Russia in Post-Soviet Eurasia: What Has Been Lost on the Road of War?

June 20, 2022
  • Irina Busygina

    Political scientist

  • Mikhail Filippov

    SUNY Binghamton
Busygina and Filippov analyze the evolution of Russia’s relations with other former Soviet republics and the consequences of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, as well as the debate over whether the ultimate dissolution of the post-Soviet space is inevitable.
A session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council, 2012. Source: Wiki Commons
In 2021, experts from the Russian International Affairs Council (the think tank that claims that the Kremlin seriously considers its expert assessments when making foreign policy decisions) published a report with the eloquent title (in Russian), “Being head and shoulders above everyone else : Russia 30 years later.” In the report the experts argued that “Wars no longer offer obvious benefits either to their initiators, or to their participants. International conflicts get stuck in their destructive phase, without creating prerequisites for the post-conflict rehabilitation of countries and regions. As a result, wars simply do not achieve the goals for which they are waged. They exhaust both sides, not just the one that serves as the theater of military operations. Open armed clashes exacerbate tensions within the region and beyond”.

However, the Kremlin apparently did not listen to these experts, and on February 24, 2022, President Putin announced the beginning of a “special military operation”— which is in fact a full-fledged war—on the territory of Ukraine.

The war has weakened Russia's position in a region, Eurasia, whose importance for Russia has been acknowledged countless times since President Vladimir Putin came to power. For instance, in 2012, in his third inaugural address, Putin stated that “our prospects as a country and nation depend on us today and on our real achievements in building a new economy and developing modern living standards, on our efforts to look after our people and support our families, on our determination in developing our vast expanses from the Baltic to the Pacific, and on our ability to become a leader and center of gravity for the whole of Eurasia.” Is it all just big talk. Indeed, the Kremlin considered its loss of influence in the post-Soviet region as a threat to its aspirations for great power status.

Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the end of the “wild ’90s,” Russia was still in an excellent position for taking a leading role in post-Soviet Eurasia—be it economic, military, infrastructural, or cultural. Even its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s support for insurgents in eastern Ukraine did not destroy these preconditions altogether; Russia still managed to shape the space around it, albeit in a truncated format, in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union.
"The invasion of Ukraine put a final and irrevocable end to Russian ambitions in the region."
Before 2014: The strategy of “soft dominance”

After Putin came to power there were indications that Russia was moving away from a traditional imperial model towards promoting more pragmatic and equal relations with other post-Soviet nations. However, already during his second presidential term, he focused on pursuing “soft dominance” with regard to Russia’s neighbors as a way to create a Russia-centered coalition, or sphere of interest. Such a coalition was deemed critical for demonstrating Russia’s power and ensuring Russia’s equality with the world’s leading power centers, such as China, the European Union, and the United States. According to the plans of the Russian leadership, the influence of these centers of power in post-Soviet Eurasia was to be principally limited.

The strategy of “soft dominance” implied the use of a combination of economic concessions and sanctions to limit Western influence in the post-Soviet successor states. Then, after it became clear that the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was too weak as an integration platform, Russia attempted to launch several integration projects with smaller numbers of participants, such as the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) and the Customs Union.

What benefits were the other post-Soviet successor states supposed to gain from this Russian strategy? Most of them could indeed benefit economically from access to Russia’s natural resources and its labor markets. In addition, Russia claimed to be the main (or rather, the only) provider of the most important common good—collective security—regarding external threats to smaller post-Soviet nations. Another mission of Russia’s was to provide internal security and stability for these nations, in the sense that Russia supported the political survival of incumbent presidents loyal to Moscow. This mission, by definition, could not be carried out by the EU, the US, or even China.

It is critically important that before 2014, Moscow mostly followed through on commitments to respect the national sovereignty of other post-Soviet nations; its interference in various territorial conflicts never reached a point of annexing territories beyond its own borders. Russia provided foreign political incumbents with a combination of carrots and sticks, but without openly encroaching on the integrity and sovereignty of their nations. In other words, there were no de jure changes in post-Soviet national borders, and that was exactly the condition needed for maintaining the situation of “soft dominance.”

The default view was that the inviolability of interstate borders was a threshold that Russia would not cross; however, with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia had literally crossed the line.
"Little green men" and trucks after the seizure of Perevalne military base, Crimea, 9 March 2014. Source: Wiki Commons
The Ukrainian crisis of 2014

Many experts (and not just those from Russia) considered the 2014 actions of Moscow in Ukraine to be a success. As Wojciech Konończuk, the head of the Department for Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova at the Centre for Eastern Studies (Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich: OSW) in Warsaw argued, “Moscow’s successful campaign in Crimea and the West’s weak response has made Putin feel strong.” In our view, the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 created a highly ambivalent situation: on the one hand, it put an end to Moscow’s hopes that Ukraine would “enter Russia’s orbit” regardless of what terms Russia might offer the country; on the other hand, however, the crisis accelerated the creation of a new ambitious integration project around Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union, although in a narrower format, without Ukraine. Moreover, the smaller nations that joined the Union were able to obtain substantial concessions from Russia and create an association on a more equal basis. The Kremlin could not afford to lose any member of the Union, as that would inevitably undermine the credibility of the whole project.

At the same time, the annexation of Crimea magnified the fears of smaller post-Soviet states vis-à-vis Moscow, as it signaled that the borders of post-Soviet states were still not fixed, and that Moscow could use military force to annex adjacent regions of the former Soviet republics. The calculus of the post-Soviet nations had to be adjusted accordingly. As Mikhail Minakov, the Kennan Institute’s Senior Advisor on Ukraine, has observed: “none of the post-Soviet nations can exist the way they did before the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas war. All major and minor political players in the post-Soviet region started adapting to the growing insecurity that resulted from Russia’s Ukraine policy and other geopolitical players’ responses to it.”

The Ukrainian crisis has also changed the nature of competition between Russia and other major powers of post-Soviet Eurasia. Despite a growing asymmetry between Russia and China in economic terms, China wasn’t much of a problem for Russia politically.
"The Chinese leadership has been generally indifferent to Russian integration efforts in Central Asia; it has its own pragmatic interests regarding this region that are not in conflict with those of Russia."
China needs stability in the region to realize its ambitious economic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Russia is therefore free to pursue its own strategic interests in Central Asia, being China’s unofficial junior partner. Existing and emerging constraints on Russian policy have not been related to China, but rather to the internal political dynamics of Central Asian countries themselves.

The situation with the EU is very different. The region between Russia and the EU has become a real battlefield between Russia and the West. Unlike China, the EU was a most inconvenient partner for Russia. It was the home of “color revolutions,” popular protests, discontent, and democratization. In this region, where Russia believes it needs to keep Belarus and Armenia “inside” and Ukraine down, Moscow has made a concerted effort consisting of military aggression, proxy war, and systems of disinformation. One of the elements of Russian policy towards this region is to create and maintain instability through frozen conflicts and other mechanisms of destabilization, primarily aimed at Ukraine. In response, the EU has made efforts at further rapprochement with the Eastern Partnership countries.

In eastern Ukraine, the Minsk international agreements, which sought to put an end to the war in the Donbas region, failed to stop the fighting. We don’t know how long such an uncertain and fragile situation could have lasted, and it doesn’t really matter now: Russia destroyed it in February. The day after Russia officially recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics (February 21, 2022) Putin declared that the Minsk agreements “no longer existed.” Two more days later, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

After the war

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a full-scale war taking place on the European continent—has come as shock not only to people in the Western European countries, but also to those in the post-Soviet nations. From the first day of the war, their leaders have closely followed not only the theater of military operations, but also the Kremlin’s official rhetoric. For instance, Putin’s argument of Ukraine being an anomaly, an artificial state created by Vladimir Lenin, could also be applied to other post-Soviet republics: all of them were established in their current form by Soviet leaders in the early Soviet period.
“The position of Kazakhstan, the largest Central Asian nation in geographic terms, seems particularly important as it (together with Belarus) has the longest record of participating in Russian-led integration projects."
Generally, the essence of Kazakhstan’s position after the Russian invasion is captured in the words of Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vasilenko, who told the German newspaper Die Welt that, “If there is a new iron curtain, we do not want to be behind it.” Kazakhtan has also promised Europe not to help Russia evade sanctions.

Crucially, Kazakhstan has not recognized the independence of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kazakhstan has also sent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Kazakhstani citizens have also publicly voiced their displeasure over the invasion. But the single most prominent and serious indication of Kazakhstan’s unease over the war in Ukraine was the decision to cancel the country’s annual Victory Day parade on May 9. In March 2022, in an interview with Euractiv, a pan-European media network, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s deputy chief of staff, Timur Suleimenov, said the following: “Of course, Russia wanted us to be more on their side. But Kazakhstan respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Russia has not lost out in a competition for post-Soviet Eurasia with other foreign powers, but rather, it has excluded itself from that competition. Competition in international relations implies a strong sense of mutual recognition among members of a group of competing states and concurrence regarding the institutions or rules that structure that competition. It is necessary to set limits on the possibilities for violence. Instead, Russia proposed a game without commitments, where rules are replaced by provocations and violence. As Volodymyr Ishchenko argues, “In [the event that] military resistance in Ukraine and the crippling sanctions lead to Russia’s defeat, it would mean the ultimate dissolution of the post-Soviet space.” Even if Russia is not militarily defeated, the ultimate dissolution of the post-Soviet space surrounding Russia will likely come about anyway, as Russia will no longer be able to hold this space (or even parts of it). Russia’s decisions are unambiguously pushing Russia toward geopolitical isolation while Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko (thus far) remains the only Putin ally in the region.

And as for the Russian leader, the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley summed it up long ago: “… on the sand, half sunk a shattered visage lies … And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, Kind of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.”
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