As a new wave of non-Western countries strive to elevate their profiles and expand their global influence, Russia is taking steps to help secure its future as their leader.
The status-obsessed country has expressed its desire to integrate the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus into a new Moscow-centric coalition called the Eurasian Union. This alliance would help promote Russia to a greater position of authority in the areas of politics, energy, economic governance, and international security.
However, Russia has some major hurdles ahead. In the year since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the official annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation, the country has experienced a serious downturn in terms of Western affection. While the move did, for the most part, improve Putin’s image in the eyes of the Russian people – who had begun to doubt the president’s ability to foster economic growth and prosperity – it clearly demonstrated the potential to lead to a complete breakdown of relations with its old rival, the United States. The U.S., whose sanctions have forced Russia’s economy to turn inwards, views Russia’s actions as aggressive and challenging.
These U.S.-imposed sanctions – retribution for what it considers Russia’s stealth invasion of Ukraine – are concerning to the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus because Russia has expanded its control over their key industries (like energy, transport, and telecoms) and has helped keep them afloat economically during difficult times with generous economic cooperation and postponements of debt. Russia still has strong economic, security, and cultural ties with the former Soviet republics, which have significant ethnic Russian populations, host Russian military bases, and get most of their news and entertainment from Russian media providers, but the sanctions can seriously threaten the future of these relationships.
As much as Russia longs to draw these countries into an even tighter embrace, they appear to be seriously rethinking this new reunion with Russia. Many are concerned with Russia’s growing role and its flailing economy, which was already slowing before the Ukraine crisis. These nations can’t help but be wary of the implications of a new union with Russia so relatively soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (in geopolitical terms, a single generation is not a long time.) Unfortunately, the reality is that as Russia continues to divorce itself from the West it will likely call on its former Soviet neighbors to choose their alliances. This at a time when the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus would most prefer maintaining multiple alliances with as many countries that want to cooperate with them.
Since their bequeathed Post-Soviet independence, the ‘stan’ countries have been wedged between the two superpowers of Russia and China and have been in close proximity to the instability of Iran and Afghanistan. Making the best of this geographical arrangement, they have learned how to keep the region relatively stable by balancing the interests of the superior regional powers and considering the interests of the United States. Even though they are not particularly happy with the events within Ukraine, their desire to keep a delicate balance in the region (friends to all, neutral most often) is most likely the justification for not isolating Russia or publically criticizing Putin’s Ukrainian strategies.
And then there is the issue of Iran and its recent nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries. The Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia and the Central Asian ‘stans’ may see the lifting of Iran’s sanctions as an opportunity for them to move away from Russian dependence. Iran is no longer off limits as a trade partner and a southern route through it would effectively change the dynamics of trade in the region, giving the smaller countries of the region more leverage at the bargaining table. This would make it at least plausibly easier to resist Russia’s growing sphere of influence.
At the same time, Russia, who played an essential role in securing Iran’s deal, has every intention of benefiting from it by securing lucrative contracts for itself in Iran’s key sectors such as energy and shipping. Also, with the prestige and status as Iran’s main ally, it will most likely use it to improve its global position if not necessarily its international image. Iran stands to benefit from the relationship as well. Under sanctions, Iran’s underdeveloped sectors suffered and now they are free to build up. This means they will need foreign investment – a role Russia is only too happy to fill. The Kremlin has expressed its desire to peacefully cooperate with Iran in the development of Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program.
But for many, this does not bode well. Eventually, the issue of Iran’s arms industry will come up again. In five years when the embargo is lifted per the deal, there will be fierce competition among countries that would sell arms to Iran. With Russia becoming increasingly at odds with the West, its emphatic support of and alliance with Iran – whose nuclear deal does not do much to improve its relationship with the United States per se – is highly suspicious and, in my opinion, goes beyond just helping it recover economically. Because Iran has been clear about its intention to uphold its anti-American policies and has plans to continue providing its support to its allies in the region – who also have negative feelings toward the West – this union should be looked upon with at least some concern and apprehension.
With Russia recently joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and taking action to integrate the Eurasian Economic Union with the Silk Road Economic Belt, there is no doubt that Russia is positioning itself to reemerge as the dominant figure in the non-Western world. A figure that desperately desires to have the same kind of influence the United States has over its Western allies. But if this is what Russia really wants, it will have to change the way it relates to its smaller neighbors. Instead of projecting the image that it wants to “collect them,” perhaps it should instead redirect its diplomatic energy to soothe them as real partners, equal and engaged.
While international relations have never been Russia’s strong suit in the West – take its revoked G8 membership status as evidence – this doesn’t mean it isn’t capable. For example, it could start by improving its image by ceasing to present itself as a victim. It could, instead, start to take responsibility for its own misfortunes. It could stop referring to the break-up of the Soviet Union as a tragedy and can instead treat it as an opportunity to reinvent itself to become a vital part of the international community. The last thing the international community wants to see is Russia head down the road to total economic collapse but if the country continues to violate international norms, it will only further isolate itself – maybe even to the point of another Cold War with the West.