The dissipation and decay of the Russian state under Boris Yeltsin were mirrored by the rapid erosion of Russia’s ties to the non-Russian Soviet republics that became independent in 1991. The increasing vitality and orderliness of Russia’s government under Vladimir Putin have their parallel in Russia’s slowly rising influence in the same region.

The heads of government of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a grouping of all the former Soviet states except Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, met in Minsk May 31-June 1. The meeting shows the steady progress of Moscow’s patient diplomacy in the region (see also Russia’s Week, May 9, 2001).

Russia alone among the CIS countries is involved with every CIS regional grouping. Vladimir Putin met with signatories of the Collective Security Treaty (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan), with the “Caucasus Four” (Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) and with the new Eurasian Economic Community (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan). A bilateral meeting with Belarusan host Alyaksandr Lukashenka became a summit of the Russia-Belarus Union. Putin conducted other bilaterals as well.

Many CIS institutions exist largely on paper.

— On May 25, in Armenia, a summit of the Collective Security Treaty signed the documents establishing a 2,000-man Rapid-Deployment Force to “fight terrorism” in Central Asia. The RDF is a paper force that includes a Russian battalion now in Tajikistan (where 16,000 Russian troops are currently “fighting terrorism”) and designated nationally based units of other countries.

— Intelligence support for the RDF could come from the new CIS Antiterrorism Center–except that the center’s budget of less than $450,000 a year won’t yield much of an IQ.

— The Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), inaugurated at the Minsk summit, is the successor organization to the CIS Customs Union of 1994 and the Free Trade Zone of 1996, which existed as Moscow bureaucracies, not as functioning trade agreements. The EAEC inherits most of the Customs Union staff and its Moscow headquarters.

— The “Caucasus Four” is a new regional grouping that Russia would like to build into a political and security arrangement to pull Georgia and Azerbaijan away from their pursuit of ties to Turkey and to NATO.

For all the talk and shell games, Russian influence is surely growing.

— In Central Asia, the autocratic leaders of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan see Russia as at least an opportunistic protector against militant Islamic opposition movements.

— In the Caucasus, Russia has an ally in Armenia and nourishes separatist movements in the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, using visa laws to encourage residents to take Russian citizenship. Feeble Georgia, which last week abjectly asked Russia to keep its “peacekeeping” troops in Abkhazia for another six months, has no capacity to resist.

— In bankrupt Moldova, the communist parliament and president turn desperately to Russia for support and seek membership in the Russia-Belarus Union (though Moldova borders on neither).

— Russia’s position as the supplier of essential natural gas guarantees its influence in Belarus and Ukraine, though at the cost of enormous and controversial subsidies.

Western efforts to provide an alternative to rising Russian influence seem to be flagging. The United States once made Ukraine its third-largest recipient of foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt, but apparent government complicity in the murder of journalist Gyorgy Gongadze has diminished American enthusiasm. Georgia’s corruption and instability, encouraged by Russian mischief-making, inhibit efforts to promote a Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline as a non-Russian route to carry Central Asian and Caspian fuels to Western markets. Hostility to democracy, civil liberties and human rights in Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and other newly independent states also chills Western interest.

For Russia, expanded influence is a mixed blessing. The costs of energy subsidies to Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine run into the billions of dollars each year. A stand against Islamic “terrorists” in Central Asia may complicate or endanger a close relationship with powerful Iran, or entangle Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the same Afghan trap that snared Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. But from Russia’s perspective the alternatives to growing influence in the former Soviet states are anarchy or hostility along the border. There is no hesitation about pressing forward.