RUSSIA PRESSURES CIS MEMBERS TO APPROVE ITS POLICIES

By Stephen Blank (10/01/2008 issue of the CACI Analyst)

One month after the cessation of hostilities in Georgia it would appear that Moscow is attempting to invert Clausewitz’s famous dictum. Russia clearly believes that in regard to Georgia, diplomacy means the conduct of war by other means.  Apart from engineering and then unilaterally recognizing the sovereignty and independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow is also seeking to isolate and punish Georgia.  Having failed to cajole SCO members into supporting it, Russia undeterred went ahead and proclaimed its right to an undefined sphere of influence that encompasses the former Soviet Union but also goes beyond to some unknown stopping point.

BACKGROUND: Moscow’s action go beyond its earlier calls for a criminal trial of Georgian President Saakashvili in the grounds of war crimes and its calls for an arms embargo of Georgia.  In late August it vainly tried to persuade the members of he Shanghai Cooperation Organization to recognize the two Georgian provinces and give retrospective blessing to Russia’s war, leading it to focus efforts on the CIS.

Nor has Moscow stopped at extravagant proclamations.  It evidently is seeking to pressure individual CIS governments to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as states and also to cut off economic investments and ties to Georgia. 

On September 24 Belarus revealed that Russia is trying to pressure it into recognizing these two provinces, something that President Alyaksandr’ Lukashenka has clearly been loath to do.   Lukashenka is clearly stalling for time claiming that only a newly elected Parliament could undertake such an act.  No doubt he also fears another cutoff or squeeze by Russian energy companies as winter approaches, the time of its neighboring countries’ greatest vulnerability to gas cutoffs.   It also appears that Russia is pressuring Kazakhstan to curtail economic ties to Georgia.  On September 22, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was meeting with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh government announced that it was pulling out of a projected grain terminal that it was building in Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti.  On September 24, the state company for managing Kazakhstan’s main gas pipelines, KazTransGaz, announced that it is considering selling its assets in Georgia.  In making this announcement it noted that the increased risk situation in the Caucasus was a factor in making this decision.  But the question is to whom would it sell its assets in Georgia.  If, as one suspects, the buyer is Gazprom or some other Russian state company, this would give Moscow a valuable tool for pressuring Georgia further, and isolating it from potential foreign investors like Kazakhstan.

Before the war, Kazakhstan and Georgia were in the process of developing flourishing economic and energy relationship.  Kazakhstan appeared to be close to a decision to contribute to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.  It was investing considerable sums in major projects like the gas terminal at Poti and buying assets in the gas pipeline business.  Admittedly, it might have come to an independent conclusion that the risk environment in Georgia is too uncertain for it to maintain its investments there.  But the timing of its announcements to coincide with Medvedev’s visit seems to be too good to be true, particularly if it is selling its gas assets to a company connected to the Russian government.  It is, therefore, quite likely that Moscow is pressuring Astana to disengage from Georgia lest other, vital, Kazakh interests be affected.

IMPLICATIONS: Certainly in the Belarusian case we can see that Russia is cracking the whip.  Its ambassador, Anton Surikov, said that while the world knows no form of instant collective recognition of states by other governments and the process should not be pressed or speeded up, Belarus has to sort out its relations with these provinces “which have to be recognized.”  Surkov further added that while Abkhazia and South Ossetia need not hurry to join the projected union state with Russia, Moscow does not rule out their future accession to it.   In other words, Moscow is holding a club over Minsk’s head that it has to recognize these provinces as states that could then form a union with Belarus and Russia wherein Belarusian sovereignty would be essentially dissolved and Lukashenka swept aside, or else Belarus will have to suffer the consequences. 

Moscow has formally stated that it will defend Russians everywhere and could easily claim that Russian citizens or compatriots in Belarus are being victimized in one form or another.  In a little known episode in 1919, the Soviet government played a sophisticated shell game with Belarusian sovereignty to ward off a feared invasion from the new Polish government at that time.  In other words, there is plenty of precedent for Moscow to emulate its recent experience in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and devise pretexts for detaching provinces form Belarus to Russia or in undermining the effective bases of Belarusian sovereignty.  Finally, Surikov’s other chief claim to fame is his many statements intimating that Moscow could put missiles in Belarus against NATO enlargement or missile defenses in Europe.

At the NATO–Russian council during the Bucharest summit last April, Putin memorably told U.S. President George W. Bush that Ukraine was not a real state and that if it sought to join NATO, Russia would dismember it.  This remark was of a piece with the Russian government’s oft-stated view that other CIS members are not truly sovereign states, a point that frequently emerges from the statements of Russian ambassadors.  Since then, we have seen in South Ossetia and Abkhazia just how little regard Moscow has for other states’ sovereignty, even for these provinces, as its ambassadors are already intimating that their sovereignty will be dissolved in a larger, future Union state. 

Likewise, in practice Russia is moving to compel other states to abandon their sovereign right to have economic relationships and investments with whomever they choose, and to recognize whomever they choose to recognize, lest they suffer retribution from Russia.  Russia also is holding over its neighbors’ heads the club of inciting separatist movements as in Ukraine where numerous reports allege that Russia is handing out passports to ethnic Russians in the Crimea.  Moscow’s newly announced doctrine of its extra-territorial right to protect its citizens wherever they live (echoes of both Hitler’s and Stalin’s pretexts for imperialism in the 1930s), and its open arrogation to itself of a sphere of influence throughout the entire CIS and beyond, are land mines placed under he sovereignty of all the states that emerged at the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

CONCLUSIONS: Russia is also still trying to further weaken Georgia and isolate it form sources of potential support inside the CIS, as it seeks in both rhetorical terms and active practice to impress upon CIS governments that in fact they are not truly sovereign.  Whether the issue on the agenda is energy, e.g. Russian efforts to persuade Azerbaijan to integrate its energy systems with Russia’s or the cutoff of foreign investment, takeover of both the gas supply and gas networks in CIS and other states, or the threat of territorial revision, in all cases we see a clear effort by Moscow to postulate and then enforce a de facto asymmetry in the sovereignty of these states vis-à-vis Russia.  The activities described here also show that Moscow is effectively still waging war (albeit not a violent one) against Georgia, seeking to isolate it and gain positions of strength and influence – in it an over it – by foreclosing forever the decision on the formal status of the two breakaway provinces, and by securing key economic bastions from which to threaten it.  Even as the international conference on Georgia and its provinces that is supposed to begin on October 15 approaches, Moscow clearly is seeking to retain a free hand to remap the CIS in whatever fashion it deems necessary.  Can a policy based on the foundations now imposed and proclaimed by Moscow truly impose a legitimate order in the CIS?  The unlikely nature of an affirmative answer to this question suggests that the ultimate outcome of Russian efforts to undermine both Georgia and the sovereignty of other CIS members can only be a negative one.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, The views expressed here do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. government.