Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 9

An increasingly assertive Moscow appears to be revising the organizational forms it has used to dominate the post-Soviet space. While a growing number of influential Russian policymakers and pundits speak in favor of relegating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to the dustbin of history, the notion of Russia’s “sphere of strategic interests” is definitely here to stay. Roughly encompassing most of post-Soviet Eurasia, this “sphere,” the Kremlin says, will be fiercely guarded against all hostile incursions.

The latest sign that the Russian leadership is dead serious about protecting what it regards as its geopolitical backyard is the programmatic article by Russia’s powerful Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Aptly titled “Russia Must Be Strong,” Ivanov’s essay, published January 11 in the Wall Street Journal, unequivocally states that the Kremlin views the challenge to the political status quo in the former Soviet lands (i.e., a possible change of the pro-Russian regimes) as the principal security threat to Russian national interests.

“Our top concern is the internal situation in some members of the Commonwealth of Independent States…and the regions around them,” Ivanov bluntly declared, adding that Russia and its military should be prepared to thwart a “political or military-political conflict or process that has a potential to pose a direct threat to Russia’s security or to change the geopolitical reality in a region of Russia’s strategic interest.”

Given the fact that the past year saw the triumph of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution as well as the series of political upheavals in Kyrgyzstan (that resulted in regime change) and Uzbekistan (that were ruthlessly suppressed), Ivanov’s concerns are quite understandable. The bulk of the Russian political class holds that the so-called “color revolutions” are the “political processes” mainly inspired from without with the sole purpose of eroding Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space.

The Kremlin obviously could not fail to notice that at the heart of almost all recent political disturbances in a number of the CIS countries stood elections whose results were mercilessly rigged by the authoritarian powers that be. As Belarus and Ukraine will be holding crucial ballots in 2006, these states, the Russian defense minister appears to imply, will inevitably expose themselves to the negative effects of what he elegantly dubs the “uncertainty factor.” Thus, he warns, “We must also be prepared for the possibility of a violent assault on the constitutional order of some post-Soviet states and the border instability that might ensue from that.”

To be sure, it is a warning wrapped in a threat and addressed directly to those Western countries that might choose to “mess around” in what Russia has just forcefully reclaimed as its geopolitical “turf.” “Russia is not itching for a future war. War is never by choice.” But, he concludes, it would simply be irresponsible to exclude various eventualities.

There is little doubt that Ivanov’s manifesto exhorting Russia “to be strong” constitutes the essence of Russia’s new muscular policy vis-à-vis both its CIS neighbors and the West. In a recent lengthy interview with Izvestiya, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, whose portfolio is Moscow’s relations with the post-Soviet lands, basically expressed the same view — if only with less military bluntness and more diplomatic finesse — that Russia does not regard the West as an equal partner in post-Soviet Eurasia. True, Karasin has conceded that Russia doesn’t have any pretenses to cast itself as a “monopolist in the post-Soviet space.” But he was quick to add that Moscow will never agree to regard the West’s interest in the ex-Soviet republics as being on par with its own.

What is being currently debated in Moscow is the institutional framework within which Russia should pursue its interests in the former imperial borderlands.

There appears to be a growing understanding within Russia’s foreign policy community that the CIS, as the organizational form securing Moscow’s leadership in the post-Soviet lands, has become hopelessly obsolete. “It is quite clear for me that the CIS is living out its last years. Moreover, we should probably push forward this process of its going into the past,” argues Sergei Karaganov, chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Other prominent Russian experts agree, saying the organization was created in a different time and for different purposes. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council Committee for Foreign Affairs, insists it is about time for Russia to pull the plug on the CIS and focus instead on two more viable integration organizations — the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Single Economic Space.

The main argument of Moscow pundits is as follows: Russia, which is becoming aware of its huge potential as an emerging energy superpower, is many times stronger than each of the former Soviet republics. Thus, it is more advantageous for Moscow to develop relationships and pursue specific interests within the bilateral framework, while the empty shell of the CIS more often than not served as an obstacle for carrying out more muscular policies.

“A Russia that keeps clinging to the CIS is sheer nonsense,” notes Karaganov. “We’re inviting a pack of jackals to surround the lion.”

(Wall Street Journal, Moskovsky komsomolets, January 11; Izvestiya, RTR Russia TV, December 28; Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 26; Prognosis.ru, December 13)