Russia’s Geopolitical Counter-Offensive in the Former Soviet Union
In the last two to three years Russia has been on a geopolitical offensive in the countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. It has been gradually regaining the ground lost in the aftermath of the American invasion of Afghanistan and the Georgian, Ukrainian and Kyrgyz revolutions. Central Asia. The first major victory for Russia came in Tajikistan in 2004. The country was drifting towards the West following the ouster of the Taliban from neighboring Afghanistan. Moscow worked vigorously to bring the nation back under its sway. The Kremlin repeatedly threatened the Tajik government of Imomali Rakhmonov with the expulsion of one million Tajik workers from Russia, while offering debt relief for the return to Moscow’s orbit. In October of 2004 Russian President Putin and Tajik leader Rakhmonov signed an agreement. Russia agreed to let Tajik laborers remain in Russia and forgave the country $240 million of its $300 million debt.
The South Caucasus
Russia has been equally aggressive on its southern flank in the Caucasus. Moscow managed to further increase its already overwhelming influence in Armenia. It upgraded the Russian military base in Giumry, in the northern part of the country and successfully completed the process of acquiring Armenia’s power distribution network in September 2006. The Russian energy monopoly RAO UES already owns most of Armenian hydroelectric plants and manages the finances of the nuclear power station in Metsamor. In addition, the Kremlin controlled Gasprom is Armenia’s single gas provider. Russian gas generates 40% of Armenia’s electricity, another 40% coming from Russian controlled Metsamor. Gasprom also owns the country’s biggest thermal plant. In November 2006 the giant Russian mobile phone operator Vimpel-Communications bought 90% of the shares in Armenia’s national telecommunications company, ArmenTel, from the Greek firm OTE.
In April 2007 Moscow announced joint uranium excavation venture of Armenia’s uranium reserves, which is scheduled to begin later in this year. Yerevan also agreed to join the International Uranium Enrichment Center, located in Irkutsk region of Russia. Some Armenian experts express their deep concern over Moscow’s suffocating influence in all spheres of the country’s life. However, this doesn’t change the overall picture. The nation remains bound to Moscow to such degree that it leaves even President Putin satisfied. During one of his meetings with Armenian President Robert Kocharian (in February 2007, after the Russian takeover of the Armenian power grid) he half happily and half ironically declared that “there is no issue which can not be solved between Armenia and Russia”. The Kremlin kept Yerevan under close watch to make sure that the piping of the new Iranian-Armenian gas pipeline (that opened in March 2007, transporting gas into Armenia) was small in diameter. Thus Moscow prevented Iran and Armenia from exporting gas to other countries and avoided international competition with Russian Gasprom.
In contrast to Armenia, neighboring Azerbaijan drifted away from Russia and closer to the United States and NATO alliance. In 2006 Moscow attacked Azerbaijan, threatening to increase gas prices twofold. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev defied the Kremlin and on his part threatened to stop the export of gas from Russia to Azerbaijan and the import of oil from Azerbaijan to Russia. In 2005 the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline became operational, transporting Azerbaijani oil via Georgia and Turkey to the West. In 2006 the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum pipeline went into operation. It significantly increased the political weight and strategic importance of Azerbaijan, brought it closer to the West and reduced Russian influence in the South Caucasus. Nevertheless, Moscow effectively kept the Karabakh conflict frozen, with a large portion of Baku’s political and diplomatic resources chained to the issue. The Kremlin also succeeded in maintaining its lease on an anti-Missile radar facility in the northern Azerbaijani city of Gabala. Realizing Azerbaijan’s huge importance as an energy rich country, with a highly geostrategic location in Caucasus and in the Caspian basin, the Kremlin doesn’t (and will not) spare its efforts to bring Baku back under Moscow’s influence. So there will be ever increasing pressure applied from Moscow towards Azerbaijan in the coming months or even years, if necessary.
Pro-Western Georgia has been the Kremlin’s main target in southern Caucasus. Russia fully realizes the huge significance of Georgia. If it regains influence over the country Moscow kills two birds with one stone: it gets direct land access to its satellite Armenia and neutralizes increasingly anti-Russian Azerbaijan, which heavily relies on Georgia to transport its abundant gas and oil resources to the West. Moscow has been doing everything it can to bend Georgia and Mikhail Saakashvili’s pro-Western government to its will. Russia heightened tensions in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Armenian populated Javakheti region in southern Georgia; sponsored and organized pro-Russian political groups to create social protests and undermine the government; supported anti-government armed revolt of Georgian warlord Emzar Kvitsiani in western Georgia; banned Georgian wines and mineral waters from Russian markets; raised gas price threefold; cut off all air and land connections with the country and deported hundreds of Georgian immigrants from Russia.
However, Saakashvili turned out to be a hard stone for Moscow to break. He managed to accelerate significant political, economic and military reforms in the country. He brought Georgia even closer to the West and to its goal of integration in NATO and eventually into the European Union. Saakashvili’s administration, with Western support, succeeded in starting the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia. The Russian Army will leave the country entirely by the end of 2008. The opening of Baku-Batumi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (in 2005) and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline (in 2006) strengthened Georgia’s national security and regional and international position. However, besides many successes achieved in the nation-building process in the last several years, Georgia’s future is not entirely certain. Moscow doesn’t seem ready to retreat: it is lobbying hard in European capitals (using its energy clout) against NATO membership for Georgia, simultaneously subjecting the nation to almost daily, heavy political and economic blackmail.
Russia has been similarly aggressive on its geopolitical frontline in post-Soviet Europe. After the humiliation of the Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections, Moscow worked hard to contain and reverse the Orange Revolution. First, in winter of 2005 Russia heavily hit the country by doubling natural gas prices (gas raw that caused a disruption of gas supplies to Europe). Then, the well-organized and well financed Ukraine’s pro-Russian “Party of Regions” based on Russian speaking voters in the country’s east, gained a vital 33% in Ukraine’s March 2006 parliamentary elections. The formerly disgraced Victor Yanukovich (the leader of the “Party of Regions” and the loser of disputed 2004 presidential elections) was catapulted into the position of Prime-Minister. Since then, he effectively halted the country’s integration process into NATO. Profound disagreements between President Yushenko’s and his pro-Russian Prime-Minister’s policies’ resulted in the dissolution of the Ukrainian parliament in April 2007 and plunged the country into a deep political crisis, that continues to be filled with uncertainty. In addition, by issuing clear threats to the territorial integrity of the Ukraine, Russia’s Ministry of Defense succeeded in maintaining its naval military facilities on the Black Sea coast.
Russia lost a great deal of influence in 1990’s and then in the first years of the new millennia, following the American invasion of Afghanistan and Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions in countries of the former Soviet Union. However, Putin’s Russia never gave up its hegemonic aspirations. But Moscow also realized that economically week Russia, with a disastrous war still going in Chechnya, couldn’t afford an ambitious foreign policy. Putin’s Russia rose quietly and gradually. After the September 11 attacks, Putin agreed to let Americans establish military bases in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In fact Russia could do very little to stop Washington at that time. However, in exchange Russia got a free hand in Chechnya. By 2004-2005 Moscow basically crushed the Chechen rebellion killing the main Chechen field commanders. At the same time the Kremlin consolidated Russia’s entire energy sector in the state’s hands, sending disobedient oligarchs to jails or exile. Moscow gradually acquired about 30%-40% of Europe’s energy markets and unfolded a large scale geopolitical counter-offensive in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Russia’s tactics were basically the same against post-Soviet states: Moscow allies with semi-authoritarian, corrupt, stagnant and isolated regimes (Uzbekistan, Belarus, Tajikistan) guaranteeing their survival in exchange for their obedience to Moscow. Under the banner of keeping stability in a country and in a wider region Russia poses as a policeman, supporting regimes militarily in case of domestic turbulence. Then Russia establishes (or expands already existing) military presence in a country, tightly chaining a nation’s military complex to its own (Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). Simultaneously Russian state monopolies move in on a country, establishing their dominance on a nation’s energy resources (Turkmenistan), energy infrastructure (Armenia, Tajikistan) and their transportation routes (Kazakhstan). In the beginning, the Kremlin backed Russian companies promise many investments, not only in energy sector but also in other sectors of economy, such as telecom, tourism, transportation. However, Moscow never invests enough (or any) capital to make meaningful change. It merely chains local economies to its own, guarantees its dominance, prevents international economic competition and leaves local societies frustrated and impoverished (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Armenia).
Against pro-Western post-Soviet countries Russia deploys various tactics: supports shady separatist regimes (against Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan); cuts off gas supplies and astronomically raises prices (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Azerbaijan); applies economic sanctions (Moldova, Georgia); manipulates elections in cooperation with local corrupt and criminal elites (Ukraine); detonates local pro-Russian or Russian forces (Georgia, Ukraine, Estonia). Today Russia is not the world’s strongest country, but it definitely is the strongest power in the former Soviet Union. It had some setbacks and failures in the last few years but overall Moscow is in a much stronger position than it was 4-5 years ago. The Kremlin’s geopolitical successes were contributed to by the instability in the Middle East, high energy prices, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and not enough activity from the European Union in the nations of the former Soviet Union. Today Russia represents the single biggest threat to the national sovereignty and security of post-Soviet states. Moscow’s goal is not a mere dominance in the region. Russian strategic planners and policy makers have made it amply clear that the Kremlin wants to bring the whole former Soviet landmass under the Russian dominated “Eurasian Union”. Moscow’s new KGB run regime has political will, determination and aggressiveness to do just that. As long as America continues to be bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and Europe shows timidity in confronting new Russian neo-imperialism, the Kremlin will find it less and less difficult to achieve its goals. Undoubtedly, there are very hard days ahead of those former Soviet countries which really care for their freedom and future.