Until only recently, the territory of the former Soviet Union appeared to be a vast geopolitical battlefield on which major world powers fought it out for the choicest “trophies.” Today, everything has changed. Almost every major power has run up against its own dire economic and political problems. This has made them too preoccupied with resolving their own problems to pay much attention to what is happening on former Soviet soil. That, in turn, has opened up an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate its leadership potential. But is Russia capable of taking advantage of these newfound opportunities?
It is as if the situation has reverted to what it was in the early 1990s. Then, amid the chaos and confusion of the Soviet breakup, there were few world powers desirous of getting involved in the murky politics of the newly independent states. The major powers only began taking a real interest in the region — and, consequently, began competing with one another — toward the end of the 1990s, when the situation gained some clarity and a degree of stability had spread throughout the region. During the initial and riskiest phase of the early 1990s, Moscow was the only power compelled to participate in events in its neighborhood. This was partly due to inertia from having just functioned as the region’s center, and partly because Moscow was unable to isolate itself from the turbulent events occurring in its former outlying territories.
Russian policy during those years was far from ideal. At the same time, Russia undeniably contributed to the emergence of new states and, in some cases, played a key role as a stabilizing force. Only later did the world’s major players — the United States, the European Union and China — begin to develop plans of their own regarding the former Soviet republics.
That stage appears to have ended now. The United States has reassessed its priorities, focusing more on South and East Asia and the Pacific Rim than on the former Soviet republics. Washington’s days-long silence over the unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan speaks volumes. After all, Central Asia is directly linked to the situation in Afghanistan and the surrounding area. As for the EU, in its current configuration, it does not qualify as a world player. Even EU regional projects such as its Eastern Partnership, which seemed so promising only 18 months ago, have been largely forgotten. China looks to its neighbors as a means for achieving its own economic goals, and Beijing has expressed no interest in taking responsibility for the region.
Now Turkey has shown itself to be a new and ambitious factor in the equation. But Ankara will need time to develop an independent strategy.
New opportunities have opened before Russia, which has long sought recognition for what it calls its zone of “privileged interest” in the region. For example, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s dramatic rapprochement with Russia can be explained not by any deep-seated love for Moscow but because he has nowhere else to turn. After paying his first official visit abroad to Brussels, Yanukovych understood that he could expect nothing substantial from the EU and was left with no alternative but to cut a deal with the Kremlin.
But an even greater lack of alternatives was seen last week in Kyrgyzstan. Just as in the 1990s, there was no world power except Russia that could assume the responsibility for putting out the international fire that had broken out there.
But how prepared is Moscow to take action?
Despite the presence of military bases belonging to Russia and the United States, Central Asia lacks any security institutions. Over the course of many years, the Collective Security Treaty Organization has remained little more than a “club of Russia’s friends” that functioned merely as a symbolic counterweight to NATO. Now, however, there is an urgent need for the CSTO to play a role as a capable military and political alliance. In 2009, Moscow started to undertake measures to transform the organization, but it was too late. Member states Belarus and Armenia have no interest in taking part in events that do not directly concern them. What’s more, the CSTO lacks any clear rules or scenarios to govern its actions, and even more important, there is a high level of mistrust between the member states. Most of those states understand the need to stop the chaos in Kyrgyzstan, but they are terribly afraid to set a precedent of interfering in the internal affairs of a partner state. This is especially true considering that in Bishkek itself, the interim authorities do not have legitimacy, and to respond to their call for bringing in peacekeepers would mean supporting one side of the sectarian conflict.
Russia could act independently, following the example set by France in Africa, especially in the 1960s and 1980s. But it lacks a legal basis for doing so. Paris had concluded bilateral agreements with African countries that stipulated — either officially or secretly — the conditions and forms of French intervention if required. Moscow has no such treaties. For Russia to send peacekeepers to Kyrgyzstan, it would need if not a formal mandate then at the very least the consent of its main neighbors in the region, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Without that, Russian troops could be drawn into not only a civil war but an interstate war.
It is also worth asking whether Russia even has professionally trained units that could play a peacekeeping role in such a delicate and dangerous situation. That role would have to be completely different than the “peace enforcement” role Russian troops carried out in Georgia in 2008.
The post-Soviet world is entering a dangerous new phase. The former Soviet republics have been left to cope with their problems by themselves. The regional efforts that various world powers tried to launch for various reasons in the 2000s did not work. Now it even sounds odd to speak of Russia having a zone of “privileged interests.” If anything, Russia has a “zone of responsibility.” The former Soviet republics have been left to cope with their problems by themselves. If Moscow does not find a way to respond to challenges such as Kyrgyzstan, any later claims it might make to a special role in the region will be unconvincing. It is also unlikely that any other world powers will express a desire to assume the heavy burden of responsibility for the region.