LONDON – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ex post facto request Saturday to the Russian parliament to approve the use of military forces in Ukraine should not really have come as much of a surprise.
There were few who had any doubts that the uniformed men who seized airports on the Crimean Peninsula on Friday were Russian forces. The big question, however, is: What does Putin actually want?
Attempting to explain the idea of modern Russia in his 2002 book, “The End of Eurasia,” political scientist Dmitri Trenin took inspiration from the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. “A border in Russia,” in Yevtushenko’s words, “is more than a border.”
In terms of Moscow’s foreign policy in what it calls its “near abroad,” — former Soviet states — that means a complex set of assumptions that informs not only the Russian intervention in Crimea on Friday, but how it exerts power and influence on its neighbors. In recent Russian history that has been encapsulated in overlapping notions, where Moscow’s sphere of influence in the post-Soviet region intersects with areas with Russian-speaking populations and a wider Slavic culture.
In 1993, long before Putin’s rise to power, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said that Russia reserved the right to intervene in the former Soviet republics. Since then there have been adventures in Moldova, Georgia in 2008 — and now, it appears, Ukraine. Russia has not only exerted its influence through its military might but through political and economic power as well.
As James Sherr argued in his study of Russia’s influence in its near abroad, those interventions sometimes have been as much about punishing or neutralizing a perceived opponent as the pursuit of a particular realizable goal.
The result, he argues, is a policy of “soft coercion” with a broad toolkit of methods designed to keep Moscow’s neighbors in check. These include covert actions, economic and other pressures such as the lever of cheap energy supplies — and finally the threat of limited military intervention.
John Lough, a former NATO official and expert on Russia at Chatham House, argues that “central to Russia’s view of the region is that it sees Ukraine’s independence (in 1991) as a historic accident. It has never accepted it as permanent.” Moscow’s objective over at least a decade and a half has been to build a buffer of compliant states as a bulwark against expansion by European political and military alliances, the EU and NATO, to its immediate borders.
While the job of managing its influence has proved easier in central Asia in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — where the ruling elites have largely been drawn from the old Soviet-era nomenklatura — elsewhere it has been more complicated. Islamic separatist movements in the Caucasus have led to long-running security issues.
Russia’s relations with its near abroad have also been complicated by the fact that some of the former states of the Soviet Union have been showing signs of becoming more independent from Moscow.
Moscow, for the most part, has relied on a combination of oil wealth and its creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to pursue an aggressively paternalistic relationship with the former Soviet states.
But force is always an option, as in the 2008 conflict with Georgia. If Ukraine is different, argues Lough, it is because he believes that the recent events have caught Moscow “flat-footed” — missing the real reason for the revolution.
“The question is: What do they do now over Ukraine?” he added. “Their best bet would be to slow the process of the revolution consolidating, which probably explains what is happening in Crimea. But it is a very high-risk and dangerous strategy.”