The Kremlin’s recent foreign-policy failures, particularly its inglorious defeat in the “battle for Ukraine,” appear to have sparked a review of Russia’s policies towards its neighbors in the post-Soviet space. Aware that Moscow is losing the geopolitical competition in the Commonwealth of Independent States to the Western democracies precisely because of its “ideological poverty” and the imperfection of its socio-political system, some Russian pundits urge an immediate remedy. But it seems easier said than done: Given the Kremlin’s authoritarian and centralizing proclivities that make comprehensive democratic reform virtually impossible, Russia will likely continue its strategic retreat in the former Soviet lands.
Although some hawkish commentators continue to accuse the West of carrying out a sinister “special operation” that helped the Orange Revolution triumph in Kyiv, Russia’s more reasonable political thinkers argue that the nature of Western engagement in Ukraine has been different. What the United States and the European Union actually demonstrated during the Ukrainian political upheaval, these analysts contend, was simply a modern and effective form of projecting political influence. At the heart of it lies the notion of “soft power,” which comprises, among other things, social ideals, moral values, and a political image linked to a certain country or a group of countries. Indeed, the best advertisement for so-called “European values” is the quality of life in Western Europe. Thus, some Russian experts point out, the very prospect of joining some day a rich and prosperous “European club” is so attractive that it alone can stimulate political changes in the aspirant post-communist states. But to be sure, the reform drive is much facilitated by the activities of the Western-funded NGOs, public and private foundations, academic exchanges, and the like. To better compete with the West, Moscow has to draw lessons from its defeat in Ukraine and rethink its tactics in the CIS.
In a wide-ranging policy paper published in Nezavisimaya gazeta (December 28), State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev urges the perfection of Russia’s modus operandi in the zone of its vital interests. “Frequently we cannot explain properly the point of our presence in the post-Soviet space,” admits Kosachev. “The West does this under the banner of democratization whereas we, it seems, are only doing it on our own behalf. The slogans of democracy (even given the clear geopolitical subtext) are addressed to the people directly, while our activity pursues Russian interests too openly.” For Kosachev, such tactics are probably patriotic but definitely “uncompetitive.” Moscow, he argues, needs to offer something understandable and attractive to these countries — “some unifying projects and not just pro-Russian ones.”
Other Russian strategists suggest that Moscow should simply act in a more pugnacious way — at least as aggressively as its Western rivals. In the opinion of the Kremlin-connected analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, “We should act just like Americans do” — that is, to set up in the CIS countries “foundations and programs that would advance our values.” “If we believe that the institutions of Western democracy cannot be fully accepted in the Euro-East, why can’t we discuss this openly?” Pavlovsky defiantly asks in one of his recent interviews (Moskovsky komsomolets, December 21). But, remarkably, the Kremlin spin doctor never went into details as to what exactly “Euro-Eastern values” are. During his news conference at Interfax on December 28, Pavlovsky only acknowledged the problem of “Russia’s inadequate explaining of its values, its goals, its positions.” He added that it was indeed a “most serious drawback” and that it would be corrected “next year” (Kreml.org, December 29).
The big question, though, is how to do this. Having raised an important issue, Russian analysts are much less specific as to what attractive objectives and inspiring ideas the Kremlin could offer its post-Soviet neighbors. Some Russian analysts concede that, ideologically, Russia is in bad shape and will continue losing to the West. According to the political analyst Vitaly Tretyakov, “Only historical traditions that somehow prevent this [post-Soviet] space from being torn apart are currently saving us.” Among the most important unifying factors he cites the human ties, Russian language, and, curiously, “anti-American sentiments shared by the certain part of the [CIS countries’] elites.” But metaphysically, Tretyakov bemoans, “We have nothing that would be equal in ideological might to Soviet communism or Western liberalism” (Ekspert, December 6).
Liberal-minded experts have long argued that in order to play the role of a locomotive in the integrationist processes within the CIS and successfully compete with the European Union, Russia should urgently reform its political and economic system. “If we don’t have an economically viable and politically attractive model, other [CIS] countries will re-orient themselves towards the EU,” notes influential foreign-policy specialist Sergei Karaganov (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 20).
As one commentator has aptly put it, Moscow has to demonstrate for its neighbors a social model “with a human face.” But, he queries, where can this “human face” be found in present-day authoritarian Russia? (Polit.ru, October 18).