Dr Elkhan Nuriyev is a Counsellor and International Advisory Board Member at the Caucasus Institute for Democratic Integration in Tbilisi, Georgia. A shorter, abridged version of this article appeared in OpenDemocracy, March 19, 2012, London, UK, under the title “Putin’s Plan for Russia’s Neighbours – A Eurasian Union.”
With the current focus on policy interactions between Russia, the US and the EU in the post-Soviet space, many wonder what future awaits the countries of the former USSR after Vladimir Putin’s re-ascension to the Russian presidency in the March 2012 election. One question is whether Putin will succeed in shaping a new, distinctive strategic space with the curious name of “Eurasian Union”.
Can Putin realize this project?
In his 2011 article “A New Integration Project for Eurasia: The Future in the Making,” Vladimir Putin maintains that the Eurasian Union will become a focal point for further integration processes since it will be formed by the gradual merging of existing institutions, the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space. (1) The Eurasian Union is certainly Russia’s most ambitious strategic project that is most likely to become one of the top priorities of the Putin presidency. In other words, the Kremlin wants to prove Russia’s Great Power status and to make it the centre of “one of the poles in the modern world.”
Clearly, the principal focus for Putin’s foreign policy will be relations with the Near Abroad, as the Russians like to call the CIS countries. Although it is difficult to predict whether Putin will be capable of completing his reintegration project in the next few years, the troubled nature of relations between Russia and the CIS countries, and among the post-Soviet states themselves, will make his task even harder.
Whether the post-Soviet states remain at the centre of international strategic affairs will also depend considerably on foreign policies emanating from the US, the EU, Turkey, Iran and China, given that global trends in areas such as energy, trade, capital investment, migration and other security issues will play a crucial role. Last but not least, there is a broader concern about how precisely Putin will create a ‘new supra-national union’ of sovereign states if some of the CIS leaders refuse to follow the Kremlin-established rules of the game. This key question will have a number of important strategic implications for those post-Soviet countries whose democratic transformation is still incomplete, and where fierce competition over energy resources, security interests and political futures could easily flare up again.
What might it mean for the region?
In this scenario, the next years may well see dramatic change in the CIS countries, whose perceptions of their own security would be significantly affected. Given the progressive deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West, there is good reason to expect Russia to adopt a more assertive and confident policy towards its neighbours as it seeks to increase its influence in its immediate neighbourhood. The Kremlin’s strategists realize that Russia needs new instruments to regain economic and political control over the post-Soviet space, whilst the lack of well thought-out and workable strategies for dealing with the CIS countries has meant little American and European presence in the region.
Evidently, the economies, societies, and populations of the CIS countries suffered serious crises of transformation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Their economies differ in their size and their Euro- Atlantic integration perspectives are facing vastly different challenges. Also, these countries find themselves at different levels of development despite many shared problems and pursuing their own political agendas. Different security perceptions and varying orientations of the post-Soviet republics therefore negatively affect reintegration processes at the CIS level. Whereas the young states seek wider regional security, their national security concerns differ vastly. Russia, in turn, is exploiting the current situation for its gain. Moscow actually uses different political and economic levers to persuade the CIS nations that joining the Customs Union and Common Economic Space is beneficial both in terms of economics and politics.
Some CIS countries are nevertheless still anxious to form new security partnerships with the West as a counterbalance to Russian influence. In the South Caucasus, for example, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia have all been actively lobbying for Western engagement. Despite their different attitudes toward Russia’s resurgence, they continue to oppose any further encroachment of Russian influence in the area. Over the past few years Georgia and Azerbaijan have sought to build up their own armed forces, with the help of the United States and Israel. Armenia, Russia’s most loyal ally in the Caucasus, agreed to hold its first-ever joint military exercises with the US in spring 2012, (2) in order to improve the interoperability of their NATO-led forces deployed in Afghanistan.
However, Russia’s successful foreign policy in the post-Soviet territory in recent years has also resulted from the failure of other international players, or at least the systemized weakening of their stances. The Obama administration’s ineffective “reset” has seriously weakened US strategic objectives in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Washington's failure to craft any coherent vision as to how the region fits into broader US strategy has allowed America's role to be increasingly defined through the prism of Russia. The lack of a meaningful US response to the challenge presented by the protracted conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh not only highlights the low level of US engagement in this troubled region but also renders questionable America's ability to be an effective player in the OSCE Minsk Group.
Likewise, the EU lacks a visionary and principled approach in its policy toward resolving the conflict. Brussels has practically no role in the conflict settlement and therefore does not have the necessary tools to intervene in the peace process, offering only confidence-building activities. Such a situation strongly limits the influence of the EU in the region and dramatically hinders Brussels' capacity to formulate meaningful policy to deal with simmering secessionist conflicts. (3) The resulting lack of a common and integrated strategy may lead in the near future to a withdrawal of the West from the South Caucasus and the loss of ground to Russia's more assertive foreign policy.
Therefore, Russia is seen as essentially having a monopoly over the peacemaking process between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a role which the OSCE has effectively forsaken. By orchestrating the negotiations, the Kremlin seeks to enhance Russia's “sphere of influence” and to cause Euro-Atlantic security arrangements in the region to disintegrate. The failure of the OSCE not only shows the EU member states to be effectively lacking the ability to speak in the face of the South Caucasus crisis, but also demonstrates their inability to build international support around interests in competition with Russian ones.
Iran and Russia’s Southern flank
Thinking strategically of imminent dangers arising from Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Russia’s stance is particularly relevant. (4) Perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming question confronting the US and Russia today is how best to proceed on Iran. Moscow and Washington have a shared interest in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but they have divergent views on Iran. For the moment, however, Russia is especially needed as a true partner in overcoming Iranian nuclear crisis.
So far, Russia has been slow to collaborate with the West in pressuring Iran. Instead, Russia insists that the US and the EU use more moderate language to criticize the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, Russia and Iran have found common ground in sharing an ambition to undermine Western hegemony in their backyard and to restrict the westward orientation of the young independent states of the post-Soviet Southern Tier. Russia and Iran also share a common perception that the US wants to keep them out of a region of which they both are a part. For this reason, Moscow and Tehran view each other as closest allies and regard the US and other Western democracies as big competitors.
Being a significant player in the geopolitical manoeuvrings in the Southern Tier, the Islamic Republic maintains traditional historical, economic, cultural, and ideological interests throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. Iran’s ability to influence the neighbouring Muslim entities via Islam is of higher importance. The ruling clerics in Tehran continue to serve as an active promoter of Islamic cultural influence in the post-Soviet Muslim societies where the rise of an Islamic consciousness has progressed since independence.
Notwithstanding the current little public support, religious extremism is constantly fed by a series of factors, including proximity to the volatile situation in both the North and South Caucasus. Yet, there is a serious risk that Islamist movements will gradually gain popularity in the respective states. Recent military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the counter-terrorist operations in Russia’s southern flank have added impetus to the further radicalization of Islamic tendencies in the entire region. Therefore, it appears that Russia does have a lot to be worried about Iran’s rising profile and the reality of the role of the Islamic Republic in the Southern Tier means that Moscow is greatly concerned about the spread of weapons and ideas from Iranian clerics and their regional extremist groups to the Muslim parts of the post-Soviet territory.
Noticeably, Iran’s relations with the post-Soviet Muslim neighbours in recent years have strongly been influenced by its complicated energy situation, its unique geography, and most notably, by its continuing conflict with the United States. Despite Tehran’s well-known anti-American policy, the Islamic Republic is trying to affect the political and economic shape of the Southern Tier. For now, however, how the triangular relationship between Iran, Russia and the US evolves will likely be the most important strategic factor influencing the future direction of stability and security of both the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Future security challenges
Paradoxically, the Iranian nuclear conundrum appears to become a source of regional insecurity for Russia. Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would change the strategic balance in the entire region and could fundamentally challenge Russia's security policy in the southern tier of the post-Soviet territory. A nuclear-ready Iran could embolden regional extremists and terrorist networks and eventually destabilize many countries in Eurasia. Such a scenario contains some serious risks for the Kremlin's security policy in Russia's southern borders and would have a number of potentially important strategic consequences for Caucasus, Central Asia and the wider Black Sea-Caspian basin.
Clearly, the rise of a nuclear Iran will likely affect future regional situation in several important ways.
First, Iran’s nationalist impulses at the margins of the post-Soviet Muslim world remain very high. Just imagine what might happen if Tehran would play a larger role in support for terrorist and insurgent groups in the Caucasus and Central Asia under a nuclear umbrella. Ethnic nationalism and separatism is still alive in the Muslim-majority regions of Russia. For instance, the ruling clerics in Tehran might expand their military support to translocal religious and political movements. In a scenario of this kind, such development would touch on the internal affairs of Russia’s Muslim North Caucasus, and particularly Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Tatarstan. It is not unlikely that these extremist groups and religious militants will play a role in insurgency in the North Caucasus and the propensity for terrorism in predominantly Muslim-populated regions of Russia.
Another grave concern is the deployment of Iranian clerics to support radical religious movements in the South Caucasus where the destabilizing influence of the Islamic Republic is less well known. Azerbaijan has already been significantly affected by the ideology of Iranian-trained clerics since Tehran has consistently maintained strong interest in exploiting any unrest to strengthen its influence in this secular Muslim petroleum-rich country. It is no wonder that Iranian policies are making Azerbaijan’s leadership feel threatened. (5) Beyond extremist and religious movements, the strategic environment in the entire region could be also influenced by the rise of new political ideologies in the coming decades.
Second, a nuclear-armed Iran and new proliferation dynamics will inevitably affect security perceptions of neighbouring countries, including Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. All of these states might feel compelled to modernize their own military doctrines and revise their respective national security concepts. As a result, a heavily militarized region and highly unstable situation would strongly worsen the prospects for peacefully resolving the so-called frozen conflicts in the Caucasus as well as undermine Russian security interests and pose new difficult long-term challenges for the Kremlin.
Third, the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Caspian basin may re-emerge as a focus for a heated competition over energy, political and security futures. Due to the supply crises in the Middle East, the steady proliferation of new oil and gas pipeline routes around the Caspian basin, and across the Black Sea, linking the regions to energy trade around the Mediterranean is central to thinking about the future of relations with a nuclear-armed Iran. Applying their zero-sum approach, Iranian leaders believe that it is in their interest to limit the Caspian oil and gas supply to European and Western markets. Tehran could exert more direct or indirect influence on foreign and economic policies of oil and gas-producing countries to force their ruling elites to conclude new energy, transport and investment agreements. Under these conditions, small nations are likely to see a greater Iranian presence and the relative weight of Iran in regional affairs will increase especially in the sectors of energy trade, economic cooperation and capital investment. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have already been affected by this competitive atmosphere and also confronted with Iranian interference in their internal affairs, especially when local leaders have been pressed for closer cooperation with Iran. From a regional perspective, such a trend could transform Iran into a powerful geopolitical actor in the post-Soviet Southern Tier and might create the most formidable challenges for the Kremlin leaders in terms of the long-term implications of a strategic shift toward new containment of Russian influence in the entire region.
Russian policy rethink
Interestingly, a group of US experts recently stated that Iran could reach nuclear weapons capability by 2014. They looked at Iran’s “critical capability” defined as the point at which Tehran will be able to produce enough weapons-grade uranium or separated plutonium to build at least one nuclear bomb before foreign detection. (6) Perhaps a key question for future developments hinges on whether competitive relationship with Russia will eventually spur the Islamic Republic to revise regional security arrangements and play much greater role in the geopolitical affairs. Needless to say, Russia considers the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran a threatening to her national security strategy. Given the perceived importance of durable stability in the still-unfolding Southern Tier, the necessity for Russia to rethink its Iran policy and work together with the US and the EU is greater than ever to tackle the Iranian nuclear issue. After all, securing long-term strategic stability in the post-Soviet Eurasian theatre is crucial to Russia’s regional security building efforts.
Whether the US, the EU and Russia will succeed in coordinating their policies on Iran will depend considerably on their ability to solve the complexities of the Iranian nuclear crisis. (7) One thing, however, is clear already now: if Moscow wishes to be better placed to respond effectively to future challenges in the rapidly changing post-Soviet Eurasia, Russian leaders should be ripe for a new strategic vision based on an understanding of the necessity of cooperative security sharing. Any effort to direct Russia’s collaborative action with the West in a more effective mode requires a substantial revision of the Kremlin’s policy that could make Russian behaviour more predictable and more supportive. Only through concerted efforts Russia and the West will be able to come up with a coordinated agenda, aimed at resolving the Iranian nuclear conundrum.
Even so, great power ambitions are increasingly manifested in the desire of the Russian leadership to run the geopolitical show in the CIS territory. This might even become a reality if the military option against Iran is put into operation.
What does the Putin doctrine mean for the West?
If the US and the EU do not develop a more concerted strategy towards Russia, this could lead to the emergence of new polarities and alignments in post-Soviet Eurasia, where the CIS region would be not only a privileged but, primarily, a defining sphere of action for Russia.
In the coming years Russia is most unlikely to challenge the US and the EU at a global level. What is more likely is that Russia will present a growing direct challenge to American and European interests in its own immediate neighbourhood. Future engagement in the Arab world and the Middle East could easily push the CIS region to the margins of European and American strategy, leaving Russia to act as main security arbiter.
The Kremlin may be successful in helping some CIS countries resolve local conflicts, thus increasing the stability of the entire region. Some states may decide that Russia is not necessarily their main threat, and instead view Moscow as a natural ally against domestic and external threats. This could result in a new cycle of tensions with Western democracies, and a renewal of strained relations between the West and Russia could easily contribute to the future isolation and insecurity of the CIS region.
If the US and the EU disengage from the region or if Washington and Brussels want to go their separate ways in terms of foreign and security policies – admittedly, a big ‘if’ – this will significantly increase Russia’s relative weight in post-Soviet affairs. In the end, the ruling elites in the CIS states may even actively pursue greater economic and political integration with Russia under Putin’s Eurasian Union. The most important question here is whether the wider public in post-Soviet countries where opposition to Russian domination, and a sense of grievance and injustice, remain strong, will passively accept such a scenario. Memories of the seven-decade experiment in totalitarianism that was imposed on them are bound to resurface, as all these states seek to establish themselves as viable independent and democratic nations.
1. Vladimir Putin, “A New Integration Project for Eurasia: The Future in the Making,” Izvestia, October 4, 2011, Moscow, Russia.
2. Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 9, Issue 42, February 29, 2012, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington, DC, USA.
3. Elkhan Nuriyev on Nagorno-Karabakh Negotiations, Radio Free Europe/RadioLiberty (RFE/RL), July 14, 2011. Also see E. Nuriyev, “Nagorno-Karabakh in the Shadow of Russian Influence”, Hurriyet Daily News, July 12, 2011, Ankara, Turkey.
4. For a more detailed analysis on Russia’s strategic relations with Iran and Russia’s stance on the Iranian nuclear program, see Elkhan Nuriyev, “Russlands rätselhafte Iran-Politik,” Internationale Politik, (DGAP), May-June 2012, Number 3, Berlin, Germany, pp. 60-65.
5. For more details on this issue, see Elkhan Nuriyev, “Azerbaijan: the Geopolitical Conundrum,” OpenDemocracy, June 14, 2012, London, UK.
6. American scholars particularly emphasized that “based on the current trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program, we estimate that Iran could reach this critical capability in mid-2014.” For more information on this issue, see David Albright, Mark Dubowitz, Orde Kittrie, Leonard Spector and Michael Yaffe, “U.S. Nonproliferation Strategy for the Changing Middle East,” ISIS Report, The Project on U.S. Middle East Nonproliferation Strategy, Institute for Science and International Security, January 14, 2013, Washington DC, USA, pp. 3-6.
7. Elkhan Nuriyev, “How Iran Can Help Give a Boost to Reset,” The Moscow Times, Issue 4810, January 26, 2012, Moscow, Russia.