Smoke and mirrors: Russia’s power projection in the post-Soviet space

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Since the 1990s, the post-Soviet space has become a theatre of struggle for various ideas, values , and geopolitical projects. Extraordinary interest in the countries of the former socialist camp was aroused by Russia, whose political ambitions provided a projection of its influence on bilateral and multilateral complexes of relations with states that have long existed in a similar paradigm of state organization. As a result of the diffusion of priorities of Russia’s foreign policy goals in 1991-1995, it became clear that the post-Soviet space in the perception of the Russian Federation was designed to become not only the locomotive of economic, political, and security stability but also a guarantee of Russia’s regional power. In turn, the delineation of the orbit of its influence was illustrated by the Kremlin’s ephemeral claims to global leadership, which can be explained by the long great-power tradition against the background of the restoration of the Soviet vector within the international political activity. However, given the events of the last decade, Russia is precisely the case when ambitions do not correspond with resources and potential. The collapse of the idea of federalization of Ukraine and the creation of another “gray security zone” in Donbas, disregard for international political rules of the game due to the illegal occupation of Crimea, weak institutionalization in relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), creating illusions about the viability of modern Russian political regime, the culmination of which was a simulacrum in the form of “sovereign democracy,” increasingly noticeable rollback of “soft power” of Russia in its most manipulative form – “Moscow as the Third Rome,” the gradual involvement in their own problems in the context of intensifying struggle against the opposition and reduced efficiency of energy blackmail – all aforementioned matters should be considered as evidence that Russia risks disappearing not only from the global “chessboard” but also from the regional one.

Destabilization of Ukraine for covering up the weakness of Russia’s political regime

In 2014, the Russian Federation began to construct a new coordinate system of the regional complex of international relations, which proved to be imbued with the spirit of realism, security dilemma, selfishness in the realization of national interests, and ruthless neglecting of the established game rules. The culmination of this process was the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Creating the image of a common enemy has always been a fundamental postulate of Russia’s foreign policy. It diverts society’s attention from internal problems ranging from socio-economic development to human rights disrespect. In addition, given that in world politics, states do not do what they want, but act within certain international orders, it can be stated that the decision to annex Crimea and the occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, taken by the Kremlin, had sufficient grounds and were seen as “the least of evils” for Russia. This means that the democratic processes taking place in Ukraine were seen as a significant threat, challenge, or danger that could hinder Russian influence and that resources to support “friendly” regimes for Russia by providing multibillion-dollar loans are being dynamically reduced. The financing of quasi-republics in the eastern part of Ukraine is clearly less of an economic burden than the hypothetical financing of official power structures, especially when Ukrainian society has clearly declared its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Russia’s ultimate goal in the form of the federalization of Ukraine also came to naught, given the clearly defined vector of Kyiv’s foreign policy orientations and its intransigence in the organization and functioning of a sovereign state body.

The collapse of Russia-Belarus “union state.”

Even though the Soviet type of identity has become a common denominator in building a bilateral complex of interaction between Moscow and Minsk, recent events in Belarus have created grounds for rethinking both the political and civilizational ambivalence of the latter. Russia’s response to the protests in Belarus envisages that maintaining the status quo has been too expensive for Russia’s ruling elites, who would find it much easier to tip the scales in their favor if the Lukashenko regime collapses and a new political situation crystallizes. The predominance in the international political discourse of topics around the prospects of reproducing the “Crimean scenario” in the Belarusian context has spawned a serious rethinking of the modern format of interactions between Minsk and Moscow. Even though the two countries are closely linked economically, politically, militarily, ideologically, and culturally, it is not only the benefits of such interdependence that come to the fore but the Kremlin’s ability to control such a multi-layered complex. It has become clear that the existence of such dictatorial regimes poses a direct and multi-layered set of Russia’s national landmarks, given that the sanctions imposed by the West also partially affect Russia’s interests. Thus, the stagnation of the project of the full merging of the state structures of Russia and Belarus is obvious, which first of all became a symptom of the Kremlin’s inability to continue military, economic and ideological support for the dictatorial regime of Lukashenko.

Predominance of form over substance within Russia-CIS relations

The recent events around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have clearly indicated that Russia’s interactions with “allies” in terms of regional integration alliances are formal, especially when it comes to the outline of commitments. In fact, Russia has resolved the issue with Turkey by circumventing its allied obligations under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), neglecting the interests of its “faithful” ally, Armenia. This was a powerful signal to rethink the reliability of Russia as a guarantor of obligations under international agreements by other member states of regional associations under the auspices of the Russian Federation. This has been repeatedly observed in the behaviour of another “satellite” of Russia – Turkmenistan, which regularly played down with the Kremlin by conducting military exercises in the Caspian Sea. Apart from the security track, other regional integration associations such as the Eurasian Union, encompassing the Customs Union, the Common Economic Space, and the Eurasian Economic Community, are not particularly effective due to Russia’s egocentric perception of its role in the post-Soviet space. Within the framework of the Customs Union, the ratio of Russia’s exports and imports in interactions with member states cannot be called a win-win situation. For example, exports to Kazakhstan were 31% in early 2010, and imports only 8.1%. Such asymmetry in favour of Russia pushes Central Asian countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) into the arms of other contenders for global and regional leadership. Therefore, it is not surprising that Central Asia countries are drifting towards other actors of international relations, such as China.

Given the declining effectiveness of the Kremlin’s engagement with the former Soviet Union in both the economic and security dimensions, China is gradually becoming a key stakeholder in the context of international security and stability in Central Asia, knocking the Kremlin out of the key pillars of its international equilibrium.

The illusion of the success of J. Nay’s approach in the Russian performance

Ideological tools, which are the articulation of meanings and ideas in response to the impulses of the international political coordinate system, and most importantly – the persuasiveness to convey/instill these meanings and ideas to the post-Soviet space in Russia’s implementation is significantly sagging. Aficionados of the “Russian world” concept tend to simplify the strategy of “soft power” by promoting the Russian language as a lingua franca, ignoring that the Russian language has become only a communicative system and has not become a communicative system a stable channel for conveying valuable content. The achievements of Aivazovsky, Bryullov, Tolstoy, or Lermontov are lost in the tumultuous flow of political manipulation, the “rattling of weapons,” and the limitations of Russian perception.

Attempts by Rossotrudnichestvo to lay down the foundations for an expanded range of cultural diplomacy could be considered successful if they were not of the same restraint character. After the events of 2008 and 2013-2014, Georgia and Ukraine completely fell out of the orbit of Russia’s ideological influence, as they witnessed the formation of pro-Western elites. After the protests, Belarus became seriously aware of its ambivalence (between the West and the East). The countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus continue to develop resistance to ideological “baits” from Russia, especially with regard to constructivist positions undertaken by China towards these countries. Thus, Russian narratives in the spirit of “Own-Alien” with an anti-Western colouring are becoming less effective and, consequently, are gradually levelling Russia’s ideological influence in the post-Soviet space.

It is worth mentioning the religious factor, which in historical retrospective played a key role in legitimizing Moscow’s “messianic” role. Currently, there are about 20 million Muslims in the Russian Federation, which is becoming an indicator that it is becoming increasingly difficult to neglect in the full implementation of the concept of “Moscow as the Third Rome.” This, in turn, is superimposed on the political factor because the main centres of instability in Russia are the Turkic peoples.

An important aspect is also the representation of the political regime in Russia. The fact is that the positive connotation of “democracy” and the diametrically opposite connotation of “autocracy” is so deeply ingrained in the international political milieu that even those actors who do not meet the criteria of a democratic regime come up with different terminology to prove their willingness to play by the rules-based order or as in the case of Russia – at least not to pick up even more sanctions. Russia calls itself a “sovereign democracy,” even in this context; it uses Western patterns. It, therefore, cannot even afford to carry out full self-representation at the present stage, which clearly shows its vulnerability and weakness.


To sum up, after reviewing the status quo within the post-Soviet space, it became clear that in the political, economic, and value dimensions, the Kremlin is significantly losing to the efforts of the collective West and new actors like China. In fact, Russia’s declarative influence in the region has been consolidated at the level of constructs (CSTO, Eurasian Union, Customs Union, etc.), which continue to be a powerful tool only in Russia’s imagination (as well as its desire to restore the greatness and become a “pole” of power in a multipolar world). Obviously, the West’s economic instruments of rooting and consolidating the impact work much more effectively. In terms of values, European borders are expanding further, although the Westphalian ones remain the same. In the security dimension, Russia’s reliance on hard power does not bring it a success, given the limitations of such a strategy and its dependence on resources, which continue to decline in the long run. Russia blindly continues to resort to the strategy of “stick” (for tactical reasons), which exhausts it primarily in economic and political dimensions. The legitimacy of the internal regime is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain through “small victories” over neighbors, which in the long run will mean the gradual degradation of the Russian state body and shift the focus to domestic problems. Suppose we consider the post-Soviet space as a zero-sum game in Western and Russian coordinates, then Russia (not considering the illusion of influence) began to go into the red.

Anastasiia Vozovych

Post Author: Intercourier

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