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Dmitri Trenin

Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center

The disintegration of the Soviet Union has crowned nearly a 500 year-long period of Russian history when imperial regime used to be the backbone and for the most of the time the form of Russian statehood.

This overhaul had tremendous implications above all for the Russian foreign policy.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union has crowned nearly a 500 year-long period of Russian history when imperial regime used to be the backbone and for the most of the time the form of Russian statehood. This overhaul had tremendous implications above all for the Russian foreign policy.

Despite the hopes of some and fears of others the USSR disintegration unlike the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 was not followed by imperial restoration in a new make-up. Two decades later all former Soviet republics managed not only to preserve their statehoods but to fit in with the world community.

Contemporary Russia – the Russian Federation – has also fit in with the world community. The USSR disintegration did not maintain momentum within Russian borders. Albeit with difficulties, Russia in the 90-es - early 2000-s consolidated its statehood. Militarily and later politically it managed to resolve the problem of Chechen separatism, diplomatically it settled the relationships with Tatarstan, legally it ensured the supremacy of the Russian Constitution on the whole territory of the Russian Federation. Despite frequent statements made about artificial nature of current Russian borders they mostly coincide with the boundaries Russia had in 1650 before the accession of Ukraine and the conquests of Peter the Great. Russia continued to exist within this territory after the previous disintegration of the empire in 1917-1918.

The process of exiting from the imperial status is always long and painful.

The disintegration of the USSR was carried through peacefully and voluntarily. The representatives of the republics, which came together in 1922 to form the Soviet Union, agreed in Bialowieza forest to dissolve the Union. In the wake of the agreement the USSR President announced his resignation. He handed the symbols of supreme power – nuclear briefcase and the Kremlin residence – over to the President of Russia. The role of the USSR Army Forces Command which agreed to the Union’s dissolution and the division of the Army and the Navy is noteworthy.

Among the positive factors is that the USSR disintegration unlike that of the French, Portuguese and even British empires was basically of a peaceful and non-violent nature. The main reason of it is the fact that it was Russia itself or, to be more precise, its elite which initiated the dismantling of the empire. It was completely in the logic of the society’s struggle against absolute power of the CPSU widely perceived as the Union center of power. On June 12, 1990 the Supreme Council of RSFSR adopted a Declaration on state sovereignty, earlier than any other former Soviet republic with the exception of the Baltic ones. A year later there took place nation-wide elections of the President of RSFSR.

Russia was forced out of the USSR by the claims on it from other Union republics – it got tired of being an all-Union donor. According to pragmatic estimates, main resources were concentrated in Russia, and major recipients were outlying republics of the USSR. Besides, in an effort to win the support of other USSR republics in its confrontation with the Union Center the RSFSR leadership gave up its informal “Big brother” status in the “Peoples Family” and proclaimed the policy of fostering relations with other republics as equal sovereign states. Thus, the once famous in the 19th century slogan “For your and our freedom” was realized.

The process of exiting from imperial status is always long and painful. Fostering relations with the former colonies and outlying republics is a great challenge for ex-empires. When it comes to Russia, a number of factors facilitate this task while others complicate it.

The disintegration of the USSR was carried through peacefully and voluntarily. The representatives of the republics, which came together in 1922 to form the Soviet Union, agreed in Bialowieza forest to dissolve the Union. In the wake of the agreement the USSR President announced his resignation. He handed the symbols of supreme power – nuclear briefcase and the Kremlin residence – over to the President of Russia. The role of the USSR Army Forces Command which agreed to the Union’s dissolution and the division of the Army and the Navy is noteworthy.

The Russian Federation promptly recognized the new states within the administrative borders of the Union republics despite the fact that about 25 m. ethnic Russians who in a number of cases compactly populated vast territories were left behind these borders. The issues of Ukraine, the Crimea, Sevastopol and the Black Sea Navy were the thorniest issues on the agenda. The Russian leadership refrained from making claims on Ukraine in order to avoid a conflict with the republic still possessing the part of the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

During the first decade (in the 90-es) a new Russia was focused on sorting out its internal problems and in foreign policy – on fostering relations with the West. It was essential for the Russian Federation to be recognized as legitimate successor to the USSR (and the Russian Empire), to preserve the seat in the UN Security Council and to maintain control over the USSR’s nuclear capability. In order to fill in the niche of the former USSR on the international arena Moscow assumed the responsibility for the Union’s debts and took under control its foreign assets and military bases.

The term “near abroad” coined in the aftermath of the USSR disintegration did not imply temporary nature of the newly emerged states’ independence as they thought it to be in the West instead, it implied the change of attitude to them as truly sovereign states.

The states which emerged on the ruins of the USSR remained, in fact, on the periphery of Russian foreign policy. The term “near abroad” coined in the aftermath of the USSR disintegration did not imply temporary nature of the newly emerged states’ independence as they thought it to be in the West instead, it implied the change of attitude towards these entities as truly sovereign states but not as outlying republics of the once single country. The process of political and psychological adaptation took several years. The 1997 “Big Deal” with Ukraine officially settling current Russia- Ukraine border became a tipping point. By signing the Treaty Moscow actually recognized Ukraine’s independence once and for all.

The term “near abroad” coined in the aftermath of the USSR disintegration did not imply temporary nature of the newly emerged states’ independence as they thought it to be in the West instead, it implied the change of attitude to them as truly sovereign states.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) created after the dissolution of the USSR from the very start did not become the platform for the re-integration of newly independent states with the former mother country instead, it became the instrument of joint withdrawal from the imperial state and a factor of new states formation and strengthening of their independence. Having agreed to the format of close equal cooperation without binding obligations Russia, in fact, helped these states become genuinely independent.

CIS actually mitigated – in public opinion, among other things – the shock of the USSR disintegration. Former USSR republics continued to keep their borders open. Right up to 1993 the only currency circulating in CIS countries was the Russian rouble. Russia continued to substantially subsidize energy and raw materials supplies to newly independent states. Russia also used CIS mechanism to end, with the help of the Russian Army and diplomacy, ethnic conflicts raging in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh and Tajikistan. At the same time, the efficiency of the CIS structures proper and the execution of decisions taken by the organization were at a very low level.

The decision taken in 2005 to stop subsidizing Russian energy supplies to CIS countries turned out to be a milestone event in this regard.

During the second decade (in the 2000-s) Russia was pursuing more pragmatic policy towards its neighbors. Term the “near abroad” practically got out of usage. Moscow became focused mostly on facilitating the expansion of Russian capital, building up its political weight and enhancing its cultural presence in newly independent states. Thus, the imperial idea was replaced by the concept of Russia as a great power.

The decision taken in 2005 to stop subsidizing Russian energy supplies to CIS countries turned out to be a milestone event in this regard.

In spite of all the similarity between the two concepts there are also significant differences. While the Empire, both Russian and Soviet, was concerned more about the support and development of the outlying regions and the countries within its orbit rather than about the prosperity of the mother country (actually, there wasn’t such in Russia apart from its capital cities – St. Petersburg and later Moscow), a Great Power lays emphasis above all on strengthening its own might and international influence.

Despite the unconditional recognition of the former outlying republics’ independence and the focused attention drawn to economic issues, the Russian leadership sought to prevent an overwhelming influence of the third powers.

The decision taken in 2005 to stop subsidizing Russian energy supplies to CIS countries came as a milestone event in this regard. Gazprom’s policy of profit maximization was fully supported by Russian government. It resulted in the refusal from “imperial preferences” in Russia’s economic relations with the former Soviet republics. Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia, despite all the differences in political relations between Russia and each of these countries, ceased to be “the near abroad” and became for Moscow simply the countries of abroad.

Despite the unconditional recognition of the former outlying republics’ independence and the focused attention drawn to economic issues, the Russian leadership sought to prevent an overwhelming influence of the third powers.

Already in mid-90s Russia was faced with an economic and political expansion of USA and European countries into the Caspian Sea region, the attempts of Turkey to spread influence to Azerbaijan and other Central Asia Turkic-speaking republics and the wish of some political forces in Bucharest to realize the idea of a “Great Romania”, etc. Under the circumstances, Russia indicated “red lines” the crossing of which would mean posing a threat to the country’s security. These lines implied, above all, CIS countries’ membership in NATO, the deployment of foreign military bases on their territories and the use of military force by these countries without Moscow’s authorization.

Color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kirgizia in the 2000s came as a severe test for Russia’s foreign policy in CIS countries.

In early 2000 these “red lines” were reviewed. Moscow revised its approach having agreed in the wake of 9.11 events to the deployment of US military bases in Uzbekistan and Kirgizia. It was stressed, however, that the presence of American military in Central Asia was necessitated by the counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan and therefore was an emergency and temporary measure. The Russian leadership also decided not to regard the presence of American military instructors in Georgia within the framework of the Georgian Army retraining and rearmament program as a threat to Russia’s security.

Color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kirgizia in the 2000s came as a severe test for Russia’s foreign policy in CIS countries.

Also, the leadership of Russia reacted with restraint to the second after the end of the cold war wave of NATO expansion. Having failed in 1999 to prevent the accession of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to NATO in 2004 Moscow took the membership of Latvia, Lithuania an Estonia in this organization to consideration. In practical terms, it was Russia that was faced with problems, taking into account the exclave status of Kaliningrad, after the three Baltic States had joined the European Union. Since the Supreme Council of the USSR authorized the withdrawal of the Baltic States from the Soviet Union they have never been viewed as participants to integration projects initiated by Moscow. In the Baltic dimension Russia tried to ensure its security, protect its economic interests and promote civil and political rights of the Russian-speaking population of Latvia and Estonia who were denied automatic citizenship of these countries.

The so-called color revolutions in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kirgizia (2005) came as a severe test for Russia’s foreign policy in CIS countries in the 2000s. Moscow saw color revolutions as joint US and local pro-American forces conspiracies with a view to changing regimes in CIS countries and replacing former rulers by pro-Western political figures. As a minimum these revolutions were aimed at reducing Russia’s influence in CIS countries and as a maximum they were regarded as the rehearsal of the main color revolution – in Russia itself. These concerns were extremely strong in Moscow in early 2005. At the same time, each color revolution had its own geopolitical implications.

Five day-long war in August became the bloodiest event in the post-Soviet space after the disintegration of the USSR – the conflict in the Crimea and even the immediate USA-Russia standoff were looming large. Top officials in Moscow announced the preparedness for a new cold war, with CIS countries being defined as the sphere of Russia’s privileged interests.

The “tulip” revolution in Kirgizia opened up the way for destabilization not only in this small country but in the whole Central Asia region. After the toppling of the loyal to Moscow regime in Bishkek the revolt in Andizhan took place which threatened to explode the Fergana valley and encourage radical extremists whose actions the Uzbek and Kirgiz police forces struggled to suppress in 1999-2000.

The “orange” revolution in Ukraine posed a new threat to Moscow – NATO expansion in close proximity to the Russian borders. In early 2008 the Ukraine’s leadership with the U.S. backing extended the request to NATO to grant Kiev the so-called Membership Action Plan. Although at the Bucharest NATO summit Ukraine (as well as Georgia) was denied this plan due to the position of Germany and France, NATO member-states pledged Kiev and Tbilisi that they will be among their ranks. This decision sparked off new escalation of tension between Russia and the USA, and Russia and Ukraine.

Finally, the “rose” revolution in Georgia resulted in using force by Georgian side already as early as 2004 in conflicts where Moscow was the main peace-broker. By summer 2008 the tension over South Ossetia and Abkhazia had reached its climax against the backdrop of the Bucharest decision. The attempt of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, with the connivance of the George Bush Administration, to forcefully resolve Georgia-Ossetia conflict, in fact, unleashed the war between Russia and Georgia.

Five day-long war in August became the bloodiest event in the post-Soviet space after the disintegration of the USSR – the conflict in the Crimea and even the immediate USA-Russia standoff were looming large. Top officials in Moscow announced the preparedness for a new cold war, with CIS countries being defined as the sphere of Russia’s privileged interests.

There exist in Russia plans of even deeper integration – the creation of a Currency Union on CU and SEA basis, with the rouble becoming the regional currency circulating on a vast territory stretching from the EU to China.

The new standoff, however, didn’t happen. In September 2008 the global economic and financial crisis shifted the focus of the world to economic problems. In the USA a Democrat candidate Barack Obama who fiercely criticized the Bush Administration’s foreign policy won the November presidential elections. The so-called resetting of Russia-US relations aimed at easing the tensions between the two countries and moving on to practical cooperation in the areas of mutual interest took place in 2009. The situation in the Caucasus, with Russia recognizing Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence in the aftermath of the war with Georgia, was, fortunately, sidelined in the relations of Russia with USA, NATO and EU. In 2010 the candidate of the Party of Regions Victor Yanukovich won the presidential elections in Ukraine. He enshrined in law the” no bloc membership” status of this country. Thus, the issue of Georgia’s (after the war in 2008) and Ukraine’s NATO membership lost its relevance.

In early 2010s the leadership of Russia decided to take practical steps towards real integration with some CIS states. In 2010 the Customs Union of the three countries – Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation – was launched. Starting from 2012 the economies of these countries will make up a Single Economic Area. The integration efforts within the CU framework have born fruit because they are based on real economic interests. The creation of SEA, however, suggests the level of national economies’ openness, the freedom of the movement of capitals and protection of private ownership unseen before in Belarus. This circumstance may become a stumbling block or even an un-surmountable obstacle in the process of Belarus’ integration into SEA.

There exist in Russia plans of even deeper integration – the creation of a Currency Union on CU and SEA basis, with the rouble becoming the regional currency circulating on a vast territory stretching from the EU to China.

There is a desire not only to deepen but also to broaden the integration gradually extending it beyond the three core members of the Euro-Asian Economic Community (EAEC) to Armenia, Kirgizia and Tajikistan. The attempts to invite Ukraine into the Customs Union are also being made.

The Euro-Asian Union prospects depend on whether its designers and founding fathers will be able to resist the temptation to run before they can walk.

Economic Integration goes hand in hand with the integration in the sphere of security. Back in 1999 the Treaty on Collective Security of CIS countries signed in 1992 in Tashkent primarily with a view to regulating the process of the USSR military heritage division was transformed into the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The countries participating in economic integration – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Russia and Tajikistan – also became the members of this organization. Uzbekistan now withdrew from the CSTO membership, now returned into its ranks, but even in that case it enjoyed a special status in the organization. Starting from 2010 purposeful steps have been taken with the idea to establish within CSTO a “security union” for the coordination of security policies and creating joint forces to act in different situations.

The Euro-Asian Union prospects depend on whether its designers and founding fathers will be able to resist the temptation to run before they can walk.

Geopolitical ambitions should take economic interests and political realities into account.

In autumn 2011 Vladimir Putin put forward the idea of the so-called Euro-Asian Union. It suggests the creation of the center of power with integrated economy, common defense and security mechanism and common humanitarian space on the major part of CIS territory. The European Union is said to have served the model for the Euro-Asian integration project. In this regard, it is planned to set up supranational governance bodies starting from the economic sphere.

The Euro-Asian Union prospects depend on whether its designers and founding fathers will be able to resist the temptation to run before they can walk. Economic integration within the Customs Union is successful and may become the groundwork for embarking on the creation of a Single Economic Area. But already at this stage it’s necessary to remember that the creation of SEA with Belarus’s full-fledged participation is impossible with the political regime in power in Minsk. The establishment of a Currency Union poses even more challenges. It’s unclear whether the rouble will be a single currency circulating in the countries – members to the Union like the euro or it will assume the function of a single currency like the dollar. Besides, it’s also uncertain who will be entitled to emit money within the Union.

For each CIS member-state independence means above all the independence of Russia.

Geopolitical ambitions should take economic interests and political realities into account.

A hasty expansion of the economic integration area may not only create difficulties for the countries – founders of CU and SEA, but also undermine trust to the whole project. It’s obvious that Kirgizia and Tajikistan have to go a long way before they will be able to create economic and political conditions compared with those existing in Kazakhstan. Even more damaging could be the desire to engage Ukraine in the integration process at all costs. For any political force in power in Kiev the integration with Russia would eventually mean the dependence on Moscow. Provided that a Ukrainian government agrees for tactical reasons to join the Euro-Asian integration project, this decision might be challenged and cancelled be the subsequent government.

The launch of a successful national development model is the overarching task for Russia at the beginning of the 21st century.

For each CIS member-state independence means above all the independence of Russia.

Thus, geopolitical ambitions should take into account economic interests and political realities. The Russian Federation seeks to acquire through the integration a new equilibrium and take a higher position on the global arena. Other states and their elites pursue their own goals which are partly in line with the goals of Russia. Therefore, having embarked on the integration path it’s necessary to remember about two things. First, any integration project is supposed to have a donor, and in case of Euro-Asian project Russia is such a donor. Second, for each CIS member-state independence means above all the independence of Russia, and they are not prepared to sacrifice it.

Traditional territorial imperative – the search for new geopolitical balances with neighbors and competitors – must be reviewed.

The launch of a successful national development model is the overarching task for Russia at the beginning of the 21st century.

From the above it follows that it’s necessary to maintain balance between ambitions and resources, inputs and gains. Only national interests of Russia itself can serve as the criterion for that. The launch of a successful national development model, overcoming its underdevelopment but not the creation of a geopolitical construction is the overarching task for Russia at the beginning of the 21st century. The utmost importance of external resources for modernization and strict compliance with the principle of strategic independence come to the fore in this regard. Integration with CIS countries can be economically beneficial, and the necessity to provide for the security of Russian borders in times when new challenges emerge is obvious.

Traditional territorial imperative – the search for new geopolitical balances with neighbors and competitors – must be reviewed.

Apart from a full-scale integration with CIS countries Russia needs economic integration and political cooperation with the European Union and the creation of a single security area in the Euro-Atlantic, i.e. the demilitarization of its relations with USA, close and balanced cooperation with China and making itself into a Euro-Pacific power. In the 21st century Russian foreign policy has much on the agenda.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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