Tuesday, 11th of March PhD student Ryhor Nizhnikau gave a lecture on the topic of „Wolf and eleven young kids? Russia’s policies toward post-soviet states: goals, means, outcomes".
Ryhor Nizhnikau is a PhD student at the Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu and doctoral fellow at the Centre for EU-Russia Studies (CEURUS). He has a Master’s degree in Politics and International Studies with a specialization in Eurasian Studies, from Uppsala University (2011) and a degree in International Relations from Belarusian State University (2009). Prior to joining CEURUS, Ryhor worked as an intern at Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Sweden as well as at the Institute for Security and Development, Sweden. His research interests include EU policies in the post-Soviet area, European Neighborhood Policy, Russia’s foreign policy. His doctoral thesis focuses on the EU’s institutional change and policies in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.
We are used to looking at Russia as an imperialistic country that wants to restore the Soviet Union but Ryhor Nizhnikau argues against that perspective, because it does not explain why Kremlin has not taken action in some situations to spread its’ influence while it has in others.
After the fall of the Soviet Union Russia wanted to be part of the wide democratic community in the world, but in the 2000s things changed. Russia was understood as part of the West, but Russia had to form its’ own special identity. The country had its’ own special history that it had to protect. The idea of Russia as special civilization formed, that had to develop further to become the spiritual bond behind Russian society.
What is this special spiritual bond? Boris Yeltsin formed a taskforce in 1993 to look for a Russian national identity and help decide what ideology Russian government should promote. In reality it did not achieve much. The main thing it accomplished was that Russia had to be a true capitalist and anti-communist country.
Nowadays, literature on Eurasianism is widely distributed in Russia. Idea of Russian civilization that is distinct from the West is fully formed. It is largely influenced by the works of Russian intellectuals like Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev on one hand. On the other international system after the Second World War is idealized and Russia is looked upon as a special sovereign country where Western democracy does not work.
What threat does Ukraine pose to this ideology? The West thinks that, Russian position is in the lines of wanting to expand on the expense of weaknesses of its’ neighbors, but Russian reasons have probably more to do with domestic politics. Namely, that what happened in Ukraine (coup d’état of Viktor Yanukovych) is looked upon as ultimate danger, because it was a revolution of society, not organized by the parties but by people. Ukraine is looked upon as a country like Russia, but without oil. Russia felt as if it had to do something about the situation to send a clear message.
Russia as a great power and its’ foreign policy
Russia wants to be considered a great power. It does not want to just feel like one, but be recognized as such globally and it feels like it has to gain that position by action. Russian actions on international arena are largely explained by that notion.
To achieve the status of a great power Russia mimics the West. Largely the policies it implements are nothing new and revolutionary, but it promotes his policies by the same means as the West has been doing. The logic behind that is: “great powers do this, so do we”. By that Russia acknowledges that it is part of the same system and previous actions of others in the system legitimize its’ actions. A clear example of this behavior is soon to be formed Eurasian Union that copies European Union, only with the center in Moscow. It is reaction to economic protectionism of EU. Same could be observed in military actions: they do what others have already done: „you blame us for Georgia, but look what you did in places ABC”.
Russia has monopolized the discourse of fascism and neo-Nazism that was also used against Ukraine. These ideas have been defined as ultimate evil and eagerly promoted by Russians in different organizations’. Russia uses them in their foreign policy. The Second World War is a source for different discourses: war is considered glory for military and leadership, because they brought down the fascists force and liberated Europe, paved the way for the future of Europe. Everybody who is against Russians in modern context is also labelled as fascist, which helps Russia legitimize its actions.
From one side Kremlin idealizes the Second World War and the following Soviet era, but contradictionally it also glorifies the tsarist era. Nikita Khrushchev is blamed for the downfall of the Soviet union and left policies like healthcare are valued on the one hand, but on the other hand most of Putin’s policies are neo-fascist and far right. In conclusion the Russian foreign policy is mix of contradicting ideas and uses parts of policies that are convenient for the time.
During the anti-communist Boris Yeltsin years the Soviet Union was considered evil, because it was main political opponent for him. When Putin came to power, it was more liberal at first, but has turned to more nationalist and Eurasianist ideas by now.
Different means Russia uses to promote his ideas
The package that Russia uses to promote his ideas is simple; it is tailor-made to the needs and weaknesses of the post-soviet countries. Most of these states are weak and with weak governments, that are run by families. Their military is also weak and disorganized. They have no clear ideology. So, Russia has made a point to get those countries economically dependent on her and on and influence her agenda through economic means.
Russia uses its’ economic powers to make neighbors with smaller economies dependent on its’ market and financial assistance. Best example for that is Belarus: domestic political system is provided by Russians, who give 30-40% of Belarussian GDP as economic assistance and are therefore able to make Belarus follow its’ policy.
If the country is not dependent on Russia economically, and cannot be made dependent on its’ assistance (like Ukraine), Russia tries to use other means. They can be political, like trying to create pro-Russian forces and help them, so they would promote Russian agenda. Russia can use different political issues like minority rights and language on the one hand. On the other hand Russia can sell its’ political support: if a country has a foreign policy issue, Russia might support it (like Armenia, who at first wanted to sign association agreement with the EU but had to drop that idea, because Russia threatened to withdraw its’ military support).
Another way to make a country dependent is by military means. Armenia has opponent that she is afraid of and therefore she relies on Russia for military support. The same applies in Central Asian countries with the energy distribution system and the pipelines. China just built new pipelines to the region; before Kazakhstan and the others were solely dependent on Soviet pipe systems to sell their oil and gas to Western markets. In conclusion, with each country Russia has used different tactics.
Also in its’ soft power, Russia has imitated the West. Russia has never promoted its’ soft power efficiently. They have tried to change it, with for example the recent Olympic games, but the latest events have nullified its’ effort.
In light of Ukrainian events we have to ask: why did Russia by its policies in Crimea ruin what it had been building for the last 15 years? Our understanding of that is not complete.
If we look into the past, then Russia opposed the idea of independent Kosovo and threatened to recognize South-Ossetia’s independence if Kosovo were to become independent. The main reason is that Russia is scared that some of the regions of Russia itself might break away.
Same applies to the soft power: there was so much effort in improving Russian image. Why was Mikhail Khodorkovsky let free if Russia didn’t care about the opinion of the West? Therefore, what happened in Ukraine must not have been the way Russia intended it to go. Russia must have had other plans, but had to deploy a last minute solution for Ukraine.
Financial support for neighbors
Offering financial support to neighbors is not very sustainable in the long run, because it depends largely on how well shaped Russian economy is. The amount of money they spend on supporting the regimes is large and the appetite of leaders rises. It is dangerous when Russian economy is not doing well, like now. Russian economy was slowing down already before the advances in Ukraine, but it has become worse, because Ukraine was one of the key markets for Russia. In addition, Russian economy depends a lot on oil price.
A way out?
Is there a way for Russia to save his image before the West? Russia has his ways to save the face. If referendum about Crimea is held, there are two possible outcomes. The first option of becoming part of Russia would be a loss for the image of Russia. The second option would be the restitution of constitution of 1992 which would be the beneficial option for Russia, because it would make Crimea an entity independent of Kiev which would be a huge leverage for Moscow against Kiev.
As of now, Russia has lost Ukraine, because of its’ advances and also in doing so Russia has united Ukraine against a common enemy. An option for Russia would be to use Crimea to somehow anchor Ukraine and prevent it drifting towards the EU. But for that Russian parliament has to show independence and say that they cannot take Crimea.
Russia is not a dictatorship but authoritarian state, autocracy. Putin in an arbitrary force between different decision making groups; he has the last word but he has to listen to them.
What are the latest emotions towards Russia in Belarus? Before the Crimea-crisis there were negotiations for building a Russian military base on Belarusian grounds and it was dependent on the loan from Russia. Now Belarusians are more afraid of letting in the Russian military base.
Those countries are a mess. What do they expect from dealing with China? They don’t care which government takes the gas, but when it comes to inner politics, they need military help from Russia. There is a frozen conflict between those countries. China is there for economic reasons, to do trade with everybody, not to help them solve the conflicts. So they need Russia to help them politically.
Russia uses ethnic minorities to blackmail the governments. Russian government claims that it has to protect the Russian speaking minority. It’s a political issue, because Russia uses it as political weapon.
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