Russia’s Borderland Gambits And The ‘Near Abroad’
Since the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine by Russian forces and ensign-less troops in 2014, the threat of Russian intervention in Eastern Europe and Baltic States nations has been looming large. The massing of some 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border and joint military exercises with Belarus are meant to clearly signal the threat of a full-scale invasion, an event which would not elicit a NATO military reaction but would likely isolate Russia politically and economically. In Central Asia and the Caucasus too, Russia has been displaying a more active role in resolving conflicts in the ‘near abroad’ states that girdle its borders, including sending peacekeeping forces into Kazakhstan to help quell protests that erupted against President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev’s government this January.
Commentators both in Russia and abroad have been discussing Russia’s hardening stance towards the west in terms of a new Cold War being waged between NATO countries and the Russian Federation. (A. Karaganov, 2021) However, while there is certainly a distribution of interests congruent to the dividing lines of the Cold War, such explanations are exaggerations. Rather than this being a return to the Cold War era, Putin’s current belligerence towards Ukraine should be traced back to differing conceptualisations of the former Soviet Union’s territories and the nature of the enemy threat that developed in the 1990s.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resultant loss of border territories in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the issue of national and ethnic identity in the former Soviet Republics began to be fervently discussed. The term rossayanin began to denote citizens of the Russian Federation of ethnic identity other than European Russian, and likewise the term ‘near abroad’ began to be used when describing the former republics which Russia still viewed as making up its sphere of influence. (McCauley & Lieven)The Russian leaders dealt with the issue of separatist rossayanin within its borders through military force and co-opting local strongmen, such as in the republic of Chechnya, where Moscow eventually installed the brutal Ramzan Kadyrov as leader. Meanwhile, Moscow hoped that newly independent republics such as Armenia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine could be kept in the Russian orbit through organisations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CSTO, an intergovernmental military alliance comprising Russia and Central Asia, has been relatively inactive for most of its existence but was used as the umbrella organisation under which Russia dispatched peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan this January. (Šćepanović, 2020)
At the same time as this, NATO was re-imagined as a ‘cooperative-security’ organisation whose principal aim was to foster dialogue with former Warsaw Pact countries and manage conflicts in the former Soviet-dominated eastern Europe. In order to improve relations with former Soviet republics, including Russia, the Partnership for Peace program was begun by NATO in 1994. Even up to the Ukraine conflict in 2014, many Russian foreign policy experts, including the now rather hawkish Sergei Karaganov, promoted Russian NATO membership as a way to defang the organisation and prevent it from becoming an adversary. (Holas, 2018) Avenues for cooperation, such as the EU-Russia dialogue and the OSCE, had led to some successes in the 1990s but over time became strained due to the two sides diverging starting points regarding Russia’s continued sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. As such, there remained few formal structures for ensuring cooperation between Europe and Russia on the issue of managing disputes in the region. (H. Hill, 2021)
The Eurasian thesis and ‘Fortress Russia’
The question of NATO expansion is still at the forefront of Putin’s concerns today, after the organisation continued with its programme of admitting eastern bloc countries begun under Clinton’s urging. NATO stated its aim to admit Georgia and Ukraine at an unspecified future time during the late 2000s, and public opinion in Sweden and Finland, historically wary of antagonising their neighbour, seems to be swinging towards joining the organisation. (Masters, 2022) Putin’s eight-point list of demands, released last December, includes the requirement for NATO to rule out Ukraine’s admission, something Jens Stoltenberg, the organisation’s chief, has since refused to do. While the rise in tensions is alarming, their motivations are not new. As with Russia’s scepticism about NATO expansion in the 1990s, they are fuelled by a perceived need to protect Russia’s borders around its heartland, the area with its largest geographically unprotected border and where the vast majority of its population lives. (Economist, 2022)
What is new is the new currency which the idea of turning away from Europe has gained in Russia. A group of Russian international relations specialists, of which the emblematic figure is Sergei Karaganov, have recently gained political influence with their stance of Eurasianism. (Holas, 2018) In brief, this proposes a hard-line approach to relations with Europe and the promotion of a pragmatic ‘semi-alliance’ with China, while intensifying bonds with Central Asian nations. Karaganov even goes so far as to posit a ‘Third Cold War.’ (A. Karaganov, 2021) However, while Karaganov and others like him enjoy close links with senior Kremlin politicians, they do not represent the entirety of the strategic establishment and we would be hasty to attribute this ideology as the driving force behind Putin’s actions. Firstly, from a purely realist standpoint, Putin would be wise not to overplay his hand by launching an invasion and pushing the hitherto NATO-sceptic Finland and Sweden into joining its ranks. The addition of Sweden and Finland to the organisation’s ranks would be a significant boost to the organisation’s defence capabilities, given that Sweden and Finland are two of the few countries to have not significantly reduced defence spending since the end of the Cold War. Therefore, rather than enhancing its regional position, attacking Ukraine could severely backfire. (Braw, 2022)
Secondly, the economic fallout of such a move would lead to a considerable stretch on Russian resources and likely weaken Putin’s ability to ensure the regime’s stability, the political benefits of a ‘Great Patriotic War’ notwithstanding. On the one hand, it is true that Russia’s economic resilience has increased since adapting to European sanctions after the invasion of Crimea in 2014. The reduction of European investment into Russia has reduced Russia’s dependence on Europe, while Europe has failed to diversify away from Russian gas, which still makes up 40% of its supply. (Seddon & Ivanova, 2022) In such circumstances, the idea of ‘Fortress Russia’ may seem plausible, but there are several reasons why this position is not as strong as it seems. Economic sanctions in the event of an attack would be of a far greater scale than those introduced in 2014, even making Russia a pariah state as far as the west is concerned. Furthermore, Russia’s stranglehold on European energy needs is not as secure as it seems. The future of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, linking northern Europe to gas supplies in northern Russia via the Baltic Sea, has been hanging in the balance for some time, and this month the US Democrats only narrowly defeated a Senate bill to impose sanctions on German and Russian businesses dealing with the project. The German foreign minister and leader of the Green Party, Annalena Baerbok, has signalled a desire to be ‘tougher on authoritarian forces’ and is leaning strongly towards making the cancellation of Nord Stream 2 part of a potential sanctions package against Russia. (Puglierin, 2022) Without German support for the plan, both the EU and the US would be free to impose sanctions against it.
Competition in Central Asia: the ‘gun’ and the ‘wallet’
These concerns could be brushed aside if it were possible for Russia to ignore European sanctions and focus on economic relations with Asian countries. However, a further rationale for Russia to be cautious in Europe is that their position in Central Asia is no longer as secure as it once was. The region, an indispensable link in the construction of rail links across Asia that forms part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has been the recipient of significant Chinese investment during the past decade. The Chinese president Xi Jinping chose Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University as the stage from which to announce the project back in 2013, and the dry port of Khorgos is set to become the largest land-based logistics hub in the world as regional trade expands. Further motivation for Chinese involvement in the region includes Kazakhstan’s key role in meeting global uranium demand, supplying more than 40% of the world’s nuclear fuel. (Marques, 2022) If Russia chooses to strain itself militarily and economically in Europe, its capacity to rival China’s attractive proposition in Central Asia will probably weaken.
Up to now, China and Russia have employed a degree of division of labour in Central Asia, with Russia traditionally supplying the military muscle and China the financial capital. The two sides have converging interests in the region when it comes to ensure stability, and as such there have been no conflicts so far. However, China has been increasing its military and security involvement in the region of late, through private security actors protecting their assets, joint-military exercises, and even financing a police base on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. If regional stability deteriorates, the likelihood of which is increased by the US’s departure from Afghanistan, China may not wish to stand by as Russia exploits the situation to deepen its regional influence, as it has done recently in the case of Kazakhstan. (A. Lukyanov, 2022)
Karaganov’s argument for adopting a Eurasian strategy is not naïve enough to suggest a full alliance with China, but it does dismiss its neighbour in the east as unlikely to pose a serious threat. One reason for this may be that Karaganov belongs to an older generation of Russian political theorists who view China positively and may even inherit a slight Soviet disdain for the ‘younger brother’ in the global struggle for Communism. By contrast, the younger generation of political theorists are much more vigilant on China and would be more cautious about disregarding security in Russia’s southern and eastern flanks. One can therefore assume that Kremlin strategists are not as steeped in Cold War ideology as a cursory examination of Putin’s rhetoric might suggest. (Liik, 2021)
By invading Ukraine, Putin would only gain marginal gains in terms of strengthening its European borders, and may even cause the situation to deteriorate by spurring NATO into action. In turn, it would undoubtedly weaken Russia’s economy and reduce its ability to shore-up against Chinese challenges against its influence in Central Asia. Proposals for veering towards a Cold War approach reflect the nationalist tendencies of Putin’s government, but it would be foolish to actually adopt this course. The sober-headed approach which Europe and the US should adopt is to acknowledge that Russia expects some concessions from NATO in eastern Europe, but that an invasion would be seriously detrimental to its own interests. On the other hand, the continued promise of NATO expansion could push Putin into taking risks that he would rather forgo. Therefore, while the West’s commitment to protecting Ukraine should be firm, the threat of expansion should be assuaged if it wants to avoid confronting an invasion.
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H. Hill, W. (2021, December 17). The Post-Cold War European Security Order is Gone: What Will Replace It? Russia in Global Affairs.
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Seddon, M., & Ivanova, P. (2022, January 18). Moscow’s sanction-proofing efforts weaken western threats. Financial Times.