RUSSIA’S INTERFERENCE AT THE PERIPHERY OF EURASIA SINCE 1991
By Nicholas Dima l September 11, 2011
At his annual address to the parliament on April 25, 2005, Vladimir Putin described the collapse of the former Soviet Union a “catastrophe,” as his speech was broadcast live on Russian TV. “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he declared. “And for the Russian people, it became a real drama. Tens of millions of our citizens and compatriots found themselves outside the Russian Federation…”
Now 20 years after the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia, under Putin’s leadership is attempting to cobble together a Eurasian economic union comprised of the former Soviet states, starting with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Russia has always been an expansionist colonial empire. First, its goal was the possession of sea ports as Moscow set its sights on the Baltic, Black and Caspian seas and the Arctic and Pacific oceans. Later, it s goal was the conquest of the weaker neighbors in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Siberia. After 1917, Russian colonialism was clothed in Marxist terms but its ambitions remained the same. The 1991 collapse of communism cut the USSR down to size and forced the Russians to face a new reality. Consequently, it reverted to its previous historic trends. First, Moscow lost control over Eastern Europe and the Soviet union- republics. Then, the Kremlin was challenged by ethnic minorities within the Russian Federation itself. Eventually, Eastern Europe moved toward NATO and blocked Moscow’s western aspirations, while to the east China became a super-power and more than Russia’s equal. Yet, there is still a void between the new Russia and the outside world over which Moscow still makes claims.
For a number of years after 1991, Russian politics and geopolitics were turbulent. Westernizers wanted to draw Russia toward the West, while the nationalists insisted on Russia’s traditional isolation. As a result, first, Moscow tried to define its geopolitical sphere through the concept of a “Near Abroad” which was based on the assumption that newly independent former Soviet republics were not actually foreign states. Then, after reluctantly accepting the independence of the union republics, Moscow brutally suppressed the trend of independence of its own minorities, notably of Chechnya. Eventually, Russia reasserted its priorities from the Baltic Sea to the Caucasus and to the former Soviet Central Asia. Twenty years after the dismemberment of the USSR, Moscow seems to have settled for a threefold ethnic and geopolitical stand: 1) Strong domestic control of all ethnic minorities; 2) Geostrategic intervention or influence in the Near Abroad; and, 3) Opposition to America’s global domination.
However, is the new policy working? The new Russian Federation continues to reflect the organization of the former Soviet Union. It has 21 national republics, meant to be home to a specific ethnic minority, and 5 autonomous areas, which usually have a substantial local ethnic grouping. The country is multi-ethnic with the Russians making up 80 percent of the population and with many ethnic groups living in their historic areas where they feel strongly attached to their land. Notably, many of these minorities, who are Muslim, increase demographically faster than the Russians, and some of them nurture aspirations of independence. The most numerous of these minorities are the Tatars, numbering close to 6 million. They are located in the middle of Russia and have accepted their place in the Russian Federation. Moscow’s policy toward minorities involves use of the proverbial carrot and stick, a policy which seems to work for now. Members of various minorities are sent to school, encouraged to assimilate, sometimes are relocated, and often they are promoted. However, if minorities revolt against Moscow, the likely Russian response will be barbaric. This was demonstrated when Chechnya openly defied Moscow’s domination.
Chechnya and the North Caucasian republics
Chechnya is situated in a strategic locality in the Northern Caucasus next to other Muslim republics and close to the Caspian oil. An important Russian oil pipeline crosses Chechnya, and Grozny, the capital of the republic, is the site of a big oil refinery. This autonomous republic began its drive toward independence under the former Soviet General Djocar Dudaev. The pro-independence movement was strong and dangerous because it aimed at uniting all the Muslim republics of Northern Caucasus into one new free country. The two wars that ensued were very bloody and Moscow eventually won through a policy of extreme brutality promoted by President Putin and aimed at dividing the Chechen people. Moscow found a local leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who sided with Russia and who, in the name of Islam, installed an awful dictatorship. For example, when bodies of slain women were found dumped by the roadside, Kadyrev declared that they were women of “loose morals rightfully shot by male relatives in honor killing.” Such acts violate the Russian constitution, but are accepted when they serve Moscow. And the Russians, who always see themselves as liberators whenever they conquer a new piece of land, admire Putin for having “pacified and stabilized” Chechnya.
From among the former Soviet republics, only Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia made a clear and definitive break with the past. Apparently, Moscow has resigned itself to losing them. It is worth mentioning that “officially” the United States and the West had never recognized the annexation of the three free Baltic republics to the USSR. In fact, culturally, the three countries remained outposts of Western civilization even under the Soviet regime. Now, the new border between the West and the East is between Lithuania, a NATO member, and Belarus, a Stalinist vestige of the Soviet past that wants to reunite with Russia and to recreate the former union.
On August 25, 2011, the newspaper Romania Libera published an interesting article describing the new “Iron Curtain” which divides a small former Soviet village. The northern part of the village named Norviliskes now belongs to Lithuania and is part of the European Union. Pizkuny, the southern part of the village, belongs to the last dictator of Europe, Belorussian President Aleksandr Lukaşenko, and is indirectly controlled by Moscow. Relatives and friends are again separated by a fence as they were under the previous and very real Iron Curtain. Nobody can cross this border without permission. In reality, the curtain is separating two different political systems, two civilizations, and two entirely different mentalities.
Moscow continues to control Belarus, it keeps military units in Moldova, and it has reasserted itself over Ukraine. In April 2010, it managed to convince the new pro-Russian Kiev government to renew the lease of Sevastopol’s harbor for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Actually, it seems that Moscow is trying to once again swallow more than it can chew. Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of the Gulag Archipelago, once advised Moscow to retain only Ukraine, Belarus and Northern Kazakhstan, to give up the rest, and to concentrate on internal affairs. After returning home from exile, Solzhenitsyn restated his position, but Moscow would not listen. Interestingly, Solzhenitsyn, who lived many years in the U.S. and had had a taste of democracy, was a supporter of strong man Vladimir Putin. The reality is that the true nature of Russia’s “new” policy and geopolitics has changed little, a fact that is best demonstrated by the 2008 war in Georgia.
Worried about Georgia’s intention to join NATO, Russia instigated the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to break away and declare independence. When Tbilisi wanted to reassert its integrity in 2008, Russian troops intervened directly and brutally against Georgia. The United States and European Union condemned Russia in strong terms, but to no avail. Moreover, Moscow recognized the sovereignty of the two regions and even contemplated the idea of incorporating them into the Russian Federation. As an American gesture of support, former Vice President Richard Cheney went to Tbilisi and declared that Georgia had the right “to build stronger ties to friends in Europe and across the Atlantic.” Moscow retorted with typical arguments and even accused Washington of having helped trigger the conflict.
The 2008 war has reestablished Russia’s dominance over the Caucasus allowing it to challenge Western interests in the strategically important Black Sea-Caspian Sea-South Asia region. As for the former Soviet Central Asia, Moscow has a huge say in Kazakhstan, where a large Russian population live. The other four central Asian republics are now under totalitarian regimes of quasi-Stalinist nature and they enjoy good relations with Moscow. In this vein, Newsweek of September 15, 2011 mentions, for example, Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan from 1990 until his death in 2006. His apparent lunacy was demonstrated when he arbitrarily renamed the months of the year, appointed himself president for life, and for 16 years made himself a god-like figure. However, in order to avoid a deeper split with Washington, Moscow allowed U.S. transshipments of arms through its territory toward Afghanistan and mitigated the extension of a leased American air base in Kyrgyzstan.
Yet, to what degree can Russia impose again its will over the Near Abroad at the beginning of the 21th Century? On the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, The Guardian of August 17, 2011 examined the performance of the newly independent former Soviet republics. The British paper noted that while some of them are doing well, others are doing very poorly. Under such conditions, one may ask, are these countries better off today and glad to be independent? The question is irrelevant. These countries wanted freedom from Russian control and now they cherish it. In this regard, a better question is: Has Moscow accepted the new status quo? The answer is No. Moscow is pursuing its traditional Eurasian policy, but this time the policy is more nuanced and differentiated from place to place.
During the post-Soviet years, Moscow has been using a number of ploys to interfere in the affairs of the Near Abroad. The supply of energy, for example, has been an effective weapon especially against Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. In addition, the recent global increase in the price of oil gave Moscow a great advantage over its Western neighbors. However, this ploy did not work in Central Asia because Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have their own oil and gas resources. In fact, the Guardian noted that these countries have used their oil to consolidate their dictatorial powers. Yet, Moscow is promoting its interests through other means such as local dictators and ethnic Russians.
An important tactic used effectively, so far, has been for Moscow to intervene to allegedly defend the local ethnic Russians. According to Wikipedia, which cited Demoscope Weekly, in 2002, there were 8.3 million Russians living in Ukraine, 3.8 million in Kazakhstan, 785,000 in Belarus, 640,000 in Uzbekistan, 607,000 in Latvia, 420,000 in Kirgizstan, 369,000 in Moldova, 142,000 in Azerbaijan, 67,000 in Georgia, and so on. The number of Russians living in these countries is declining. For example, the Moldovan Census of 2004 specifies that only 201,000 Russians were still living in Moldova. Nevertheless, Moscow claims to have a legitimate right to intervene and defend all ethnic Russians living in the Near Abroad. Yet, while Moscow invokes the rights of those Russians living outside the Russian Federation, millions of ethnic Chinese have settled recently in Eastern Siberia. That made the Russian minister of defense state that “the Chinese are making a peaceful conquest of the Russian Far East.” Will this trend give Beijing the right to intervene in Russia at some future time? (Nicholas Dima, Culture, Religion, and Geopolitics, Xlibris, 2010).
As for global geopolitics, the trend of Russia’s new policy is especially nuanced. Besides reestablishing itself as a regional power, Russia wants to assert its presence and influence internationally. In Europe, for example, it courts Germany with good business deals; it lures France with attractive defense contracts; and, it offers less expensive oil and gas to other Western countries hoping to distance them from Washington. In South Asia, Russia contracted a new and modern radar system with Iran and only strong Western intervention stopped Moscow from delivering it. From Moscow’s point of view, this is only a temporary and tactical move. One step back, two steps forward. These days, Russia is also equipping China with sophisticated weapons to help it oppose even more strongly the so-called American hegemony.
Moscow is also trying to annoy the United States whenever and wherever it can. As one analyst has put it, Russia can no longer threaten America, but it can make its international efforts more difficult. And this is what the new Russia does. Currently, Moscow is strengthening Hugo Chavez militarily, is establishing a bridgehead in Venezuela, and is trying to make its global military presence more visible. For example, in November 2008, the Russian nuclear cruiser Peter the Great led a navy squadron in naval exercises with 11 Venezuelan ships. Then, in December, for the first time in many decades, a Russian destroyer crossed the Panama Canal. Yet, according to Arizona Daily Star of 15 February 2011, citing the Associated Press, “NATO is not impressed by Russian Military.” Yes? Tell this to the Georgians!
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to