How Russia Keeps Post-Soviet States In Its Orbit

Nikita Karimov/Moscow, Russia

For nearly 70 years, the Soviet Union—comprising 40% of the entire Eurasian landmass—was completely closed off from the Western world. The flow of people, goods, and ideas was dammed to a trickle by an Iron Curtain. And yet when the Soviet Union finally collapsed, and 15 new countries were opened to the world, few seemed to care. The peak of the Cold War had passed, and the Soviet Union had been weakening for years beforehand. The public made little effort to understand the post-Soviet world, and it remains a total mystery to most. But the Soviet Union was, after all, the second-most powerful state in history.

Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia—in other words the post-Soviet sphere—have each proven to be some of the most volatile flashpoints in the world, and a resurgent Russia is aggressively challenging the international order.

In the 21st century, Russia is reasserting control over post-Soviet countries using a number of economic and political tactics, so as to prevent the formation of a larger Western bloc directly on its borders. The guiding dictum of Russia seems to be: if those countries won’t be allied with Russia, they won’t be allied with anyone else, either.

The greatest misconception about the fall of the Soviet Union is that its political disintegration caused a hard break between its former member states. From this perspective, these countries simply declared independence and went their separate ways, happy to be rid of the Soviet system. While it’s true that the public largely turned against the Soviet economic system, this did not translate into a wish for wholesale dissolution of all ties between constituent states.

In fact, since then, there have been consistent attempts at reintegration by many of the former member states. Some successful, some not. These efforts reflect the holdover ties that remain from the Soviet Union and Russian Empire. While these links have brought some countries together based on their common Soviet heritage, they have also been used by an increasingly ambitious Russia to subvert and exploit those members unwilling to remain in Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Russia’s aggressive actions in Georgia and Ukraine in recent years are often portrayed as attempts to regain a lost empire. But that view makes Russia seem far more powerful than it actually is. It also seems to confuse the fantasies of certain Russian nationalists, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Aleksandr Dugin, with Russia’s actual policies. Despite this disconnect, Western media outlets are all-too-happy to suck in viewers with wild theories about Dugin’s influence as part of a grand villainous mastermind narrative. What Russia is actually doing is exploiting the ties left over from the Soviet period, so that it remains the indisputable kingmaker in each country, even as the Soviet Union becomes a distant memory. Russia is not trying to annex Ukraine or Georgia as part of a new and reborn empire. As noted, it’s making sure that if those countries won’t ally with Moscow, they won’t be able to ally with anyone else.

While the fall of the Soviet Union did mark the loss of much of Russia’s former empire, the dissolution was not total.  Within the present-day Russian Federation dozens of non-Russian nations still remain firmly under Russian control. While Chechnya is the most famous example, it is surrounded by many more in the North Caucasus, as well the incredibly varied peoples of Siberia and the Middle Volga region. But for those nations that did gain their independence in 1991, the memory of the Soviet Union is slowly fading, and with it, so is Russia’s sphere of potential influence.

Three major crises have gripped Russia in the past 30 years, which have defined the country’s strategy and diplomacy towards its surrounding regions:

The first is the breakup of the Soviet Union, which marked the loss not only of much of the Russian Empire’s colonial possessions in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but also led to the separation of Belarus and Ukraine from Russia. The second is the potential breakup of the Russian Federation itself. This was avoided owing to Russia’s victory in the Chechen Wars and its installation of a loyal head of state, Ramzan Kadyrov, a Chechen warlord with strong Instagram game and the lifestyle of a successful Atlanta rapper.

And finally, the gradual disintegration of post-Soviet ties, which has been diminishing Russia’s influence in this sphere. Demographic trends in post-Soviet states show that ethnic Russian populations are shrinking, and fewer people are speaking Russian. Both trends mean lost vectors of power for Russia.

The first crisis led directly to post-Soviet conflicts in Moldova and the Caucuses. The second crisis was (for now) resolved through two brutal wars in Chechnya and internal rebalancing. But the third crisis continues to the present day and explains the two dominant and seemingly contradictory trends of political development in the post-Soviet sphere: reintegration and disintegration.

Reintegration is the Russian attempt to maintain influence in its former colonies. But reintegration also flows the other way. Some post-Soviet states are sidling up to Russia to boost economic growth. Through this strategy, Russia is aiming to build a stable and integrated economic and political sphere which it can easily dominate. Conversely, disintegration is the slow process of distancing from Russia—often sped up drastically in cases of direct conflict—and where the entire idea of the post-Soviet sphere becomes less and less relevant over time as old Soviet ties are dissolved by new strategic players, and as its former states are pushed into isolation or drawn under the influence of other powers.

Commonwealth

The first move towards reintegration happened before the collapse of the Soviet Union had even occurred, although it was also what effectively dissolved the country. In 1991, the heads of the three Slavic Soviet Republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia met in a dacha in Belarus to sign the Belavezha Accords. Though the Soviet federal government considered them illegal, they effectively brought an end to the Soviet Union by proclaiming the foundation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Not long after, a further 8 former Soviet states joined, with Georgia joining two years later. By 1993, each former Soviet state except for the three Baltic republics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) was a member of the CIS.

Since the creation of the CIS, an absurd amount of organizations have been founded between various member states. The Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have created several economic unions over the years, eventually culminating in the Eurasian Economic Community, which has since gone defunct. Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Moldova created the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development (GUAM). Even the breakaway states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh (recently renamed the Republic of Artsakh) have created a “Commonwealth of Unrecognized States.” Perhaps the most puzzling of the bunch is the “Union State” between Russia and Belarus. Ratified by Boris Yeltsin and Aleksandr Lukashenko in 1999, the two committed their countries to federal unification. There hasn’t been much to show for that unification in the 20 years since.

Without a doubt, the most ambitious project to date is the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). It brings together Russia and its closest allies—Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan—in the most comprehensive political and economic union in the region since the Soviet Union itself. Whereas most integration projects were half-hearted attempts with ambiguous goals, subsequently amounting to nothing, this project was over 20 years in the making. It was first proposed in 1994 by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a powerful player in his own right, but was only realized in 2015. The initially lukewarm response from other former member states has given way to rapid development.

For Russia, the Eurasian Union is an opportunity to solidify its hegemony over the post-Soviet sphere. The Eurasian Union has already managed to sign free trade agreements with both Iran and China, something Russia was unable to accomplish on its own. If Eurasian integration really does push forward, Russia will achieve stability in its border regions and more freedom to make moves on the global stage, particularly in the Middle East. This stability is a key factor for Russia, which would have preferred that all the former Soviet states align with it outright, rather than involving itself militarily on its own border. But that involvement is a price Russia is willing to pay to keep a buffer zone between itself and its adversaries, even if it is a costly one.

On the surface, the EAEU appears to be the culmination of a long trend of post-Soviet reintegration and is moving ahead at an impressive pace. But while Russia is clearly feeling the benefits of the union, the other member states are feeling increasing pressure from Russia, which has openly called into question the sovereignty of both Kazakhstan and Belarus. The tradeoff for the non-Russian members has always been between sovereignty and relative isolation on the one hand, and security and economic growth on the other. But as Russia becomes increasingly militarily involved in Ukraine and around the world with the associated economic costs, the other members are left to reconsider the future of the union.

Eurasianist Dreams

Four years since the founding of this union, it could be heading for a similar fate as other post-Soviet integration projects. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and hybrid war in Ukraine have brought several rounds of sanctions, damaging its economy. This is where the great asymmetry in both physical and economic size between Russia and the other member states becomes disastrous. While the union should be developing a strong internal market, Russia’s economic slump and China’s ever-presenteconomic weight in Central Asia mean that the economic benefits of the union are failing to meet expectations. And while Kazakhstan and Belarus court the EU and America in hopes of economic gains, Russia’s foreign policy adventures force the other states into undesirable political positions. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev remarked in 2011: “For objective and subjective reasons the CIS has not become the decisive integration structure of the post-Soviet space.”

Has the EAEU become that decisive integration structure he had hoped for?

The danger for the states now committed to Eurasian integration within the EAEU is that their interests are inevitably subordinated to Russia’s. While this was to some extent clear from the beginning, the other states seem reluctant on further integration while Russia is increasingly confrontational with the West. The reality is that, whatever the future of this Eurasian sphere, it is much smaller than the broader post-Soviet sphere. As such, Russia has even more influence within it.

The various conditions of the 15 post-Soviet states seem to confirm that picture. The three Baltic states are firmly entrenched in the EU and NATO, having been closely aligned with the West since their independence from the Russian Empire at the end of the First World War. Ukraine is in a hybrid war with Russia and Georgia is opposed to Moscow due to territorial disputes. Turkmenistan is a North Korea-esque dictatorship committed to its isolation, and Azerbaijan is less interested in the former Soviet Union than it is in Turkey and America. This leaves just 9 of the 15 free to join the new Eurasian sphere, and only 5 are currently part of it. The fewer members there are, the more it simply becomes the Russian sphere. “Eurasian” integration increasingly looks like absorption by Russia. This seems clear to everyone, as even Russia’s closest allies are publicly resisting further integration.

Belarus—for years Russia’s closest ally—is the most cautious. Recently, Russia and Belarus have publicly feuded over what Lukashenko has called “blackmail” by Russia to force integration of the two countries. A recent change in Russia’s energy taxation system will hit Belarus with billions of dollars in additional spending which it cannot afford. After months of negotiations, Russia suggested it would be resolved if the two countries integrated further under the terms of the Union State treaty. Seeing this as an obvious threat to Belarus’ sovereignty, Lukashenko has publicly and openly criticized Russia fortrying to annex Belarus, reiterating that he will never allow the country to lose its sovereignty.

With Moscow’s other close ally, Kazakhstan, tensions flared even before the Eurasian Union had come into effect. After the crisis in Ukraine in 2014, Vladimir Putin was asked at a public event if Russia is preparing for a similar situation in Kazakhstan, due to the large population of Russians in the North and the “growth of nationalist sentiment in Kazakhstan.” He respondedby saying that Kazakhstan had never had a state, and that it was Nazarbayev himself who created it from nothing. Outraged reactions from Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan notwithstanding, the implication was that Nazarbayev’s successor might not be the same ally to Russia that he was. Nazarbayev went on to say: “Kazakhstan has the right to quit the EAEU…Kazakhstan will not join an organization that is a threat to our independence. Independence is our greatest fortune.”

The EAEU came into effect January 1st, 2015. Since then, the geopolitical landscape has changed dramatically due to the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s deteriorating relations with the West. Both Belarus and Kazakhstan have continued trading with Ukraine and Europe and have resented Russia’s unilateral actions, such as banning produce imports from the EU. Both these countries find themselves between a rock and a hard place. While they have allied closely with Russia and avoided devastating conflicts like those in Ukraine and Georgia, they value their sovereignty and are not willing to absorbed into Russia.

Ukraine was also the key to making the EAEU work, as its relative size makes it essential to counterbalance Russian influence within any post-Soviet union. With the prospect of Ukrainian membership all but dead, the EAEU is destined to be dominated by Russia. Belarus is against Russia’s confrontation with NATO more generally, owing to its position on the frontline of any conflict between the two, and it would be negatively affected even in the case of a full-scale war in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia has simplyignored decisions made by the Eurasian Commission, which in theory should be the equalizer between Russia and the smaller states, but in practice has not affected Moscow’s policies.

This is not to say the EAEU is doomed. Quite the contrary. The initiative is partially succeeding where other integrationist projects completely failed. It is legitimately creating functioning institutions which have brought economic harmonization between the member states in just a few years. While the other members object to Russia’s domination, there is little they can do about it. They are already tied to Russia by more than just the EAEU and almost entirely rely on Russia for their security. In addition, they have been under heavy Russian influence for decades, so it seems unlikely that Kazakhstan or Belarus would kill the EAEU based on objections to particular Russian policies. However, its position in the broader game of Russian geopolitics means that it may not end up being the game-changer which Russia had long desired.

Bridge To The West

One of the greatest legacies of the Soviet Union among its former member states is the lasting presence of the Russian people and their language outside of Russia. Since Russian was the official language in the Soviet Union, nearly everyone who grew up in it speaks Russian, and it continues to be widely used. In both Belarus and Kazakhstan, most people still speak Russian as their primary language. In Kazakhstan’s case, ethnic Russians make up a significant minority at one-fifth of the population. The Baltic states and Ukraine also maintain the most significant Russian minorities and a Russian-speaking population, though they have dealt with the legacy in different ways.

The Baltics are a special case, as they were only annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, and therefore considered their membership in the Soviet Union to be illegitimate. On top of that, their Russian populations only moved in during the Soviet period, and were seen as Russian colonists. Throughout the Cold War, America, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the rest of NATO maintained that the Baltics were occupied states. The connections these three countries had to the West ensured a close relationship unlike that of any other Soviet state. All three even retained diplomatic legations in the United States throughout the Cold War. To date, they are the only three former Soviet states which are now part of NATO or the European Union. That looks unlikely to change.

But the three small republics do remain linked to their Soviet past in a very uncomfortable way. As of 2018, ethnic Russians make up about 25% of the populations of both Latvia and Estonia. These Russians are not even citizens of the two countries. Both countries only gave citizenship in the 1990s to people who had lived in the countries pre-1940, meaning nearly all Russians were relegated to the status of permanently resident aliens. While such a policy may seem destined to incite Russia, it doesn’t really matter for the Baltic states since they are under the protection of NATO. A Russian invasion of the Baltics coincided with the start of the Second World War, and would risk starting a Third.

This is the exact guarantee Georgia was looking for in its attempt to join NATO. Russia responded by invading the country in 2008. A similar tactic was used in Ukraine when a Western-aligned faction took power in 2014. Russia subsequently annexed Crimea and started a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. Though these situations are far from ideal for Russia, they serve as an example for the rest of the post-Soviet sphere.

Russia will not tolerate those countries joining Western institutions like the EU or NATO, the latter of which has continued to creep eastward, ever closer to Russia’s borders. Instead, the options are membership in Russia’s Eurasian sphere or remaining under Russian influence in isolation.

Despite long-time membership in the EU and NATO, the Baltics are still vitally linked to Russia, and the potential for non-military conflict with Russia is constant. The three countries still obtain their electricity from Russia,though in 2018 the EU committed 600 million euros towards linking their power grids with Poland instead of Russia by 2025. While Russia may lament the loss of additional influence in the Baltics, the real issue is that Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad—the most densely militarized region in the world, and home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet—is connected to the Russian power grid through the Baltics. Russia has alreadyvoiced concerns about not being informed of these changes, and has responded very creatively in the past to moves by states in their ‘near abroad’ which diminish Russian influence. Crucially, any conflict in the Baltics would certainly disrupt Kaliningrad’s power grid to a disastrous degree, which seems to be a strong deterrent to any hybrid Russian aggression on the Baltics.

There is another reason Russia is satisfied with the current stable state of the Baltics. It is Russia’s backdoor to Europe. Russianmoney-laundering operations exploit the ties between the formerly Soviet countries to bring billions of euros into the EU through Baltic banks. Russia also has extensive intelligence operations active in the Baltics, which are aided in no small part by long-lasting Soviet ties. A high ranking Estonian army officer and his father were botharrested on suspicion of spying for Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, in 2018. What makes this case especially interesting, though, is that the officer’s father is a former KGB agent. Such connections exist in no other NATO or EU member state, and depending on the extent of the operations, the Baltics could likely be home Russia’s most vital intelligence sources. This illustrates how deep the legacy of the Soviet Union runs and the vectors of power it gives Russia even in the countries most opposed to its influence.

Borderlands

The places where Russian influence is most welcome are not really countries at all—not recognized ones at least. In the territories of the former Soviet Union, there are now six states which have declared their independence but are not recognized by the vast majority of the world. Well known by now are the two breakaway republics in Eastern Ukraine, as well as Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh (the Republic of Artsakh), and South Ossetia in the Caucuses, and Transnistria in Eastern Bessarabia. This raises the question: why is it that in the post-Soviet sphere there are six such largely unrecognized states, while in the remainder of Europe there are none?

The phenomenon of breakaway states in post-Soviet states has its root in Soviet nationality policies. The Soviets rather arbitrarily decided the boundaries of the republics, and this—combined with internal migration during the Soviet period—meant that once the Soviet Union fell apart, millions of people found themselves in what they considered a foreign country. This would provide an explanation for the preponderance of breakaway states in the post-Soviet sphere, but it gives an incomplete picture. These breakaway regions are almost entirely dependent on Russia’s support, and in turn serve an important function.

While Russia has consolidated its allies into its new Eurasian sphere, those post-Soviet states which have pursued integration with the West have been aggressively stopped from doing so. In each case, local populations were used to great effect by Russia to trap the country in a seemingly unwinnable conflict which keeps it firmly out of Western institutions like NATO or the EU. This was done most notably in Ukraine and Georgia. But even as far back as 1990, Russian separatists in Transnistria declared independence, and have since then maintained effective sovereignty over the area, which was a factor that kept Moldova, a Romanian territory prior to Soviet invasion in World War II, from unifying with Romania.

The ease with which Russia seems to be able to weaponize its diaspora is a cause of great concern in both the Baltics and in Kazakhstan. Though the Baltics have the protection of NATO, and Kazakhstan has willingly sided with Russia in large part to avoid such a conflict, there is simply nothing to protect the remainder of the post-Soviet states from Russian interference. This is yet another reason it is difficult for those states already closely aligned with Russia to break away: they understand better than anyone that Russia would respond with force.

Whether such a union will last is debatable, but the states currently in the Eurasian Union are so culturally aligned with Russia already and the governments so supportive of the union itself, that they have essentially committed themselves to further integration, regardless of Russia’s actions. And after all, the Mongols built the largest empire in history through brute force and the mere threat of annihilation. This is not to say that Russia is militarily comparable, but it does share a similar attitude to its borderlands. As the Mongols would obliquely tell the leaders of countries who refused to submit to the Khan, “If you act against it, how then can we know what will happen? Only God knows.”

To The Future

The fall of the Soviet Union changed the face of a continent. Where a superpower once projected power across the globe, a far weaker power is attempting to preserve and maintain what influence it can. None of the member states could avoid absolute misery in the 1990s, and for many there has been little respite since. But out of the chaos, Russia is attempting to build something that will revitalize its global ambitions. It has been, rather successfully, trying to salvage and consolidate what it can from the disintegrating Soviet sphere, and that process is now reaching its apex.

Russia has made sure that those who turned their backs on it are trapped in conflicts that will keep them blocked off from Western powers for the foreseeable future. It is pushing ahead with Eurasian integration, seemingly confident its allies will not mount serious resistance. Though the objections are serious, the risks of a break with Russia are far too high.

What does seem clear is that the notion of a post-Soviet sphere is gradually losing its relevance, and the Russian-aligned Eurasian sphere is taking its place, with a buffer zone of states indefinitely frozen in conflict. But with the Baltics firmly in the West, other states looking to do the same despite their territorial disputes, and a further few content with isolation, the Russian world has become much smaller since 1991. Moscow is acting accordingly, and for those states that are not willing to join the Eurasian sphere and become beholden to Russia’s actions, it has proven more than willing to ensure they will not fall under the influence of another power.

Though there are cracks in the EAEU already, its potential cannot be underestimated. It has integrated at breakneck speed compared to the European Union, with decision-making limited to a few centralized capitals in Moscow, Minsk, Astana, and elsewhere. If the right players decide to push ahead with political integration, there are few impediments to stop them. Whatever its future may be, there is no doubt that even as all things Soviet fade further and further into the past, Russia’s primary geopolitical focus will be to consolidate its influence. The question is whether it can do so without alienating its remaining allies and undermining the very bulwark it is trying to build.

Luka Jukic is a student at the University of Glasgow. He has lived and worked in Kazakhstan.