The violent unrest spreading across eastern Uzbekistan may symbolize the second, and final, stage of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Russian strategists appear divided as to what Moscow’s response should be to the ongoing geopolitical transformations. While the liberal minority suggests Russia would be well advised to draw lessons from the experience of other historic empires and finally get rid of the “zones of influence” notion, the nationalist majority advocates a more assertive policy in what it still regards as Russia’s “strategic backyard.”
The process of regime changes in the post-Soviet lands that began with the Georgian political upheaval in 2003 highlights the continuation of the tectonic shifts taking place in the vast expanses of the former Soviet Empire. Fifteen years ago, the USSR was transformed into the amorphous Commonwealth of Independent States. This loosely structured body, which some Kremlin political thinkers believed might serve as a strategic bridgehead for the restoration of full Russian dominance, has instead started to disintegrate itself. But now, some commentators argue, we are likely witnessing the “second phase of the collapse of the USSR/CIS” — namely, the “empire’s” ultimate mental and physical disintegration. Over that last decade or so the first truly post-Soviet generation has emerged across Eurasia, while the majority of the CIS leaders — the political holdovers from the Soviet past — have totally exhausted their potential (Gazeta.ru, May 14).
Clearly, Russia is facing a painful dilemma of how to pursue its national interests under these seemingly unfavorable geopolitical conditions. Most liberal-minded experts, referring to the history of the former European imperial powers, urge Russia’s political elite to overcome its debilitating post-imperial syndrome. For this, two things are essential. First, Russian policymakers should stop lamenting the loss of empire (that is, the disintegration of the USSR), as it is not possible to restore the status quo ante. At the same time, the new national identity built on the bitter feeling of impotent revanche is both shaky and dangerous. Second, history demonstrates that it is much more productive to carefully prepare a voluntary pullout from one’s zone of influence than to end up being disgracefully shoved out (Izvestiya, April 28).
Such arguments do not sit well with the conservative and nationalist schools of thought that currently dominate Russia’s foreign policy discourse. A number of recently published policy papers, as well as the speeches delivered at the parliamentary hearings by the foreign minister and top security chief, appear to demonstrate the Russian elites’ pugnacious geopolitical mood.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Tribuna daily (May 18), Russian nationalist lawmaker and director of the CIS Institute Konstantin Zatulin bluntly stated that Moscow perceives the United States as its main rival in the post-Soviet space. Only a “very politically naïve person,” he said, could believe that Russia and the United States act as strategic partners in the CIS. “We might have a partnership with America in the Middle East or elsewhere, but a very tough competition is taking place between us in the post-Soviet space,” argues Zatulin.
At their briefing with Duma lawmakers on May 12, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Nikolai Patrushev appeared to share the suspicion of Western policies that is so widespread among Russian political elites. The FSB chief accused “certain political forces” in the Western countries of behaving in the “worst Cold War traditions” and applying double standards to Russia. According to Patrushev, Russia’s opponents are seeking to “purposefully and consistently” weaken Russian influence in the CIS, in particular, and in the international arena in general. The recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, he added, are clear proof of this pernicious trend.
Lavrov was slightly less aggressive in his analysis of Russia’s interaction with the West. However, he also stated that the “global world is the world of tough competition where no one is prepared to make concessions.” In his words, the Kremlin does not exercise hegemony in the post-Soviet lands but clearly would not tolerate attempts by any country to establish its own “monopoly” in the CIS. Both Patrushev and Lavrov suggested that the growing rivalry between Russia and the West is primarily caused by Russia’s increasing economic might and the unwillingness of most developed countries to let Russia become a “serious economic competitor” (Izvestiya, Gazeta, May 13, Rossiiskaya gazeta, Trud, May 14, Gudok, May 17).
But hard power is still the only weighty argument in today’s realpolitik, Russia’s nationalist experts contend. For Alexei Pushkov, a popular TV commentator and professor at the Moscow Institute of Foreign Relations, the sooner Russia restores its military and economic might, the more respect will it get from the West. He forcefully urges the Kremlin to pursue a “much tougher” foreign policy both in the “near abroad” and toward the West (Trud, May 12).
For his part, Zatulin suggests policy priorities for Russia’s strategy on the CIS “western front.” With respect to Belarus, the Kremlin has to speed up efforts aimed at unification with Minsk before the West starts to realize its anti-Lukashenka, regime-change scheme. In Ukraine, Russia should be ready for the “second round” of the unfinished geopolitical battle, focusing primarily on the policy of “consolidating the pro-Russian forces” in the neighboring Slavic country. As for Moldova, Zatulin concludes, “Our immediate and most urgent task is the protection of Transnistria” (Tribuna, May 18).