At its Istanbul summit last month, the 26-member Atlantic Alliance announced its newfound interest in the strategic regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Although the unveiled measures aimed at engaging the region have turned out to be relatively modest, NATO’s designs appear to have created serious anxiety in the Kremlin. As the former imperial ruler of the post-Soviet lands, Moscow is bent on preventing the Western security pact from establishing a geopolitical foothold in its strategic “soft underbelly.”
Despite the institutionalization of cooperation between Russia and NATO through the Russia-NATO Council, Russia’s political elite clearly perceive NATO’s eastward enlargement as, in the words of one commentator, “a continuation of the tug-of-war between Moscow and Washington for the control over the former Soviet republics.” In the opinion of most Russian analysts, the Kremlin lost the first stage of the struggle, since bringing the Baltic states into NATO also brought the Alliance’s military infrastructure to the northern borders of Russia. Now, one expert says, “A bitter rivalry is going on at Russia’s southern frontiers.”
It would appear that to rebuff what Moscow views as NATO’s eastward march, the Kremlin’s security analysts are busy elaborating a set of counter-moves. These consist of both an ideological dimension and concrete policy recommendations. As far as the re-conceptualization of Russia’s policies in the post-Soviet space is concerned, the Kremlin’s strategists have advanced a notion of a Russia-led “Euro-East” as opposed to a “Wider Europe” integrated within the Euro-Atlantic institutions. Russia, one political pundit argues, “is making a shift away from the policy of preserving the post-Soviet status quo and toward a policy which stakes on strong sovereign neighbors, partners, and allies.” The United States and Europe, Moscow ideologues claim, view the Eurasian borderlands squeezed between NATO and Russia as an “empty space” awaiting a “friendly colonization.” But Russia understands the Euro-East as a space “full of vigorous, growing new nations where new leadership is emerging.”
The Kremlin’s new political philosophy highlights Russia as the single legitimate guarantor of the sovereignty and independence of the CIS states. Should they join NATO or the EU, they would forfeit some part of their sovereignty, Moscow “political technologists” point out. Furthermore, unlike the EU and NATO, which consist of mature European nations ready to cede a part of their sovereignty to the supra-national governing bodies, one influential Russian lawmaker contends, the post-Soviet countries including Russia are the young nations conscious of their identity and proud of their newly born independence. Therefore, the argument goes, at least until two generations pass — a time presumably needed to shape a mature nation — Euro-East countries are unlikely candidates for membership in the EU or NATO.
Finally, the Kremlin’s spin doctors argue, it is not NATO but Russia and its CIS allies who have secured peace and stability in Euro-East during the last decade. NATO’s peacekeeping record is dismal, they contend, and that is why an offer the Atlantic Alliance is going to make will leave CIS countries unmoved.
To thwart NATO’s possible expansion plans, most Russian analysts suggest that Moscow should keep its military facilities in Trans-Dniester and especially Georgia as long as possible. These Russian bases, the local defense experts argue, have more political value than military significance. “The bases as a rearguard of the former [military] might are needed to restrain the push of the new [geopolitical] rivals into the post-Soviet space,” says Sergei Kazennov, a researcher at Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
There seems to be a consensus among Moscow strategists that Russia’s two remaining bases in Georgia are of particular strategic value and should stay put in the foreseeable future. In the eyes of Russian security and defense analysts, Georgia is a pivotal staging area for geopolitical dominance in the Black Sea and South Caucasus region. As one commentator puts it, “for Moscow and Washington both, control over Georgia means control over almost the entire Trans-Caucasus.” That’s why, while being prepared to seek accommodation with Washington in secondary matters, “the Kremlin is not going to give in to U.S. pressure on the key issue — namely, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia.”
The majority of Russian strategic planners appear to agree that the Kremlin can safely forget about the legal link between Russia’s military pullout from Moldova and Georgia and ratification of the modified treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) by the NATO member-states. The bulk of Russian defense experts argue that the CFE Treaty is obsolete and basically useless. NATO is not going to beef up its forces in Europe anyway, they say. “It would be stupid to swap the withdrawal of troops [from Georgia and Moldova] for the ratification of an outdated treaty,” argues Kazennov. “It’s not an equal exchange.” (Novye izvestiya, June 28, July 1; Kreml.org, Krasnaya zvezda, Politcom.ru, June 29).