When Vladimir Putin returned to Russia’s Presidency in May 2012, the Kremlin began to intensify its pressure on the former Soviet republics to participate in its integrationist projects. Ukraine became the keyprize in Kremlin plans to recombine the former Soviet republics in a Moscow-centred dominion styled as the “Eurasia Union”. With control over Ukraine, Moscow could project its influence into Central Europe; without Ukraine, the planned Eurasian bloc would become a largely Asian construct. Putin also calculated that the potential loss of Ukraine, through its assimilation into Western institutions, would not only challenge the viability of Russia’s empire building but also the survival of the Putinist system and of the Russian Federation itself.
MOSCOW’S AMBITIONS AND ANXIETIES
Russia’s neo-imperial project no longer relies on Soviet-era instruments such as ideological allegiance, military force, or proxy governments. Instead, the primary goal is to exert predominant influence over the foreign and security policies of immediate neighbours so they will support Russia’s integrationist agenda. It is also important to distinguish between Russia’s national interests and its state ambitions. Moscow’s security is not challenged by the NATO accession of neighbouring states. However, its ability to control the security and foreign policy orientation of these countries is challenged if its neighbours are under NATO’s security umbrella. While its goals are imperial, the Kremlin’s strategies are pragmatic and flexible; they have included enticements, threats, incentives and pressures. By claiming it is pursuing “pragmatic” national interests, the Kremlin engages in asymmetrical offensives by interfering in neighbours’ affairs, capturing important sectors of local economies, subverting vulnerable political systems, corrupting national leaders, penetrating key security institutions and undermining national unity.
Although Putin’s ambitions to create a multinational Eurasia Union are unlikely to fully succeed, given Russia’s escalating economic problems and the resistance of neighbouring states, attempts to create such a bloc could destabilise a broad region in Europe’s East. Indeed, we are witnessing the repercussions of Moscow’s empire building in Ukraine. Moscow is fearful lest the former Soviet territories drift permanently into either the Western or Chinese “spheres of influence”. Putin’s Eurasian alliance is supposed to develop into a major “pole of power” to balance the EU and NATO in the west and China in the east. Economic linkages are supposed to reinforce political and security connections, making it less likely that Russia’s neighbours can join alternative blocs.
To achieve its ambitions, Moscow needs to assemble around itself a cluster of states that are loyal or subservient to Russian foreign policy and security interests. Unlike the EU and NATO, where states voluntarily pool their sovereignty, in Moscow’s Union, countries are expected to surrender their sovereignty in an international version of “democratic centralism”. Putin has been encouraged in this endeavour by several developments over the past few years.
First, as a by-product of the Barack Obama administration’s “reset” policy toward Moscow, Washington curtailed its campaign to enlarge NATO and secure the post-Soviet neighbourhood within Western structures. This increased the vulnerability of several states to Moscow’s pressures and enticements. Moreover, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan were not priority interests for the White House, and some policy makers even approved of a seemingly benevolent Russian umbrella over these unreformed or divided countries.
Second,the financial crunch and political stresses within the EU diminished Brussels’ outreach toward the post-Soviet countries. This decreased the momentum of the Eastern Partnership initiative launched in May 2009, designed to harmonise the post-Soviet states with EU standards. The Association Agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia were valuable starting points but they were not modelled on the Western Balkan example, as a prelude to EU accession. Moscow concluded that the EU remained in decline and would be preoccupied with its internal problems for several years, if it does not actually fracture.
Third, an assertive Kremlin foreign policy helps distract attention from convulsions inside the Russian Federation. Putin’s renewed presidency has been presented as vital to national security in two ways. First, it will protect Russia from internal turmoil generated by public protests allegedly sponsored by Washington, and second it will restore Russia’s international power and prestige under Kremlin management.
The major multinational organisations promoted by Moscow to enhance Eurasian integration include the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), the Customs Union (CU), and the Eurasian Union (EurU) to be formally established by 2015. The transition to the Eurasian Union has been described as the final goal of economic integration and is to include a free trade regime; unified customs and nontariff regulation measures; common access to internal markets; a unified transportation system; a common energy market; and a single currency. These integrative economic measures are to be underscored by a tighter political alliance based on the inheritance of the Soviet Union.
Moscow’s pressurised pursuit of supranational integration challenges the independence of neighbouring states, as they will be constrained from freely choosing their future international alliances. This is clearly evident in the case of Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych sought to straddle Western and Eastern assimilation by reassuring Ukrainians that he could pursue close ties with both Europe and Moscow. However, Putin made this precarious balancing act increasingly impossible through his persistent pressure on Kiev to abandon the EU project and join the Moscow-centred Customs Union. Yanukovych’s failure to sign an Association Agreement at the EU’s November 2013 summit in Vilnius sparked the popular uprising that led to his ouster in late February 2014. Ukraine’s early presidential elections, scheduled for 25 May 2014, and the expected victory of a pro-Western candidate seeking closer ties with the EU will seriously damage Russia’s neo-imperial agenda. The Kremlin’s main fear is not the purportedly endangered status of the Russian ethnic or Russian-speaking population, let alone the alleged spread of Ukrainian “fascism” sponsored by the West. Its paranoia is rooted in the prospect of Ukraine developing into a democratic, unified and increasingly prosperous state that moves toward EU accession and eventual NATO membership. Such a model of development would become increasingly attractive for Russia’s diverse regions and for the Russian public. It would thereby challenge the legitimacy and longevity of the kleptocratic and authoritarian Putinist system.
THE NEW INTERNATIONAL DISORDER
In pursuit of a dominant “pole of power” position in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Moscow is prepared to redraw international and internal borders throughout the post-Soviet zone. The de facto annexation of Crimea and the planned division of Ukraine is a logical step after Russia’s forced partition of Georgia in August 2008 and the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states; a move that brought about no punishing international consequences. Putin’s moves into Ukraine and the muted international response sent shockwaves throughout the broader neighbourhood. States from the Baltic Sea to the South Caucasus and Central Asia now feel under more direct threat of destabilisation, dissection, and of being drawn involuntarily into Russia’s imperial designs.
There are four kinds of flashpoints around Russia’s borders and each danger would threaten regional escalation. First is the looming flashpoint in the Moscow- sponsored separatist enclave of Transnistria in eastern Moldova. Emboldened by success in Crimea, Putin may push for a referendum on federalisation, independence, or even outright annexation of a region controlled by a corrupt pro-Kremlin regime. The aim would be to squash Moldova’s moves toward EU association by destabilising the state and undermining its government.
Concurrently with targeting Moldova, Moscow may forcefully establish an autonomous entity along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast between Odessa and Crimea. This would create a direct territorial link between Crimea and Transnistria under Moscow’s control. It would also surround Ukraine on three sides and could further destabilise the pro-Western government in Kiev. It would also provide Moscow with control over the entire northern coast of the Black Sea.
The second danger in Europe’s East is the ticking flashpoints involving states with sizeable Russified populations, especially Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, that Moscow has tried to subvert in the past. Putin may decide on more direct and forceful measures to allegedly defend not only Russian ethnics but also “Russian- speaking” populations that were settled in the three republics during the post- World War II Soviet occupation. The fact that these are NATO members may perversely prove attractive to Putin, as he could test Alliance unity and resolve in defending their political stability and territorial integrity, especially if the response to the Ukraine situation is tepid. Even without direct attempts at territorial partition and annexation of Baltic territory, the Kremlin could pursue various destabilising measures through energy and trade embargoes, cyber attacks, inter- ethnic conflicts, or by staging sabotage or terrorist attacks on Baltic territory.
The third danger is defensive flashpoints, among a string of states whose security would be threatened by Moscow’s ambitions. In particular, Poland could become embroiled militarily to protect its eastern borders and defend the besieged Ukrainian state, as well as its own co-ethnics in Ukraine. A Russian military invasion, occupation and partition of mainland Ukraine would spark armed resistance and insurgency against Russian forces. Insurgent leaders may then appeal to Poland for military assistance. If Kiev itself were bombed or captured, the Ukrainian government would likely seek refuge in Poland and draw Warsaw more directly into a confrontation with Moscow.
Likewise, Romania may actively defend Moldova from outright partition if Chisinau appeals for outside assistance. Meanwhile, the rest of Central Europe would be exposed to a host of instabilities, from energy cut-offs and trade disruptions to refugee outflows and military spill-overs. The South Caucasus states of Georgia and Azerbaijan are also fearful of Russia’s military aggression and its support of territorial claims by an assortment of ethnic minorities inside their territories. Georgia, for instance, could be split in two by a Russian military offensive intended to create a direct land bridge with Moscow’s ally Armenia and to sever energy pipelines between Azerbaijan and Turkey that undermine Russia’s monopolist ambitions.
The fourth series of threats in the post-Soviet region are potential flashpoints in countries currently allied with Moscow but hosting large Russian minorities. Belarus and Kazakhstan are the two most vulnerable states, where Russian nationalists claim territory or see unification with Russia as the optimum solution. Neither government is enthusiastic about Moscow’s annexation of Ukrainian territory for fear that it will set a precedent for their potential fracture. Nonetheless, the Kremlin may call upon them to provide “brotherly assistance” to a Greater Russia, possibly within the framework of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) or threaten political repercussions. In the most far-reaching scenario if state integrity comes under increasing question, they may break with Russia and appeal for international protection.
In his drive to expand Russia’s territorial possessions, President Vladimir Putin is sure to miscalculate. Dictators often think they are invincible when they achieve early triumphs, as with Moscow’s stealthy annexation of Crimea. An overstretched Russia, facing growing economic problems cannot withstand a prolonged conflict with the West or with itself. To ensure Moscow’s retreat rather than a temporary pause in its imperial expansion, Western strategy must be based on three interconnected approaches: international isolation, imperial indigestion and regime destabilisation.
International Isolation: The international isolation of the Russian government must have diplomatic, institutional and economic teeth. Diplomatically, US and EU leaders must consistently insist that by occupying any part of Ukrainian territory, together with portions of Georgia and Moldova, Russia violates numerous international accords, beginning with the UN Charter and will not be treated as an equal partner or a credible international interlocutor. Institutionally, Russia needs to be expelled from several international organisations and initiatives, including the G-8 and the Council of Europe. Putin has proved false the widespread assumption that integrating Russia into the wider global economy and multinational institutions would transform it into a responsible international player. On the contrary, mutual integration has contributed to tying Western hands when Russia breaks international treaties and expands its territory. These hands now need to be untied.
Economically, the West must aim to strategically blockade Russia. Being heavily dependent on raw material exports, Moscow is highly vulnerable to sustained economic pressure. Sanctions against individual Russian officials, oligarchs and companies tied with the Kremlin may be a useful starting point. More significantly, Russia’s access to the European financial system must be blocked, European investment in Russian industries curbed, and EU antitrust penalties on monopoly violations by Gazprom strictly imposed. In the longer term, Europe needs to diversify its energy sources and minimise any dependence on Russian supplies. Gazprom and other Russian state companies should be pushed out of Europe’s energy market, thus seriously depleting Kremlin export earnings and political influences.
Economic sanctions will be more effective if they impact on Russia’s citizens. Oligarchs and officials have access to state funds, which they treat as their personal property. Falling state revenues, a downturn in living standards, and rising unemployment among the Russian public can fuel the flames of revolt against a regime that will be seen to be increasingly isolated and failing economically.
Imperial Indigestion: The attempted digestion of any occupied territories must become painful for the Kremlin. This will require Western defence aid to Ukraine, Georgia and other states threatened by Moscow. Priorities must include intelligence-sharing, technology for cyber defence, and secure military command and control. An effective territorial defence would help deter and defend against invasion. Ukraine’s army needs technical assistance and combat equipment to resist Russian military incursions and create a credible territorial defence force that would make any occupation protracted and costly. Training for Ukraine’s newly formed National Guard in territorial defence and in insurgency and counter- insurgency operations will be critical.
Ukraine’s government has so far unsuccessfully appealed for US military aid. An underarmed army is more likely to encourage Russian invasion than a force capable of resisting military assault. We must heed the Bosnian lesson, when an arms embargo imposed by the West on a crumbling Yugoslavia encouraged Serb military assaults on Bosnian cities, as Belgrade possessed superior weaponry. Russia’s reimperialisation gives NATO a reinvigorated mandate. Its post-Afghanistan mission must now be specified: to fully protect the integrity of all members by upgrading the land and air defence of all countries bordering Russia. To demonstrate NATO’s vitality, membership invitations must be issued to Montenegro and Macedonia at the September summit, while Bosnia– Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine need to obtain NATO Membership Action Plans (MAP) to confirm that they will also join the Alliance. In addition, NATO needs to pursue closer military cooperation with Moldova, Azerbaijan and Armenia.
General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe has called Moscow’s conquest of Crimea a “paradigm shift” that requires a fundamental rethinking of where American forces are located and how they are trained. Since Moscow’s assault on Ukraine, NATO has taken some initial steps to strengthen the defence of vulnerable members. It added combat aircraft support to NATO’s Baltic air policing mission, dispatched a dozen F-16 fighters to Poland, and sent AWAC reconnaissance aircraft to Poland and Romania. Much more needs to be done, including regular NATO exercises among new allies, the positioning of NATO infrastructure from Estonia to Romania, and the rotation of American forces in the region. Indeed, NATO infrastructure and bases will need to be moved from Western to Central Europe because, unlike during the Cold War, it is no longer Western Europe that faces direct military assault.
Regime Destabilisation: If Western leaders are serious about permanently thwarting Russia’s expansionist ambitions, then the Putin regime must be systematically undermined. A strategy needs to be developed and implemented to question Kremlin control over the Russian Federation, not only through sanctions and isolation, but also by actively supporting minority rights, regional self-determination and national independence movements from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka. Instead of inhabiting a mythical realm where Putin is seen as a pragmatic reformer,Washington and Brussels must soberly assert that if the current regime is not replaced with a non-imperialist and pro-democratic successor, Russia will increasingly face ethnic conflict and territorial fracture. Russian public passivity has allowed Putin to strengthen his hold on power and implement an array of repressive legislation. But resentments will deepen as economic conditions deteriorate and expose the unrestrained corruption of the ruling elite. This will also aggravate ethnic and religious conflicts, as Moscow turns to Russian nationalism or pan-Slavism to mobilise the public in the service of the regime. Russia’s estimated 20 million Muslims have become the primary national scapegoat promoted by Kremlin propaganda, largely because of the spreading insurgency in the North Caucasus. The annexation of Crimea will add another 300,000 Muslim Tatars who can become an additional source of anti-state militancy.
About a quarter of Russia’s population of 143 million are non-Russians and in many regions resentment against Moscow’s failing economic policies and repressive centralism is escalating. This is especially evident in the 21 non-Russian ethnic republics. But even in Siberia and the Far East, the ethnic Russian population is steadily declining while the Chinese proportion is growing, as are their political aspirations. In several border regions local populations are seeking international connections without Moscow’s interference. The option of sovereignty will become increasingly attractive for them.
Consistent with its calls for freedom, democracy and human rights, the West needs to actively assist regions and populations in the Russian Federation that desire self-determination and independence, especially nations that were forcibly incorporated into Greater Russia at some point in their history. Paradoxically, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea would mean that the West does not recognise Russia’s claimed borders, signalling that it no longer accepts the legitimacy of its “inner empire” or the regime that holds it together.