Fundamental changes have occurred in Russian foreign policy. Moscow finally left the Western orbit and set out in "free flight." The Russian leadership is convinced that Russia's energy resources make it a truly "indispensable country" for the world economy, and therefore for (world) politics. In the idea of a "great energy power" the conceptual accent falls on the last word. The Kremlin set a goal of Russia's restoration in the capacity of one of the global centers of power. Encouraged by phenomenal personal success, Russian leaders set the most ambitious of goals: to turn Gazprom into a leading world company; to concentrate control over the most profitable sectors of the economy in the hands of a Russia corporation controlled by them; and so forth.
The new foreign policy also has a geopolitical aspect. A great power needs corresponding surroundings (client states). In the last three years the Kremlin's main attention has been focused on the post-Soviet space. Russia set about a single-minded advancement of its interests and influence in this space. From the politics of a position of weakness Russia switched to reliance on its own, primarily economic, strength. A frank expansion of capital replaced an imitation of integration; subsidies and barter gave way to market relations; a grumbling retreat under an onslaught of western and eastern competitors is being replaced by counterattacks in individual areas, and, possibly, preparation for a general counterassault. What is occurring is not a return to the imperial politics of the Tsarist or Soviet type, but the establishment of post-imperial relations in the area that the Kremlin identifies as the sphere of predominant interests of the Russian Federation.
Today this area is torn apart, and the vectors of the states within it are headed in different directions. The loose and internally unstable Alliance of Democratic Choice consisting of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova is oriented toward the USA and the EU. Azerbaijan, located simultaneously in the gravitational spheres of the West and Russia, is more or less successfully maneuvering between Moscow and Washington. Turkmenistan, isolated from the world by its leader, holds itself apart but depends on the direction of the threads of the Central Asia-Center gas pipeline. Of the 11 countries of the CIS, Russia has five formal allies, belonging to the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Community -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In November 2005 Russia concluded an alliance treaty with Uzbekistan.
In spite of the frequently drawn comparisons, the CSTO and EAEC are not like the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Economic Mutual Assistance. In the new alliances there is no commonality of ideology, sense of common threat, nor, in most cases, of a common destiny. Pragmatic considerations dominate, and there is no strict discipline. The organizations themselves are in the stage of formation. Their final form and membership are not clear. One thing is striking: talk in the CSTO and EAEC is not so much about multilateral relations as about several pairs of bilateral relations with Russia. What, though, is the basis for the pro-Moscow orientation of these five or six new states? How firm is it? What is the outlook for a Russian center of power?
Pragmatism and the logic of clans
After the color revolutions a stereotype proliferated, according to which democratically oriented societies strive to break free from Russian guardianship, whereas reactionary, authoritarian regimes, on the contrary, cling to the Kremlin. This is a simplification and (not always sincere) distortion of reality. First of all, not one of the post-Soviet states is a democracy. Real power everywhere belongs to elite clans, acting on narrow, selfish interests. Second, authoritarian regimes do not necessarily run to Moscow.
For the Russian leadership the issue of the nature of the political regime in neighboring states is not a matter of principle. Moscow is not at all concerned with pulling together an "authoritarian international." Lukashenka for the Kremlin is a constant headache for which there is no medicine. Karimov until recently distanced himself from Moscow in all sorts of ways. Turkmenbashi is impenetrable and unpredictable. Not one of the leaders (of the six allied states) can be considered 100% pro-Moscow. Furthermore, leaders aren't eternal, and their exit is rife with uncertainty. As for democracy as such, Russian rulers have a skeptical attitude to it, considering democratic slogans a cover for concrete and usually self-interested goals. So not only in theory but in practice Russia is fully capable of getting along with the young democracies, if they will be loyal to Russia's requirements. Until Saakashvili began the campaign against South Ossetia, his relations with Putin were developing quite positively. After the failure in the Ukrainian 2004 elections the Kremlin began to master the art of manipulating the rival clans of Ukrainian politicians. The "Ukrainian lesson" was mastered in Kyrgyzstan as well. On the whole, the expansion of political and economic pluralism in the CIS countries is more likely to ease Russia's advancement of its interests than the opposite.
The problem lies elsewhere. The accelerated transformation of the countries of the CIS in the direction of political democracy, the free market, and civil society is possible only with the support and serious assistance of the West. In this connection it is very important what exactly the West will be able to offer the members of the "Commonwealth of Democratic Choice" (as published) and over what lengths of time. The readiness of the European Union to integrate Ukraine would undoubtedly change the course of its history. Such a course of development, however, is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The refusal of the EU to move toward the complete integration of Ukraine is accompanied by the determination of the USA to "mark out () its territory" through NATO membership. But this is already geopolitics, and the Kremlin is getting ready for the "battle for Ukraine" in all seriousness.
Geopolitical considerations, although not in the East-West plane, underlie the pro-Russian orientation of Armenia. For Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan ties with Russia help balance other very important directions in foreign policy -- Chinese and American. Tajikistan from the very beginning relied on Russian help in providing external security; Uzbekistan recently began to count on the support of Moscow in a struggle with an internal enemy. Only in the case of Belarus are geopolitics and security secondary relative to the civilizational closeness of two peoples.
Economics is another most important factor in rapprochement with Russia. Belarus and Kazakhstan are interested in principle in the creation of the Single Economic Space with Russia. In the remaining cases (Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) there exists an interest in attracting Russian investments and the opening of Russian markets, including the labor market, for these countries.
Finally, in spite of the fact that the ruling families of these new states prefer, as a rule, to keep there assets in the West, they cannot be completely sure of their personal security, especially in case they lose power. Russia in this regard is not only an entirely comfortable country, but also a reserve shelter for the post-Soviet elite. Old party-economic ties are being actively supplemented by the ties of the new ruling circles.
What do Russia's allies expect ahead? The knots of competition.
Russia opened the Year of Armenian with a harsh message: Yerevan cannot count on price privileges from Gazprom. Yet Russia intends to maintain its military and broaden its economic presence in Armenia -- along with a parallel activization of relations with Azerbaijan.
Moscow will intensify the process of tying Belarus to Russia, understanding that Lukashenka's eventual departure (not in 2006) may push Minsk onto the Ukrainian-Euro-Atlantic path. Probably even before the 2008 elections the Kremlin will take steps (the introduction of a single currency and so on) intended to make the process of integration with Belarus irreversible. Lukashenka himself will remain the main obstacle on the path to full integration.
Russia will strive to strengthen its participation in the development, extraction, and transportation of Kazakhstan's oil and gas resources. At the same time, no amount of integration will lead Astana to renounce its sovereignty in favor of Moscow. The Kazakhstani leadership has never been so sure of its own strength and possibilities. The Kazakhstani elite feels itself more and more equal to the Russian elite and will continue a balanced development of relations with Russia, China, and the US.
Taking into account the situation of Kyrgyzstan as a Central Asian crossroads, Moscow will strive to make Bishkek in economically, politically, and militarily dependent on Russia. At the same time, not only China and the US, but also neighboring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will act as Russia's competitors. The main problem for Moscow, however, will remain not these competitors, but the internal instability in Kyrgyzstan.
Tajikistan, which until the end of the 1990s was a client of Russia, is now striving to conduct a "multivector" course. Until the situation in Afghanistan stabilizes, which will take many years, Tajikistan will remain a forward outpost in Moscow's eyes. This position will be reinforced by investments in resource extraction industry and hydroelectricity. The problem is that this country, having long ago become a staging post for the Afghan drug trade, is itself turning into a narcostate.
Tashkent invited Moscow to play the role of its main ally in the battle with Islamic extremism. Moscow accepted the invitation, but, it would appear, does not understand with what means and methods it should fight it on the territory of Uzbekistan. Meanwhile the probability of a repeat of popular uprisings, armed rebellions, and invasion from without is high. Cooperating with Tashkent and investing in the Uzbekistani economy, Moscow should understand clearly that the Karimov's choice (of Russia) is not only difficult and compelled, but also tactical. Uzbekistan's pretensions to the role of regional power remain, and China is an alternative external partner.
Russia will strive to spread its influence beyond the limits of the CSTO and EAEC. A lengthy campaign lies ahead in Ukraine, where Moscow's goal is to "stop the conveyor belt," along which Kiev is moving toward NATO. Other theaters of Russian foreign policy activity include Georgia and Moldova, where the Kremlin will try to achieve resolutions of the frozen conflicts that suit Russia. Russian strategists are also counting on internal conflicts to lead to regime change in Tbilisi and Chisinau: Presidents Saakashvili and Voronin are viewed as "incapable of reaching agreement" (with the Russian-backed separatist regions). Finally, Moscow is assiduously courting the "neutrals" -- Baku and Ashgabat, seeking to tie them to Russian foreign political and foreign economic aims.
Energy is not the same as leadership
And so the "CIS project" (with all the conditionality of this term), having appeared two or three years ago, has moved forward substantially -- in spite of the serious defeat of Russian policy in Ukraine at the end of 2004. Evidently Russia's resources are not expended and it can still be competitive in the post-Soviet space relative to the main rivals -- the USA, the European Union, and China. At the same time, the "vertigo from success," which already appeared at the height of the gas crisis, could lead to failures and even catastrophe. An excessively risky game in Ukraine and testing of this country's (readiness to) break away in the face of NATO expansion are capable of provoking a real conflict. Such a conflict would almost certainly lead the West to begin to view Russia as a hostile country and switch to a police of containment in relation to it. Of course, Russia will be able to further sell oil and gas (as Iran does now), but such semi-isolation will come at too high a price. Furthermore, the almost inevitable "surge to the East" into the embrace of Beijing that would follow also promises nothing good. The CSTO and EAEC will stand under the banner of the SOC, and instead of an independent center of power Russia will turn into a source of resources and a geopolitical buffer for the rapidly growing Asian power.
The Russian post-imperial project has a right to exist. At its base lies the economic and civilizational-cultural attractiveness of Russia, its readiness and ability to act not only as an exploiter of resources but as a guarantor of security and a leader of modernization of the countries that will be prepared to support its leadership. If one looks at it from this point of view, then the Russia's matter is primarily Russia itself. A successful Russian modernization is the most reliable basis for the foreign attractiveness of the country. Volumes of energy resources as such will not make Russia a great power, energy is not the same as leadership, nor is harshness the same as effectiveness. This is precisely how a post-imperial project differs from a neo-imperial one.
This article originally appeared in Russian. Translation by the Open Source Center.