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A New Pragmatism In The Near Abroad?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (left) exchanges signed documents with head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization Nikolai Bordyuzha at a press conference in Moscow on March 18, 2010

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (left) exchanges signed documents with head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization Nikolai Bordyuzha at a press conference in Moscow on March 18, 2010

Does Moscow's response to the Kyrgyz crisis represent a turning point in Russian foreign policy in the former Soviet space?

I have a feature-length story up on the site on this topic now. But it seems I'm not the only one who saw something new and different afoot as the Kyrgyzstan crisis unfolded.

In a blog post over at Newsweek, veteran Russia correspondent Owen Matthews notes how Moscow's reluctance to intervene in the Kyrgyz crisis marks a sharp departure from past Russian behavior in the former Soviet space:

Russia has not always been so cautious. In the early 1990s the Kremlin was eager to insert itself back into the former Soviet space by sending armies of peacekeepers to South Ossetia (to intervene in a separatist ethnic conflict); Adzharia (after it broke away from Georgia); Trans-Dniestria (after it broke away from Moldova); the border region of Karabakh (contested by both Armenians and Azerbaijanis); and Tajikistan (after a civil war where underrepresented Tajiks from the center and eastern parts of the country tried to overthrow the western-dominated government). As recently as 2008, Russia effectively annexed two breakaway provinces of Georgia after a failed attempt by Tbilisi to take control of South Ossetia.

Part of the explanation for the changed posture in Kyrgyzstan, Matthews argues, is that the Kremlin is now "playing a smarter game" with its neighbors by trying to build up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as the main guarantor of regional security. " A power grab in south Kyrgyzstan," Matthews writes, would "spook" authoritarian leaders in other CSTO member states like Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

"Instead, Moscow hastily convened a CSTO summit that promised vaguely worded 'joint action.' That could include a multinational CSTO peacekeeping force if unrest continues," Matthews wrote.

Another reason for Moscow's hesitancy, Matthews argues, is the effect of U.S. President Barack Obama's reset policy, which seems to be leading to some degree of restraint from the Kremlin:

Russia also knows that if it gets too greedy in Kyrgyzstan it would also endanger another key component of its new foreign policy—a rapprochement with the United States," Matthews wrote, adding that the Kremlin has "abandoned plans to oust the Americans from Manas [military base in Kyrgyzstan] in return for a host of geopolitical goodies , including the end of a NATO courtship for former Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia, and U.S. support for Russian accession to the World Trade Organization.

Washington and Moscow "now have a shared interest in maintaining stability in Kyrgyzstan, rather than working to undermine each other," Matthews writes.

David Ignatius also sees something new going on between Washington and Moscow. In his column in the Washington Post today, he notes the unexpected degree of coordination and cooperation throughout the crisis:

Here's the surprise: U.S. officials argue that if the violence continues, the right intervention force would be one that included Russia and other regional partners. It might be drawn from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of former Soviet republics. Or it could be a 'coalition of the willing' that included troops from Turkey, say, as well as those from Russia, Kazakhstan and other neighboring states. The United States and Russia have stayed in close touch since the crisis exploded late last week. The two countries cooperated on a presentation to United Nations officials Monday night that laid the groundwork for collective action, if it becomes necessary.

It's probably too soon to say the events of the past week mark a turning point in Russian policy or a watershed in Moscow's relations with its neighbors. Russian troops still sit just 30 kilometers from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, for example, and I am not convinced the Kremlin has tempered its desire for a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

But the new pragmatism coming from Moscow is a data point that merits attention.

-- Brian Whitmore

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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