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The Scramble for Eurasia

Hannah Brandt

Hannah Brandt is an incoming post-graduate student at the College of Europe and a conflict analyst specialized in Eurasia.

How the Russian Federation's Exclusive Stronghold on its Near Abroad is a

To ensure its longer term stability, Russia must revisit its foreign policy given the brewing intra-alliance rivalries, increasing shifts of power constellations in the Far Abroad, as well as a growing economic and military build-up of China with extensions of its influence to Central Asia and the Caucasus.[1]

The events surrounding the collapse of the USSR, and the development from a bipolar to a unipolar and recently multipolar world order have purported the Russian Federation’s historical feeling of insecurity. In this time, it is thus important to protect the country and the political regime from destabilizing influences, which – for Russia – are manifested by the spread of Western values and actions.[2]

In fact, Russia’s great plain has been faced with incursions from the west and southwest over the centuries.[3] Thus, to circumvent a renewed “intrusion”, Russia seeks to ensure its primacy in the Former Soviet Union, in particular against NATO and the EU. This is also reflected in its 2015 National Security Strategy, that states: “The West’s stance aimed at countering integration processes and creating seats of tension in the Eurasian region is exerting a negative influence on the realization of Russian national interests.”[4] Thus Russia’s approach to ensuring its regional hegemony in its traditional sphere of influence is threefold: (1) cultural policies, like the Russian World idea are supposed to create sense of belonging; (2) these are propped with increasingly exclusionary economic and military alliances for the willing; and (3) the use of force or threat thereof for countries non-aligned with Russia.

Formed in the 1990s, the ‘geopolitical imaginary’ of the Russian World (russkii mir) prompts Moscow to steer the trajectory of countries in its Near Abroad and to create a cultural ‘sense of belonging’ for its diaspora and compatriots. As a matter of fact, Putin’s vision of the disintegration of the USSR seems to be chiefly cultural. In his speech justifying the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he said about it: “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”[5]

However, reaction among the Russian people towards the Russian World policy seems not as strong as Putin may have hoped. As one example, the 2006 “Program of State Assistance for Voluntary Travel of Compatriots to Russia” aimed to return Russian expatriates and dual nationals to the country. While this policy primarily targeted ethnic Slavs, these very people seem to be the least convinced of the plan. In fact, the policy has mostly enticed Central Asians and South Caucasians and reached merely 28% of the projected 450,000[6] repatriation target. Furthermore, the loss of Ukraine[7] in 2014 (and arguably earlier in 2004), and the flip-flopping statements[8] on Russia-Belarus Union integration manifest the failure of the Russian World policy.

How Far is Too Far?

Next to cultural mechanisms, Russia attempts to attract pro-Russian countries in economic and military unions. The Collective Security Treaty organization (CSTO) – a Russian-led military alliance founded in 1992 – today comprises Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia. Together with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) – in existence since 2014 and comprising the same members with the exception of Tajikistan – and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), these three institutions mark the central pillars of post-Soviet Russian economic and military integration. However, these mechanisms seem to benefit Russia more than the other participating countries.

In fact, Armenia’s total trade with the EU ($633 million), exceeds the $579.5 million trade volume with the members of the EAEU.[9] Gradual changes in cooperation with other powers occur in Kazakhstan as well as other Central Asian states, where trade volumes with China have increased 85-fold from the 1990s, totaling $30 billion annually in 2016.[10] Culturally and militarily, increasing external cooperation is evidenced by the ballooning in the number of Kazakh students studying in China from 781 in 2005[11] to 13,198 in 2015. Additionally, Kazakhstan granting the U.S. rights to use Caspian ports for supply routes into Afghanistan point at another direction of diversification.[12]

In light of these integration alternatives, Moscow has been flexing its muscles with partnering states. Moscow’s inability to offer the countries with enticing benefits pushes its allies to reconsider further integration. Still, most of Russia’s alliance partners have not yet turned to other international powers. However, the recent plans on an ever-closer Russia-Belarus Union through a single parliament and the merger of large parts of both countries’ economies encountered vehement protests[13] in Minsk on the symbolic date of the 20th anniversary[14] of the Russia-Belarus Union.[15] It remains to be seen how Russia will react to the further distancing from its “Soviet theme park”[16], given its harsh response and pressure on Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine to abort their European Free Trade Agreements in 2013[17] which culminated in the Russian annexation of Crimea and war in the Ukrainian Donbass region.[18]

The Military Cannot Solve All Problems

Russia’s waning cultural influence and growing rivalry in its traditional stronghold has led to measures that attain an exclusive and coercive character, especially in the military-security or economic domains. For countries seeking alternative alliances to those led by Russia, Moscow is left only with one option to guarantee its assertiveness in its sphere of influence: military interventions. However, the consequences of its past interventionist behavior in Ukraine and Georgia have created a situation in which it no longer controls its (re)actions to countries severing their ties with Russia, but has become entangled in a dangerous game of last resort in which it itself is only a pawn.

And still, large-scale invasions such as in Georgia and/or covert operations in Ukraine are not tenable strategies for Moscow. Firstly, not every country in the region presents ethno-national or separatist tensions that can be ignited. Furthermore, sanctions – while not representing the major cause for Russian economic decline – have taken a toll on Russia’s economic situation.[19] These sanctions are felt likewise in the Russian neighborhood due to their extreme mutual reliance.[20] As such, in 2014 Kazakhstan’s currency depreciated by almost 20 percent. While Kazakh President Kassym Jomart-Tokayev recently restated that actions that happened in Crimea were not to be called annexation, and that northern Kazakhstan was not fearing a possible incorporation into Russia, increased and repeated burdens on the Kazakh economy could sour relations.[21]

A Modern Russian ‘Thaw’

Thus, renewed use of overt military force by Russia against disloyal regimes seems untenable. At the moment, Moscow’s “divide and conquer”[22] approach of capitalizing on frozen conflicts appears to be the best option. By this technique, Russia has kept Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Georgia at an arm’s length from NATO. Ukraine similarly is turning into another such military stalemate, whereby the country’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced that he would “wall off” the Donbass if no agreements were reached with at the Paris summit on December 9, 2019.[23]

Even creating frozen conflicts to retain influence in the region and prevent any possible rapprochement may not be durable. In fact, while NATO’s Article 5 on Collective Defense may at first sight exclude countries that are currently engaged in any war – be it cold or hot – from joining NATO, certain legal loopholes exist. Article 6, outlining the territories falling under Article 5, could be modified to provisionally exclude occupied territories, as precedenced by Turkey and Greece joining the alliance amidst a dispute over Cyprus.[24] Secondly, Zviad Adzinbaia argues that – at least in the Georgian context – the threat of a Russian use of force loses its deterrent effect, given that nothing can get worse than what the country has previously experienced.[25] In this sense, countries in frozen conflicts or under Russian occupation may push even harder against the occupier and enforce their Western-leaning positions. This theory can be validated by protests following a Russian Parliament Member’s jibe in June 2019 in Tbilisi.[26]

Russian policy towards its Near Abroad thus lacks a balance between external assertiveness and systemic allurement. In the long run, this may result in a loss of its current allies and overstretching responses to countries that do not or no longer seek to be aligned with Moscow. Russia must find another response to the dawn of international organizations with high linkage and leverage effects and the growing influence of rising powers, such as China, in the region.

Can China Save Everything?

China is emerging as one of the main actors in Central Asia, and further expanding its economic, military, and cultural projects globally thanks to its Belt and Road Initiative.[27] In order not to lose influence in the region, Russia should increase cooperation with China. To this end, it should extend the linkage of the BRI and EAEU,[28] keep up energy cooperation, as recently evidenced with the Russian supply of gas to China via the Power of Siberia pipeline,[29] and invest in uniting projects, such as the construction of the first road bridge to connect both countries by 2020.[30]

Russia should seek out particularly beneficial economic ties – leveraged on the ability of it to provide China with the fuel it requires for its modernization – that will provide with the needed bargaining chips to entice cooperation of its Near Abroad and foster economic modernization of Russia’s Far East. As long as Russia can keep the reins in its hand and broker agreements through the EAEU and the CSTO, it may be able to alleviate comparatively lower levels of allurement for its Near Abroad as compared with China. This way, both countries may be able to “safeguard their core interests and the[ir] common security […] and maintain regional and world peace and stability.”[31] However, China remains an ambiguous partner, given the country’s policy of expansion and ambitions in Russia’s Near Abroad.

Russia – in the long run – is in decline and should rethink its policies towards the Former Soviet Union. At least it must shift its priorities from invasion or coercion to cooperation with other powers. Otherwise ruin will reveal itself behind its strong Buddenbrookian façade. 

Bibliography

Adzinbaia, Zviad. “How Can Georgia’s NATO Accession Help Improve Western-Russia Relations?” How Can Georgia’s NATO Accession Help Improve Western-Russia Relations? October 30, 2019.
Ball, Tom. “Is Belarus Putin’s Next Land Grab?” The New Republic, April 9, 2019. https://newrepublic.com/article/153520/belarus-putins-next-land-grab.
“Common US Enemy Helps Bring China and Russia Closer.” South China Morning Post, December 10, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3040437/china-and-russia-forge-deeper-ties-thanks-their-common-enemy.

Deutsche Welle. “Where Is the Russian Economy Headed?: DW: 15.03.2018.” DW.COM. Accessed January 21, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/where-is-the-russian-economy-headed/a-42994677.
“Georgia Protests: Thousands Storm Parliament over Russian MP’s Speech.” BBC News. BBC, June 21, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-48710042.
Hubbard, Ben, Anton Troianovski, Carlotta Gall, and Patrick Kingsley. “In Syria, Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 15, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/15/world/middleeast/kurds-syria-turkey.html.
“Kazakhstan Trade.” Kazakhstan Trade | Data. Accessed January 21, 2020. https://wits.worldbank.org/countrysnapshot/en/KAZ.
Laruelle, Marlene. “The ‘Russian World’: Russia’s Soft Power and Geopolitical Imagination.” Center for Global Interests, 2015. http://globalinterests.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/FINAL-CGI_Russian-World_Marlene-Laruelle.pdf.
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Michel, Casey. “Russia Sanctions Hit Central Asia Hard.” – The Diplomat. for The Diplomat, October 3, 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/10/russia-sanctions-hit-central-asia-hard/.
Mikovic, Nikola. “Is Belarus Distancing Itself from Russia?” Global Comment, November 6, 2019. http://globalcomment.com/is-belarus-distancing-itself-from-russia/.
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O’Connor, Tom. “China and Russia Are Getting along Better than Ever, the U.S. Has Only Made It Easier for Them.” Newsweek, August 7, 2019. https://www.newsweek.com/china-russia-getting-along-us-1451832.
Ohanyan, Anna. “Analysis | Why Russia Starts so Many Conflicts on Its Own Borders.” The Washington Post. WP Company, September 12, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/12/russia-has-a-lot-of-conflicts-along-its-borders-thats-by-design/.
“Putin, Lukashenko Fail to Secure ‘Integration’ Deal amid Anti-Russia Protests in Belarus.” bne IntelliNews. Accessed January 21, 2020. https://www.intellinews.com/putin-lukashenko-fail-to-secure-integration-deal-amid-anti-russia-protests-in-belarus-173066/?source=belarus.
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Footnotes

[1] Hubbard, Ben, Anton Troianovski, Carlotta Gall, and Patrick Kingsley. “In Syria, Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 15, 2019.
[2] Russian National Security Strategy, Russian National Security Strategy, §683 (31 December 2015).
[3] Tim Marshall, “Russia and the Curse of Geography,” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, October 31, 2015.
[4] Russian National Security Strategy, Russian National Security Strategy,” §683 (31 December 2015).
[5] “Владимир Путин (Vladimir Putin) – Statement on Annexation of Crimea.” Genius. Accessed January 20, 2020.
[6] Laruelle, Marlene. “The ‘Russian World’: Russia’s Soft Power and Geopolitical Imagination.” Center for Global Interests, 2015, p.11.
[7] Mentioned by Saari, “Russia’s Post-Orange Revolution Strategies to Increase its Influence in the former Soviet republics: Public Diplomacy po russki,” p.50.
[8] Mikovic, Nikola. “Is Belarus Distancing Itself from Russia?” Global Comment, November 6, 2019.
[9] “Экспорт Армении По Итогам 2017 Года Составил $2 242.9 Млн., Рост Стал Максимальным За 5 Лет.” arka.am. Accessed January 21, 2020.
[10] “Kazakhstan Trade.” Kazakhstan Trade | Data. Accessed January 21, 2020.
[11] “Most Viewed.” China. Accessed January 21, 2020.
[12] Writer, Staff. “Kazakhstan Seeks Sweet Spot in US-China-Russia Power Game.” Nikkei Asian Review. Nikkei Asian Review, September 4, 2018.
[13] “Putin, Lukashenko Fail to Secure ‘Integration’ Deal amid Anti-Russia Protests in Belarus.” bne IntelliNews. Accessed January 21, 2020.
[14] Mikovic, Nikola. “Is Belarus Distancing Itself from Russia?” Global Comment, November 6, 2019.
[15] Still, I believe that the response towards Belarus will not yet result in any military action by Russia. While there is a distinacing of the state from further Russian integration, it is not yet presented with another offer by one of Russia’s peer competitors for influence in the region. Instead, Russia will most likely have its way – as it has had with Belarus since its independence – notwithstanding protests (as in Ukrainian Maidan in 2014), or invade once NATO or the EU make advances, which should be not likely to happen in the near future. However, the current Belarusian crisis illustrates the conundrum that Russia’s foreign policy strategy faces towards its Near Abroad: in what way shall it react to allies refusing total cooperation.
[16] Ball, Tom. “Is Belarus Putin’s Next Land Grab?” The New Republic, April 9, 2019.
[17] Delcour, Laure, and Kataryna Wolczuk. “The EU’s Unexpected ‘Ideal Neighbour’? The Perplexing
Case of Armenia’s Europeanisation.” Journal of European Integration 37, no. 4 (2015), pp.3-4.
[18] Sasse, Gwendolyn. “High Time to End the War in Ukraine” Carnegie Europe – Strategic Europe, December 4, 2017.
[19] Deutsche Welle. “Where Is the Russian Economy Headed?: DW: 15.03.2018.” DW.COM. Accessed January 21, 2020.
[20] Michel, Casey. “Russia Sanctions Hit Central Asia Hard.” – The Diplomat. for The Diplomat, October 3, 2014.
[21] The Moscow Times. “’We Don’t Call It Annexation,’ Kazakh Leader Says of Crimea.” The Moscow Times. The Moscow Times, January 21, 2020.
[22] Ohanyan, Anna. “Analysis | Why Russia Starts so Many Conflicts on Its Own Borders.” The Washington Post. WP Company, September 12, 2018.
[23] “Ukraine Threatens to Wall off Part of Donbass Region If No Agreement with Russia.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, December 5, 2019.
[24] Adzinbaia, Zviad. Medium- & Long-term Prospects for Advancing US-Georgia Security Cooperation, 2018, p.33.
[25] Adzinbaia, Zviad. “How Can Georgia’s NATO Accession Help Improve Western-Russia Relations?”, October 30, 2019.
[26] “Georgia Protests: Thousands Storm Parliament over Russian MP’s Speech.” BBC News. BBC, June 21, 2019.
[27] Stronski, Paul, and Nicole Ng. “Cooperation and Competition: Russia and China in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed January 21, 2020.
[28] O’Connor, Tom. “China and Russia Are Getting along Better than Ever, the U.S. Has Only Made It Easier for Them.” Newsweek, August 7, 2019.
[29] Rfe/rl. “Russia, China Launch ‘Historic’ Gas Pipeline.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, December 2, 2019.
[30] Rfe/rl. “Construction Of First Highway Bridge Linking Russia, China Completed.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, November 30, 2019.
[31] “Common US Enemy Helps Bring China and Russia Closer.” South China Morning Post, December 10, 2019.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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