Russia’s foreign policy failures are snowballing at such a rate that they threaten a second geopolitical collapse on a par with the disintegration of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, writes former Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov in The Moscow Times.
What makes this tragedy so comic is that our leaders are essentially running backward into the future and calling it progress. At the same time, they shake their fists and foam at the mouth as they rant about Russia’s greatness, claim that it is “getting up from its knees” and endlessly repeat myths about its “new successes” and “historical initiatives.” By running backward, Russia inevitably stumbles and falls, while its clumsy foreign policy initiatives become the laughing stock of the world.
The Kremlin was not able to exploit its huge reserves that it accumulated after eight years of an oil boom by turning its economic power into political clout in the global arena. On the contrary, Russia’s global standing has worsened across the board.
Russia’s leaders have managed to alienate even its strongest allies. The alliance with Belarus is crumbling before our eyes as Kremlin leaders attempt to punish Minsk for years of foot-dragging over the sale of Belarus’ largest enterprises to Russia’s inefficient and nontransparent monopolies, for delaying plans to introduce a unified currency and establish other political and economic institutions intended to strengthen ties between the two states. Russia reacted with “milk and meat wars,” and Minsk responded in kind by refusing to attend a Collective Security Treaty Organization summit even while it was supposed to hold the rotating chairmanship of the organization — an embarrassing, if not humiliating, snub to President Dmitry Medvedev. What’s more, Belarus has joined the Eastern Partnership offered by the European Union and has actively diversified its foreign policy.
Armenia, which is hemmed in on all sides by closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey, suffered greatly during the days of the Russia-Georgia war last August. This quickly drove Yerevan to intensify its dialogue with Turkey over prospects for opening their common border that has been closed for decades, and, like Belarus, to join the EU’s Eastern Partnership.
Russia has also burned bridges with Turkmenistan. Throughout the recent economic boom years, Turkmenistan pumped gas to Russia to compensate for its growing deficiency, thereby helping to save the reputation of Gazprom — and thus Russia — as a reliable supplier of gas to Europe. But Moscow’s gas war with Kiev forced the EU to cut back sharply on purchases of Russian gas. This led to a drop in gas prices, and once that happened Moscow unceremoniously reneged on its contractual obligations to purchase gas from Turkmenistan. In early April, Russia shut the valve on the pipeline that imported Turkmen gas. This was the alleged cause of a major explosion in Turkmenistan — and a major explosion in Russian-Turkmen relations as well. The result is that Turkmenistan is now searching for more reliable commodity markets, has offered to join the Nabucco project as a gas supplier, is ready to discuss the Trans-Caspian pipeline project and has already given the Chinese access to its gas fields. A gas pipeline to China is also under construction.
Moscow was entirely alone in its decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Besides Nicaragua, not a single country followed Russia’s example. Russia has even managed to sever ties with Georgia — a country with a Russian Orthodox population that has always enjoyed warm relations with Moscow — for the highly questionable goal of wanting to maintain two microscopic puppet-satellite states in one of the most explosive regions of the world. If the Kremlin’s goals were to achieve international isolation and disdain and to increase the threat of a military conflict in the Caucasus, it was very successful.
Russia’s unnecessarily antagonistic actions toward Ukraine have turned the otherwise “brotherly relationship” into a hostile one. In the 1990s, when Ukraine also had trouble paying for its imports of Russian gas, the shortfall was simply added to its external debt, which it later paid back. Today, Moscow’s actions have helped consolidate Ukrainian society around an anti-Russia platform, prompting Kiev to seek membership in the EU and NATO. It also pushed Ukraine toward formulating a new national idea that is based on a rejection of the historical fraternity between our two nations.
The EU also drew its conclusions about Russia’s unreliability after the latest battle in January of the endless succession of gas wars, which resulted in more than 20 European countries being left without heat in bitterly cold temperatures after Russia cut off gas shipments that had already been purchased. Consequently, the EU reduced its purchases of Russian gas, made headway on developing the Nabucco pipeline, including allocating increased funding for the project, and stepped up the development of projects to import gas from Africa and the Middle East. The EU also invited Ukraine to join an alliance for purchasing gas from countries other than Russia. Both South Stream and Nord Stream have experienced setbacks that may complicate the future development of these pipeline projects. In short, this is the lowest point in the 16 years of EU-Russian relations.
Meanwhile, Russia’s relationship with NATO is also becoming increasingly adversarial. Azerbaijan is distancing itself from Russia and aligning itself more with the West. Moscow gave financial aid to Kyrgyzstan to push Bishkek to close the U.S. military base at Manas. But in the end, the Americans were allowed to stay after they increased the rental payments and renamed the base as a “transit center.” Despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow for the July summit, no “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations has taken place. In fact, they remain unchanged, as is evidenced by Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visits to Kiev and Tbilisi and by the sharp comments toward Russian that he made in his interview with The Wall Street Journal a week ago.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s attempt to restore Russia’s influence over the former Soviet republics has failed miserably. Moscow’s standing in the region is weaker now than it was even eight years ago, when Putin took over the presidency from Boris Yeltsin. This is a direct result of Putin’s failed policies during his two terms as president — the inability to modernize the economy, the systemic destruction of the country’s democracy, the sharp rise in corruption and the increase in the monopoly control of key industries under his state capitalism model. If you add to all of this a countless string of inept foreign policy disasters, it is easy to understand why Russia’s neighbors have turned their backs on Moscow and are looking to Western military, economic and political institutions for support and cooperation.
By Vladimir Ryzhkov
4 August 2009