With its recent invasion of Ukraine, Russia reminds the world that the Cold War spirit still drives the decision-makers in Moscow, and it should be understood in the minds of the leaders in Washington DC, London or Paris. More precisely, the message sent is clear: don’t interfere in Russia’s near abroad.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the imminent end of the Cold War generated a profound identity crisis among Russians. After being one of the global superpowers in a bipolar system, it turned into a “struggling middle-income country” trying to avoid larger economic and political collapse. Indeed, during the Yeltsin presidency, kleptocracy, savage liberalism, economic mismanagement, organized crime and poverty became common. Filled by the disastrous quagmire of the First Chechen war, a political transformation was boiling up in Moscow, seeking to restore what Russians perceived as Russia’s historical greatness and its pivotal role in international politics. Certainly, the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000 sought to erase the embarrassment of the Yeltsin era and instead, generated a new Russia that is capable of standing on the pedestal that once belonged to the USSR.
The core of Russia’s foreign policy has not fundamentally changed since the Soviet days; however, the international and regional security environment has drastically altered. Hence, while keeping a grip on its close neighbourhood has become an explicit strategic priority for the Kremlin, there is a strong ambition to deliver influence at a global level in order to regain its perception of world power status.
For historical, ideological and economic reasons, Russia maintains regions of “privileged interest” and a sphere of influence in the former Soviet states called “Near Abroad” or “Neighbourhood” (Eastern, Caucasian and Central Asian States). Russia already suffered from “the loss” of the Baltic States. Therefore any new attempt to avoid Moscow’s plan for the remaining countries of the former Soviet Union is perceived as a threat to Russia who feels vulnerable because of its non-existent natural protection. Thus, it used energy threats (Ukraine 2006, Estonia 2007, Belarus 2010), soft power through political influence (Ukraine elections 2009) and military power through armed interventions (Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014) to protect its interests. Some countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus gained a strategic importance for Europeans, Americans and Russians because of its energy value and for logistic reasons in order to sustain the war in Afghanistan. Putin is unlikely to let the Caspian region and its “transport corridor” for energies bypassing its territory so easily.
Unidentified gunmen on patrol at Simferopol Airport in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, Feb. 28, 2014 (Elizabeth Arrott, Voice of America)
The Bear is Back
The Georgian invasion of 2008 was a clear message stating that the Commonwealth of Independent States is the backyard of Russia and no one else is accepted there. Indeed, the American and European support of a “Westernisation” of Georgia to ensure its stability and then build a safe energy route from the Caspian to Europe, bypassing Russia, was unbearable for the Kremlin. Its Realpolitik behaviour was expressed again this year with Ukraine. A new government which is looking too much towards the West cannot be accepted because it will bring uncertainty and could mean a loss of influence for Moscow. It reflects the Russian way of thinking about foreign policy, which is rooted in the zero-sum game. The recent Russian military incursion in Crimea, like the previous one in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is a clear message towards Washington, London, Paris and Berlin: Russia’s near abroad will stay under the Bear’s claws.
The Ukrainian army is no match for Russia. Moreover, the nuclear capacity guarantees fear and deterrence towards the West, like it has done since the first blast of the Soviet nuclear bomb RDS-1 in 1949, code-named First Lightning. But on the other side of the border, Kiev signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in 1994 giving back to Russia its USSR nuclear arsenal. After this aggression on the Ukrainian territory, pretended to be “to ensure the protection of its citizens located beyond the borders of the Russian Federation”, as mentioned in the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation 2010, one inevitable observation can be done: Crimea and the East of Ukraine are lost to the West. Ukraine is falling apart and the crisis increases. Against the backdrop of anaemic response of the West, it seems that agreements are only paper and that those who are feared are respected. Maybe the West should give up Russia’s backyard.