The Wider View

January 06, 2021

Old Empires Collide

Russia’s concept of the “near abroad” is a doctrine that helps explain Moscow’s foreign policy both toward those states once formed part of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire’s historic rivals, including Turkey, Poland, and China.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin
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The recent military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in a decisive victory of Azerbaijan over Armenia and the return of most of the territories occupied by Armenia between 1992 and 1994. It was seen as the first case in the post-Soviet space in which the central government restored control over a rebellious province.

Some analysts saw this also as the first case in which Russia actually allowed its close ally to lose, following its own military advances in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014-2015, causing speculation that Moscow’s position in the region it declares an area of its “vital interests” is weakening. Some alternative views suggested that the Kremlin has punished the current Armenian leadership for its pro-democracy policies and dethroning Putin’s loyalists two years ago and that it has increased its presence in the region as the Russian peacekeepers are now deployed in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Of course, the Azerbaijani-Armenian war of 2020 was the first episode in which troops and military advisors from outside the former Soviet Union took an active part in fighting within the former USSR’s territory,  with Turkey providing supplies, commanders, and, allegedly, even mercenaries loyal to Ankara. All this was considered a major “geopolitical earthquake” in Russia’s “backyard” and will become a topic for deep reflections by politicians, experts, and influencers all across the world. It’s necessary, though, to look at the conflict within a much broader context.

Sovereign but not Independent

Let’s look first at the Russia-Turkey link—the importance of which is broadly underestimated. In the recent conflict Russia and Turkey played along very similar lines and adopted quite similar strategies. We need to step back a bit and turn to the start of Russia’s foreign policy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The widely-held belief that the democratic Russia under Boris Yeltsin was completely different in its approaches from the authoritarian state of President Vladimir Putin, it's not entirely true. Moscow, it seems, had never accustomed itself to its new role and to the fact the post-Soviet republics act on their own.

The formula was that they were regarded as “sovereign but not independent,” while the post-Soviet space was almost immediately called “near abroad” contrasting with the real, or “far abroad” comprising of the nations that existed at the time of the USSR. This term, which was invented for arguing that the newly-drawn borders may not be the final ones, has been studied by the Western experts from its appearance in 1991 at the time the Soviet Union still existed, and many of them agreed that its common use was not a coincidence. The concept of the “near abroad” which has born almost simultaneously with the Russian Federation as an independent state, has changed over time, and quite substantially.

First, Russia claimed it has some “special responsibility” over these territories as the Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the rebellious regions in Moldova and Georgia. Later, Moscow started to voice its discontent concerning post-Soviet borders as several high-ranking officials, including former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, claimed Sevastopol is a “Russian” city.

Use of Military Force

Moscow became very concerned in late 1990s and early 2000s as the former Soviet Baltic republics began to join both NATO and the European Union—but there was a consensus that these countries represent something in the middle between the “near” and the “far” abroad. When the same claims were made by other “independent” states, however, the attitude changed. The Russian government became extremely sensitive to former republics’ attempts to station foreign military installations or to join military alliances (as was the case of Georgia and Ukraine in 2008, which Putin addressed in his famous speech at NATO-Russia summit in Bucharest).

The last phase that started in the same year was marked by the open use of military force against neighboring nations that tried to “distance” themselves from Russia. Moscow not only recognized two rebellious breakaway republics for the first time but focused impressive foreign policy efforts on promoting them to the outside world.

Around the same time another symbolic measure was taken by the Kremlin: while Russia had for some time been disseminating its passports illegally to strengthen its position in the “near abroad,” it now started to underscore its special role in the post-Soviet space declaring that people born in any part of the former Soviet Union or the Russian Empire could apply for the Russian citizenship on a kind of “fast track.” Finally, in 2020 via constitutional amendments the Russian Federation actually proclaimed (by adding a special article 67[1]) itself as the legal successor state to the Soviet Union—something  that no other European nation that had been a continental empire had ever done.

Special Interests Zone

The rationale for all these measures as it was presented in Russia consisted in general of three elements. First, it was the issue of “national security” to prevent foreign (i.e. “far abroad”) countries from establishing their influence in post-Soviet territories. Second, it was the claim that there are numerous “Russians” (no one defined whether that meant citizens of the Russian Federation, ethnic Russians, or “people who consider the Russian culture and Orthodox faith as their own”) in these regions, and they should be “defended.” Third, Moscow has often used the argument that former Soviet republics owed a lot to Russia for their former economic successes, and that Russia is making a lot of concessions to them and is supplying them with considerable financial and economic assistance (that is partially true as the indirect financial benefits alone for Belarus are estimated to be as high as $100 billion since 2000).

These factors combined to lead Moscow to consider the “near abroad” as Russia’s “special interests zone.” In order to secure these interests Moscow used a policy that was called the fostering of “managed instability”—creating political or economic problems inside the neighboring countries, Russia made itself indispensable in “solving” (or rather “freezing”) them. Only one post-Soviet conflict—the Tajikistan civil war of 1992-94—was successfully resolved with Moscow’s help while in all the others Russia tried to sustain the fragile status quo with meaningless talks and negotiations going on for decades.

Historical Memory

In recent years an additional—and by far more disturbing—element was added to this “triad,” one that could be termed “historical memory”: these days it is common to identify Russia with either the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire when it comes to military victories and/or territorial expansion. No one talks about the Soviet victory over the Nazi Germany: Russia is declared to be a victorious nation, even though the Belarussian people suffered the largest share of casualties in that war and of the nationalities that composed the Soviet Union it was the Ukrainians who had the highest presence in the Soviet Army.

But this strategy proved to be quite successful, creating the circumstances in which Russia is regarded as the “one and only” power that can pretend to have special rights in its “near abroad.” Simply speaking, Russia’s “near abroad” should be considered everybody else’s “far abroad”—though here the case of Turkey appears to be an exception.

Two Multicultural Empires

Like Russia, Turkey was a powerful multicultural empire for centuries. It comprised of different territories and people of various origins rose to the top governmental positions as was also the case in the Russian Empire. The Turkic people, like the Slavonic people, used to live in different regions from Siberia to the Adriatic Sea. Moreover, just as the Russian Empire presented itself as the “keeper” of the Orthodox Christian faith and protector to the many Orthodox peoples in South Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire was the cornerstone and defender of political Islam for centuries, controlled two holiest Muslim shrines from 1517 till the end of World War I and was considered a “natural ally” to many Muslims beyond its formal borders.

The two empires fought at least 12 wars against each other starting from their first encounter in 1568 at Astrakhan up until the last battle for Bitlis in 1916. It should be  recalled that the Crimean khans, being vassals to the Ottoman sultans, attempted to capture Moscow in the mid-16th century while the idea of retaking Constantinople from the Ottomans was one of the most obsessive doctrines that haunted the Russian elite until at least 1917. But even more important is both states’ former reach: dozens of strategic sites and strongholds from Izmail in the West to Tabriz in the East—and almost everything in between: Bessarabia, Crimea, Azov, the Taman peninsula, Abkhazia, and Kars—once belonged to either the Ottoman or the Russian Empire.

These vast territories, if one relies on historical memories, may be regarded as the outskirts not only of the “Russian” but also of the “Turkish world.” The northern shores of the Black Sea, the Crimea, coastal Georgia, as well as huge parts of both Armenia and Azerbaijan are not only Russia’s, but also Turkey’s “near abroad.” As a result, the concept that was invented in Moscow for securing its political claims backfires these days along Russia’s southern periphery as Turkey effectively makes similar claims by openly calling Azerbaijan “a brother country.” The most striking feature of the recent conflict, therefore, arises from the fact that it emerged right in the middle of these inferred imperial “near abroads.”

Overlapping “Near Abroads”

Furthermore, today’s Russia and Turkey look even more similar when one looks at their foreign policy of the last half a century. Russia occupied Ukraine’s Crimea claiming the local people of Russian descent called for independence and protection from Ukrainian “nationalists.” Turkey’s rhetoric to justify its actions was similar when it occupied the territories in Northern Cyprus in 1974 in the wake of a coup that could supposedly result in the reunification of Cyprus with Greece.

Both countries have collided in several regions where they think they both possess “vital interests”—from Syria to Libya (the Soviet Union had a long history of having claims on Tripolitania, the former name for Libya). Both nations believe their compatriots were (or are) suppressed and discriminated in the Crimea—first Russia acted to prevent hypothetical “ethnic cleansing,” and now Turkish leaders say they support Crimean Tatars and Muslims’ interests in the peninsula and therefore by no means recognize Russia’s sovereignty there. I would argue that Russian-Turkish quarrels perfectly reflect the situation where two mighty former еmpires are rethinking their current policies when it comes to their “near abroads.” While the Russians actually coined the term it was the Turks who first put it into action in Northern Cyprus.

Ancient Rivalry

It seems, however, that Russia’s definition of its “near abroad” not only collides with Turkey’s these days. For centuries, Russia fought wars not only on its southern borders, but also on its western ones—and here its main rival was the Kingdom of Poland, either in the form of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or the Rzeczpospolita. Since the 14th century Poland controlled vast territories to Russia’s west; it dominated lands that Moscow considered as “historically Russian,” such as the old princedoms of Kiyv, Chernihiv, or Polot’sk.

Moreover, the Poles and their allies at the time, today’s Ukraine and Belarus, emerged as crucial enemies to the early Russian state in the 16th and 17th centuries during both the Livonian Wars and the Time of Troubles when they eventually controlled Moscow  and the Russian nobility even considered recognizing Poland’s Prince Władyslaw Vasa as the tsar of Russia. The showdown ended in late 18th century as the Russian Empire together with the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Empire defeated Poland and eventually dismembered it into three, with each controlling one part.

It is important to understand how much this history still dominates Russian political thinking, with the ancient rivalry looming large when it comes to current politics. For example, when Putin started to look for some significant event that might be celebrated as the “Day of National Unity” to replace the anniversary of the 1917 Revolution as Russia’s main state holiday, he chose the 4th of November, a rather mythical date of the “expulsion of Polish forces” from the Moscow Kremlin in 1612 that preceded the Concilium of the Russian nobility that elected Mikhail Romanov to the throne.

Furthermore, when Russian propaganda focuses on World War II and glorifying the heroic deeds of the Russian people who saved the world from German Nazism and presumably secured Russia’s unique position in both Europe and the world, Putin blames the Poles for their role in allowing the military conflict in Europe to start in 1939. In his recent “theoretical” article published in The National Interest, he mentions the Polish foreign minister of the time, Józef Beck, more often than all the leaders combined—just because it’s crucial for a Russian these days to stress: if Poland is to blame, Russia is “on the right side of history.” When Ukrainians rose up during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Russian experts repeatedly stated that the “Eastern Partnership” strategy the European Union enacted several years prior to those events had been created by the Polish politician, former Defense and Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski.

Most Hated Nation

One historical event that Russian historians are dealing with intensively is the mass killing of Polish officers by a Soviet NKVD squad near Katyń in 1940. Just recently the Moscow-based Military Historical Society, managed by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and chaired by former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, openly questioned the very fact of this brutal atrocity. It is also no coincidence that Kremlin propaganda completely supports Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka as he presents the popular protests in Belarus akin to Poland’s attempt to restore its sphere of influence and to undermine the Russian efforts in strengthening the “Union State” of Russia and Belarus.

Warsaw has never done anything similar to what Ankara has ventured. However, it has allowed the inhabitants of Russia’s Kaliningrad region to enter Poland without a visa for visiting borderland towns and in 2007 introduced the so-called Karta Połaka which until 2019 was issued exclusively to the citizens of all post-Soviet countries of Polish descent allowing them to travel and study in Poland (since last year Polish people in any country are eligible). Nevertheless, Poland is by far the most hated among all the European nations in Russia—which can be attribute to the deep memories of the geopolitical struggle that Moscow cannot (and doesn’t want to) root out. Once again, Russia, as a former empire, is unable to establish friendly relations with a country that considers any part of Russia’s “near abroad” as also part of its own.

Unfazed by China’s Rise

Looking at Russia-Turkey tensions, some have assumed that Moscow became concerned because of the emergence of a new regional superpower on its southern borders. Many have argued that Moscow has only now realized that Ankara possesses the largest army in Europe, equipped with surprisingly efficient ammunition, and a fleet more modern and numerous than Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. This alone is not enough, though, to deeply trouble Russia. One may look eastwards, to China, which these days is much stronger in military terms and much more revisionist in geopolitical terms than any other Russian neighbor. But Russia is absolutely indifferent toward, for example, China’s attempts to increase its influence in Central Asia as Beijing tries to promote its “Belt and Road” strategy.

China now looks like a global power that is much more deeply involved in the region’s issues than even Russia; its direct investments in Kazakhstan are 1.8 times those of Russia, and in Uzbekistan almost 10 times. China has become the largest trading partner to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan and its influence in the region is on the rise. Moreover, China’s grip over the Russian Far East is growing as Beijing masterfully promotes its economic agenda in this rather underdeveloped Russian periphery. Nevertheless, there are no signs of geopolitical rivalry here, attributable not only to the strong Sino-Russian alliance that is highly valued by Moscow but also to three other points.

First, China never fought any successive wars with the Russian Empire and never engaged in direct geopolitical competition with Russia. Secondly, Russia’s conquest of Central Asia never resulted in a colonial presence in the region in the strict sense of the word; the vast eastern territories were only a military possession of the empire, controlled by it for only around a hundred years. And, thirdly, China has a long border with Russia and is therefore  considered primarily as a neighbor and not as a competitor for “in-between” lands. For millennia, China has been a monoethnic empire which rarely expanded by trespassing its “natural” borders.

Memories of Empire

Russia, as I argued earlier, has been—and even now pretends to be—an empire. This makes Russia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis post-Soviet nations specific for at least two reasons.

On the one hand, since Russia was a continental, and not an overseas, empire (and here I would say that all its competing neighbors like the already mentioned Ottoman Empire and Rzeczpospolita were also continental empires), its relationship with its former territories (whether part of the historical metropolis, a settler colony, or a military possession) was substantially different from the relationship that the great European empires had with their own dependencies. Russia—as well as Turkey and even to some extent Poland—treated its colonies and possessions as parts of its own territory and therefore it is much more difficult for the Russian political elite to recognize them now as independent states.

The idea of a “natural leadership” is inherent to almost any state that used to be a centerpiece of an continental empire, and in the Russian case it’s a factor that should be taken into account (Turkey also shares some similarities as Ankara dreams now of becoming a leader of the Sunni Islamic community, which in some sense embraces the most of the former Ottoman territories). So, the “near abroad” in such former imperial states is different from, for example, the Commonwealth in the United Kingdom’s case.

On the other hand, the attitude to its former possessions, and now independent nations, is unlikely to foster relations that are natural for allies. Even if these countries are not seen as inferior (weaker, economically less developed, or deprived in some other terms) they are considered as satellites rather than allies. The well-known Russian attempt to build a “Eurasian Union” that is supposed to resemble the European Union, has failed mainly because Russia accounts for 86 percent of its combined GDP and therefore could not be counted as even relatively equal to any of the other members.

Partially Sovereign

And if the neighbors are seen as satellites, then the attitude toward them as “partially sovereign” entities looks perfectly justifiable. Therefore, Russia has never treated its proxies as really independent states and has believed that even the treaties concluded between herself and “others” are optional rather than serious. The Eurasian Union has no powers that shouldn’t be confirmed by heads of states (in other words: Russia); the Collective Security Treaty was not enacted even when a Russian helicopter was downed by Azeri fighters over Armenia’s territory.

In conclusion, Russia’s concept of the “near abroad” is a very meaningful doctrine that helps explain Moscow’s foreign policy. The former US National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, once observed that “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire”—but I would say that in this case an imaginary control may be even more important than a “real” one these days. Ukraine has been a sovereign state for three decades, but its sovereignty actually ignites Russian imperialism rather than extinguishes it.

For Russia, as a former empire, there is a great difference between a periphery and a borderland. The first, like Turkmenistan, and even Kamchatka, is of very limited interest, to say the least—while the regions that lie in between its imperial core and the centers of its historical rivals loom as extremely important. Ukraine for centuries was seen as a borderland, and not a simple periphery.

The South Caucasus is now emerging as another borderland, something that may bring enormous repercussions to the region if Russia sees the Armenia-Azerbaijani rivalry as just part of a Russia-Turkey one. Of course, no one can predict the course of events for the coming decades but what can be said with certainty is that examining the post-Soviet space as a multitude of competing “near abroads” may greatly enrich the knowledge about the most crucial developments that are taking place within this vast domain.

Vladislav Inozemtsev is Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia Program in Washington, DC.

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