Following the tumultuous events in the Caucasus, the struggle for
influence in the former Soviet republics has turned into an open
confrontation. Moscow has clearly articulated its policy toward its
neighbors, calling those regions Russia’s exclusive sphere of
influence. By trying to create its own geographical sphere of
influence, Moscow is essentially pushing for a multipolar world —
a global system of competing power centers with each attempting to
strengthen and extend its reach.
The very idea of establishing an exclusive sphere of influence
is inherently confrontational since Russia’s international partners
would never agree to such a model. Western politicians’
oft-repeated refrain is that it is inadmissible to apply
19th-century principles in the 21st century. At the outbreak of the
current crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said
Washington would not allow Moscow to achieve its strategic goals.
Of course, the United States does not consider its own goals to be
a return to the 19th century. After all, it does not have a
regional sphere of influence in the classic sense. Its interests
encompass the whole world.
The European Union categorically rejects the rhetoric likening
current events to the epoch of the Great Game, insisting that
modern international relations are built upon a different
foundation. But that has not stopped the EU from attempting to
expand its model on its neighbors. Thus, the EU is effectively
increasing its own exclusive sphere of influence.
China is the third major participant in post-Soviet politics.
Beijing views any discussion of spheres of influence as being
attributes of Western — including Russian — colonialism,
characterized by contemptuous and arrogant attitudes toward others.
This is why it would be futile to expect China to support Russia’s
new course. Beijing portrays its own ambitions for expansion in
terms of a desire for global harmony. In practice, this means the
steady promotion of China’s economic interests wherever and
whenever possible. Central Asia is the region in which both Beijing
and Moscow have strong interests. This region is the most valuable
chunk of the post-Soviet landscape. Its huge energy deposits make
it the choice prize in the larger geopolitical standoff.
It is not difficult to imagine that Central Asia could become
the focal point for future conflicts.
Russia is taking active diplomatic strides in the Transdnestr
territorial problem. The Kremlin wants to prove that it can resolve
crises through diplomacy and not only through military force.
In all likelihood, Moscow’s terms for resolving that situation
will involve neutralizing Moldova by forbidding it to join NATO and
insisting that Russia maintain a military presence on its
territory. It is hard to imagine that Washington would simply sit
and twiddle its thumbs were such a resolution imminent. If the
United States and Europe were unhappy with that possibility in
2003, they would hardly agree to it now, especially given the
prevailing competition for influence in the region.
If the United States and the EU do step in and disrupt the
agreement again, it will prove that their motivation is not to
preserve Moldova’s territorial integrity, but to prevent Chisinau
from falling under Moscow’s sphere of influence.
But Russia’s frustration at seeing its efforts derailed for a
second time could complicate the situation. Of course, recognition
of Transdnestr’s independence is not likely to be in the offing. In
that case, it is unclear what to do with the territory Ukraine
rudely severed from Russia, and any resolution of the conflict
would remain only a theoretical possibility.
Belarus is the second object of potential rivalry. The more the
East-West conflict heats up, the more important Minsk becomes. For
Russia, Minsk is the only exception to the number of ill-wishers
that flank its western border. For Brussels and Washington, Minsk
represents an opportunity to snatch from Moscow its ally.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is a master at squeezing
an advantage out of any situation and now a huge opportunity has
opened before him.
From the West, the Belarussian leader wants official recognition
of the legitimacy of his upcoming parliamentary elections, a
thawing in political relations with the United States and greater
contacts with the EU. From Moscow, it wants natural gas discounts
and, if possible, other economic perks.
Lukashenko has already made conciliatory gestures toward the
West by releasing political prisoners — including presidential
candidate Alexander Kozulin — and relaxed restrictions against the
opposition during the election campaign.
Belarus will probably offer Russia military cooperation and
joint opposition to NATO — for a price, naturally. Judging from
the evasive language Minsk has used in describing its position in
relation to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is not planning to
recognize their independence. But rejecting such a possibility
outright is also not in its best interests.
The West has already indicated that it is willing to be
flexible. Washington anticipates a more democratic Belarus emerging
and does not rule out repealing sanctions against the country’s
leadership. For now, sanctions have been lifted from two Belarus
firms. The EU is likely to follow suit.
The third possible cause of disagreement concerns Georgia’s
neighbors in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan is walking a fine line,
exhibiting its readiness to cooperate with everyone, but being
careful not to move too close to any one particular partner.
Yerevan finds itself in a difficult position because of the
Russia-Georgia conflict and not only because its oil pipeline
passes through Georgian territory. Armenia worries that Moscow will
require more concrete forms of support from fellow Collective
Security Treaty Organization member countries. But if Yerevan were
to spoil its relationship with Georgia — an important economic
partner and home to a significant Armenian population — it would
become more hopelessly isolated. At the same time, upsetting Russia
could be dangerous because a great deal is riding on that
relationship, including the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
A possible breakthrough in the impasse between Yerevan and
Ankara could change the situation. In this scenario, Turkey would
become an independent regional power with interests that often
differ from the United States and the rest of Europe. That would
open up additional opportunities for Russia, but could also
intensify existing rivalries.
I have purposely avoided mentioning Ukraine. Nobody denies that
Ukraine will be the main battleground in the impending geopolitical
confrontation. The situation there is fraught with the possibility
of wide-scale destabilization and intervention by foreign powers.
The entire post-Soviet landscape increasingly resembles a minefield
where the slightest sudden movement could lead to yet another