Andrey Kortunov: Ukraine conflict is the last act in a long Soviet collapse
Thirty years ago, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, many observers expressed their surprise at the relatively peaceful nature of the huge state's disintegration. The deconstructions of other great European empires – including the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese – were followed by large-scale armed conflicts, some of which lasted for several decades and were accompanied by hundreds of thousands, or even millions of victims. The post-Soviet space, of course, also witnessed military violence and armed conflicts in the early 1990s (Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Chechnya, and Dagestan), but most of these were of a relatively modest scale and duration.
Military conflicts within the territory of the former USSR were often successfully “frozen” and only from time to time did they draw attention to themselves with outbreaks of escalation. The gloomy prophecies about the spread of nuclear weapons, millions of refugees flowing to neighboring countries, widespread ethnic cleansing, and the unstoppable rise of religious fundamentalism, international terrorism, etc., did not actually come true immediately after the Soviet disintegration. It must be admitted that the initial stage of the imperial deconstruction passed surprisingly peacefully and even somewhat orderly, especially if we take into account that nobody had been working on any contingency plans for the Soviet disintegration in advance.
Analysts offered a variety of explanations for this remarkable feature. In particular, references were made to the cynicism and opportunism of the late Communist nomenklatura, who preferred opportunities for personal enrichment to the continuous commitment to preserving the great Soviet power. It was also noted that the USSR had been a very peculiar entity in which the imperial centre (Russia) had not so much economically exploited its colonial outskirts as had subsidized them at the expense of its own development prospects.
Thus, many in the new Russian Federation had considered the Soviet imperial periphery to be not an asset, but rather a liability for the Russian core. Attention was drawn to the generally favorable international situation, which allowed for the avoidance of fierce conflicts and bloody wars over the “Soviet legacy” in the 1990s.
Gradual imperial disintegration
Without going into a detailed analysis of these and other hypotheses concerning the specifics of the disintegration processes in the territory of the former USSR, I could offer yet another explanation, which does not necessarily contradict those mentioned above. In my opinion, the Soviet Union did not actually collapse at the end of 1991, but only entered a long, complex, and contradictory process of gradual imperial disintegration. Thirty years ago, the leaders of the already former Soviet republics only proclaimed the goal of creating independent states on the site of the slowly imploding Soviet social, economic, and political institutions, but the process of building new statehoods lasted for several decades and continues even to this day.
For a very long time, the main part of the post-Soviet space – with the possible exception of the three Baltic states – remained essentially a single entity in terms of economic ties, transportation and logistics infrastructure, standards of education, science, culture, and, most importantly, in terms of the mentality of the political and business elites in power. It took at least another generation for this entity to begin to fade into the past. Therefore, the real collapse of the USSR is only taking place today, literally in front of our eyes, and the states that have emerged in the post-Soviet space have yet to go through all the challenges, risks, and pains of imperial disintegration.
The superficial nature of the Soviet disintegration at the end of 1991 becomes especially evident when compared with somewhat similar events in modern history, such as Britain’s exit from the European Union. Almost four years passed between the June 2016 Brexit referendum and the formal end of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union on February 1, 2020; these years were filled with intensive negotiations, sharp political struggles both in London and in Brussels, nonstop expert consultations, and a difficult search for compromises on the terms of further cooperation between the UK and the EU. Over these four years, many detailed documents have been prepared and agreed upon regulating the mutual rights and obligations of Brussels and London. Moreover, clarification of these rights and obligations continues to this day.
The Belovezh Accords, which declared the end of the Soviet Union and proclaimed the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), were drafted, agreed upon, and signed in a few days; the 14-article document is only two pages long. In fact, in the Belovezh Accords only the most general declaration of intent was adopted, a brief and very ambiguous memorandum of understanding, which each of the participants could interpret at their discretion. It is impossible to even imagine a Brexit agreement concluded so hastily and so casually.
However, while Brexit was only about the withdrawal of one country from a multilateral integration project, in the case of the Belovezh Accords, the task was the orderly deconstruction of a single state with the history of cohabitation of different national, ethnic, and religious groups, dating back more than a couple of centuries.
Thirty years ago, it was not at all obvious that all the national projects of the Soviet Union’s republics would necessarily succeed. There were serious doubts about the political and economic viability, or about the efficiency, of many of them. In Moscow, for a long time, the general mood remained arrogant and self-serving: “They will not go anywhere, they will sooner or later come back to us.” Perhaps, under another set of circumstances, the post-Soviet states under the Russian leadership could indeed have formed some kind of viable integration grouping along the lines of the EU or at least the European Economic Community that preceded the EU. Such hopes and plans were certainly popular within the team of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and, possibly, also within the “early” Vladimir Putin leadership.
New integration structures
It is no coincidence that in official Russian foreign policy documents, relations with the partners of the “near abroad” were invariably given first place in the hierarchy of Moscow’s geographical priorities, despite the fact that Russia’s real foreign policy ambitions and aspirations since 1991 were gravitating in a western direction. For a long time, the mechanisms of the CIS were perceived in the Kremlin not as instruments of a “civilized divorce” with Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors, but as the first shoots of new integration structures. Consolidation of the post-Soviet space was considered an absolutely necessary condition for Russia’s return to the status of a great power and for ensuring its rapid and sustainable development.
However, 30 years on, this goal has not been achieved. There are many reasons for this failure. One can refer to an extremely variegated and heterogeneous composition of the CIS, objectively divergent, not convergent trajectories of economic, political, and the cultural development of post-Soviet societies. One can also mention the positions of the West, which has always been suspicious even of the hypothetical possibility of recreating the Soviet Union in any form.
It's also worth noting an objective asymmetry in the economic and political potentials between Russia and its neighbors, which complicated the search for a stable multilateral balance of interests acceptable to all. Of course, one has to keep in mind the ‘Big Brother’ syndrome that has often manifested itself in Russian policies, Moscow’s unwillingness to fully take into account specific interests, expectations and, especially, the political and psychological traumas of the emerging elites of the new states.
Failed role model
But the main roots of Russia’s failures to consolidate the post-Soviet space around Moscow, as it seems to me, are not even in these factors. The fundamental problem of post-Soviet ‘Eurasian’ integration was that, over the 30 years of its independent existence, Russia has not been able to find an effective model of social and economic development that would be perceived as a role model in neighboring countries. Already from the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the tasks of maintaining social and political stability in the country began to receive priority in the Kremlin over the tasks of social and economic modernization.
One could argue about whether the conservatism of the Russian leadership under “mature” Vladimir Putin was justified, but the price that had to be paid for it was the loss of the former social and economic dynamism. It seems that the preservation of the archaic social and economic system was the main reason why, during the post-Soviet period, Russia did not become for its CIS neighbors what Germany (and, partially, France) turned out to be for the European Economic Community in 1960s and in 1970s.
Accordingly, the role of the main economic locomotive of Eurasia turned out to be beyond Moscow’s strength. Moreover, Russia had to compete for influence in the Eurasian space with such ambitious and energetic players as the EU in the west, China in the east, and Turkey in the south. In this competition, Moscow has been gradually losing ground, which has contributed to growing sentiments of isolation and insecurity.
What are the main tools that Moscow has used to promote its influence in the territory of the former USSR over the past three decades? First, Russia positioned itself as the main (and even the only) guarantor of national security of the post-Soviet states. The attitude toward attempts of any external players to expand their military or political influence in this territory, including proposals to send UN peacekeeping forces to the zone of a particular conflict, was always explicitly negative in Moscow. The Russian leadership clearly did not like any alternative security providers in its backyard.
Problematic territorial disputes
For a long time, no foreign actor had any fundamental security claims to the southern contours of the borders of the former USSR, but Moscow’s intention to keep its military and political hegemony in the west and the southwest of the post-Soviet space was perceived with more unambiguity since at least the mid-1990s. On top of that, over these 30 years Russia accumulated a significant amount of problems relating to partially or completely unrecognized territories (Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh). All of them, to one degree or another, proved to be an encumbrance for Russia – both in terms of its interaction with its neighbors and in terms of its cooperation with the West.
Second, Russia could offer its neighbors subsidized prices for exports of oil, gas, and other commodity items. This mechanism worked relatively well in the context of the continuing shortage of energy and raw materials resources in the world and the concomitant constant growth of world prices for Russian exports. Let’s not forget that in the first years after the Soviet collapse, the economies of most CIS countries remained essentially Soviet, and therefore energy- and resource-intensive, which predetermined the high level of dependence of these countries on the supply of cheap energy and raw materials from Russia.
However, in the second decade of the 21st century, the “producer market” was replaced by the “consumer market,” which began to gradually reduce the importance of Russian energy bonuses for neighboring states. Slow but inevitable processes of structural changes in the economies of most CIS countries also contributed to this change. It received an additional impetus in the form of the transition to “clean” energy sources that has begun all over the world, and Russian energy companies have become less and less willing over time to sacrifice their specific corporate interests in the name of abstract state priorities.
Third, Moscow sought to attract its neighbors by creating preferential conditions for them to access the Russian market for goods and services, as well as the labor market, in the form of labor migration from the CIS countries. Such preferences were of significant importance within the context of the rapid growth of the Russian economy in the first decade of the 21st century and the unwillingness or unpreparedness of most CIS countries to actively explore the consumer and labor markets of the “far abroad.”
But even these opportunities did not last forever. Since the beginning of the second decade of this century, the Russian economy has been losing its former dynamism, increasingly lagging behind the world average growth rate. The CIS countries, for their part, have been increasingly diversifying their foreign economic relations, expanding cooperation with China, the EU, South Asia, and the Middle East. A certain role in this process is played by restrictive economic measures that Moscow has repeatedly applied to Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and even to Belarus, forcing these countries to more aggressively develop alternative export markets. Another factor that slowed down economic partnership in the post-Soviet space after 2014 was the reluctance of Russia’s partners to risk getting hit by the West’s secondary sanctions after it ramped up its measures against Moscow.
Fourth, Russia has long claimed to be the “representative of the interests” of the CIS states in international organizations ranging from the UN Security Council to the G8 and G20. But this task has become less and less attainable over time – the interests of Moscow and its closest neighbors diverged more and more clearly, solidarity voting in international organizations was harder and harder to achieve; clashes of interests in many multilateral fora have been becoming more and more frequent. Even in such exclusive formats as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the positions of Moscow and capitals of other CIS countries have often diverged significantly.
This set of Russian tools for working with the countries of the “near abroad,” of course, is not limited to the four instruments mentioned above. There are also education export opportunities with budget quotas for students from the CIS, programs to promote Russian culture and language, bilateral and multilateral technology chains, etc. But all these tools in the conditions of a predominantly rent-seeking Russian economy have limited efficiency. The limitations become particularly apparent in the presence of many alternative partners – from China to the EU – actively developing the post-Soviet space, as well as in view of more and more economic sanctions imposed upon Russia by the West after 2014.
In addition, the formation of new national identities in the former Soviet republics was based largely on the maximum possible distancing from Russia – including its history, culture, and language. Inevitably, Russia found itself in the position of a symbolic “other” against which the ethnic and cultural nationalism of the former imperial outskirts had to push back in their process of state-building. Therefore, the rise of anti-Russian nationalism in many CIS countries, the creation of alternative “national histories” and the formation of a national-ethnic political mythology, the critical rethinking of the experience of living together in the Soviet multinational state – all this was almost inevitable.
Changed approach to post-Soviet space
At present, it is difficult to build any complete and convincing picture of how the evolution of Russian approaches to its closest neighbors took place. Perhaps someday the now-classified archival data will allow for a comprehensive analysis of the heated discussions that undoubtedly took place on this issue in Yeltsin’s and Putin’s “inner circles.” Nevertheless, it can be assumed that the war in Georgia in August 2008 and, especially, the subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states were already the results of a significant transformation in the Kremlin’s initial strategy toward its partners in the post-Soviet space.
After all, as early as 2008, it was abundantly clear that the recognition of Georgia’s two breakaway regions created a long-term fundamental problem in relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, since no Georgian government would be able to accept the loss of one-fifth of the country’s territory. And without the active involvement of Tbilisi, no attempts at a comprehensive economic or political regional reintegration of the South Caucasus under the Russian leadership are possible even in theory.
But, of course, a much clearer indicator of the revision of previous attitudes was the Kremlin’s behavior during the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, which was so significantly different from the Russian reaction to the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Kiev a decade earlier. The swift operation in Crimea and the strong support for the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) in eastern Ukraine, the extremely harsh official rhetoric against the new Ukrainian leadership – all this became a clear signal that the Kremlin was ready to accept the long-term hostility of Ukraine (or, at least, of the Ukrainian political mainstream) toward Russia as a historical inevitability. Accordingly, the events of 2014 put an end to any plans for the comprehensive reintegration of the former Soviet space around Russia, if there still were such plans by that time.
From this moment on, the process of transferring relations with the post-Soviet states to a “self-sustained” basis becomes especially noticeable, including the gradual reduction of direct and indirect economic subsidies to Russia’s neighbors, tough defense of Russian interests in trade and investment spheres, active competition with neighbors in the markets of third countries, etc. Of course, multilateral economic projects continued: In 2015, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) began to operate. However, the importance of the EAEU for Russia remained very limited – the share of the member countries of this organization accounts for less than 10% of the total volume of Russian foreign trade (the share of the EU in Germany’s foreign trade is almost 60%).
Although the EAEU, of course, remains an important mechanism for promoting Moscow’s economic interests, the movement toward a single economic space within this structure is very slow, which is especially noticeable against the background of active integration processes in other regions of the world. Moscow’s cautious attempts to give the EAEU a political dimension did not receive any visible support from other member countries and did not produce any tangible results.
The last act?
The launch of a “special military operation” in Ukraine is clearly an exception to the trend toward a more rational, more risk aversive, and more pragmatic approach to the post-Soviet space. It seems that in the eyes of the leadership in the Kremlin, a West-oriented Ukraine collaborating closely with NATO presented a formidable challenge not only to Russia’s security interests, but even to Russia’s existence. Any rational cost-benefit analysis would suggest that Moscow has a lot to lose, but not much to gain by trying to reconstruct Ukraine by military means. It is premature to analyze the outcome of the Kremlin’s move in Ukraine, but one can speculate that this will be remembered as the last act of the 30-years-long drama of Russia struggling with its imperial legacy.
The paradoxical result of Russia’s foreign policy over the past 30 years is that the country has been able to turn into a very active global power without becoming a legitimate regional leader. Moreover, the Russian globalism of recent years can be considered a kind of political compensation for Moscow’s many failures in its attempts to build constructive and stable relations with many of its closest neighbors. Nevertheless, the task of building such relations should sooner or later return to the top of Moscow’s main foreign policy priorities. It will be much more difficult now than it was back in 1991. Still, without addressing this critical problem, any successes in other areas of Russian foreign policy will inevitably depreciate.
This article was first published by the Russian International Affairs Council