Russia In The Post-Soviet Space: Trying To Save Face
October 11, 2023
  • Mikhail Vinogradov

    President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation

Political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov looks at how Russia’s relations with the former Soviet republics have changed amid the crises of recent years, including the clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, the incorporation of Crimea and the war with Georgia, and how these relations have been changed by Moscow’s current focus on Ukraine.
A rally in support of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Republic Square, Yerevan, April 2018.
Source: Wiki Commons
The outcome of the 2023 Nagorno-Karabakh war shows why the Russian presence in the countries of the former USSR should be rethought. The first reason is purely formal. Russia never took on obligations to maintain the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, and therefore had neither military/political, nor legal grounds to maintain the status quo in the region. This explanation is also appropriate from the standpoint of the principle of the inviolability of borders, which Russia had adhered to from 1992 to 2008, after which it recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, followed by the incorporation of Crimea into Russia in 2014.

The second reason is political and, perhaps, partly emotional. Russia has not forgiven Armenia for the “color revolution” of 2018 and the rise to power of Nikol Pashinyan. The logic of official Russian propaganda contrasts “good” Armenia with “bad” Pashinyan. However, the Armenian prime minister has been in office for more than five years, during which time Moscow and Yerevan, when necessary, found a common language. On May 9, 2023, when the Russian side very insistently invited the leaders of post-Soviet countries to attend the Victory Day parade on Red Square (coming after drone strikes on the Kremlin at the end of April), Pashinyan responded and attended. This stood in contrast to Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev, who refused to come, citing preparations for the 100th anniversary of Heydar Aliyev, his father and predecessor.

The third and most convincing reason is resources. Despite the partial restoration of Soviet aesthetics and semi-official nostalgia for the lands that were “abandoned” in 1991, the concentration on the Russia-Ukraine conflict has deprived Moscow of resources to play an active role across the rest of the post-Soviet space.

Conceptual and resource problems were present in Russia’s policy toward its “near abroad” before. Goals were very vague, and the demonstration of Russia’s presence in the region did not produce tangible results. Post-Soviet countries took advantage of this by giving Russia symbolic attention (participation in CIS forums, ritualistic gestures of respect) while simultaneously strengthening their own sovereignty and sometimes interacting with Moscow’s enemies.

In cases where bilateral disputes arose over practical issues, post-Soviet countries often won, as they had a greater stake in the outcome. For example, Ukraine in the 2000s and 2010s was very successful at getting relatively favorable rates for Russian gas. For Turkmenistan and Belarus, negotiations with Russia have more than once gone in their favor. On the sidelines, Russian officials have even said about Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko: “we don’t understand how it works, but again he got everything he wanted.”
While constantly telling its own citizens that Russia was strong and capable of influencing post-Soviet leaders, in reality Moscow sometimes had to make concessions during negotiations.
2008 and 2014: Stress tests

There is no consensus opinion among experts about what year the previous model of relations in the post-Soviet space fell apart. Before 2022, there were two intermediate points: Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and the incorporation of Crimea in 2014. Today, many see them as turning points and harbingers of the current full-scale conflict; however, after each event, a period of normalization followed. Despite the fears and periodic propaganda attacks against its neighbors, Russia did not try to take its expansionist policy further.

The Russia-Georgia War seemed to mark a fundamentally new stage, leading to the emergence of a coalition against Moscow: on August 12, 2008, the presidents of Ukraine, Poland, Estonia and Latvia made a joint visit to Tbilisi. Still, the situation did not fundamentally change. Georgia lost control over the territories, most of which it had lost back in the first half of the 90s. Meanwhile, the incorporation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Russia was not on the agenda then and is still not.
Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko meet at the Supreme State Council of the Union State. Moscow, April, 2023 Source: VK
Reaction of post-Soviet countries to Crimea

In contrast to the Georgian precedent, which in the eyes of post-Soviet countries looked rather like a separate case (similar to Moscow’s long-time but ineffective support for Transnistria), the incorporation of “new territories” that had belonged to Ukraine created fears of further territorial expansion.
One of the striking consequences was the distancing of Belarus from Moscow: Lukashenko helped write the Minsk agreements, introduced visa-free entry for EU citizens, and quite quickly “chewed up and spit out” the newly appointed Russian ambassador Mikhail Babich, whose appointment many believed foreshadowed Russian expansion into Belarus or the emergence of a Gomel or Vitebsk “people’s republic.” Less visible, but very real, was the rift with Kazakhstan.

The new borders drawn by Russia, taking into account the incorporation of Crimea, were not recognized by any of its neighbors. Despite the departure of Mikheil Saakashvili from power in 2013 and the more accommodating policy of the new Georgian government, a rapprochement between Moscow and Tbilisi remained impossible – even direct flights, banned from 2008, were resumed only in May 2023.
On Ukraine’s initiative, air traffic with Russia was stopped in 2015; in 2018, men with Russian passports were banned from entering Ukraine; in 2020, railway communication between the two countries was stopped.

The only CIS country with which relations improved in 2014-2020 was Kyrgyzstan: the political situation there has been unstable, and each new government looks to cooperate with Moscow. Russia easily “forgives” Kyrgyzstan’s periodic revolutions and always bets on whoever comes out the winner. Meanwhile, the Kremlin did not react in any way to the arrest of former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev a year and a half after he left office.

In relation to Ukraine, the 2015 Minsk agreements and the de facto cessation of hostilities in the Donbas led to a gradual détente. The DNR and LNR project itself was perceived not so much as an expansion of the Russian Federation, but as a tool that would keep Ukraine from joining NATO (due to the unresolved territorial issue).

By this time, Russian television propaganda had a distinctly anti-Ukrainian character, and the predominance of Ukraine in the news flow gave rise to a joke that if you watch the news on state channels, you might think that Russia is a small country surrounded on all sides by Ukraine.

However, besides the aggressive public rhetoric, the policy of the Russian government after the Minsk agreements was quite restrained. In 2018, Russia hosted the World Cup in a decidedly open and even “globalist” atmosphere, while the Russian authorities were forced to deal with internal problems, from pension reform to the pandemic. The election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president of Ukraine in 2019 also looked like a sign of détente: neither propaganda nor the establishment saw the former actor, who had positioned himself as the “anti-Poroshenko,” as personifying evil.

Run-up to war
During the relative normalization after the incorporation of Crimea, policy toward the post-Soviet space gradually faded into the background.
Kazakhstan was swept by protests in early 2022. Aktobe, January 4, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
The events taking place there – be it the transfer of power from Nazarbayev to Tokayev in Kazakhstan in 2019, the same process in Kyrgyzstan in 2020, the preparation of an “heir” in Turkmenistan, the 2018 “revolution” in Armenia or periodic unrest in Georgia – would modestly pop up on the Russian agenda, taking a backseat to events in Ukraine, Russia’s activity in the international arena and internal issues.
During this period, however, three local crises developed that did not go unnoticed by Moscow. The first was the presidential elections in Belarus in the summer of 2020. Despite his active maneuvering in the international arena, Lukashenko was facing a lack of legitimacy during another reelection bid. His appeal to Moscow for support and harsh repression against the opposition would roll back the drift toward the West that he had orchestrated after Crimea.

Although Moscow did not directly intervene, the situation teetered on the brink of Russian military involvement in the confrontation between Lukashenko and the opposition. Lukashenko himself lost the relative autonomy from Russia that he sought in 2014-2019, when, while highlighting threats to the country’s security, he avoided specifying where the threat emanates – from the West or from the East.
The second crisis was the 2020 Karabakh war. Despite Russia’s direct military involvement, Moscow did not attract much criticism either within the country or from the West, as the Kremlin sought to stick to its peacekeeping mandate.

The third crisis was the unrest in Kazakhstan in January 2022, followed by the sudden entry of Russian troops into the country. Though at first this was reminiscent of the Prague Spring of 1968 – and it is not entirely clear whether there was a formal request for military assistance from Astana – the situation was resolved within a few days. Russian troops did not play a major role and quickly left Kazakhstan without putting forward any political, territorial or other claims.

It was rumored that one reason for the rapid exit could have been China’s dissatisfaction with the sudden change in the regional balance of power. Within a few weeks, however, it became clear that Moscow had other plans for its military resources – diverting the army to Kazakhstan would have complicated operations in Ukraine.

The situation after February 24, 2022

On the surface, little has changed: only the Baltic countries and Moldova took a tough stance toward Russia. Summits of numerous post-Soviet “integration” institutions are still held regularly, although in fact each country is constructing its own political strategy without anticipating a military victory by Moscow. It would be more appropriate to call the “pro-Russia” bloc “isolationist.” These countries have extremely limited opportunities to maneuver in the international arena, though they also have no desire to increase their dependence on Moscow, which many consider “toxic.”

The most striking example of this behavior is Belarus. Even though it officially subscribes to the Russian worldview and offered its territory for Russian troops to use as a staging ground in February 2022, Belarus still cannot be considered radically “pro-war.” Lukashenko has multiple times skillfully evaded Moscow’s hints about engaging the Belarusian army in Ukraine, and even declared 2023 as a year of peace – which, by the standards of today’s Russia, looks a little provocative. Minsk seeks to maintain a special relationship with Beijing, counting on China to act as a guarantor of Belarusian sovereignty in the event of threats from Russia.

In Kyrgyzstan, the political regime is simply trying to gain a foothold after another unexpected change of power – thus, it is important for it not to quarrel with Moscow, especially since its reputation as “the most democratic country in Central Asia” has been tarnished and the US air base at Manas, opened in 2001, was closed in 2014 (not without pressure from Moscow, it is believed).

Tajikistan has not been very active in the international arena previously, and it also prefers not to quarrel with Moscow. It is in Dushanbe’s interests to use Russian resources to fuel its economy (including remittances from Tajiks working in Russia) and relations with Moscow to counterbalance China’s influence. In addition, the presence of the Russian 201st Military Base is useful both in case of internal political risks and given the country’s location next to unstable Afghanistan.

Kazakhstan can be seen as the leader of the neutral bloc. Amid emphatically friendly rhetoric and what might be assistance in circumventing sanctions, Astana is keen to keep channels of communication with the West open, which, among other things, is seen as strengthening the current government inside Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, negative rhetoric toward Kazakhstan by Russian officials – in particular, Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin and Presidential Council for Human Rights head Valery Fadeev – has not gone unnoticed. Although there are relatively few Kazakh migrants in Russia, these verbal attacks can be read as a manifestation of nationalism targeting all the peoples of Central Asia and belittling the states of the region.

For some time after the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was keen to talk about modernization, but now it is again at a crossroads – should it continue the thaw or “tighten the screws” again? Tashkent has largely refrained from passing judgement on what is happening in Ukraine. Still, like the other four Central Asian countries, it participated in a meeting hosted by US President Biden on September 19 during the UN General Assembly in New York.

Armenia, despite the pro-Western rhetoric, did not receive real support from Western Europe and the US during the latest confrontation with Azerbaijan. The West’s reaction was slow and rather formal. It would be wrong to consider Moscow’s refusal to defend Nagorno-Karabakh solely a consequence of Pashinyan’s pro-Western tilt:
Judging by the actions of Azerbaijan, President Aliyev was ready to ignore the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the region, and the Kremlin obviously did not have enough resources to back Yerevan.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Eskisehir, Turkey. June 2018. Source: Wiki Commons
In fact, Iran emerged as the only major partner of Armenia, which caused irritation and prevented support from the Western world, while giving Israel a reason to aid the modernization of the Azerbaijani army.

Georgia is also in the “neutral” camp, although the political split there is deeper than in Armenia since the opposition plays a larger role. At the same time Tbilisi is moving away from the West, it is not resetting relations with Moscow, however, due to the unhealed wound of 2008. It cannot count on a more serious partnership with Russia also because of geopolitical divisions within the local elite.

The pro-Western bloc, besides Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which have long been separate from the post-Soviet space, is represented only by Moldova and Azerbaijan. For Chisinau, it is practically impossible to be pro-Russian: a “corridor to Transnistria” through Ukraine so far only exists in the fantasies of Russian radicals, but at the same time it is being voiced loud enough to deepen Moldova’s already-unfriendly relations with Moscow.

Azerbaijan consistently demonstrates to Moscow its political and military capabilities while at the same time assisting Turkey’s multi-vector policy. Aliyev has maintained relations with Zelensky, and the very possibility of putting Moscow in an ambiguous position with impunity (for example, shelling Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh) is psychologically and politically important for Baku.

Conclusion: From expansion to saving face

As of late, Moscow has found itself at a fork in the road.
“Russia is currently unable to conduct an active foreign policy in the post-Soviet space outside Ukraine, while it is neither psychologically nor politically possible to publicly acknowledge a shrinking of its ambitions to influence events in its backyard.”
Still, Russian society does not show much interest in the situation in neighboring countries. Moscow’s inaction in Nagorno-Karabakh was criticized mainly by radical patriots – the same people advocating victory at all costs in Ukraine. “Realists” and apolitical citizens, aside from inertial sympathy for Armenia, generally reacted indifferently to the Karabakh tragedy. For younger Russians, Nagorno-Karabakh is likely as much an abstraction as Kashmir, Tibet, or Yemen.

The outsized focus on Ukraine limits the possibilities for effective policy in other parts of the post-Soviet space. Moreover, goals have still not been formulated, and the post-Soviet countries, which in peacetime were very able negotiators as far as their interests were concerned, are now well aware of Moscow’s weakness.

The best that Russia can do now is to not to lose face, where possible maintain supply chains for sanctioned goods and in general preserve the status quo. This is not an easy task, especially since both Beijing and Washington are slowly building bridges with individual post-Soviet countries. Still, if obvious defeats in this regard can be avoided, official propaganda should be able to convince the Russian audience that Russia has many allies in the world, including in the post-Soviet space.
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