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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Avoiding Another Cordon Sanitaire

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow is now promoting the formation of the Russia-Belarus Union to prevent any linkup between the Baltic countries and the GUAM states, a development that some officials in the Russian capital apparently fear could lead to the formation of another cordon sanitaire between Russia and Europe.

Boris Bikkinin, the head of the Russia-Belarus Union's security and defense commission, said on Thursday in Moscow that the merger of the two countries would considerably improve Russia's strategic situation in the western direction and break up any possibility of the formation of a new buffer zone between them and Europe.

Bikkinin said such a cordon sanitaire had already begun to "artificially develop" around Russia, and that the new union not only keeps the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania separate from the GUAM states of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, but also creates a geo-strategic corridor for Russia to the West.

He added that the new union will also lead to the "rational resolution" of the problems of Kaliningrad, the non-contiguous part of the Russian Federation, and "ensure security on a major European crossroads."

Bikkinin's remarks are noteworthy in three respects.

First, they suggest that Russian officials now view the union with Belarus as an essential element of the massive transit scheme the Russian cabinet approved on September 7. According to that scheme, Moscow must develop north-south and east-west transit routes in order to use its geographic location to promote its economic and political interests.

Both of these routes would require Russian access through Belarus, and the major east-west one would also need to use Belarusian territory to avoid having to transit Ukraine or the Baltic countries, something Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said last week that Moscow was loathe to do because of the losses it was suffering by doing so now.

This economic calculation would appear to make it more likely that senior Russian officials will push harder for the consummation of the Russia-Belarus Union than they have in the past.

Second, Bikkinin's words suggest that at least some in Moscow think there is a real chance that the Baltic countries and the four GUAM states might in fact link up at some point in the future to Russia's detriment, and thus need to take preventive action now.

In fact, there have been both academic and diplomatic discussions about links between some members of each of the two groups. But to date, these have hardly reached the point that would appear to justify Bikkinin's sweeping charges.

Instead, his words appear to reflect a serious over-reading of cooperative efforts between and among both groups and a perception that any links between them are part of an American or West European effort to isolate Moscow as Moscow had been isolated in the 1920s and 1930s.

And third, and most important, Bikkinin's reference to the cordon sanitaire policy of the inter-war period points to a new theme in Russian foreign policy thinking. Last year and the year before, Russian foreign policy analysts followed former Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in viewing the Russian Empire's post-Crimean War approach to the world as a model for Moscow's current and future behavior.

But now a Russian official has in effect suggested that Moscow should view the world as it did in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution, a period during which the Western powers did try to create a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world.

During that period, Western countries and especially France and Poland sought to create north-south links from the Baltic countries to the Balkans and often talked about the ties between this region and the Caucasus, which was then under Soviet control.

By restoring this image, Bikkinin implies that at least some in the Russian capital may not only be more concerned about Russian isolation in this region than they have suggested in public. Moreover, it could mean that Moscow may be thinking about using some of the same kind of policies it used during that period when it was also relatively weakened by a period of revolutionary transformation.

If that proves to be the case, it could set the stage for more Russian pressure on both sets of countries, even as Moscow now believes it has an even better reason than before for a union with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's authoritarian Belarus.