Russia the Bully

Moscow should have no problem finding friends in its own backyard -- but instead it’s just getting lonelier. Here’s why.

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might be tempted to remind his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko when they meet this week, her country is a bit of a mess these days. Her ostensible boss, the once-adored President Viktor Yushchenko -- yes, the same guy who emerged from the Orange Revolution as a national hero a few years back -- has become the political equivalent of radioactive waste. With the national election just four months away, his popularity ratings are in the low single digits. Corruption is rife, the economy sagging.

Now, just imagine that you're the man who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." To Putin and his friends at the pinnacle of the Russian political elite this must seem like a golden opportunity -- the perfect moment to administer the coup de grâce to a shaky rival. Perhaps that's why Putin's ostensible boss, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, recently fired off a torrent of invective at the Ukrainian government that stunned onlookers in Kiev and around the former Soviet Union. The list of grievances in the Russian president's letter was long: The Ukrainians are canoodling with the Europeans behind Russia's back. They're restricting Russian language instruction in the public schools and "distorting" the historical record in Ukrainian textbooks. They're blocking access to the base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet on the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. They've kicked out innocent Russian diplomats on the scandalous pretext of spying. And, just for good measure, he also accused them of supplying weapons to the Georgians in last year's war.

On one level it seems to be working. Candidate Viktor Yanukovych, the man usually described as the "pro-Russian" candidate in the 2004 presidential locations, is now way ahead of both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko in the polls. (The most recent surveys put him with 22 percent of the vote, while Tymoshenko comes second with 11 percent.) When the Moscow-based Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I came for a visit at the end of July, he was mobbed by adoring believers around the country -- and also made a point of allowing Yanukovych to bask in his reflected glory. Meanwhile, Ukrainian approval of NATO remains weak. A majority of Ukrainians consistently express greater distrust of the United States than of Russia.

As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might be tempted to remind his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko when they meet this week, her country is a bit of a mess these days. Her ostensible boss, the once-adored President Viktor Yushchenko — yes, the same guy who emerged from the Orange Revolution as a national hero a few years back — has become the political equivalent of radioactive waste. With the national election just four months away, his popularity ratings are in the low single digits. Corruption is rife, the economy sagging.

Now, just imagine that you’re the man who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." To Putin and his friends at the pinnacle of the Russian political elite this must seem like a golden opportunity — the perfect moment to administer the coup de grâce to a shaky rival. Perhaps that’s why Putin’s ostensible boss, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, recently fired off a torrent of invective at the Ukrainian government that stunned onlookers in Kiev and around the former Soviet Union. The list of grievances in the Russian president’s letter was long: The Ukrainians are canoodling with the Europeans behind Russia’s back. They’re restricting Russian language instruction in the public schools and "distorting" the historical record in Ukrainian textbooks. They’re blocking access to the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. They’ve kicked out innocent Russian diplomats on the scandalous pretext of spying. And, just for good measure, he also accused them of supplying weapons to the Georgians in last year’s war.

On one level it seems to be working. Candidate Viktor Yanukovych, the man usually described as the "pro-Russian" candidate in the 2004 presidential locations, is now way ahead of both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko in the polls. (The most recent surveys put him with 22 percent of the vote, while Tymoshenko comes second with 11 percent.) When the Moscow-based Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I came for a visit at the end of July, he was mobbed by adoring believers around the country — and also made a point of allowing Yanukovych to bask in his reflected glory. Meanwhile, Ukrainian approval of NATO remains weak. A majority of Ukrainians consistently express greater distrust of the United States than of Russia.

So why isn’t this a Russian success story? Because, at the same time, the idea of Ukrainian independence is going strong. The same polls that show all those encouraging sentiments about Russia also underline the point that Ukrainians — even those who live in regions ethnically and geographically close to Russia — are less inclined than ever give up their own state or their own policies. For example, one recent survey showed that 70.2 percent of Ukrainians had a favorable view of Russians — but that only one in 10 of them wanted closer relations with Moscow. A mere 13.7 percent supported the idea of formulating joint foreign policy with the Russians, and only 9.3 percent liked the idea of a common currency. As a result, say some analysts, if Moscow’s preferred candidate Yanukovych wins the presidential election in January 2010, his actual policies may turn out to be considerably less pro-Russian than the cliché would have it — since, once in office, he’ll be the defender of Ukrainian sovereignty.

"Yanukovych isn’t quite the toady that his opponents make him out to be," notes Alexander Motyl, a Ukraine expert at Rutgers University. "I’d bet that he, like every Ukrainian president and PM since 1991, would adopt a moderately pro-Ukrainian and semi-pro-Russian position." If the object of the Kremlin’s policies is to drive Ukraine back into the arms of Mother Russia, so far it’s not working.

Ever since the Soviet Union broke up at the end of 1991, Russia has been trying hard to reassert its influence over the other ex-Soviet republics — countries the Russians often refer to in the aggregate as "the near abroad." Over the years this effort has become an increasingly frustrating one for Moscow, which is deeply concerned about the rising power (both real and imagined) of regional rivals like the United States, Western Europe, and China. Yet so far, despite its myriad advantages, the Kremlin has surprisingly little to show for its pains. Somehow the Russians still have trouble getting traction in their own backyard.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a persistent myth that the republics of the former Soviet Union are inherently and fanatically anti-Russian, always ready to choose the path that doesn’t have Moscow on it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Polls consistently show that people even in countries where tensions with Russia are high – like Ukraine and Georgia – actually want more cooperation with Russia, not less. Most surveys also show that non-Russian ex-Soviets want to maintain linguistic, cultural and religious ties with Russia wherever possible. Militaries across the region still share weaponry, training, and doctrine with Russia. And, of course, there remains a thick web of economic and trade ties between Russia and the post-Soviet states — especially when it comes to energy. A number of countries (including Georgia) depend to a remarkable degree on remittances transferred home from citizens working in Russia. (One recent study by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, for example, found that in some ex-Soviet states these flows exceed bank deposits or foreign direct investment — and most of that money is coming from Russia.) Yet Moscow has somehow done a persistently miserable job of transforming all of these potential advantages into good relations with its neighbors — as even Russian scholars have sometimes seen fit to observe.

Moscow’s tensions with the Baltic Republics, Georgia, and now, increasingly, Ukraine have already become the stuff of headlines. But it may be some of the stories that haven’t been getting much publicity that are the most instructive. Take, for example, Belarus, the country of 10 million people sandwiched between Russia and Poland and run by the redoubtable dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Lukashenka has been president since 1994, and for almost that entire time his country’s closeness to Russia has been unsurpassed by any other country in the region; for years the two countries have seriously discussed the possibility of outright legal and economic "union." Yet over the past year Belarus has staged a remarkable reversal. Lukashenka ostentatiously discarded a set of senior officials identified with his years of human rights abuses and made dramatic overtures to the European Union.

The reasons for the shift are straightforward. "After almost two decades of formal independence Belarus is gradually becoming truly independent," says Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. "It’s drifting away from Russia." Energy is a big part of the equation. Its supplies of oil and natural gas have long been generously subsidized by Moscow, but Minsk hasn’t failed to notice that Russia has been working hard to strike deals with other countries to build new transit pipelines that would bypass Belarus. "Lukashenka sees that the days of cheap energy are over," notes Moshes. And with that the prospect of closer economic and cultural ties to Europe suddenly begins to look much more enticing. The fact that Belarus is populated almost entirely by Russian-speakers, it turns out, is not enough to outweigh the relative attractions of the West.

Of course, one more recent event has probably helped to concentrate minds in the region as well — Russia’s small but victorious war with Georgia one year ago. For the past year the Kremlin has been busily lobbying members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the club of ex-Soviet republics with the closest ties to Russia, to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Russian-backed mini-states inside Georgia. Yet so far takers have been notably absent — even among the authoritarian states of Central Asia, traditionally among Moscow’s most stalwart backers. (The one country in the world aside from Russia that’s been willing to extend recognition to the two statelets? Nicaragua.)

The case of one of Russia’s other closest allies within the ex-Soviet club is equally instructive. Islam Karimov, the dictator of Uzbekistan, gave Moscow a jolt recently by announcing that his country wouldn’t be taking part in exercises of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a security grouping that includes several Commonwealth countries. Karimov has also pulled his country out of a recent economic bloc, refused to participate in exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings together Russia, China, and the Central Asian republics, and even allowed the U.S. military to use Uzbek facilities to transport supplies into Afghanistan (this after kicking the U.S. out of key bases in his country a few years back). Russia also recently signed a deal with adjacent Kyrgyzstan that will allow it to base forces in the strategically sensitive Ferghana Valley — but without consulting the perennially paranoid Uzbeks, a typically ham-handed gesture Karimov is not likely to forgive any time soon.

Russia’s ability to get in its own way remains a cause for much head-scratching in the region. "When they tried to stop NATO enlargement, whom did they discuss it with? The United States and Germany," notes Kadri Liik, Director of the International Center for Defense Studies in Tallinn, Estonia. "But in fact the biggest driving force of NATO enlargement [was] the countries themselves. Russia tried to discuss these countries over their heads, and it backfired."

Something comparable is now happening again with energy. Moscow’s apparent willingness to use energy supplies in its political disputes with some of its neighbors is now driving the European Union to seek greater diversification of supply and alternate pipeline routes. "Russia uses coercion more than attraction," says Moshes, the Helsinki-based analyst.

So is this just a symptom of poor policymaking — or an expression of a deeper problem? Some worry that this tendency is deeply rooted in the present authoritarian government in Moscow — one whose intense nationalism demands the constant search for enemies, external and internal, to legitimize its own actions. "That kind of regime cannot by definition enjoy ‘normal’ relations with its neighbors," notes Motyl, the Rutgers professor. Whatever the reason, one can only hope that Russia is able to find a way back to healthy relations with its former satellites — for its own sake, one might add, as much as theirs.

Twitter: @ccaryl

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