Vladimir Putin once declared that “Soviet collapse was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and “a genuine tragedy.” Taking that cue from the “master of nostalgia,” Kremlin decision-makers have created a modern Russian policy based on revisionist and revivalist assumptions of Soviet history. Accordingly, Moscow divides countries into three distinct categories: those that precipitated this “catastrophe”; those that wield the proverbial sword of Damocles; and those that prefer “peaceful co-existence.” The first two categories need to “pay the price”; the third can be treated in friendly fashion. However simplistic it might sound, modern Russian foreign policy essentially puts the United States, NATO and the European Union in the first category, pro-Western former Soviet countries in the second, and states loyal to the Kremlin in the third.
This article evaluates broader trends in Russian foreign policy regarding the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and former CIS states, with particular focus on the period since the wave of colour revolutions. In examining Russian foreign policy towards the CIS under Vladimir Putin, certain common patterns emerge. Scrutinizing those patterns may help to determine the degree to which Georgia fits into Russia’s broader hegemonic regional strategy towards its former colonies.
Russian Foreign Policy Towards Its CIS Neighbours
Since the demise of the Soviet Union, its former republics have faced the challenges of self-government and the dilemma of aligning their foreign policy vectors vis-à-vis Russia and the West, particularly the United States and the European Union. Once free to choose their own paths, the former Soviet states moved in different directions: some stayed loyal to Russia; others followed a pro-Western political course; some pursued more of a “balancing” policy. The trend of active Westernization developed as an outcome of U.S. involvement in the region. The colour revolutions (in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan) were, to certain degree, illustrative of this trend (and other factors) and were perceived by the Kremlin as throwing down the gauntlet with regard to Russian domination of the region. Before analyzing Russian policy towards Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and, most importantly, Georgia, a review of Kremlin policy towards the CIS states, starting with Armenia and Azerbaijan, will provide contextualization.
A Neutral Peace Keeper – Episode One
A major “peacemaker” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since the Soviet demise, Russia provides assistance to both parties in the conflict, thereby heavily influencing their political vectors. On the one hand, Moscow supports Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, not (yet) recognizing Karabakh as an independent state; on the other hand, the Kremlin appears to be one of the main providers of military equipment to both the Armenian and Karabakh governments occupying Azerbaijani territory. Thus, its feigned peaceful regulation of this conflict does not seem to be Moscow’s true aim. Maintaining the status quo is actually more favourable to Russia, both strategically and financially, though not necessarily in the best interest of either party to the conflict itself. If the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict were actually resolved, the possible wider incorporation of the region and the development of energy transit routes would obviously impinge on the Russian energy monopoly. Under the status quo, Armenia, isolated from Azerbaijan and Turkey, stays politically dependent on Russia, while Azerbaijan, affluent with its own natural resources and a comparatively more flexible government view of Western cooperation, is, to some extent, still reliant on Russia as well. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan thus prefer a policy of balancing over a strong pro-Western alignment.
A Neutral Peace Keeper – Episode Two
Russia plays a somewhat similar role in the Transnistrian dispute in Moldova as it does in Karabakh. Transnistria is comparatively less essential to Moldova than Karabakh is to Armenia and Azerbaijan, but Transnistria nonetheless appears to be one of the major stumbling blocks for Moldova in its bid for EU membership. The presence of Russian troops in this region and Moscow’s financial aid to the Transnistrian government only makes Moldova’s European image all the more unstable. The Kremlin influences policies of the recently elected pro-Western government in Chisinau by employing a double standard – on the one hand, supporting the territorial integrity of the country and, on the other hand, maintaining military and economic support for a secessionist administration (similar to its role in Azerbaijan). That enables Moscow to keep Chisinau checked and balanced while Moldova is formulating its policies.
Belo-Russia - The Union State
Russian policy towards Belarus seems slightly different than Russian policy toward those counties with internal conflicts. Since the Soviet collapse, Belarus has been – together with the Central Asian states – one of the states most loyal to Moscow. However, a gradual political change in Kremlin relations with Minsk started to emerge during the financial crisis when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko turned to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for long-term loans in order to stabilize the economic damage caused by a harsh drop in energy (oil) export income. In this way, as some analysts have suggested, Lukashenko tried to reduce dependence on Russian credits and energy subsidies. Minsk concomitantly resisted Kremlin pressure to sell Belarusian oil refineries to Russian state-owned companies and further strengthened ties with the European Union through involvement in the EU Eastern Partnership Program. In addition, despite strong pressure from Moscow, Lukashenko did not recognize Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. In response, the Kremlin cut oil subsidies to Belarus, postponed the transfer of arranged credit, and banned Belarusian milk imports, causing serious damage to the Belarusian economy. Belarus in recent decades had imported Russian oil at a comparatively low price and then exported it to the European Union at market prices. Since the crisis began between Moscow and Minsk, Belarus has been paying market prices for a considerable portion (around two-thirds) of its oil imports from Russia.
A Friendly Colonizer
The Central Asian former-Soviet states have, for the most part, not been considered political “headaches” for Russian policymakers since the collapse of the Union. By integrating those countries into various Kremlin-dominated organizations – such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and others – the Kremlin has treated most of them more gently than the rest of the “near abroad” countries. Moscow also has seized the opportunity to extract various beneficial energy deals with the affluent Central Asian states of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan: In exchange for monopolization of their gas and oil exports, which Moscow then resells to Europe, the Kremlin supports the local authoritarian regimes of those countries. Broader integration of Central Asian CIS member states with Western institutions does not appear to be on their political agenda. With inclusion of Turkmenistan in the EU-supported Nabucco pipeline still unclear, U.S. political scientist Vladimir Socor argues that the Kremlin is, quite successfully at this time, pressuring and aiding the Turkmen government to “export [the] gas anywhere except Europe.” In contrast to other post-Soviet Central Asian countries, the situation in Kyrgyzstan was comparatively problematic for Moscow. The overthrow of relatively pro-Western President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010 helped to lay the groundwork for what some described as the Kremlin’s rough intervention into Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs. Moscow’s motive for fermenting political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan was twofold: the closure of the U.S. airbase in Manas (an essential logistics center for the ISAF mission in Afghanistan) and establishment of a pro-Russian government. If that was indeed the Kremlin’s real motive, then its policy has succeeded to no small extent – interim Kyrgyz President Rosa Otunbaeva was loyal to Moscow right from the beginning of the internal political chaos, even demanding involvement of a Russian peacekeeping mission to ensure the country’s stabilization, while current President Almazbek Atambayev is counting on Russian financial benevolence to nullify the five-hundred million-dollar debt that his country owes Russia, perhaps at the expense of closing the Manas base for good in 2014.
Historical “South Rus”
During the presidency of Victor Yushchenko, the Kremlin used various means to destabilize the pro-Western Ukraine government. To achieve its “strategic” goals, Moscow chose a time shortly before Ukraine’s 2010 presidential elections to target European energy security in what became widely known as the “gas war” between Ukraine and Russia. Using the pretext of contract disputes, extensive fees and unfair pricing, Russia cut off its energy supply to Ukraine. In response, Ukraine – one of the main transit corridors of Russian resources – stopped gas supplies to Europe. By leaving several European countries without a gas supply, Ukraine left itself without a good reputation among its European allies. EU involvement brought about an agreement that ended the dispute. However, it is important to grasp the geopolitical significance of the Russia-Ukraine “gas war.” According to political analysts Adrian Karatnycky and Alexander Motyl, that conflict was aimed at achieving two “strategic goals”: On the one hand, “in exchange for forgiving Ukraine’s mounting gas debts,” Russia attempted to acquire domination over the Ukrainian energy system; on the other hand, the Kremlin aimed to convey to Europe an image of Ukraine as an unstable partner country. That latter goal was immediately achieved. In the last elections, the clearly pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich defeated the comparatively pro-Western/balancing Yulia Tymoshenko (who ended up in prison not too long after the elections). The Kremlin thereby also achieved (or even exceeded) its central strategic goal of removing Western-minded people from the political orbit of Ukraine. In exchange for Russian gas-price concessions and reciprocal cooperation in the nuclear sphere, President Yanukovich agreed to prolong the formerly disputed presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea for twenty-five more years. That could be considered to be one of the crowning achievements of Moscow’s hegemonic foreign policy towards Ukraine. As American journalist Matthew Continetti correctly asserts, ratification of the Crimean agreement officially legitimatized the “Finlandization of Ukraine.” If Ukraine under Yushchenko could be classified as relatively pro-Western, it could be reasonably argued that the Kremlin has regained its domination and scored another geostrategic goal through “soft power.”
The Biggest Headache – Historical Brothers, Georgians
Historically, Georgia has been perhaps the most problematic state for Russia. In order to understand Russian ambitions and policy towards Georgia, one needs to analyse several hundred (or, at least, the last seventy) years of the history of relations between the two countries. However, one can fairly state that modern relations between Tbilisi and Moscow deteriorated dramatically after the 2003 Rose Revolution and plummeted to their nadir with Russia’s direct military intervention in Georgia in August 2008.
The shift in Kremlin policy towards Tbilisi began to intensify in 2005 when, within the span of a couple of months, Tbilisi welcomed President George W. Bush as the first sitting U.S. leader to set foot on Georgian soil and then saw Russian troops off after nearly three centuries on Georgian soil. In addition, Tbilisi increased its cooperation with Western institutions, particularly NATO and the European Union. With regard to NATO, Georgia’s Individual Partnership Action Plan was approved, which meant the country would receive assistance in modernizing its political, administrative and military capabilities to achieve NATO standards. With regard to the European Union, Tbilisi was supported in strengthening its political and economic sectors via the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia announced that the ENP Action Plan envisaged involvement in Georgia’s internal peacekeeping processes affecting Abkhazia and South Ossetia. All in all, Georgian reform initiatives were strongly backed by Washington. Moreover, besides serving as a transit route for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, Georgia received support of the Bush Administration to become a participant country of the Nabucco project, the gas pipeline linking the Caspian region and the Middle East to Europe as a possible alternative to Russia’s monopolistic position in European energy markets. Growing U.S. interest in the region and Georgia’s strong integration assertions were perceived in Moscow as a joint threat to Russian national security. It was evident to the Kremlin that its former colony’s serious long-term ambition for integration with Western institutions was reducing Moscow’s regional hegemony.
Against this background, the Kremlin initially tried asserting non-military “soft” power. Moscow’s first response was to apply economic pressure on Georgia. Beginning in 2006, the Kremlin banned the import of Georgian wine and mineral water. Russia followed that up with a blockade of communication links (railways, flights, money transfers, etc.). The communications blockade damaged more than half the Georgian economy, but still did not have the desired effect. Pressure on Tbilisi did not change the country’s political path or diminish U.S. support. Moscow modified its “softness” accordingly. Within a year, the Kremlin had finished a military build-up in the Georgian secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That was followed by regular violation of Georgian airspace by various Russian unmanned aerial vehicles. This militaristic flavour of the Kremlin agenda gave, or should have given, clear signals to the government in Tbilisi and to the West that Russia’s “soft” arsenal for maintaining its “sphere of influence” was not efficient enough for Moscow and that a military solution was on the horizon.
The final radicalization of Kremlin policy towards Georgia occurred after Kosovo declared independence and after the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008. The Kremlin, frustrated by the West’s apathy towards the Russian position on Kosovo, had been hinting at a military response since 2006. At that time, President Putin warned that Kosovo independence, if recognized by the West, might trigger similar actions in the conflict regions of Georgia. Recognition of Kosovo became the catalyst for the Kremlin to achieve its second strategic goal, which, in the words of then-President Dmitry Medvedev, was “to diminish Georgia’s NATO integration.” In Bucharest, NATO membership was promised to Georgia (and Ukraine), even though no Membership Action Plan (MAP) was forthcoming. The NATO compromise on indefinitely postponing (rather than outright rejecting) Georgia’s membership was likely aimed both at rewarding U.S.-backed Georgia for its contributions to NATO’s peacekeeping missions and at calming down the frustrated Russians by not giving a MAP to Georgia. However, the compromise had a counter-effect: Russia perceived the refusal of a MAP to Georgia as a signal to act in order to stop Georgian NATO ambitions and to send a reply to the West concerning Kosovo.
In the seven-month period following Kosovo independence, the Kremlin abolished CIS sanctions against the two Georgian separatist regions; established reciprocal economic and socio-political relations with both Georgian territories; started military exercises (called “Kavkaz”) near Russo-Georgian borders; left its troops on Georgian territory after completing military exercises; and evacuated the South Ossetian population (mainly women and children). As we now know, all of those events were leading up to the Kremlin’s planned military intervention in 2008, rather than it solely being a response to Georgia’s military operation in South Ossetia.
During the August 2008 war, the Kremlin attempted to convince the world that its invasion served humanitarian motives of protecting Ossetian minorities and Russian citizens from “genocide.” That, to some extent, was the Russian version of the NATO Kosovo intervention – each searched for moral bases to justify its own actions. However, Russian claims of genocide were nullified by the report of the EU-established Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (IIFFMCG). Soon after the Russo-Georgian war, the Kremlin recognized Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence, despite the potential risk that posed to Russia’s own territorial integrity. As a result of the August war, any Western perception that Kosovo independence would not serve as precedent for similar actions vanished, along with Georgian territorial integrity and any realistic prospects for immediate NATO-EU integration. The Kremlin’s task of averting NATO expansion was completed.
The Echo of History?
One might conclude that the 2008 Russo-Georgian war was a culmination of various inter-related historical events. But the main focal points for the military intervention in Georgia were the conflicting interests of Russia and the West in the former Soviet countries, as well as the West’s underestimation of the Russian reaction to recognition of Kosovo independence and Georgia’s NATO aspirations. As Medvedev subsequently acknowledged, the Georgian war was intended as a message to international players involved in the region (NATO and the United States in particular) as well as to the former Soviet states. In the case of Western institutions, the Kremlin was sending a warning against intervention in Russian “spheres of influence” and a reminder that Russia had recovered its place as hegemonic player on the international stage. For the countries of the former Soviet Union, the Georgian example was to serve as a warning to rethink the cost of cooperation with the West. That message has proved more effective in some cases than in others. In the aftermath of the August war, Belarusian and Ukrainian leaders apparently calculated the political cost as outweighing any possible benefit and did not resist Kremlin political and economic pressures. As a result, the political vector of those two countries has not shifted in a Western direction. In other cases, NATO and EU aspirations have been rethought, mainly in Baku and, to some extent, in Chisinau. The country in which the Kremlin’s agenda has not had the desired effect is Georgia. Despite losing its sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and, perhaps, its chances for Western institutional integration (at least in the nearest future), Georgia has neither lost belief in its inevitable Western course nor shifted its political vector.
Having reflected on Russian hegemonic regional policy and the sequence of events prior to and during the year 2008, one (especially a pessimistic observer) might ponder certain parallels that exist between then and now. It has been a little more than a month since President Barrack Obama met Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili in the Oval Office, where the two leaders discussed a new stage in U.S.-Georgia cooperation. Be it a symbolic gesture of American gratitude for Georgia’s concession on World Trade Organization membership for Russia or a reward for Georgia’s ISAF contribution or merely Obama’s attempt to “calm down” Republicans on the Georgian issue, the Obama-Saakashvili meeting was painfully received in Moscow. As expected, a cascade of political yellow cards turned in the direction of Tbilisi. Almost contemporaneous with the Oval Office meeting, Vladimir Putin warned about the horrible consequences of any deployment of an American defense system in Georgia (as if an agreement on installing American missile systems in Georgia had even been discussed, let alone agreed, by the U.S. and Georgian presidents). The hegemonic patterns of Russian foreign policy towards its former colonies (not to mention its particular attitude toward the Georgian government) might led an observer to view upcoming events through the prism of the 2008 chronology. Later this year, in May, NATO will host its Chicago Summit. Meanwhile – surprise, surprise – Vladimir Putin has been re-elected as tsar/president of the Russian Federation and Russia is planned large-scale military trainings, Kavkaz-2012, on the territories of the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Given the similar sequence of events in 2008, a pessimistic comment about the echo of history might not be received like a bolt from the blue.
Editor’s Note: In this article, author Tornike Metreveli references well-documented historical events, many of which are recounted in the following reference sources:
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