On July 19 Russia’s Security Council convened a special meeting in the Kremlin to discuss the growing geopolitical rivalry in the post-Soviet space and Moscow’s position within the Commonwealth of Independent States. As Russia desperately seeks to preserve its leadership role in the “near abroad,” a number of commentators predict the Putin administration will have a hard time competing with the United States and European Union in the former Soviet lands.
The Russian leadership appears to be seriously worried about Moscow’s strategic retreat from what it considers its historic zone of vital interest, namely the vast territories of the former Russian and Soviet empires. For the second time in two weeks, President Vladimir Putin has urged his top officials to pursue more aggressive policies in post-Soviet Eurasia. He explained that Russia’s geopolitical dominance in the CIS is under attack by the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO, and Moscow strategists are faced with the task of how to efficiently minimize the effect of the West’s “strategic offensive.” If Russia does not succeed in turning itself into a magnet of regional integration, not only will it lose its leadership position, but also the CIS as a subject of international relations will ultimately wither away, Putin warned.
“We’ve approached a certain point in the development of the CIS,” the Russian president said. “In fact, we are facing an alternative — either we’ll achieve a qualitative strengthening of the CIS and create on its basis an effectively functioning and influential regional organization, or else we’ll inevitably see the erosion of this geopolitical space,” Putin suggested. The latter scenario, however, “should not be allowed to happen,” he added emphatically.
Putin bluntly urged a radical policy shift vis-a-vis the CIS member-states, specifically calling on the leaders of Russia’s defense and security communities to elaborate a new strategic blueprint for Moscow’s relations with the near abroad. In the past, Putin noted, Russia’s CIS policies “were not always efficient, pragmatic and — which is particularly important — consistent.” In an apparent tribute to the pragmatic approach, Putin stated that Russia does not enjoy “a monopoly on geopolitical actions” in the former Soviet lands. However, “due to a number of objective reasons, Russia has been and remains to be a locomotive of the integrationist processes” in the post-Soviet space, he argued.
But some independent analysts question Moscow’s ability to act as an authoritative regional leader and focus of Eurasian integration. It is unclear how the Kremlin is going to utilize what Russian strategists call the “objective factors” of Moscow’s geopolitical leadership — the neighboring countries’ energy dependency, Russia’s dominance in CIS trade relations, its relative military superiority, and the existence of Russian ethnic minorities among the CIS states’ populations. As some commentators point out, in reality, for Russia it is not that easy to use these strategic trump cards. Any Russian pressure — economic, military, and even political — on the CIS states could trigger a backlash from both the West and the very objects of Russia’s forceful policies. According to Fedor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, no one in Moscow is prepared to face a confrontation with the Western partners for the sake of re-establishing Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space. Even if an attempt to achieve this is eventually made, Lukyanov argues, it will fail because of the lack of resources.
A number of experts also question the argument that Moscow should seek an agreement with Washington on a “division of spheres of interests” in the CIS. In the regions where the United States has vital strategic interests, such as the South Caucasus with its oil and gas transit routes, Washington is not going to strike any bargain and will act as it sees fit. Besides, “since Western influence is associated with the progress of democracy in the post-Soviet space and Russian influence — with the preservation of Soviet-type regimes,” it is difficult to imagine what sort of a deal Moscow can cut with Washington or Brussels, Lukyanov notes.
Other commentators agree. In the opinion of political analyst Vitaly Portnikov, the CIS is all but dead and will hardly be resurrected. The post-Soviet geopolitical space “has already been eroded,” Portnikov says, and Moscow will continue facing mounting competition from the United States and, increasingly, the European Union. (Gazeta.ru, July 19, 23; Politcom.ru, July 20; Vremya novostei, July 20; Kommersant, July 20; Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 20; Moskovskie novosti, July 23).