Moscow has muscled onto the world stage, refusing to blink on flashpoint issues from Ukraine to Syria. Guess who's not surprised? The onetime leaders of the former Soviet republics, who say the more Russia changes, the more it stays the same.

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Reported & Produced by RFE/RL's Anna Sous

Camera & Crew:
Mindaugas Bagdonas, Valeriy Chizhov, Liudvikas Dobrovolskis, Andrei Ganson, Aleksei Golubev, Garik Harutyunyan, Yevhen Heranin, Oleg Kaptarenko, Andrius Krisciunas, Oleh Malovytskiy, Ales Matafonov, Eduard Mzhavia, Valeri Odikadze, Anton Oleinikov, Ivo Panasyuk, Andrey Rabchik, Liutauras Strimaitis, Nikita Tatarsky, Andriy Urumov & Aleksei Zykov.

Translations:
Valeria Korchagina, Alice Lagnado, Natalia Yefimova-Trilling, Stas Kuznetsov

Editing:
Robert Coalson, Kathleen Moore, Charles Recknagel, Olga Serebryanaya, Daisy Sindelar

Post-Production:
Alexander Blumberg, Margot Buff, Harutyun Mansuryan, Siarhej Shupa, Lucie Steinzova, Petr Tetal, Andrew Wills

Code & Design:
Jan Rádl, Pangea Digital

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"A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," is how British statesman Winston Churchill once described Russia and the difficulty of predicting its behavior. But if Moscow is a puzzle to many, it seems to be less so to those who live in Russia's immediate neighborhood. They describe Russia not as unfathomable but as a powerful yet troubled state they feel they understand well.

In a series entitled Russia & Me, 12 former leaders of countries which once were Soviet republics reveal how they regard Russia and its policies. The interviews, conducted over a six-month period by Anna Sous of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, reveal feelings toward Moscow which range from anger, to pragmatism, to affection. Taken together, they offer a rare collection of insights into a Russia whose behavior under President Vladimir Putin, these leaders say, is remarkably like that of the Soviet Union.

"There is no sovereign Ukraine for (Russia's leaders), Ukraine exists as part of Russia and this is the core of their philosophy," says Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president from 1991 to 1994. He recalls how newly independent Ukraine felt intense pressure from Moscow to stay in Russia's orbit from the moment the Soviet Union dissolved, despite an accord that each post-Soviet state would be free to chart its own future.

Many of the former leaders express bitter disappointment that Putin crushed their early hopes that Russia might one day become democratic, something that once looked possible under Mikhail Gorbachev's program of perestroika and then the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.

"It was a time of hope," says Vytautas Landsbergis, who was Lithuania's first head of state after it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. "I'm sorry that the Bolshevik-style forces of vengeance and imperialism proved stronger." Like many, he remembers Yeltsin fondly. "He had honor and pride. I saw this during our negotiations, including times when his colleagues tried to sway him into acting unfairly," Lansbergis recalls. By contrast, he says for the Kremlin today "a person is worth nothing, but territory and power are valued above all."

But not all the former leaders are as critical of Moscow as that. Some say they understand Putin's efforts to keep the Soviet world effectively intact. And they blame some of the wars and crises that have resulted upon what they term an inability to negotiate with Russia.

Nino Burjanadze, who twice served as acting president of Georgia, defends Moscow's actions in annexing Crimea from Ukraine. She says "nobody doubts" the people of Crimea wanted annexation "because almost the entire population -- 90 percent -- took part" in a March 2014 referendum conducted by Crimea's pro-Moscow authorities on joining the Russian Federation.

Burjanadze's description of the referendum is patently false -- it was not monitored by independent observers, so no one knows what the real voter turnout was. But her statement illustrates the passions generated by Moscow's efforts to shape the post-Soviet world, even as she argues that the way to deal with Russia is through dialogue and identifying mutual interests. Georgia itself fought a war with Russia in 2008, a confrontation Burjanadze claims could have been averted.

Another former leader who views Russia as a country that can be worked with is Askar Akaev, the president of Kyrgyzstan from 1990 to 2005. Asked to define his own view of Russia, he replies that it is his "second motherland" because he grew up in the Soviet Union.

In a pitch-perfect echo of the Kremlin's own claims of noninvolvement in the military campaign in eastern Ukraine, Akaev asserts that "Russia is not taking part in any military conflicts, either in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world." (The interview, conducted in June 2015, predated Russian military involvement in Syria's civil war.) But his admiring view of Putin as a man who "fiercely defends Russia's sovereignty" is in itself a challenge to other world leaders to ask if they really understand what sovereignty means to the Kremlin and how it defines Russia's national interests.

Some former leaders in Russia's neighboring states say they are surprised that countries farther away from Russia often seem so mystified by Moscow. "The Americans often say to me, 'Well, tell us something about Russia – we don't understand them,'" says Guntis Ulmanis, the president of Latvia from 1993 to 1999. "But for how long can we not understand them, I ask?"

Ulmanis says "it's time to study Russian, meet with Russians," so that Western nations acquire the same knowledge of Russia its neighbors have. Only, then, he suggests, can one understand how Russia acts and how to respond.

The 12 interviews in the Russia & Me series are a step in that direction. In addition to those already mentioned, the other former leaders included in the series are Robert Kocharian, who has twice been Armenia's president; Petru Lucinschi, president of Moldova from 1996 to 2001; Rolandas Paksas, president of Lithuania from 2003 to 2004; Arnold Ruutel, president of Estonia from 2001 to 2006; Stanislau Shushkevich, Belarus's first post-Soviet leader, who was in office until 1994; Vladimir Voronin, president of Moldova from 2001 to 2009; and Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010.

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