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CIS at crossroads: the shift in geo-political dynamics

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2016 was out of the ordinary year. The ‘skittish’ Donald Trump got elected as the 45th President of the United States. Britain voted to make its historic exit from the European Union and for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the year was a political carnival as it completed 25 years of its existence. The last event indeed feels like a cold day in the hell especially when the grouping has been seen in a disparaging light ever since it kicked-off. Scores of critical remarks talking in length about its inefficacy, institutional failure and uninspiring progress has not only exposed its innate impotence but has also developed a sense of distrust towards it. However, it would be unjust to label the CIS as moribund without offering adequate explanation for the case. The article will delve into the strategic play of geo-politics extant during the formation of the CIS, how Russia and other CIS states perceive of the alliance in the present era and its subsequent contribution in making the organization irrelevant. 

Theorizing CIS

Why do states come together to form a regional organization at the expense of their most invaluable gem, national sovereignty? This question has been answered on multiple occasions through multifarious theories of international relations. However, strategic considerations played out an imperative role when the foundation of the CIS was laid. Prima facie, the ‘threat perception’ was the most conspicuous motivation that forced the states into action. This perception nonetheless was not uniform. For Russia, the western powers drive for democracy, NATO’s eastward proliferation and unruly CIS states in its ‘near abroad’ were a cause of alarm. For other CIS states, political and religious turmoil in their own lands and Russia’s amplified aspirations were deleterious to their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Blown by the fate worse than death, Russia endeavored to encapsulate all the former Soviet states (except the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) within its reach by employing unhesitant coercion towards the disobedient states that were reluctant to join the CIS. Russia in the CIS was a status-quo power, tenacious on preserving its Soviet pre-eminence. Adoption of such radical measures appeared as the only potent tool to secure its interests. For the other CIS states, the challenge to uphold their newly granted independence from external and internal threats with their frail military was an even more daunting task. Russia’s splendid force was the brightest star in the dark night, which could defend their territory in the event of a military attack. Moreover, Russia’s membership in the organization was an excellent tool to balance Russia’s ambitions to dominate the Greater Russia. CIS states were quick to realize the merit in these moves and acquiesced to be part of the CIS. 

The role of intricate interdependencies in the emergence of the CIS is even more paramount given the complex web of relationship that the former Soviet Republics shared. Constructivists emphasize on the notion of cognitive interdependence and cultural affinity as the raison d’être for the development of an organization. CIS is a vindication to the point. In the face of burning civil warfare and local threats, the political elites of many states thought it to be advantageous to bandwagon with regionally strong states and thereby bolster their chances of survival. This very act of bandwagoning is termed as ‘omnibalancing’ by its propounder Steven R. David. However, whether the regionally strong state will come to the rescue of the war-torn state depends upon multiple calculations. This line of thought holds credence in the case of Central Asian states that conjoined with Russia in the CIS. Geographical proximity can also be cited as a reasonable inducement to be a part of an organization. Central Asian states were closer to Russia than Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia. This idea held true in case of CIS.                                            

Operational dynamics of CIS

After a protracted period of debate on the character of CIS, the organization came into being on 8th December 1991. It was a kind of historical process that accompanied the civilized divorce of the Soviet Republics. CIS aided the newly independent states to reinvigorate their relationship that had been marred by the break-up. For the CIS states, the organization was a platform to embalm the most quintessential elements of the past cohabitation. In its blooming years, CIS approved more than 250 agreements. It was on the crest of a wave. Albeit, no sooner than later, suspicions and inhibitions cloaked in the garb of deep cultural sway, political and economic interdependencies, and the so-called obedience to the leader of the Greater Russia stood unveiled. Nature and purpose of the CIS began to be contested. Neither was the CIS a full-fledged state in the clichéd sense nor was it a subject of the international law. There was not any unified CIS foreign policy or a CIS national interest, largely owing to the diversification of dependencies and geo-political pluralism. Geo-political, geo-economic and ideological chasm made a headway between the two groups of states. There were pro-CIS states and CIS-skeptic states. The former mainly included the Russian Federation, Belarus, Armenia, and the Central Asian states barring Turkmenistan. The latter comprised of Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Turkmenistan, and Georgia. Pro-CIS states wanted consolidation of common economic space by appropriate structures, while those skeptical of CIS were opposed to any form of institutionalization. Participation of post-Soviet states in the CIS meetings was irregular. Many of them complained the existential institutional upheaval. Trade relations could not endure the privileged luster that characterized the intense bonhomie and inter-linkages of the CIS states. In the aftermath of the 1998 crisis, trade ties were further derailed by payment arrears and the practice of states of keeping up with the barter arrangements. Nonetheless, the economic landscape was not something out of the blue. Inherited interdependence is not emblematic of shared inherited interest. Besides, the level of interdependence is not the same for all and sundry.

The charter of the CIS dictated the attainment of functional cooperation through consensus and this proved to be a stumbling block in the flourishing of the CIS. Many states chose not to ratify the agreements or approve of necessary reforms and policies such as elimination of value-added taxes on exports. Any venture or organization’s success is contingent upon the quantity and quality of time and resources that is invested into it. Faced with the mammoth task of nation building, coupled with meager resources and time, the CIS states steered all their energy to making their frontiers and economy as formidable as possible. Scant attention and probably low political will on part of the states pushed CIS toward the shambles. Furthermore, many of the ideals sacrosanct to all such as respecting state sovereignty, renouncing the use of force were walked over by some, if not all. Cognizant of the fact that the organization was unable to find a common ground to manage crisis in the post-Soviet space and serve the interest of the states, many of the CIS nations, primarily CIS skeptics formed their minilateral groupings such as GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova), Central Asian Union, later renamed as Central Asian Cooperation Organization. In 1992, Azerbaijan and Central Asian states joined the Economic Cooperation Organization. In 2005, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, together with Slovenia, Romania, and Macedonia, formed the Community of Democratic Choice. Some states began leaning towards the west and this ringed the alarm bells for Russia.

Future of CIS amid Preponderant Russia

Russia, which in the 1990’s was floundering to rebuild its identity on the vestiges of socialism made a ‘great leap’ to be the 11th largest economy in the world. With high growth rates and satisfactory public exchequer, the political elites were now able to direct their energy towards effectuating their global hegemonic aspirations. With politically deft leaders, Russia turned towards regional organizations to exert their influence. Right after his ascendance as the President of Russia, Putin pledged to improve Moscow’s relations with the CIS states. Russia’s foreign policy document of 2008 reaffirmed the fundamental importance of the CIS and identified the development of bilateral and multilateral cooperation with CIS member-states as the major thrust of Russia’s foreign policy. Nonetheless, it is not to suggest that Moscow’s political elites in the last years of the previous century turned a blind eye to regional cooperation mechanisms. Under Primakov, attempts were made to reform CIS in 1998. He also pronounced his plans of creating several CIS free-trade zones. Russia has invariably viewed CIS, in the words of Medvedev as a ‘sphere of privileged interest’.

The delightful memoirs of the soviet consolidation are very much alive in the hearts of the Russians. A desire to re-forge spiritual unity of the Soviet era with the CIS states is profound. However, the real impulse is to obtain unquestionable loyalty which is feigned under the label of ‘spiritual unity’. Russia’s mention of ‘near-abroad’ (Blizhnee-Zarubezhe) in political speeches is seen in a pejorative sense outside Russia, especially by the CIS states. Russia’s cold war mentality demands ultimate obedience whereas the CIS states have grown sterner when it comes to securing their national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moscow’s rigidity, its preference to bilateralism over multilateralism and its threat to other CIS states have compelled states to branch out in terms of their international involvement. 

Russia’s obstinacy to secure its near-abroad from foreign powers, especially the West has resulted in many incursions into the post-soviet states, thereby violating the essential ideals of CIS. Georgia and Ukraine are a case in point. Georgia has been inclined towards the west and had sought NATO’s membership. Its exit from the CIS in 2006 fanned Russia’s anger and the latter-imposed a near-total embargo on Georgian wine and agricultural exports. As if it was not enough, Moscow encouraged pro-Russian secessionist groups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, later resulting in the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. Ukraine and Russia have been locked in chronic disputes over pricing and tariff rates for long. Ukraine too believed that CIS has outlived its usefulness and therefore wanted to be a part of NATO and EU. However, Kiev’s desire was nipped in the bud when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Putin justified the intrusion as an act of defending ethnic Russians. Rather this was an act of embracing civilizational identity. It demonstrated that Russian military deployments in and near CIS countries are not just for show. Furthermore, there were others who had to bow to Russia’s arm-twisting. Moldova aimed to build ties with the west and in retaliation to it; Russian government stepped up its support for the secessionist movement in Transnistria. Reluctantly, Moldova had to give up its plan of forging improved ties with the west and remain a part of CIS. The examples cited above would lead one to infer the centrality of CIS in Russia’s foreign policy. However, it is not the case. What is significant to Russia is not CIS as an organization but CIS as a region. Russian government did not deploy troops or bully the leaders in Turkmenistan when it reduced its status from a full member to an associate member. This was mainly because Turkmenistan did not pose a serious challenge to Russia’s ambitions, thus it did not feel the need to get into a military scuffle. Color revolutions for Russia were the ‘menace of phantom’. Russian administration ostracized and intimidated all those countries that had undergone democratic change and accommodated autocratic leaders who stifled the drive of people for greater freedom. 

Power projection is one of the most overpowering instruments to solidify one’s hold over a region. Putin was wise to realize this, and his tenure witnessed the emergence of inter-governmental structures such as EEU (Eurasian Economic Union), SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). Undoubtedly, these structures of power made the battle of survival for CIS even more intense, it also made the fact crystal clear that regaining its superpower status and its lost glory dominated their idea of foreign policy above anything else.

Conclusion

CIS which was developed with the intent to mitigate the pains and sufferings of the collapse of the USSR now is itself reeling under legitimacy crisis. Amid failures and successes of power politics, CIS still hobbles on. At least, it provides a forum to discuss and manage some issues of ‘low politics. CIS states, other than Russia have a different construct of the organization. For some it is a forward-moving group, while for other, stagnant, or simply digressing from its actual path. Russia is concerned about raising its stature in the ‘near-abroad’ and CIS legitimates its presence. Furthermore, equality of states is a pre-requisite of any inter-governmental organization. This serves as an ideological hindrance to Russia’s rise as it never considered other states as its equal partners. Therefore, progress of CIS has impeded as Russia did not want to part away with its sovereignty and stature with other CIS states. Use of coercion by Russia may have helped it win some wars within its near- abroad, but such a triumph may not be fruitful in the longer run, when Russia would need to be aided by smaller states surrounding it. It also needs to realize that in the wake of geo-political pluralism, every state has its own priorities and diversification of interest is anything but obvious. It should get hold of the fact that it can no longer dominate the region as it once did. CIS has been a pawn in the geopolitical scuffle between states ever since its inception. Some call it a defunct organization, while others hope for its revival, what CIS will turn out to be depends upon how CIS states perceive the global politics and CIS’ utility in the times to come.

REFERENCES:

Kubicek, P. (2009). The Commonwealth of Independent States: An Example of Failed Regionalism? Review of International Studies,35, 237-256. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/20542785

Imanaliev, M.(2016),”The Commonwealth of Independent States: Not Subject to Reform”, [Online: web] Accessed 2 June, 2020 URL: https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/commonwealth-of-independent-states-not-subject-to-reform/

Wilson, J.L,”The Russian Pursuit of Regional Hegemony”, [Online: web] Accessed 2 June, 2020 URL: https://risinngpowersproject.com/quarterly/russian-pursuit-regional-hegemony/

Sakwa,R.(2008),”Commonwealth,Community and Fragmentation”, in Richard Sakwa Russian Politics and Society, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Kremer, M. (2008),”Russian Policy Toward the Commonwealth of Independent states: Recent Trends and Future Prospects”, Problems of Post-Communism,vol. 55, no.6,November/December: 3-19

Zahoor Ahmad Dar is a researcher based in New Delhi. He has completed master’s in International Relations from the School of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, email – zahoorjnu[at]gmail.com

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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