Living dangerously in Russia’s backyard

Posted: September 13, 2022 in Straits Times
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Still catching up on myself, this time a longer piece for the Straits Times about the how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is seen in parts of its former Soviet dominions. Varied and worried views.

Living Dangerously in Russia’s backyard

From the Baltics to countries in Central Asia, the war in Ukraine is a reminder of their precarious position amid questions about how far Putin will go in pursuit of his revanchist dreams.

Russian troops stand guard at the entrance to the village of Varnita, in Transnistria, a breakaway region in eastern Moldova, on March 4, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

There are many unanswered questions to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Key among them is whether Ukraine is the extent of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, or part of a longer and more ambitious path towards European dominance.

Or, placing this within a wider context, is Russian activity abroad all about meddling for the sake of continued relevance or aimed at some actual imperial gain.

This is a difficult question to entirely answer, as ultimately the only person who knows is President Vladimir Putin and he is keeping the answer to himself. But in reading his actions and how they are seen in the former Soviet space, a part of the world that has long had to live with Russia, it is possible to start to divine something of an answer.

It is worth starting by looking back at when Mr Putin came to power. When he was appointed as president of the Russian Federation in 2000, he inherited a mess from an often inebriated Boris Yeltsin, who oversaw the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia – the heart of the once mighty USSR-was plundered by gangsters and oligarchs while ravaged by Chechen terrorists.

Mr Putin set about undoing much of the damage left by Mr Yeltsin. The terrorism menace in the North Caucasus was quelled, the treasury put in order, and the military rebuilt. The stabilising of the country in the early part of his two decades in power was popular among Russians who remember the 1990s when the country tried Western liberal economic approaches and was rewarded with penury and oligarchs.

But that was not the end of it for Mr Putin. Having turned it around, he then went on to start to “grow” the country he inherited, with territory “liberated” from Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, as well as the full seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region have joined Abkhazia and South Ossetia as vassal statelets dependent (and loyal) to Moscow. Belarus is a vassal state in all but name, while the Eurasian Economic Union gives Russia a say in the economic affairs of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

The old idea of revanchist Russian nationalism is a key driver of this expansion. The notion of Mother Russia as the home of all of the Slavic peoples is something that has long been seen as a goal by successive leaders in Russia. Russian nationalism, however, is something that those living in the states adjacent to Russia have also long worried about.

THE VIEW FROM CENTRAL ASIA

Its resurgence has stirred unease not only in the Baltic states and Russia’s central European neighbours but also in Central Asia.

In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, an old video popped up on Uzbek social media. In it, first president (and former Soviet apparatchik) Islam Karimov spoke of his concerns about Russian nationalism, suggesting it was a greater threat than whatever might emerge from Afghanistan. The interview was from the late 1990s, a moment when the former Soviet space was wracked by various conflicts. But Mr Karimov was particularly worried about what might emerge from Moscow, something contemporary Uzbeks saw now rearing its head in Ukraine.

But while Uzbekistan has always had a somewhat prickly relationship with Moscow, it is Kazakhstan that has been particularly fearful of revanchist Russian nationalism.

Northern Kazakhstan is home to an ethnic Russian community that makes up around a fifth of the country’s population. In the past few years, the government in Kazakhstan has sought to encourage greater Kazakh national identity, rejecting Cyrillic script and encouraging more use of Kazakh language rather than Russian.

If Russia’s actions in Ukraine were not bad enough, comments by Russian nationalists have added to Kazakhstan’s fears. For instance, Mr Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the United Russia party in the Duma, once raised doubts about Kazakhstan’s sovereign status on the grounds that the “territory of Kazakhstan was a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union”. His remarks prompted other like minded politicians to call for the return of parts of northern Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation.

Worryingly for Kazakhs, a few years ago, Mr Putin made similar comments in public which appeared to question Kazakh statehood. He praised the then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev for building something out of nothing. Praise on the one hand, but also undermining the logic of an independent Kazakh state, one with a history and existence not contingent on Russia.

The parallels with Russia’s dismissal of Ukrainian statehood are inescapable to Kazakhs who worry about Moscow’s revanchist intentions.

Tellingly, even though Kazakhstan abstained on the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would not recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk or Luhansk. The authorities also turned a blind eye to some public rallies supporting Ukraine.

However, for all their fears of Russian nationalism, the Central Asia states still look up to Russia as their ultimate security guarantor. As the Taliban surged in Afghanistan last year, it was Moscow that dispatched forces to undertake border training exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as rushing through arms sales across the region. Similarly, when Kazakhstan was wracked with domestic strife earlier this year, it was Moscow that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned to to help restore order.

Kyrgyzstan, the most democratic of the five states in the region, has also been the most unstable. Internal tensions are often fanned by Russian media or stoked by Moscow. Russia is able to make its displeasure known and continues to exert influence when it needs to – through powerful oligarchs close to Mr Putin or hard military power or its intelligence services. The Central Asians all recognise this, and are fearful of the mighty Russian bear turning on them.

At the same time, they are certainly not happy about the pattern of Moscow’s behaviour. They condemned the assault on Georgia in 2008, expressed concern about the 2014 incursions into Ukraine and have shown their unwillingness to completely toe Moscow’s line in the wake of this year’s invasion.

But there is a limit to their push back against Russia, given the precarious position they are in.

OTHER NEIGHBOURS

The Baltic and eastern European countries are in a far more secure position, given their membership in institutions like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with its pledge of collective defence. It offers them a level of deterrence against Russian aggression that is also not available to Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.

Moldova, nestled between Ukraine and Romania, sits on just the other side of the EU’s outer border and has a small ethnic Russian enclave in Transnistria, complete with Russian soldiers. Recent comments by Russian General Rustam Minnekayev that Moscow’s goal was to secure a corridor across Ukraine connecting to the enclave, as well as explosions targeting infrastructure in the region, has set alarm bells off in Chisinau.

While Mr Putin may no longer have sway over the Baltics and their ethnic Russian populations, he does have other cards to play, such as Kaliningrad, an isolated Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. Largely known for smuggling, it is a Russian foothold which Mr Putin’s administration have threatened to use as a base for nuclear weapons should Nato expand further.

All of this adds up to a Russia which is basically interested in maintaining influence in what it perceives as its backyard, with the option of claiming them back if the context permits (or is fabricated).

From Mr Putin’s perspective, the countries of the former Soviet Union are only permitted to be independent states insomuch as he allows it. And where he has grey lines or borders, he has a space in which he can operate.

While it remains to be seen whether he is eager to court the danger that would follow invading an EU or Nato country, he certainly sees no issue in stirring trouble in any of the other countries in this space. And every so often, lash out violently to remind them about staying in line.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and the author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

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