Back to Empire? The New Foreign Policy in Russia
Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
Will Russia continue down the road of political and economic reform, the road of closer cooperation with Europe and the rest of the world? Or will popular desires to restore dominance in the post-Soviet hemisphere lead Russia away from reform and towards international isolation?
In this contentious election year, these questions have consumed Russian political debates. Beneficiaries of the gradually emerging private sector tend to support the reform option. Whereas those whose standard of living has drastically decreased since the beginning of the reforms-civil servants, miners, pensioners, and members of the military-favor the imperialist scenario.
Even if they do not win June's presidential election, opponents of reform have already gained the political advantage in Russia. Communists and other parties of the "Left" dominated the December parliamentary elections. Almost all the parties promoted a similar foreign policy platform-to revive Russia as a great power and to strengthen relations with the former Soviet republics.
In a desperate response to the parliamentary elections, President Boris Yeltsin moved early this year to accommodate conservative voters by replacing his English-speaking and European-friendly foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, with conservative Yevgeny Primakov, former head of Russian intelligence. Many Russians had criticized Kozyrev for his failure to assert a special role for Russia in the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Another novelty of the December elections was the formal presence of the military in the political sphere. Twenty-three generals and 123 middle-ranking officers ran for the lower house, the State Duma, while generals occupied one of the top three slots of each of the centrist blocs and many of the opposition parties. According to General Grachev, Russian minister of defense, the previous Duma, "has not lived up to its hopes and has not given the Army the help that was expected from it."
Is the restoration of the Soviet Union just an empty election year issue, or something more? This article explores the communist reemergence and the political activism of the Russian military in terms of the new dynamic in Russia's foreign policy, as republics that were once part of the Soviet Union have struck out on their own, becoming Russia's "near abroad."
Foreign policy and the "near abroad"
The term "near abroad," coined by Russians in 1992, highlights the difficulty many Russians experience in accepting the former republics as foreign countries. Ukraine and Belarus especially are viewed by many Russians as more than just ex-members of the same family, but as indivisible from the concept of Russia itself. The presence of 25 million ethnic Russians in the "near abroad" and the intricate economic links among them makes the line between foreign and domestic policy all the more indistinct for many people.
As Russia forges a post-Soviet identity, one of its greatest challenges is to develop a coherent post-Soviet foreign policy. Yet Russia at the end of empire has no precedent on which to base relations with its newly independent neighbors.
Since 1991, Russia has vacillated among various policies towards the near abroad, reflecting the lack of a clear foreign policy doctrine and the weakness and disarray of its foreign policy apparatus. During Soviet times, the sections of the bureaucracy that dealt with the non-Russian republics lacked prestige as compared to those that dealt with the "far abroad." This pre-existing bias has been compounded by the fact that now, with the end of state socialism, many of the brightest minds have left the foreign ministry, the defense ministry, and the foreign intelligence service for the growing private sector.
Meanwhile, domestic pressures provide mixed signals to policy elites. On the one hand, government officials can ill afford to concentrate resources on a massive reintegration of the former Soviet republics, given the expensive social problems within Russia. On the other, much of the Russian public views the disintegration of the Soviet Union as unnatural.
To the national-patriots, like the resurgent communists and "Liberal-Democrat" Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia must protect its "compatriots," the 25 million Russians living in the former republics; Russia should insist on redrawing republic borders, especially with Ukraine; and Russia can and must restore the U.S.S.R. in one form or another, perhaps using its leverage as an oil and natural gas supplier to many of the republics.
Another position, not represented by any particular party, but gaining favor among more pragmatic members of every persuasion, views the aggressive stance of the communists as counterproductive, provoking anti-Russian sentiment in the republics while advocating costly expansionist projects. This position considers such projects unnecessary, since the republics of the near abroad are bound to return to Russia's orbit anyway. Some, like Ukraine, it is said, are too heterogeneous and artificial to stand on their own as stable states. With the deterioration of the social and economic situation, many could split further along ethno-regional lines, and would be forced into closer economic and political-military integration with Russia in order to preserve their territorial integrity.
A third view, favored mainly by intellectuals, could be termed "The Happy Prince" position of moralistic paternalism: the best way for Russia to achieve external security in the former U.S.S.R. is to provide economic assistance and promote democracy among its neighbors, thereby proving itself a great power in international affairs. On the other hand, isolationists argue that in this period of internal crisis Russia should concentrate on domestic issues and not waste its limited resources on the former republics or the former Yugoslavia, especially if such actions alienate western powers. This last position finds favor among those in private business.
The military in Russian politics
After his October 1993 showdown with the Russian Parliament, President Boris Yeltsin appeared to owe the military leadership a huge favor for its support. Despite the military's enhanced profile, dissatisfaction among the officer corps has increased over the past few years. Unable to publicly criticize their commanders and their president-and reluctant to attempt a coup-many of the more dynamic officers have turned to politics. Political parties have actively recruited these officers the man in uniform a potent populist symbol, signifying the party's support for restoration of Russia as a Great Power while appearing as a protector to a public tired of the pain of reform.
These officers feel that military issues are not being adequately addressed by Yeltsin. To them, Russia has never developed a legitimate body for making military-political decisions-like the U.S. president's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Yet should the world really worry about the expansionist tendencies of the Russian military in the former republics? Though Russian troops are still stationed in many republics, their numbers are relatively insignificant and their presence mostly welcomed. Twenty-four thousand Russian troops remain in Tadjikistan to defend the border from Afghan rebels, while smaller forces are stationed along the Iranian and Chinese frontiers. In the warring southern Transcaucasus, soldiers provide both a border guard and a peacekeeping presence.
However, Russian troop deployment still causes tensions in one former republic Ukraine. In 1954, as he tried to consolidate power after the death of Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev transferred the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine in an effort to assuage anti-Russian sentiment in Kyiv. Now that the Soviet Union has fallen and these internal Soviet borders mean something again, many Russians want the Crimea back. The military views a Russian-controlled Black Sea Fleet at the port of Sevastopol as a necessary balance to NATO and the U.S. Sixth Fleet, and has pushed the government to take a tough stand. So far Russia has tried to rent a base in Sevastopol, using Ukraine's huge debt as leverage, but Ukraine has resisted Russian advances, fearing their historical nemesis is trying to establish a beachhead for the eventual annexation of Crimea.
What's good for Gazprom is also good for Russia
Whichever party wins the presidency this year, it will have to appease the foreign policy interests of Gazprom, the world's largest gas industry concern. Once a state enterprise, Gazprom is now a freely traded stock company, though the Russian government still holds a controlling share. Oil and natural gas fuel the prosperity of almost the entire Russian financial-industrial elite-revenues from these exports make up 40 percent of Russia's federal budget, equal to all military expenditures.
Transport and production of oil and gas make Gazprom interested in the "near abroad." To attract foreign investors, Gazprom needs to maintain the appearance of Russian political and economic stability, and at the moment, only the military is capable of keeping the peace. With Moscow's loss of control over Azerbaijan and Central Asia, key oil-bearing regions of the former Soviet Union, Gazprom and other Russian oil companies are eager for stable relations with their new local counterparts. They also need cooperation in Armenia, where Gazprom wants to pass an oil pipe line from Azerbaijan to Turkey's Mediterranean coast.
One of Gazprom's biggest concerns is maintaining access to its huge European market, where currently the major pipeline runs through Ukraine. Although Gazprom is building an alternative pipeline through the more obliging republic of Belarus, the project will take years. In the meantime, Gazprom has been pushing the Russian government for a treaty of cooperation with Ukraine, where much of their European oil and gas exports are being siphoned off while in transit.
Back to Empire?
In the near future, much of Russia's foreign policy will be based on the pragmatic desires of major economic players like Gazprom. The restoration of a Soviet-type empire is beyond Russia's capacity-it can ill afford to sponsor an expensive reintegration. With the international credibility of his economic plan and billions in I.M.F. funds at stake, Yeltsin is reluctant to move too far from the course of reform. Any "imperial" plans would mean a rapid rise in inflation and the alienation of international funding agencies.
The push "back to empire" is in many ways a product of election-year sloganeering. While communists and other national-patriots did very well in December's elections for the State Duma, we must remember that under the current Russian constitution, it is the president and not Parliament who directs foreign policy. As the June presidential election nears, Yeltsin will have to further compete with Parliament's leftists for the status of the most active defender of the Russian people's social interests, rather than as proponent of Soviet "restoration." Indeed, at the beginning of 1996 President Yeltsin announced a range of voter-pleasing programs, from free funerals and pension increases to new student stipends, as well as a $3.4 billion plan to rebuild the battle-scarred region of Chechnya.
Russia's policy towards the "near abroad" is likely to be based more and more on pragmatism and on a search for stability, not on a renewed quest for empire. Three republics-Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan-appear ready for economic integration, considering the legal and regulatory foundations they have developed, the absence of customs duties between them, and the openness of their borders. Three other states-Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgistan-show a somewhat lesser degree of readiness for complete integration. The obvious outsider in this process continues to be Ukraine.
In many ways, what Russia fears most from the near abroad is the return of the huge Russian diaspora. In order to prevent a flood of Russian refugees, Moscow is likely to provide military support and cheap energy deliveries to prevent economic chaos. The entry of the Russian military in domestic politics during December's parliamentary elections was mainly a product of their dissatisfaction with political elites during the post-Soviet transition, rather than any sustained intent to restore the Soviet Union.
Nikita Lomagin, Professor of History at the University of St. Petersburg, is an International Institute Visiting Research Investigator at the Law School.