Russian Politics and Law, January 2010 Table of Contents

Vol. 48 No. 01/January-February 2010

Dmitry Gorenburg: “Center-Periphery Relations After Ten Years of Centralization: Editor’s Introduction” p. 3

Aleksandr Libman: “Cycles of Decentralization in the Post-Soviet Space” p. 8

Alla E. Chirikova: “Regional Elites in Contemporary Russia: Conceptual Discussions and Political Practice” p. 21

Alla E. Chirikova: “The Power Vertical in the Assessments of Regional Elites: the Dynamics of Change” p. 40

Rostislav Turovskii: “How Russian Governors Are Appointed: Inertia and Radicalism in Central Policy” p. 58

L.E. Bliakher and L.A. Vasil’eva: “The Russian Far East in a State of Suspension: Between the ‘Global Economy’ and ‘State Tutelage’” p. 80

Center–Periphery Relations After Ten Years of Centralization

In the 1990s the dominant paradigm that governed studies of center- periphery relations in Russia focused on the weakness of the central state and the perception that it might result in the breakup of the Russian Federation, much as state weakness in the late Gorbachev period led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Then Vladimir Putin became president and started a cycle of centralization. Just as quickly, analysts turned to the question of whether Russia was now too centralized. They asked whether a country as physically large and sparsely populated as Russia could be governed as a unitary state, without devolving much if any authority to the regions.

This collection of articles showcases the work of Russian scholars who avoid both extremes, focusing instead on examining the processes through which center–periphery relations have actually worked in Russia.

In “Cycles of Decentralization in the Post-Soviet Space” Aleksandr Libman places this cycle of decentralization followed by recentralization in a comparative context, by looking at how similar processes played out in the other states that were formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He points out the parallel nature of decentralization processes in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. In all these countries, regional elites capitalized on central weakness to informally take over many powers that were formally assigned to the center. This process was taken to its extreme in Tajikistan, leading to civil war between competing regional elites after the almost total collapse of the center. A separate set of processes occurred in Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Georgia, where ethnically based regional separatism was the most powerful decentralizing force in the first years of independence. Of the post-Soviet republics, only Armenia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan avoided the informal decentralization cycle. (The author does not mention the Baltic states in his analysis.)

In all these countries, the end of the economic disaster of the 1990s and the resumption of economic growth in the last decade allowed central authorities to renege on the informal understandings they (or their predecessors) had reached with regional elites when the center was weak. Since the division of powers between center and periphery had not been formalized, recentralization was a fairly straightforward matter in most of these countries. As it became clear that the balance of power had significantly shifted toward the center, regional leaders by and large did not resist the centralizing efforts emanated from the capitals. The one exception was Kyrgyzstan, where elites in the capital were not strong enough to carry out the centralization effort and were removed by one set of regional elites in the Tulip Revolution of 2005.

With Libman having discussed the origins of the current pattern of center–periphery relations in the post-Soviet region, Alla Chirikova examines how regional elites have adapted to the newly centralized environment. In “Regional Elites in Contemporary Russia: Conceptual Discussions and Political Practice,” she begins with an extended discussion of how to think about political elites and how they might act in the context of the ongoing recentralization. The three paths she considers include unconditional subordination, bargaining, and inertia. Having laid out this theoretical framework, Chirikova then discusses perceptions of the recentralization among elites, based on in-depth interviews and a survey she conducted in 2004–6. She finds that the establishment of the power vertical by President Putin quickly turned “the relationship between center and regions from one filled with conflict to one of hierarchical co-subordination.” She argues that protest against Putin’s centralization drive on the part of regional elites has been muted because they have essentially been bought off by an increase in central financing. They have traded their political resources in favor of economic infusions from the center.

As a result, Chirikova argues that both regional development and regional political life are now largely dependent on orders from the Kremlin. This provides much sought-after stability for the Kremlin, but at the expense of the country’s long-term political development. She finds that the overcentralization of the Russian state is likely to make it more fragile for the long term.

In her second article, “The Power Vertical in the Assessments of Regional Elites: The Dynamics of Change,” Chirikova further develops her analysis, this time with a focus on changes in regional elites’ perceptions of centralization over time. The findings are based on the same set of surveys, conducted in Yaroslavl, Perm, and Sverdlovsk in 2004 and in Tatarstan, Stavropol, and Sverdlovsk in 2006. She finds that in 2004, most regional elites were worried about the effect of centralization, seeing an increase in distance between central and regional authorities, a decrease in responsiveness of central authorities in combination with an increase in their responsibilities, a decline in horizontal contacts among regions, and a general increase in chaos in the system of governance.

By 2006 members of the regional elite had gotten used to the new system of power and were less likely to express negative sentiments about it. Although they worried about its potential instability, they saw the power vertical as necessary in the present environment and better suited to a period of economic and political transformation than the system that preceded it. At the same time, they worried about the negative impact of this system on recruitment of new generations into the political elite. Overall, as Chirikova notes, regional elites preferred the security of a paternalistic system to the combination of greater opportunities and a higher level of uncertainty present in a democratic market-based system. As a result, she argues that at the present time Russian governors have been essentially turned into policy coordinators responsible for implementing orders sent from Moscow. While this is a big step down from their previous positions, it has allowed many of them to stay in power longer than the previous two-term maximum.

The extent to which the new political system has allowed for turnover among regional governors is the subject of Rostislav Turovskii’s “How Russian Governors Are Appointed: Inertia and Radicalism in Central Policy.” On the basis of an analysis of all gubernatorial appointments made in 2005–8, the author argues that the goals of central authorities have changed over time. Initially, President Putin sought simply to change the status of the governors as quickly as possible. To this end, most previously elected governors asked the president to appoint them to their position prior to the end of their term. Almost all these governors were reappointed. Over time, this tendency has shifted, so that by 2008 most governors whose term was expiring were replaced with new people. Furthermore, a number of governors were replaced prior to the end of their terms, as they had resigned or were declared to have lost the confidence of the president.

Overall, the trends outlined by Turovskii show that the central administration has gradually gained confidence in its ability to replace regional governors with their preferred candidates without causing political instability in the affected region. Furthermore, in many cases, Moscow is now replacing governors with outsiders, politicians (or administrators) who have little to no experience in the region they are being asked to govern. Turovskii notes that at the time of writing, thirteen governors belonged to this category. Considering that only thirty-three regions had had new governors appointed since 2005, this represents a fairly high percentage. Despite these changes, Turovskii notes that regional political elites have by and large remained passive, adapting to the new governors without any noticeable protest.

The final article in this issue examines the one set of circumstances in recent years when regionally based protests achieved a significant amount of success. In “The Russian Far East in a State of Suspension: Between the ‘Global Economy’ and ‘State Tutelage,’ ” L.E. Bliakher and L.A. Vasil’eva analyze the politics of this region in the context of a tendency for the central government to leave the Far East to its own devices whenever Russia enters a period of political or economic crisis. The authors note that in the 1990s Moscow exercised very little control over this region, allowing it to subsist largely on the sale of its natural resources and a semilegal international petty-trade business with its neighbors to the south and east. By contrast, as the Russian economy began to revive after 1999, central elites increasingly sought to control economic development and political life in the region. The rapidly strengthening state was fairly successful at eliminating semilegal economic activity by increasing trade barriers. As long as the reduction in economic opportunities was accompanied with fairly generous financing from the center, the inhabitants of the region were willing to go along.

The situation became unstable in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when generous payments ceased. At the same time, central authorities hoping to protect the domestic auto industry increased restrictions on the import of foreign automobiles. Given that this was the last economic sector where inhabitants of the region were able to make money outside the state sector, this led to public protests. These protests showed the weakness of the centralized system of government, which is unable to take into account the specific conditions in outlying regions. Together with the tendency of local administrators to pass all decision making to Moscow, this centralization increases the fragility of the entire political system.

Altogether, these articles show that the cycle of decentralization and recentralization that took place in Russia over the last twenty years is not unique. It parallels events both in Russia’s past history and in other parts of the region. At the same time, the authors in this collection argue that even as members of the regional elite are adapting to the new system of center–periphery relations, it has increased the vulnerability of the country’s political system as a whole to future political and economic shocks.

The Future of the Sevastopol Russian Navy Base

The following article recently appeared in the Russian Analytical Digest.[1] Some of the research for this article was carried out under the auspices of CNA Strategic Studies.


The recent election of Victor Yanukovich as president of Ukraine has brought the future status of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol back to the forefront of Russian-Ukrainian bilateral relations. When Victor Yushchenko was president, it was clear that the Ukrainian government would firmly oppose any possibility for extending the basing agreement. While many Russian analysts believe that the election of Yanukovich means that the likelihood that the lease will be renewed is substantially higher, the calculus is potentially more complicated, with constitutional, political and economic issues all standing in the way of a renewal.

The Recent History of the Sevastopol Basing Issue

The current agreement on the status of the Russian Fleet’s Sevastopol Navy base was signed in May 1997. According to the agreement, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet (BSF) was initially divided evenly between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine subsequently transferred most of its portion of the fleet back to Russia. In the end, Russia received 82 percent of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet’s assets. The agreement recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty over Sevastopol and its harbor facilities, but allowed Russia to lease the bulk of the fleet’s Sevastopol facilities for 20 years for a payment of $97.75 million per year. Russia also retained criminal jurisdiction over its troops in the city.

The agreement expires in 2017, though there is a clause stating that it will be automatically renewed for a further five years unless one of the parties gives one year’s advance notice in writing that it wishes to terminate the accord in 2017. While the official position of the Ukrainian government has always been that the agreement would not be renewed, the political tension caused by the summer 2008 war in Georgia brought this issue to the fore. Ukrainian politicians stated that the Russian Navy should begin preparations for withdrawal from the base and provided the Russian government with a memorandum on the timing and steps necessary to withdraw the fleet in a timely manner. The official Russian position is that the Russian Navy would like to negotiate an extension of the lease, but is planning for the possibility that it will be forced to leave Sevastopol at the end of the agreement. The Russian government has stated that it will not consider withdrawal plans prior to the agreement’s expiration.

Recently, some nationalistically-minded politicians and retired admirals have made statements indicating that Russia has no intention of ever leaving the Sevastopol base.  For example, former Black Sea Fleet commander Admiral Igor Kasatonov at one point stated that 2017 is a significant date only for “Russophobic” politicians. “The Black Sea Fleet is in Sevastopol forever… It will retain its base in Sevastopol, another will be built in Novorossiisk, Tuapse, maybe also in Sukhumi, if there is a need.” More recently, Mikhail Nenashev, a Russian State Duma deputy who serves on the Duma’s Committee on Defense and also heads the Russian movement to support the navy, argued that Moscow plans to continue to develop the Black Sea Fleet’s infrastructure, both in Russia and in the Crimea.

The Impact of Recent Political Developments

While President Yanukovich certainly has a more pragmatic attitude toward Russia than his predecessor, this does not necessarily mean that he will be eager to extend Russia’s lease on its naval base. It is after all a very controversial political issue in Ukraine and he may not want to take any actions that exacerbate existing regional and ideological divisions. One poll, conducted last fall, indicates that only 17 percent of Ukrainians support an extension, while 22 percent want the Russian navy out even before the agreement expires in 2017. For a president who is seen by a large part of the population as excessively pro-Russian and who was elected with less than fifty percent of the total vote, going against public opinion on this issue may prove tricky.

Second, there is the constitutional issue. The Ukrainian constitution prohibits the placement of foreign military bases on Ukrainian territory. The current Russian navy base is permitted because of a separate article that allows for the temporary placement of foreign bases as part of a transition period that was designed to smooth the process of Ukraine solidifying its independence in the mid-1990s. As one of his last acts, President Yushchenko asked the Ukrainian Constitutional Court to rule on the contradiction between these articles. Regardless of the impact of any future court ruling based on this request, there is widespread consensus in Ukraine that the renewal of the basing agreement would require a constitutional amendment, which would in turn require a two-thirds vote in the Ukrainian parliament.

Finally, there are economic issues. The initial signals given by Yanukovich in his first weeks in office indicate that he is willing to discuss the future status of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, but only in the context of a wide-ranging negotiation that includes a whole set of issues. Without doubt, he will ask for a significant increase in the amount paid by Russia to lease the base – Russian sources believe that the absolute minimum that Ukraine would agree to is $1 billion per year (i.e. a tenfold increase), while the Ukrainian side may ask for as much as $5-10 billion per year. In addition, Yanukovich is likely to seek additional Russian investments in regional infrastructure. He may also tie other issues, such as an agreement on border delimitation and even favorable terms on natural gas transit and import pricing, to a positive outcome on the basing issue. On the other hand, the departure of the Russian fleet is likely to lead to significant economic dislocation in Sevastopol, where it is one of the largest employers. This may in turn lead to social protests and even anti-government political agitation among the mostly pro-Russian population. Thus, even if the basing agreement is eventually renewed, it will not be an easy process and is likely to result in significant tension with Russia.

Alternative Basing Options

Given the relatively poor relations between Russia and Ukraine during the Yushchenko presidency, it is not surprising that in the last few years Russian naval officials and military analysts began to discuss possible alternatives for basing the Black Sea Fleet. One obvious alternative is the existing naval base at Novorossiisk, which has been expanded over the last several years and currently hosts a variety of smaller ships, including the fleet’s two missile hovercraft, some small anti-submarine warfare ships, and the fleet’s newer minesweepers. The commander of the BSF argues that while it would be theoretically possible to expand this base to house all the BSF ships, the reality is that doing so would have a negative economic impact on the region by creating bottlenecks at Novorossiisk’s busy commercial port. The resulting delays could lead commercial shippers to increase their use of Ukrainian ports at Russia’s expense. Russian commanders also contend that the base is unsuitable because of climate conditions in the area. An additional base at Temriuk will only be useful for smaller ships and has the disadvantage of being located on the Azov Sea, making it easy in the event of hostilities for enemy navies to trap ships there by blockading the Kerch Strait.

Some analysts propose building an additional base near Novorossiisk, either to the northwest on the Taman peninsula or to the southeast at Tuapse or Gelendzhik. These would both be possible locations, though the expense of building a new naval base from scratch would be quite significant, especially if it becomes necessary to buy out tourist infrastructure along the coast. Another, even less likely, possibility is to establish a second base at a foreign location. Two such locations have been proposed: Ochamchira in Abkhazia and Tartus in Syria.

In the aftermath of the Georgia War, Sergei Bagapsh, the President of Abkhazia, offered to have Russian ships based at Ochamchira. While this offer was initially taken up as a serious possibility by the Russian media, subsequent discussions led Bagapsh to issue a clarification in which he said that Abkhazia will not become a permanent base for the Black Sea Fleet, though facilities could be developed to host BSF ships when necessary to counter potential Georgian attacks. In any case, the harbor at Ochamchira is too small to host more than a few Russian ships. For this reason, the basing agreement signed last month between Abkhaz President Bagapsh and Russian President Medvedev will provide the Russian Navy with the opportunity to temporarily base some ships in Abkhazia. At least two patrol craft belonging to the maritime border guard will be permanently based at Ochamchira, but there will not be a permanent Russian naval presence there for the foreseeable future. At the same time, it is possible that the Russian Navy will at least temporarily base its missile ships there after 2017 if forced to relocate from Sevastopol while an alternative base is prepared. This would free up pier space for the larger ships in Novorossisk.

Even before the Georgia War, the Russian government announced that it was cleaning and upgrading its existing base in Tartus, Syria. This base served as a refueling and repair station for the Soviet Navy’s Mediterranean squadron, but has been largely vacant since 1991. It has facilities to house several large ships. Speculation about the relocation of all or part of the Black Sea Fleet to Tartus in 2017 arose in conjunction with the Syrian President’s visit to Moscow in mid-August 2008. Bashar Assad’s strong support for Russian actions in the Georgia War and offer to further develop the Russian-Syrian military partnership led to speculation that a number of Black Sea Fleet ships could be relocated to Tartus. Efforts to expand Russia’s naval presence in Syria continue, as made clear in a recent semi-official review of Russian military policy toward the region, which indicated that the potential closure of the Sevastopol base was one of the factors that obligated Russia to further develop the base at Tartus.[2] However, the base currently only has three piers, which would be insufficient for more than a small part of the Black Sea Fleet. Any expansion would face large construction costs plus the likelihood of high fees for the lease of additional land. It is far more likely that Tartus will resume its role as a maintenance and supply base for the Russian Navy, especially given government promises to expand the Navy’s presence in the Mediterranean and perhaps even to reestablish the Mediterranean squadron.

Prospects for the Future

Russian leaders are not willing to openly discuss the likelihood of the fleet’s departure with considerable time remaining on the existing deal since they believe that in time they can reach agreement with Ukrainian leaders on a renewal. At the same time, for Yanukovich there is little political benefit, and potentially a high cost, to compromising. Given that seven years still remain on the lease, while President Yanukovich’s current term will end in five years, it seems likely that little progress on resolving the basing issue will be made before 2015.

By that time, the Black Sea Fleet’s situation could be very different. Most Russian navy specialists believe that the fleet will have few seaworthy ships left by then. The deputy mayor of Sevastopol recently noted that the Russian and Ukrainian Black Sea Fleets combined currently have less than 50 combat ships, compared to over 1,000 in Soviet times.[3] By 2017, most of the remaining ships will have exceeded the lifespan of their engines by a factor of three or four. As one Russian expert indicated, Russia does not currently have the capacity to rebuild the fleet by 2017 given the state of its shipbuilding industry. In this light, there may not be any need to build a new base in Novorossiisk or anywhere else, as the current facilities there will be more than sufficient to house the remaining seaworthy ships. Accordingly, the most important goal for the Russian Navy is to restore its domestic shipbuilding industry, a step that it is now starting to take by contemplating building French-designed ships under license in St. Petersburg.

For Ukraine, the most important goal is to design and enact a program for the economic development of the Crimea in general and Sevastopol in particular. The Russian Navy’s eventual departure will leave a giant hole in the region’s economy. Ukrainian politicians would be well served to be prepared to fill this hole before it leads to social unrest among the largely pro-Russian population of the region.


[1] The Russian Analytical Digest is a bi-weekly internet publication jointly produced by the Research Centre for East European Studies [Forschungsstelle Osteuropa] at the University of Bremen and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), and the Institute of History at the University of Basel. It is supported by the German Association for East European Studies (DGO). The Digest draws on contributions from the German-language Russland-Analysen, the CSS analytical network on Russia and Eurasia, and the Russian Regional Report.

[2] The other factors included its potential to support anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa and the political need for an enhanced Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean.

[3] This seems an obvious exaggeration, as the total number of combat ships in the Soviet Navy at its peak in the mid-1980s was 2500, and the Black Sea Fleet was the third largest of four fleets. Nevertheless, the total number of combat ships has declined by approximately a factor of ten.

The following article recently appeared in the Russian Analytical Digest.[1] Some of the research for this article was carried out under the auspices of CNA Strategic Studies.


[1] The Russian Analytical Digest is a bi-weekly internet publication jointly produced by the Research Centre for East European Studies [Forschungsstelle Osteuropa] at the University of Bremen and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), and the Institute of History at the University of Basel. It is supported by the German Association for East European Studies (DGO). The Digest draws on contributions from the German-language Russland-Analysen, the CSS analytical network on Russia and Eurasia, and the Russian Regional Report.

Russian military threat assessment stays old school

I recently came across an interesting article in Voennaia Mysl, the most authoritative official Russian military publication on matters of doctrine and military planning. The title translates to “Political-military aspects in the formation of Russian interests on the southern geopolitical vector.” This article, written by Colonel Maruev and Lt. Colonel Karpenko and published last November, serves as a good indicator of how military planners view Russia’s military planning priorities for the near term.

The authors state clearly and up front that the southern sector is the most tense from the point of view of assuring Russian national security. This is a welcome antidote to recent items (including the new military doctrine) arguing that NATO presents the chief threat to Russia.  But unfortunately, this kind of new thinking does not last beyond the first page. In fact, the ostensible NATO threat repeatedly sneaks in through the back door, as it were.

Georgia and the Caucasus

For the authors, Georgia presents the main threat of instability in the region, plausibly enough given the recent conflict there. Blame for the deterioration of Russian-Georgian relations is placed squarely on the Georgian leadership, who “see Russia as their enemy” and therefore make cooperation impossible. Instead, the authors advocate not just supporting Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence, but in fact call for using these territories as a “launching pad for the further expansion of Russian influence in the Caucasus in order to realize [our] geopolitical interests.” This should be done by increasing Russian military presence in the two regions in order to counter Georgian military forces, which are equipped with the latest in modern NATO military technology. (No mention is made of the extent to which “modern” Georgian military forces failed in their war with Russian forces using almost exclusively with Soviet-era equipment — equipment can help win wars, but not if facing a vastly more numerous and better trained force.)

The authors then turn to the pernicious role of US efforts to take the states of the Caucasus out of the zone of Russian influence by bringing them into western political-military structures. Countering this effort in Georgia is seen as very difficult, but can be achieved by fulfilling all obligations made by Moscow in the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan and thus showing the Georgian population that Russia does not have any aggressive intentions toward their country. The hope is that this method of rebuilding trust would lead to a political change in Georgia that would bring to power more pro-Russian politicians. The contradiction between “fulfilling obligations made by Moscow in the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan” and increasing Russian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia  is not addressed, which leads me to think that Russian military planners interpret these obligations as requiring the withdrawal of forces merely to the borders of the “newly independent states,” rather than back into Russia proper.

Armenia is seen as a critical country in the region because of the presence of Russian military bases on its territory and its consequent role in containing Turkish and Azerbaijani interests. Maintaining Russian influence can be accomplished by not allowing the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the consequent end of Armenia’s transport and economic isolation through a scenario designed by the West. All I can say is that they better hope that Armenians don’t read this article.

Actually, the same goes for Azerbaijan, where the authors argue that the main problem for relations is that Baku is trying to connect relations with Moscow to the solution of the Karabakh conflict along lines that benefit Azerbaijan. (Shocking, I know…) They advocate using some flexibility in dealing with Azerbaijan, because of the country’s geopolitical importance.

In true zero-sum neo-realist fashion, the authors argue that Russia needs to make clear to the Caspian littoral states that their developing close relations with external powers would destroy their traditional links to Russia, thus causing them significant economic and political-military problems.

The Near East and Iran

In the concluding section of the article, Maruev and Karpenko turn to the Near East, focusing on Russia’s close relations with Lebanon and Syria, and also on the possibility of forming a pro-Russian lobby in Israel that could be used to further Russian interests in the region. (Fifth column, anyone?)

Relations with Syria are primarily supposed to focus on arms sales and the development of the Russian naval base at Tartus, while Lebanon should receive economic assistance in order to prevent it from drawing closer to the US. Iraq is mentioned  in the context of trying to revive Russian economic positions, particularly in the energy sector.

Finally, the authors argue that the current tension around Iran’s nuclear program partially benefits Moscow by keeping energy prices high, while also posing a danger because of the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They essentially advocate continuing to play both sides to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons while also trying to convince Western powers to be more flexible.

Analysis

All I can really say is that I’m glad the Russian military has so little influence in Moscow’s corridors of power these days. If the sentiments expressed in this article were actually Russian policy, I would have to go crawling back to George Friedman to ask for forgiveness. But fortunately (both for me and for the world), this article is more of a last gasp from a dying breed of Russian military strategists who continue to see threats from the West lurking around every corner and hope that politicians will believe them so they can get more resources for the army.

This is not to say that they are wrong on all aspects. Clearly, Russian leaders would love to have a more pro-Russian Georgian government in power and have taken political steps to try to make such an outcome more likely. I don’t see this as any different from steps taken by every other significant power in the world (and particularly the US) to try to change hostile regimes in strategically significant countries. The key question is not whether states try to influence the politics of other states, but whether they do this through illegal and/or destabilizing means, such as by fomenting coups. So far, since the war Russia doesn’t appear to have crossed this line Georgia, but it has come close.

I would argue that Russian policy in the region is far more subtle than the brute force zero-sum security thinking of the authors. Russian leaders are perfectly capable of conducting a far more subtle foreign policy that allows for close relations, for example, simultaneously with Armenia on security issues in the Caucasus and Turkey on trade and energy, as well as Black Sea security. Furthermore, Russia has been maintaining fairly cordial relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia for years now and there’s no reason to think it can’t continue to work with both states. Furthermore, I would argue that solving the Karabakh conflict is actually very much in Russia’s interest — both because it would eliminate a significant source of instability in the region and because Armenian economic revival would promote economic growth throughout the region, which would help Russian economic interests in the Caucasus.

Hopefully, we will eventually see a new generation of Russian military analysts take over, with more nuanced positions on Russian security. In the meantime, I guess I’m glad that the ongoing Russian military reform has significantly reduced the old guard among the General Staff.

Stratfor’s expanding ignorance

Stratfor, the company that provides  “global intelligence” to the world, seems to have completely lost its collective mind. It is currently in the middle of publishing a four part series on “Russia’s Expanding Influence.” (The reports are only accessible through the website to subscribers, though they are being reprinted in Johnson’s Russia List.) No author is listed, so I must assume this means it is a collective product that has the imprimatur of the entire corporation.

To summarize briefly, the introduction indicates that because of its geographic indefensibility, Russia needs a buffer zone around its borders to be a stable and strong state. The next part is the core of the argument and worth quoting in full:

First are four countries where Russia feels it must fully reconsolidate its influence: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Georgia. These countries protect Russia from Asia and Europe and give Moscow access to the Black and Caspian seas. They are also the key points integrated with Russia’s industrial and agricultural heartland. Without all four of them, Russia is essentially impotent. So far, Russia has reconsolidated power in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and part of Georgia is militarily occupied. In 2010, Russia will focus on strengthening its grasp on these countries.

This analysis is so wrong as to be funny. To say that Russia has reconsolidated its influence in those three countries is to be completely ignorant of current events. Belarus has recently turned away from Russia and is trying to get closer to the EU. Kazakhstan is primarily focused on developing its economy and is turning more and more to China in the economic and even inthe security sphere. And anyone who thinks that Yanukovich will do whatever Russia wants will be sorely disappointed. All signs in Ukraine point to him driving a hard bargain and making Russia pay for what it wants — it won’t be the knee-jerk anti-Russianism of Yushchenko, but he won’t meekly submit either.

Furthermore, as Keith Darden has shown in great detail in his recent book, for most of the last 20 years, Belarus and Kazakhstan have been spearheading re-integration efforts in the former Soviet space, efforts that Russia has repeatedly resisted. The story of the Belarusian efforts to increase political integration with Russia is instructive in this regard. After years of getting nowhere on implementation, Belarusian President Lukashenka has finally given up and has turned to the EU to balance his previously completely Russia-focused foreign policy. With Kazakhstan, Stratfor discusses  the gradually increasing Chinese influence but underplays its current role in the country and in Central Asia as a whole. In fact, rather than Russia having “reconsolidated power” in Kazakhstan, there is a three-way competition for influence in Central Asia between Russia, China and the United States. Russia is for the moment the strongest player in this competition (and the US is clearly the weakest), but its influence is waning while China’s is increasing. Kazakhstan, just like the other states in the region, is quite happy to play off these three powers against each other to preserve its own freedom of maneuver.

Anyone who thinks that the result of the recent Ukrainian elections means that Ukraine is returning to Russian orbit will be in for some nasty surprises in the coming months. As we saw as far back as 1994, Ukrainian politicians who campaign on pro-Russian themes are likely to adopt a more middle-of-the-road foreign policy once they get elected. Yanukovich’s early signals indicate that he is likely to follow the same trajectory as Kuchma did more than 15 years ago. Even analysts who are deeply suspicious of Russia, such as Jamestown Foundation’s Vlad Socor, believe that Yanukovich will try to balance Russia and the West in order to preserve his own freedom of action. In today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, Socor writes:

The Brussels and Moscow visits have probably set a pattern for Yanukovych’s presidency. He is moving almost without transition from a pro-Russian electoral campaign to a double-vector policy toward Russia and the West. Meanwhile, Yanukovych has no real popular mandate for new policy initiatives, having been elected with less than one half of the votes cast, and lacking a parliamentary majority (although he and Donetsk business may cobble together a parliamentary majority). For all these reasons, the president is not in a position to deliver on any agreements with Russia at this time.

Ukrainian-Russian relations will certainly be less strained than they were over the last five years, but by no means does this mean that Russia is anywhere close to controlling Ukrainian politics.

Overall, I find this analysis puzzling. I can’t imagine that the folks at Stratfor are so clueless that they don’t already everything I wrote above. The only alternative, though, is that they are distorting the situation in the region in order to pursue some kind of political agenda dedicated to resurrecting the Cold War-era confrontation between Russia and the United States. I find this possibility even more disturbing than the possibility that they are actually unaware of the political situation in the region.

Update: I just read part 2 of this series, which includes a section about the Baltics. While I have no desire to go into it at length, the following sentence was just too amusing not to note: “Estonia is also mainly Ugro-Finnish, which means that Russians are surrounded by Ugro-Finns on both sides of the Gulf of Finland.” Now I can’t quite get the image of Russia being surrounded by Estonia and Finland out of my head.

A French perspective

I recently received a communication from a French expert on the Russian Navy that provides an interesting (and I think quite accurate) perspective on the Mistral sale.

As you know, France is about to agree to sell four Mistral LHDs to Russia. Many see it as a signal to Russia that “this is ok” to invade all the little neighbors. Personally, I think that it would have been more damaging to the East-West relations to turn down the Russian approach. Built to commercial standards, the Mistral are more like ferries painted in gray and they don’t carry very sensitive technologies.

Many in Russia now consider that the US have taken over from Britain the traditional antagonism against them that led to the Crimean War and to the Great Game. They have sort of accepted this antagonism that has nothing to do with Communism. In this context, it would be interesting to resurrect the fact that during the Crimean and the Civil wars, Russia was a strategic partner of the US against Britain.

I think that we should take into consideration the weakness of Russia, their declining population and contemplate inviting them to a closer security relation. I don’t think that it was smart to press for a Nato integration of Ukraine and Georgia. The fact that the president of tiny Georgia contemplated military victory over Russia by seizing the initiative to reconquer Ossetia is another indication of this Russian weakness. And if you look at their shipbuilding programs and at their o[rder] o[f] b[attle], they will decline even further, just like the Royal Navy. Right now, the Russians are unable to make Bulava work and replace their SSBN fleet; the replacements for destroyers, frigates and submarines are awfully late. The carrier project is an admission that carriers are more effective than missile cruisers. It means that they won’t replace their missile cruisers and just get a replacement for Kuznetsov which is getting old by Russian standards.

My French colleague’s argument reinforces the point that the Russian Navy is declining, and the Mistral, while a fine ship, will not suddenly turn it into the most formidable force in the region. Furthermore, despite ongoing reforms, the Russian military as a whole will also get weaker before it gets stronger, in part because of deteriorating equipment, in part because of a decline in available personnel, and in part because of the retirement of well-trained officers who began their careers in the Soviet period and their replacement by officers who made their careers in the 1990s, when money for training was scarce.

The second point that comes out of the argument above is that European security would be strengthened by including Russia, rather than isolating it. This doesn’t mean that NATO should be replaced by some sort of vague new European security architecture along the lines proposed recently by Medvedev. But it does mean that the U.S. and European states (including the so-called New Europe of the east) should make an effort to work with Russia on security issues of concern to both sides, rather than ostracizing it because of a combination of leftover Cold War fears (for the western states) and fears of Russian neo-colonialism (for the eastern states).

As I noted in my previous post, I don’t think that Russia is interested in restoring its former empire.  Russia IS interested in preventing the emergence of hostile states on its borders — thus the rapid and somewhat excessive response to Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia. The key question for NATO collectively and its member states individually is how to ensure European security while at the same time reassuring Russia that its security interests on its borders will be taken into account. France and Germany have decided that this question can best be addressed by working with Russia on sensitive issues related to regional economic and military security, rather than by isolating it. While this is something that needs to be done with suitable caution, it seems to me that it’s a better idea than isolating Russia or treating it as a potential enemy.