Russia's aggression against its neighbors, especially Ukraine, is a fundamental cause of the strain between them, and between Russia and the West. Moscow wants international recognition of a sphere of influence as the basis for a new European security structure, but it is meeting resistance. Unless Moscow forges better relationships with its neighbors—which is something that the West encourages—then their deepening ties with the world beyond could reshape much of the post-Soviet space.
Post-Cold War hopes for a Europe at peace remain unrealized. Moscow is opposed to further North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union expansion eastward and to democratic uprisings (often called “color revolutions”) in former Soviet states. This was why Russia provoked Georgia into a disastrous war in 2008. Russian forces now occupy its separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. To similar ends, Russian proxies and military forces seized Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 and now occupy part of the Donbas region, where over 10,000 people have died in a war that still simmers.
Russia also confronts these countries in other ways. It bombards them with anti-Western propaganda and warns that Georgia's joining NATO could “provoke horrible conflict.” Russian warships are harassing Ukrainian shipping between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Moscow holds Ukrainian political prisoners, including noted film director Oleg Sentsov. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a Kremlin ally, is threatening to sever ties with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople if he grants canonical status to the Kyiv Patriarchate.
Additionally, the Kremlin has tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to strong-arm Belarus into accepting a Russian airbase. Since the invasion of Ukraine, President Alexander Lukashenko has remained wary of Russia's intentions and sought to improve Western ties and burnish his patriotic credentials. Meanwhile, Russia constrains natural gas exports from Turkmenistan in an effort to push it into exporting to China and Iran.
Still, Russia does not lack leverage in the post-Soviet space. It has military bases in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and in Moldova's separatist Transnistria region. Moscow dominates the relatively protectionist Eurasian Economic Union to which Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan belong. Russian television and radio influence many audiences. Moscow exerts regional sway through some of the ethnic Russian minorities in Ukraine (over eight million); Kazakhstan (over three million); and more than a half-million in Belarus, Latvia and Uzbekistan.…
The remainder of this commentary is available at nationalinterest.org.
William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia and a U.S.-Soviet commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. Kenneth Yalowitz is a global fellow at the Wilson Center, former U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on October 3, 2018. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.