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Moscow, Washington, And The 'Near Abroad'


President Dmitry Medvedev (left) welcomes his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych to Moscow in March.

President Dmitry Medvedev (left) welcomes his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych to Moscow in March.

Last week, I blogged here about a new Foreign Ministry policy paper that was leaked to the media calling for Russia to improve its relations with the West in order to secure badly needed investments for its modernization program.

In addition to encouraging "alliances of modernization" with the United States and the European Union, the document also presages a fairly assertive Russian foreign policy in the former Soviet space. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the influential "Russia In Global Affairs," noted this in a recent commentary published in "The Moscow Times":

The West is not the only focus of the document. It puts particular importance on integrating the economies of the former Soviet republics, opposing attempts by forces outside the region to weaken Russia and using the crisis to extend its economic influence into the Baltic states 'given the sharp fall in their investment attractiveness for the EU states and the serious drop in value of their assets.' In addition, the document takes a firm stance on Russia's strategic interest in the Arctic and on 'limiting access to the Arctic by players from outside the region, including NATO and the European Union.'

So what is going on here? Moscow is seeking to forge closer ties with the West while at the same time extending its influence in places like Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states. Is the West -- and particularly the United States -- on board with this?

Writing in Gazeta.ru, political analyst Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center seems to think so. A key signal, Ryabov writes, was the mute response from the United States following Moscow's recent agreements with Ukraine:

The moment of truth was the signing of the Kharkiv agreements with Ukraine on deliveries of gas and on extension of the presence of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Washington had no reaction to these shifts, considering them to be the domestic matter of Ukraine.

Ryabov argues that the Kremlin is hoping to use the changing geopolitical environment to do two things: secure the long-term stability of the existing political status quo in Russia and then spread that model of "managed democracy" as much as possible in the former Soviet area:

Moscow, it seems, has come (or will soon come) to the truly revolutionary conclusion that, while during the past decade, a rapprochement with the West posed a potential threat to the social order that had been formed in Russia, under the new conditions, on the contrary, it is becoming an important resource for maintaining and strengthening it.

He compares the situation with the way the United States and Great Britain dealt with the petrol states of the Middle East in the 1970s and 1980s:

If we use historic parallels, which are always conditional...this situation is somewhat similar to agreements in the 1960s and 1970s between the U.S. and Great Britain, on one hand, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, on the other. In exchange for reliable deliveries of oil to the West and firm opposition to attempts at Soviet political and ideological penetration into this strategically important region of the world, the Arab sheiks received cart blanche to retain their medieval domestic political orders.

Ryabov also sees the Kharkiv agreements as a model for the future spread of Russian influence:

Today, the discussion centers around the possible domestic political consequences for the entire post-soviet area. The Kharkiv agreements may become the models for all of the CIS. They have shown that conditions are being created for engaging the mechanisms of mutual support of the post-Soviet elite, who are not interested in continuing systematic market and democratic reforms, but are oriented toward strengthening the present-day social orders.

And the trade-off is that Russia plays ball with Washington on key issues like Iran's nuclear program (which they have been doing of late to a degree that I did not expect):
It signifies the desire of the post-Soviet elite to get involved in obtaining various borrowed Western resources, in participating in programs for aid and development, but without any obligations on changing the post-Soviet order, with retention of their present-day clan arrangements [and] corruption...To a certain degree, this is a different wording of the famous Russian message to the West: Take us such as we are, and we will be reliable partners.

The U.S. administration, from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on down have persistently argued that they would never agree to granting Moscow an exclusive sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

But the arrangement Ryabov describes (and I consider him to be one of the smartest political analysts in Moscow), looks a lot like a budding de facto sphere of influence to me. The question is less whether the West will give the green light and more whether Russia can pull this off.

The strengthening of a pro-Moscow "managed democracy" certainly appears to be what is happening in Ukraine since Viktor Yanukovych came to power. Questions remain, however, whether Ukrainian society -- roughly half of which wants to see the country integrated into the West -- will tolerate it indefinitely.

And Georgia, where anti-Moscow sentiments run high in both the elite and in society, will be even less likely to tolerate such an arrangement (even as President Mikhail Saakashvili and his inner circle appear to be moving closer and closer to their own form of managed democracy every day).

Elsewhere, countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan -- both managed democracies -- have throughout the post-Soviet period sought to position themselves squarely between Moscow and Washington, and will likely continue to do so.

As assertive as Russia becomes in its neighborhood, the West will always be there as an alternative. And even as the high intensity struggle for influence that characterized the past decade in places like Ukraine and Georgia recedes with the reset, it will likely be replaced by a more low-intensity competition.

And as Ryabov points out, the model that Russia is hoping to spread in the region as the source of its dominance is inherently unstable:

The unwillingness of the ruling elite to give up even a tiny bit of their riches for the sake of preserving stability poses a threat. This leads to the unjustified growth of tariffs, the desire to invent new taxes, and to reduce expenditures for budget recipients. When everything is calm in society, there is an imprudent desire to squeeze even more out of it. It is these situations of becoming 'dizzy with success' that are potentially dangerous.

I'll be traveling to Georgia next week and, among other things, plan to blog from there about how these issues look from Tbilisi's perspective. Stay tuned.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

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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