26.03.2021
Russia and Its Near Abroad: Challenges and Prospects
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Zhao Huasheng

Professor, The Institute for International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai.

Moscow’s greatest success in the near abroad will be the transformation of the region into a real strategic resource, and its biggest failure will be its transformation into a strategic burden for Russia.

The Near Abroad, a term used to denote the countries of the former USSR, is an exclusively Russian concept, a legacy that Moscow inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whether it wants it or not, Russia cannot but accept its imperial heritage.

It is widely known that Russia has a particularly significant influence over the countries of the near abroad, but little attention is usually paid to the role of this region in Russian foreign policy. In fact, the influence of the near abroad on Russian diplomacy is very significant. This region, to a certain extent, defines the structure of Russian diplomacy, determines its goals, influences diplomatic thought, and is a point of confrontation between Russia and the US/West.

The near abroad is not only a strategic resource for Moscow, but under unfavourable circumstances it is also a burden.

It can be both a strategic starting point for Russian foreign policy and serve as a strategic deterrent for Russia.

 

The near abroad in the genesis of Russian diplomacy

 

The near abroad is a key factor in shaping the structure of Russian diplomacy. In the hierarchy of Russian diplomacy, the near abroad ranks highest; this reflects the formative role of these countries in Russian diplomacy. In recent years, the near abroad has remained the centre of attention and a priority area of Russian diplomacy, which is reflected in the annual review of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s activities. In fact, each country cannot but pay a lot of attention to its border and neighbouring countries, and many states have their own concepts of interaction with surrounding countries, but Russia’s relations with its neighbouring countries have obvious differences. All countries attach increased importance to relations with neighbouring states, but for Moscow relations with neighbouring countries are not only of paramount importance, but also have their own peculiarities; these relations take on a specific nature for Russia, which considers the region special. Although Russian officials often say that Moscow does not want to create spheres of influence, any emergence of other great powers in this region evokes a very sensitive and complex reaction from Russia.

These countries are important for the Kremlin, not only from the point of view of political, economic or security interests, but in the historical, cultural and humanitarian respects.

Moscow is also pursuing a policy in the near abroad that differs from its approach to relations with neighbouring countries in general.

Russian diplomacy is also faced with the long-term task of restoring and maintaining special political, military, economic and cultural ties with this region. From the 1990s to the present day, this has always been Moscow’s unchanging goal, determining its relations both in bilateral relations with other states and regional policy in general. Various forms of bilateral and multilateral relations have revolved around these goals. Russia has tirelessly promoted regional integration in its near abroad, including the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Customs Union, the Eurasian Economic Community, and later the Eurasian Economic Union, the Union with Belarus, and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Although this path was both arduous and tortuous, Moscow never gave up. In a sense, this is also a consequence of Russia’s perception of the near abroad as a special region.

A considerable number of acute and complex developments have been happening in Russia’s near abroad. We can say that since Russia’s independence, most of the serious challenges it has faced have emerged from this region. They include both the problems arising from Russia’s relations with the near abroad, and the problems arising from the relationship between these countries, as well as the internal problems of each individual country: Transnistria, relations between the Baltic countries and Russia, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the confrontation between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the problem of Crimea, the crisis in Eastern Ukraine and other similar problems are long-standing and intractable. In addition, from time to time, emergencies occur, such as the permanent instability of the political system in Kyrgyzstan, the serious ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the military conflict in South Ossetia with Georgia in 2008, colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, protests in Belarus in 2020 etc. act as a huge and complex source of problems and crises, which take up an enormous amount of resources and energy spent on Russian diplomacy and, to a certain extent, ties its hands.

In the post-Cold War era, many new hotbeds of conflict and contradictions between Russia and the West have emerged in the near abroad. After the admission of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states into NATO, the expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance to the east and the integration programmes of the European Union began to affect the borders of Russia and its interests. And if Russia endured the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea with difficulty, it considers NATO’s further encroachment into its near abroad completely unacceptable. The deployment of US military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has caused on-and-off friction between Russia and the US for 13 years. In the past few years, conflicts between Russia and the West in the near abroad have continued. The most serious of these were the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, the Ukraine crisis that erupted in 2014, and the subsequent issue of Crimea and the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. In the course of these events, Russia and the West experienced an intensification of conflicts, which led to the atmosphere of the Cold War. The West imposed large-scale sanctions on Russia and their relationship fell into a deep crisis.

 

Future challenges remain serious

 

Russia has achieved significant achievements in the near abroad, and Moscow’s relations with most of the post-Soviet countries have been maintained and developed. Russia’s authority and influence in Central Asia is growing. This is especially reflected in the improvement of relations with Uzbekistan. The CSTO remains stable and the EAEU continues to develop, as it moves towards the implementation of the goal set for 2025 to create a common market for goods, services, capital and labour. Russia successfully mediated in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and helped Belarus to stabilise its regime. However, the future challenges for Russia in the near abroad are still formidable and could become increasingly serious.

The problem of hot spots in the near abroad cannot be resolved in the short term. This is especially true of the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh problem, the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, diplomatic conflicts around Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. These conflict issues in the near abroad, and the division and confrontation they cause, will become sources of great regional upheaval. In addition, some neighbouring countries suffer from serious internal problems, political instability, economic backwardness and acute social problems that could lead to political and social instability.

NATO’s presence in the near abroad is likely to grow further, primarily in the Baltic Sea region, the Black Sea region and the Caucasus. This will turn the near abroad into a battleground for a new Cold War between Russia and the West. The security position of Moscow will worsen and Russia’s sense of insecurity will increase, which may lead to new contradictions and conflicts.

If we consider Russia as the starting point for processes in this region, then the trends in the near abroad are such that the growth of centrifugal forces outstrips the growth of centripetal forces.

This means that the cohesion around Moscow as a centre is in relative decline, while the attractiveness of external centres of power, in particular Europe and the United States, is relatively increasing.

Georgia and Ukraine have already chosen the West in the rivalry between Russia and the West. In other neighbouring countries, the European and American influence is becoming more visible in their multifaceted diplomacy. Moldova has shifted to the West, and Azerbaijan is increasingly attracted by Turkey. Armenia is Russia’s traditional ally, but Armenia’s current government is also showing signs of a shift towards Europe. Meanwhile, the deeper the integration processes of the near abroad, the more complicated the situation around them will be. Since its creation in 1997, the Russian-Belarusian Union State has not achieved its original goal of creating an integrated union. With the growth of opposition forces in Belarus, the prospects for an alliance are becoming ever dimmer. In the near abroad, apart from Central Asia, the Eurasian Economic Union has few opportunities for further enlargement, and the development of deeper, all-embracing, EU-style integration is not on the agenda. In this regard, there is a potential gap between the approaches of Russia and the countries of the near abroad. Moscow’s regional partners are more cautious about the transfer of sovereignty and independence and keep their distance from political integration. When the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union comes to this point, the gap in understanding of integration between Russia and its closest and foreign partners will become evident.

 

Possible options for Russia

 

Moscow’s greatest success in the near abroad will be the transformation of the region into a real strategic resource, and its biggest failure will be its transformation into a strategic burden for Russia. Given the situation inside and outside the region, the Russian leadership will obviously find it extremely difficult to cope with this task and achieve its maximum goal. In the near abroad, it remains difficult for the Kremlin to score points, but it is easy to lose them. Since Russia has traditionally had the greatest influence in this region, we can say that it is a “conservative” in the near abroad. Consequently, any success of Russian diplomacy lies only in the restoration or maintenance of the original influence, and any failure means the loss of this original influence. It is important for Russia to avoid turning the near abroad into a strategically restraining factor limiting Moscow’s diplomatic activities in the international arena and to prevent the West from using the near abroad as a low-cost way to increase pressure on Russia.

In order to achieve great success in the near abroad, Russia needs to engage not only in foreign policy, but also in its own development.

Historically, Russia’s influence in the near abroad was due not only to its strong military power, but also to its comparatively high level of development, as well as the attractiveness of its culture and way of life. Ultimately, this should serve as the basis for Russia preserving and developing its influence in the near abroad. The countries of the near abroad are largely similar to Russia in their political, economic and social order and structure. State transformations and the development of Russia have had a visible impact on the near abroad. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many republics consciously or unconsciously borrowed from Russia the image and structure of state administration. The question is whether Russia is able to restore and maintain this influence in the future. The key lies in whether the former metropolis is able to develop its society in a progressive direction, to ensure the vitality in the economy, and its social culture and way of life will make Russia attractive for the neighbours.

Economic ties are very important, but economic ties are not an absolute guarantee of a strategic partnership. This is fully demonstrated by the examples of Georgia and Ukraine. While Russia is their largest trading partner, that hasn’t stopped them from turning to the West and getting into a conflict with Moscow. They even decided to pay an economic price for this. On the other hand, even if some close and foreign countries sever their political relations with the Kremlin, Russia will still remain their largest or main trading partner, as, for example, happened with Ukraine. Although political relations and economic relations are closely intertwined, they are not always synchronised, and political relations are often more critical for interstate relations. This means that in terms of foreign policy, it cannot be assumed that economic ties will automatically bring neighbouring countries closer to Russia. Therefore, only the coordination of economic and political relations can provide a reliable guarantee.

Relations between the inhabitants of Russia and the former Soviet republics are also an irreplaceable and important factor; this is the basis of public opinion for the development of good-neighbourly relations. A large number of examples show that when conflicts arise between Russia and the West in the near abroad, the sympathy and support of the local populace usually wins. External influence is also usually based on internal circumstances. Even for official interstate relations, public opinion is a very important basis. Especially in the age of the Internet, public opinion can spread rapidly and grow in various forms, and its impact on foreign policy and relations with the state is unprecedented. Thus, the ability to maintain the friendship of peoples and maintain the benevolence in neighbouring foreign countries towards Russia remains an important factor in whether Russia is able to maintain its influence in the future.

It should be noted that the diversified development of the near abroad is a natural trend that requires an objective understanding. The countries of the near abroad have reasonable and rational needs for diversified development, while political, economic, cultural, religious and geographical conditions have also contribute to their development in various directions, including Europe, Asia Minor, the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean. The world and its regions are changing. In the near abroad, a younger generation of elites is growing up, their “post-Soviet” consciousness is weakening, and a national and independent consciousness is becoming stronger. Their cultural and civilised self-identity will strengthen, so that the degree of openness of the near abroad to the outside world will inevitably grow. It is already impossible to restore their orientation to only one centre.

The ideal plan for Russia is to form an inclusive development community from the near abroad and other neighbouring states.

The Great Eurasian Partnership proposed by Russia reflects this idea. In this respect, Russian-European relations are especially important. Europe is also an important neighbour and close partner of many post-Soviet countries. It has natural economic and political attractiveness and geographical advantages for neighbouring countries of the near abroad. It would be preferable for Moscow if Europe could be integrated into the Greater Eurasian Partnership or, in another similar trans-Eurasian cooperation. This would form such a large-scale framework that would cover Europe, Russia and the countries of Asia, including, of course, the near abroad. Thus, through cooperation, it could solve, to a certain extent, the problems of Russia in the near abroad. But, unfortunately, the current state of Russian-European relations provides little hope for such an option for the region’s development.

Regarding Russia and its role in the region, it is clear that Moscow and its neighbouring countries need each other. However, Russia is a great power with a large economy and opportunities, and the neighbouring countries are more interested in it. Both for historical reasons and for real conditions, Russia is indispensable for the neighbouring countries in the political, economic, humanitarian and security spheres. The countries of the near abroad cannot but do business with Russia, and they cannot but pay special attention to Russia; they simply cannot ignore its existence.

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