As the geopolitical competition in the former Soviet lands becomes more acute, the Kremlin is seeking to revamp its strategy towards the Commonwealth of Independent States. First Moscow sends a signal to the West, saying it is ready to reach some sort of accommodation in post-Soviet Eurasia. But at the same time, it warns Western-leaning former Soviet republics of the dire economic consequences of their geostrategic re-orientation.
On September 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin used a two-and-a-half hour meeting in the Kremlin with a group of Western academics and journalists to make assurances that Russia has no imperial ambitions. However, it does have serious and legitimate interests in the former Soviet empire’s borderlands that must be taken into account. “We cannot go back to the Russian empire. Only an idiot can imagine we’re striving for that,” he reportedly said. But the Kremlin leader was quick to add that Russia will not tolerate outside interference in the former Soviet republics or any attempts to destabilize countries on Russia’s borders.
The thrust of Putin’s message to the West was as follows: Russia is not against the democratic changes in what it regards as its strategic backyard. But it does not want these changes to be “chaotic.” To prevent potential destabilization, Russia, the United States, and the European Union should establish mutually acceptable rules of the game in the post-Soviet space.
Putin’s pronouncements seem to be the result of the recently revised Kremlin CIS policy. In August Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that Moscow was seeking “to transform this [post-Soviet] space into an arena of mutually respectful and predictable partnership.” He also said Russia would not oppose “healthy competition” on former Soviet soil as long as the rules of the game were clear. Then on August 23 a high-ranking official within the Putin administration said Russia wants to radically change its policy towards its CIS neighbors. “The essence of the policy’s new direction is not to restore the influence of Russia, which has been allegedly lost in the process of orange revolutions,” he was quoted as saying. In fact, there was no influence, just wasted money and stolen Russia gas, the Putin aide reportedly said. “The goal,” he continued, “is that relations between Moscow and Washington and European countries on the territory of the former Soviet Union acquire a civilized character.” The Kremlin source added that Moscow does not want to restore the Soviet empire, but that there “is a struggle without any rules in the post-Soviet space. Russia wants to establish some rules, and they should be civilized.”
Significantly, the policy review comes at a time when the CIS is experiencing a period of deep crisis. After 15 lackluster years, the loosely organized bloc appears to be splitting into two distinct camps. While one grouping agrees to stay within Russia’s geopolitical orbit and supports Moscow-led integration efforts, the other camp is markedly pro-Western and seeks to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic structures. The ongoing debate within Moscow’s policymaking and analytic community indicates that the Kremlin will likely pursue a tougher strategy vis-à-vis the former Soviet republics. Russia is going to distinguish between what it perceives as “loyal” and “disloyal” neighbors, economically encouraging the former and punishing the latter.
For the Russian strategists, the turning point in the CIS’s development appears to be the August meeting between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Borjomi, Georgia, when the two leaders announced a plan to create a Commonwealth of Democratic Choice, which, they insisted, should unite “all democratic states in the Baltic, Black Sea, and Caspian regions.” Saakashvili and Yushchenko intend to use their initiative to “turn the region into a space of democracy, stability, and security, fully integrated into the democratic Euro-Atlantic community.” With this strategic goal in mind, they have invited the leaders of the countries in the region to come to Ukraine this fall for a summit. Russia, unlike the United States, was invited only as an observer. During their informal visit at the Artek International Children’s Center in Crimea on August 18, the presidents of Poland and Lithuania indicated their support for the project.
The recent joint move by Tbilisi and Kyiv, many Russian observers argue, is yet another confirmation that the CIS has long stopped corresponding with current geopolitical realities. The political landscape of the post-Soviet space has been thoroughly changed by the “color revolutions,” while the eastward expansion of the European Union and the active engagement of the regional countries by the United States led to the emergence of new centers of power besides Moscow. Russia’s geostrategic predominance in the post-Soviet Eurasia and the very concept of a Russian zone of influence have become obsolete.
But the Kremlin is not going to give up. Significantly, the Putin aide specified that Russia would not tolerate an arrangement in which it does not receive economic or political benefits for selling oil and gas at a discount. Furthermore, it was made perfectly clear that Moscow intended to scrap discounts to Western-leaning CIS countries.
Some Russian analysts interpret the Kremlin’s decision to revamp its CIS policy as a desire to draw a clear line between the pro-Russian and pro-Western CIS members. Although Moscow is not going to create any new alternative organizations, it will drastically change its economic policy vis-à-vis the CIS countries. While it will continue to provide the “loyalists” with cheap energy resources, it will deprive the “apostates” of all the former privileges. Thus the emergent division within the CIS will be marked economically, if not politically.
(Gazeta.ru, Times, Guardian, September 6; Politcom.ru, August 29; Vedomosti, Kommersant, August 26; Moscow Times, August 24; RIA-Novosti, August 23)