must be viewed objectively and not manipulated for political or other ulterior purposes.
One of the most significant problems the governments of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have faced since independence is dealing with the sizeable Russian populations that remained in those countries after the Soviet Union collapsed. This problem is particularly acute in Estonia and Latvia, where Russians make up about 25 percent of the population in each country; in Lithuania, the Russian population is just 6 percent. Integration of Russians into those societies has not been easy. Controversies over citizenship requirements, limits on the use of the Russian language, the status of Soviet war memorials, and parades and demonstrations by small groups of local nationals who had ties with Nazi SS divisions during World War II are major irritants between the Baltic countries and Russia. Russia has frequently seized on these problems to enflame animosities and rile the native Russian populations. Unwise policies adopted by local and national governments have only exacerbated tense situations. Regardless, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have made remarkable progress in freeing themselves from their Soviet past and the Russian sphere of influence and anchoring themselves firmly in the West—in NATO and the European Union.
The democratic revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe in 1989 delivered a devastating blow to the most important component of the Soviet sphere of influence. Within months, Communist regimes were overthrown, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance or Comecon ceased to exist. Poland; Czechoslovakia, which would separate into the Czech Republic and Slovakia; Hungary; East Germany, which united with West Germany to form a unified state; Romania; and Bulgaria liberated themselves from Soviet domination and rushed to join the West. Over the ensuing years, these former Soviet satellite states became members of NATO and the European Union, thereby completing a rapid transition to a new and challenging future for millions of people.
The shift from socialism/communism to capitalism and democracy has not been easy. Both internal and external political forces have sought to undermine democratic efforts to transform these societies. Many of those efforts have been led by internal elements that have often received assistance from the Kremlin. Moscow has provided financial and political support to both right-wing and left-wing groups that seek to disrupt domestic politics and promote undemocratic movements.
The loss of the former Soviet satellite states that Moscow often relied on to do its bidding and served as a buffer between Russia and the West had a major impact on Russian foreign and security policies. It forced the Kremlin to develop new approaches to safeguarding its western security perimeter. In addition to strengthening the deployment of its armed forces along its western borders, Moscow has focused on political manipulation, propaganda, information warfare, and soft power to influence political and societal forces in Central and Eastern Europe to weaken democracy, undermine NATO and the European Union, and damage the cohesion of Euro-Atlantic security.
The Balkans have been a hotbed of intrigue, political and ethnic turmoil, and internecine warfare over the ages. Although the region was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires for centuries, the Russian Empire—and subsequently the Soviet Union—had a strong hand in shaping its destiny. Russia played a prominent role in liberating large sections of the region from the Ottoman Turks and was responsible to a large extent for the outbreak of World War I when it sided with Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia in Sarajevo.
Russia continues to insist that it has legitimate reasons for playing a major role in the Balkans. Besides the historical role it played in liberating and defending much of the region, it shares the Orthodox faith and a sense of Slavic brotherhood with many of the people of the Balkans who still view Russia as a friend, liberator, and co-religionist.
When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, turmoil and civil wars broke out in the western Balkans. Yugoslavia, although a socialist state, had maintained its independence from Moscow and had been successful in protecting itself from Soviet efforts to control it. When the democratic revolutions spread across the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe, they also reached Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the revolutions that took place in Yugoslavia erupted in violence and civil war. Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro eventually emerged as independent countries, some experiencing more violence than others. The worst situation arose over Bosnia-Herzegovina—a multi-ethnic state of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Roman Catholic Croats. Longstanding religious and ethnic rivalries reached a breaking point, erupting in a fratricidal war that ended with the intercession of NATO and negotiations led by the United States. The result was the 1995 Dayton Accords—an agreement that provided a far-from-satisfactory solution to very complex problems.
The Bosnian War was followed by the succession of Kosovo from Yugoslavia in 1998–1999. At that time, a rump Yugoslavian state still existed, made up of only Serbia and Montenegro (the latter separated peacefully from Serbia in 2006). NATO provided air support to the Kosovars, which led to NATO bombing Yugoslav military units in Kosovo, military units in Montenegro, and the Serbian capital of Belgrade, including one bombing raid that mistakenly hit the Chinese Embassy. War ended shortly thereafter. Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, but a final settlement has yet to be reached. Moscow firmly supports Belgrade in its efforts to reach a final resolution of the Serbia-Kosovo conflict. Because Russia can exercise its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to influence negotiations and prevent full international recognition of Kosovo (many countries still do not recognize Kosovo as an independent country, including Russia), the Kremlin retains considerable leverage over Serbia. Some believe that Moscow does not want to see a final settlement of the Kosovo problem for fear that it could lose important influence over Serbia if this issue goes away.
The NATO bombing of Serbia and the role the West played in the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia infuriated Moscow, but there was little it could do at the time, given its greatly weakened position after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It protested vociferously but was unable and/or unwilling to get involved militarily on the side of its Serbian ally.
These humiliating events in the Balkans left an indelible mark on the Russian leaders, and it honed their resolve never to find themselves in a similar situation again. It also strengthened the Kremlin’s determination and commitment to undertake whatever measures it could to prevent NATO and the European Union from expanding their influence further into the Balkans. This point was emphasized by General Curtis Scaparrotti, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, when on March 13, 2019, he said: “Generally speaking, their [Russian] efforts are to undermine any movement toward integration within the Euro-Atlantic [structures]—EU, NATO, etc. That’s their general objective in every case throughout the Balkans.” As for the Kremlin’s tactics, Scaparrotti said: “[P]rimarily they do this through disinformation, they do it through funding and support for fringe parties—they don’t necessarily determine whichever side it might be on as long as it’s undermining the present government in any forward movement within those governments.” In pursuing its objectives, the Kremlin also makes use of various proxies, including the Russian Orthodox Church, prominent Russian oligarchs and businesses, far-right paramilitary groups, and authoritarian-style Balkan politicians.
Serbia is still the most important country in Russia’s strategy to maintain influence and disrupt other Balkan countries’ plans to increase their ties with the West. Serbia has generally been a compliant partner for Russia. It has been deferential to most Kremlin policies and has supported them whenever it can. At the same time, the Serbian government has expressed its intentions to eventually join the European Union. The younger generation supports more pro-Western policies, but it, too, still harbors resentment following the Belgrade bombing and the succession of Kosovo from Serbia. This has contributed, for example, to support Russian efforts to provide military-style training for Serb teenagers in Serbia and Russia. The aim appears to be to promote religious and cultural ties and emphasize military-patriotic solidarity between youth in Russia and Serbia.
Beyond Serbia, Russia sees opportunities to strengthen its influence and disrupt efforts by NATO and the EU to expand membership to countries in the region. Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been particularly vulnerable to Russia’s aggressive attempts to undermine their stability.
In 2016, Russia backed an abortive coup attempt and a planned assassination of the Montenegrin prime minister to prevent Montenegro’s accession to NATO. According to the plan, armed mercenaries from Serbia and Montenegro dressed as Montenegrin police officers were to storm the parliament and shoot at protestors. Two Russian military intelligence officers in Serbia were accused of organizing the failed plot. They fled the country as soon as the plot was revealed. This created an uproar in the region, and Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council, had to fly to Belgrade to calm nervous officials. The following year Montenegro joined NATO.
For almost three decades Greece and Macedonia—or as it was provisionally called, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—were engaged in a dispute over the official name of Macedonia, which gained its independence after Yugoslavia broke apart at the end of the Cold War. Greece objected to the country being called Macedonia—a name the Greeks claimed for themselves. As a member of NATO and the European Union, Greece refused to approve consideration of Macedonia’s membership in either organization until the dispute over the name was resolved. Finally, in February 2019, after years of acrimonious negotiations, intense political battles, and a national referendum, the sides reached agreement and approved a new name for the country—North Macedonia.
Moscow did not want to see a resolution to this dispute for fear that it would lead to North Macedonia’s accession to NATO, so it undertook covert operations in both countries to prevent this from happening. Specifically, Moscow was accused of financing a campaign to dissuade voters from participating in the referendum to approve the name change. But Moscow failed to sabotage the deal, and its efforts backfired, contributing to an increase in anti-Russia sentiment in North Macedonia that damaged Moscow’s interests in the region. It also hastened North Macedonia’s efforts to seek NATO membership. In February 2019, North Macedonia signed a protocol of accession with NATO.
Although peace was restored to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 through the Dayton Accords, the country remains politically weak and divided. All three religious-political forces—Muslim Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats—share power, with the Serbs maintaining their power base in their enclave of the Republika Srpska. All important decisions require unanimity through a collective presidency, but the Bosnian Serbs can and have exercised veto power over such important decisions as accession to NATO. Although NATO offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2018, the Bosnian side has not provided NATO with the necessary documentation for implementation of the MAP due to objection by the head of the Republika Srpska—the Serb member of the collective Bosnian presidency.
The Republika Srpska depends heavily on Belgrade and follows its lead on major policy decisions. It also enjoys close ties with Moscow, which is currently providing security assistance to the Republika Srpska in contradiction to the Dayton Accords. Despite the non-Serbian population’s largely negative attitude toward Russia, Moscow can exercise significant influence over Bosnia-Herzegovina through the Republika Srpska and Belgrade, thereby frustrating the country’s efforts to move closer to the West.
For a continental power such as Russia, the importance of controlling the periphery based on an acute sense of vulnerability and insecurity has driven its leaders to pursue foreign and security policies that seek to dominate their neighbors. The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Trenin calls this view
[A]n outdated mode of strategic thinking that assigns excessive importance to the factor of geography and strategic depth. The terrible trauma of June 22, 1941 [the date Nazi Germany launched its attack on the Soviet Union] demands that the forces of a potential enemy be kept as far away as possible from the country’s most important political and economic centers.
This dictated the need for the Soviet Union to create a buffer zone for itself in Eastern Europe, which became one of the key pillars of Soviet and Russian foreign and security policy for decades. But times have changed. The likelihood of NATO unleashing a massive ground offensive against Russia is unrealistic. Whatever threat Russia fears will come not from its neighbors, but most likely from its distant adversary—the United States.
In addition to changes in the external military-strategic environment, Russia has had to confront substantial changes in the political, economic, and social conditions of those states that were part of the former Soviet Union—states that Moscow still considers part of its inherent sphere of influence. We have seen this happen most strikingly in Ukraine and Georgia, but other states have also undergone changes that have affected their relationship with Russia. At the same time, Russia’s central role within the Eurasian landmass is changing. With the emergence of China as the most powerful force and Moscow’s growing ties with Beijing, Russia may be moving in a direction where “sphere of influence” as one of the pillars of its foreign and security policy is weakened to the point that it becomes a less significant determining factor—not so much because the Kremlin no longer considers it important, but because reality has changed the equation. If this is true, it may affect the Kremlin’s decision-making calculus and offer new opportunities to recast Moscow’s relationship with some of its neighbors. I do not expect this to occur any time soon—certainly not as long as Putin remains president or in a position to influence policy. But it does present an alternative to a foreign and security policy model that seems to have outlasted its utility and offers little prospect for the future, other than stagnation and the further decay of a revanchist power.
It will, indeed, be difficult for Russia to minimize its traditional fears and insecurities and to recast a foreign and security policy from one developed over centuries—often through painful experiences and cataclysmic events—into one motivated by a multilateral and multipolar environment centered on Eurasia in which Russia emerges as a mid-level power, deferential in some aspects to China, but still a powerful military force. It would be a seminal, consequential transformation, but one that could offer Russia new opportunities for development beyond the restrictions imposed by the shackles of the past.
 In addition to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union expanded its territorial claims in Asia. It captured four Japanese islands in the Kuril chain and refused to return them to Japan. It also invaded northwestern Iran during World War II and established the Azerbaijan People’s Government in the Azerbaijani part of Iran (the UK also temporarily occupied part of Iran during the war). After the war ended, the Soviet Union initially refused to withdraw its forces from Iran. Finally, in 1946, following intense diplomatic pressure from the United States and other countries at the United Nations, the Soviet Union agreed to leave Iran. Soviet forces also occupied Manchuria from 1945 to 1946 and North Korea from 1945 to 1948.
 Color revolutions is a term Moscow uses to identify revolutions in countries of the former Soviet Union that have sought to overthrown authoritarian regimes and introduce democratic reforms. Among such events are the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and the Velvet Revolution in Armenia 2018.
 The war in Donbas is far from being a “frozen conflict”—a conflict in which 14,000 people have been killed, including 298 innocent passengers and crew aboard Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 that was shot down on July 17, 2014, over separatist territory by a Russian missile. Ukrainian soldiers are still being killed almost on a daily basis. Civilian casualties continue to mount. We know less about casualties among Russians and separatists because information about them is not as readily available, but we can assume that they are also still suffering losses.
 This essay was written before the fraudulent presidential election on August 9, 2020, the subsequent demonstrations against the Lukashenko regime, and the violent crackdown on leaders of the opposition and peaceful demonstrators.
 On November 12, 2019, the pro-Western government of Maia Sandu collapsed after of vote of no-confidence in the Moldovan parliament initiated by the pro-Russian Socialist Party of President Dodon. This strengthened the hand of the pro-Russians forces in Moldova and was a positive development from Moscow’s perspective.
 This essay was written before the latest war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in autumn 2020 in which Azerbaijan was victorious and regained a large part of its lost territory. Russia also enhanced its position in the region by becoming the “peacekeeper” in the disputed territory and stationing its troops in the rump portion of Nagorno-Karabakh that still remains under Armenian control.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.
Policy options to minimize risks of accidental launch, unauthorized use or miscalculation posed by US and Russian alert nuclear forces. (CNS)
In 1939, Winston Churchill uttered the now-famous adage, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
An op-ed in The International Herald Tribune urging today's leaders to move decisively and permanently toward a new security strategy in the Euro-Atlantic region.