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Russia and the Former Soviet States: Dynamics of Relations PDF Print E-mail
Written by NIvedita Das Kundu   

Policy Perspectives, Vlm 4, No.1

 

Abstract

[After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) states found themselves in a situation drastically different from the previous totalitarian era. The transition to democracy was costly, rendering the political and economic situation of these states extremely volatile. In the aftermath of the break-up, relations between the successor of USSR, Russia, and the FSU states are also in a fix. Russia seeks to maintain its influence due to geographical proximity and the need to protect the interests of ethnic Russians residing in the FSU states. While the FSU states desire healthy relations with Russia, they also wish to pursue a more independent course. Their formation has thrown up a number of challenges in the region, as each state has unique territorial and ethnic aspirations and socioeconomic priorities. Another dilemma the new states face is that they seem to be enamored by the West but, at the same time, do not want to disrupt their links with Russia. The checks-and-balances approach is thus a unique characteristic of relations between Russia and the FSU states. This article dissects the dynamics of the economic, strategic and political relations of Russia and the FSU states, and attempts to project the future scenarios likely to arise from the situation. Author]

Introduction

The Former Soviet Union (FSU) states consist of four major blocks: the Slavic states (Slavs), Baltic States (Balts), Central Asia and the Caucasus. The Slavic states consist of three major countries, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. They have traditional cultural and religious linkages with each other. The Baltic States are on the east coast of the Baltic Sea, and include the Latvians, the Lithuanians and the Estonians. Central Asia consists of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The Caucasus or Caucasia is a region in Eurasia bordered on the south by Turkey and Iran, on the west by the Black Sea, on the east by the Caspian Sea and to the north by the European part of Russia. The Caucasus Mountains are commonly reckoned as the dividing line between Asia and Europe. The nation-states that comprise the South Caucasus today include Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan. All these states, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, are widely known as FSU states.

Though the collapse of Soviet Union was historically inevitable, it nevertheless brought a decline in the living standards and quality of life for the majority of the people in these States, including Russia, resulting in numerous conflicts and confrontations.[1] The most important task for Russia and the newly independent states was to define strategic aims for maintaining stability and promoting economic, political and military cooperation with each other. For Russia, the major interest in the FSU is to protect the interest of millions of ethnic Russians living in these states and maintain considerable influence via a big brotherly attitude towards them. Russia is strongly against these countries’ inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as in the European Union (EU). Russia considers the admission of these states to the Euro-Atlantic community as a serious and hostile move against its interests. FSU states understand the importance of maintaining cordial and friendly relations with Russia for their dependency on Russia in many different ways. It seems Russia and FSU both want to maintain a checks-and-balances policy towards each other. The formation of these Republics has brought up a number of challenges in the region since each of them has unique territorial and ethnic aspirations and socioeconomic priorities. These newly founded states are caught in a dilemma, as they seem to be enamored by the West but do not want to snap their links with Russia for future implications.

Following is an attempt to unravel the concerns and issues of the relations between Russia and the FSU states. The article also strives to examine the economic, strategic and political links that Russia and these states continue to maintain with each other. The endeavor here is to provide a framework to understand the politico-security, economic as well as social dimensions of these states with Russia.

 

Russia and Ukraine

Russia and Ukraine are the two big powers of the former Soviet bloc. Russia, after a period of instability in the initial years of 1990s, has reappeared in world politics as a major player. Ukraine has great security, and political and economic stability, which has significance for Russia. The dominant objective of the present Ukrainian policy is full-scale integration with EU and NATO, while maintaining cordial relationship with Russia. Ukraine’s quest for a new identity and security became a pressing issue after the fall of the Soviet Union. Considering itself the meeting point of the Eastern and Western civilizations, Ukraine has been trying to 'return to Europe' through a process of integration with the West and by adopting Western values, drawing it closer to the Western security community. For Ukraine, the main objective of showing its inclination to join the Euro-Atlantic community is the desire to reduce the influence of the Russian Federation. However, in order to fulfill the requirements for EU and NATO memberships, as well as its dependency on Russia in many different ways, Ukraine has to maintain a cordial relationship with Russia.

Russia on the other hand likes to consider Ukraine as part of its sphere of interest and is inclined to show a big brotherly attitude. Thus, the relations between the two countries are often not very pleasant, but they resolve their issues through mutual consultation. The Russian Federation considers Ukraine’s inclination to join NATO as a major security concern, especially after NATO’s two rounds of enlargement. Presently, the Russian political elite is trying to adopt a moderate policy, which aims at preserving the political independence of Ukraine while maintaining Russia's influence over it. Over a period of time, Russia’s leadership has grown more determined to protect and defend its politico-security concerns in the area. Russia cannot afford to lose its grip over Ukraine and is, therefore, trying to curb attempts of other powers that are striving to weaken its influence in the region. However, both Russia and Ukraine feel that the problems and concerns in mutual relationships can be resolved on a bilateral basis without direct or indirect mediation by third parties. Both deem a cordial relationship as beneficial.

Russia and Belarus

It has been more than a decade now since Russia and Belarus declared their interest and intention to form a common Russia-Belarus Union. Encouraging views about the formation of the Union exist mainly because of the cultural affinity between the two states, which appears to be one of the most important factors for the integration process. The call for the Union enjoins on the two states to retain their sovereignty and form a confederation governed by officials from both the states. The formation of the Union also calls for creation of a single currency, uniform tax and border laws, and a common legislature. It however appears that the Russia-Belarus Union (RBU) would have both advantages and disadvantages. While RBU could bring economic benefits for Belarus in the shape of cheap oil and gas, there is also a fear of increased Russia’s control. Russia would also benefit from RBU by gaining access to Belarusian high-tech goods and agricultural products, and to the major transport and transit corridor through the territory of Belarus.

 

While the concept of the union state has wide support in both countries, there is also a general feeling that the Union slogan is a popularity stunt for heads of both the states. However, these leaders have indicated that the creation of the union state will be the fulfillment of a long-awaited agenda for both Belarus and Russia and it will start a new era of a close relationship between the two states. There is still a lot more to be done between the two governments to come to the final stage. The policy-makers of the two countries also believe that RBU might even encourage other FSU states to join and form such unions in the coming years.

Russia and the Baltic States

The Baltic States’ search for a new identity and concern for security became a vital issue with the end of the Cold War. They too consider themselves the meeting point of Eastern and Western civilizations and, since their independence, have been constructing their narratives of ‘return to Europe’ and Russia as their ‘threatening other.’ The process of integration with the West by adopting Western values has been leading the Baltic States closer to the Western security community. Their membership in NATO has boosted their efforts, in particular, for upgrading their armed forces to NATO standards and EU membership has provided them with the hope for economic growth. Although the Baltic States’ inclination towards the West has remained closely entangled with the idea of distancing themselves from Russia, they cannot afford to show their indifferences in their relation towards their eastern neighbors, mainly Russia, due to their heavy dependency upon them. Their negative approach towards Russia might cost them a disruption in energy supply. They might even be abandoned from the energy agreement between the EU and the Russian Federation or from the pipeline agreement between German energy giants EON-Ruhrgas and BASF-Wintershall. The non-cooperative attitude between them might also hamper the economic and trade relations between the states.

In the recent period, therefore goodwill has been developed between the governments and people of each side, to deactivate the negative elements and stereotypes and achieve normalization in mutual relations. Furthermore, both Russia and the Baltic states emphasize the strategic importance of cooperation with each other, and are willing to find out ways and means to end the differences and controversies.

Russia and Moldova

The Russia-Moldova relationship is currently a strained relationship developed due to the conflict in the Trnasdnisrian Republic of Moldova, which emerged with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Both Moldova and Transdnistria could not agree on any of the proposals suggested by the mediators, mainly Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, for the resolution of their dispute. After many years of the de facto secession, the situation still remains unresolved and frozen. The uncertainty for prolonged conflict in Transdnistria has sparked concern among Russia’s policy-makers, especially because of the region’s proximity to the Caucasus, Ukraine, and Romania. Russia has intense security concerns in the region as the region’s stability is endangered by the proliferation of weapons, illegal migration, human trafficking, drug smuggling and other unlawful commercial activities in and around Transdnistria and the Moldavian region. Moldova’s stance toward Transdnistria reflects its increasing impatience to solve the frozen conflict and it seems it is stuck between the EU’s inertia and Russia’s grip over the region. Moldova wants unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops and ammunition from the region and decommissioning of paramilitary guards, security and other military forces of the separatist regime. Moldova does not want to be deprived of its industrial base in Transdnistria, therefore, the resolution of this conflict is of absolute importance to it. And if at all Moldova thinks of uniting with Romania, Romania’s accession to the EU would be at risk because of the frozen conflict in Transdnistia, which Romania might not like to take. Under this worst-case scenario, the entire region between the Adriatic Sea and Dniester River would become severely unstable.

 

Both Russia and Moldova are trying to adopt some definite strategy for the settlement of conflict in the Transdnistrian region. Efforts are being made to improve the situation by strengthening the civil society institutions and regulating the dispute through the restoration of credible legal and judicial structures. The Republic of Moldova is making efforts to formulate a strong policy and position with regard to Transdnistria on national and international levels. This conflict is also a combination of political and ideological issues and differences between regional elites. Thus, it has created huge problems that have affected both Russia and Moldova and have caused instability in the region.

Russia and the Southern Caucasus

More than fifteen years have lapsed since the three former Soviet States of South Caucasus Region, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, got their independence, yet they are faced with severe institutional deficits. Although all the three States have achieved a certain degree of sovereignty and their governments enjoy a certain level of legitimacy, they are all suffering from unresolved secessionist and irredentist conflicts. Heavy transactions in the shadow economy and corruption are widespread. There is a prolonged problem of refugees and forced migrations. The deteriorating living conditions in the region have considerably increased the threat of political destabilization.

 

The relationship between the South Caucasia and Russia has been very complex. Moscow’s hegemonic designs and the obvious concerns of Baku and Tbilisi’ alone cannot explain these relations. External powers like Iran and Turkey are pursuing more pragmatic foreign policies towards these states. The US, by providing adequate military support and financial aid, has tried to gain further leverage over the South Caucasian states and is pushing them to move closer towards NATO. Besides, the US is increasing its space for political maneuvering in the region to withstand Russian attempts for gaining influence in the region. The Trans-Caucasus region is the crucial link between Europe and Asia, therefore, its political stability and economic development is important to many countries in Asia and Europe.

In the current situation, Russia is trying to adopt a policy which aims at preserving the political independence of these states while maintaining its influence over there former ‘sister republics.’ It has vital interest in the Caucasus, starting with geopolitics it covers the economic, military and social spheres. Russia has grown more determined with time to protect and defend its interests there. As Russia cannot afford to lose its hold over the Transcaucasus region, it is making efforts to curb the attempts of other powers that are trying to displace it in the region. The countries of the Trans-Caucasus region, on the other hand, are in the process of adopting clear and coherent security policies for their economic and political growth and their relations with Russia.

 

Russia and the Central Asian Republics

Russia’s strategic interests in the Central Asian Republics (CARs) are to safeguard its economic and political as well as security concerns. It wants to preserve its strategic space in the area that it considers a buffer zone. Stability in the Central Asian Republics has been perceived by Russia as crucial for its own growth and development. Moscow has shown deep concern for the safety of the ethnic Russian population in CARs; it discourages the return of these ethnic Russians because it may use them as a political lever in these states, besides the fact that their rehabilitation and integration would be a huge problem. Russia is fundamentally interested in retaining its stronghold in the region to play a significant role in and around CARs.

 

The vital threat that Russia wants to curb from the Central Asian Republics is the flow of weapons and drugs, radicalism and terrorism, which came to be viewed as a major concern for Russia’s security in the region. Russia views Central Asia as a vast market and it would not like to lose this market. It has developed a multiple regional engagement strategy by joining the Central Asian Cooperation Organization. It is also enhancing its hold through the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Moscow is forging close ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to keep Chinese influence in check in the region. Hence, from all perspectives, Russia’s strategic interests in Central Asia are intense and it will ensure its stable and secure presence in the region. Russia and CAR are aiming to establish a mutually beneficial relationship emphasizing greater cooperation in various sectors, including energy and military.

 

Assessment of the Future Scenario

The possible moves that different players in the region might make, likely geo-political developments, and consequences for the region are outlined below.

 

a) Russia and the US: Emerging Anxieties

Although the Cold War is over, the Cold-War mindset is not over. It is coming back between the two big powers. The anxieties and challenges between Russia and US are resurfacing. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s inherent stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and the strategic nuclear weapons were transferred from Former Soviet States (Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus) to Russia. This caused serious concern in the US. Hence, the US will continue with its efforts to keep its influence in FSU either through expansion of NATO or by establishing or by maintaining military bases in FSU with the aim of encircling Russia’s borders.

 

On the other hand, Russia’s efforts to regain its influence and support base in FSU have caused concern in the US. As such in the next ten to fifteen years, discomfort in Russia-US relations will increase over the issues of NATO’s expansion, establishment of military bases, broadening of military and civilian defence contacts and excessive Western funding and propaganda. Russia will oppose America’s moves and will set its policies accordingly.

 

b) Enlargement of the European Union

Ukraine: Within the Slavic states, Ukraine is more West-oriented and inclined to join the European Union. However, recent political developments, which include victory of the pro-Russian party in the parliamentary elections, suggest that Russia has regained its support and influence in this state. The economic logic will make Ukraine prefer Russia over the West. It seems that now the Ukrainian general public and also the governing bodies understand where their larger interest lies. Hence, resurgence of support for Russia will overshadow the process of further EU enlargement towards the FSU.

 

Belarus: The recent election results in Belarus indicate that Belarus knows the importance of maintaining close relations with Russia due to its overt dependency on Russia. In spite of persistent efforts and generous funding, the West could not manipulate public opinion in the region, nor could it influence the recent election results. The West-supported opposition could not establish its control or change public opinion. Belarus, despite its geographic location in Europe, is against forming any kind of alliance with the EU in the coming years. Subsequently, the EU is not likely to extend its support base in this FSU state in the near future.

 

Moldova: Moldova will not be part of the EU within the next ten to fifteen years, as Moldova’s energy dependency will not let it move away from Russia. Further, the formation of a mega-Europe, including 35 European countries, as planned earlier by the European Union, will not become reality in the near future. The gradual destabilization within the EU and Moldova’s politico-economic dependency on Russia will stop further extension of EU towards Moldova.

 

c) Struggle for Democracy

The West is likely to continue its effort to bring democracy in the FSU states as it has been doing in the recent past through the ‘colored revolutions’ for regime changes or by establishing West-supported non-government organizations in the region or by propagating Western ideas. But these efforts, so far, could not bring much change for these states or for the people. The FSU states may still prefer to choose the path of democracy, mixed with autocracy. Some of these former Soviet states believe that democracy is not yet suitable for them in the present politico-economic environment, and experience difficulties in adjusting to it. One central argument posed by them is that, in a transition period, only strong leaders can keep young nations together, not merely democracy. However, West, on the plea of acquiring peace and stability in these newly independent states will try to export democracy and gain support and a firm hold in the region in the coming years.

 

d) Possibilities of a Slavic Union

Recent developments indicate that the urge for a strong Slavic Union will grow and eventually the Slavic Union will not let the European Union overpower them in the region. There is great possibility that, with the lack of flexibility and mutually egoistic approaches, the cohesion of the EU might decline. It may further get subdivided into Old and New Europe, creating a gap between big and small nations. There will be growing linkages between Russia and the EU, mainly because of the energy supplies from Russia. However, within a decade’s time, the former Soviet states situated within the European territory could demonstrate their strength through ‘Slavic unity’ by creating ‘Common Economic Space’ (CES), which would include mainly the three Slavic states, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and also Kazakhstan. This would pave the way for free movement of goods, services, capital and people and would achieve the ultimate goal by abolishing tariffs and harmonizing markets in key areas like transportation and energy. Eventually, this might lead to a single currency and, in the coming years, there might be a challenging economic relationship between the States of Slavic Union and the European Union.

 

e) Easing of Baltic-Russia Tensions

The Baltic-Russia tensions are likely to disappear in the coming years. The Baltic States will be more favorably inclined towards Russia. While their membership of EU and NATO gave structural powers it also worsened their relations with Russia and other FSU states. The Baltic States now understand that bitter relations with Russia could put them in an unfavorable position. They now understand that building good relations with Moscow on the condition that the latter would woo their historical grievances is a naïve approach. Tallin, Vilnius and Riga are now concentrating more on coming to term with their everyday pressing issues with Russia, like its grip over their energy sector and trade and economic linkages. The Baltic States’ approach towards Russia and other former Soviet neighbors is changing. They have permitted Russia to own significant stakes in their domestic energy systems, including the pipeline networks. These states are now trying to be flexible with EU about their relations with Russia. Russia is also playing energy as a tool to bring back its influence in these states and protect the rights of ethnic Russians living there. The present situation and the approach indicate that Russia-Baltic States relations, would be more cordial in future and tension of the transition period would not prevail any more.

 

f) Development of the Caspian Basin as a Global Energy Source

Caspian basin countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan could become a major energy source for the global market within a decade’s time. They see their energy reserves as a viable means to bring back their economic stability. Their energy policies therefore, especially those of Kazakhstan’s and Azerbaijan’s, have become the key component of their foreign policy. Now energy is seen as a strategic commodity and as a means by which these states are trying to focus on their geopolitical importance.

Although oil is being produced in Azerbaijan for more than 100 years, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 has led to increased interest in the region. The confirmation of the already well-known energy potential of Caspian Sea and the discovery of significant hydrocarbon deposits in the mid-1990s brought an influx of foreign investment in energy development in the region, particularly in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Thus, they are now concentrating on attracting investment and technology transfer to maintain production and expand ties with other states. Another important country in the Caspian basin is Turkmenistan, whose vast reserves (fourth-largest gas reserves in the world) also ensure that this country could remain as the biggest natural gas producer after Russia. EU is now trying for the possible shipments of Turkmen gas to Europe. Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan are also holding talks about the prospects of starting a pipeline project that could export Turkmen natural gas to the energy-hungry markets of South Asia. Thus, Caspian basin states would use their energy potential to gain influence, economic growth and reclaim their lost status within a decade’s time and might become a global energy power in the coming years.

 

g) Strengthening of Russia-China Cooperation

The “colored revolutions” that were sweeping through Eurasia (Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan) caused concern to both Moscow and Beijing. Both these countries perceive the US presence in the region as a potential threat for them. They see it in their strategic interests to curb US moves in the CAR. The current policies of Moscow and Beijing reflect their effort to increase control over the states of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It is clear that Russia-China cooperation would strengthen further through SCO or through Sino-Russian military-economic cooperation in this part of FSU States and together, the two countries could play a strong and definite role to curb US ambitions in the region.

 

h) Growing Significance of the SCO

The SCO’s (consisting of China, Russia, and FSU States Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) approach will be to transform the region into an energy and economic powerhouse and reconfigure strategic alliances, in order to able to eradicate the unilateral approach of the post-Cold War era. Its enlargement move, in the regional context, could frustrate the entire Western strategy specially that of NATO which would be hard-pressed to explain the reasons for its expansion mainly into the territories of the Former Soviet Union.

i) Increased Cooperation with South Asian States

South Asia is emerging as a influential region. The South Asian states share values, civilizational links, common multi-ethnic cultures and friendly relations with the states of FSU. This provides the foundation for continued and increased strategic cooperation between South Asia and these states. Understanding its geo-strategic location and strength, FSU states would strengthen bilateral relation and foster mutual economic and security cooperation with South Asia. By working together with South Asia, these states would like to develop joint high-tech capabilities over the years.

These scenarios give a fair idea about the future possible developments in Russia and in the FSU States. Futuristic assessment of the whole region helps in understanding about how these countries would form their political, cultural and economic structures in the coming years.


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[1] This article is based on a number of documents as well as interviews conducted by the author in the FSU states. The published sources of information are listed at the end.

 
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