Russia's covert colonialism: The West should not allow Moscow to re-create the Soviet empire, says Jonathan Eyal

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The Independent Online
THE WEST'S relations with Russia, it seems, have never been better. The country's recently published constitution heralds the creation of a new democracy, while Nato's decision not to exclude any former Communist state from its co-operation projects should put military contacts with Moscow on a much sounder footing. Behind the scenes, however, a serious debate is taking place in most Western capitals about the appropriate response to increasing evidence of a Russian desire to impose a sphere of influence over the former Soviet empire.

With the exception of the Baltic states, most other former Soviet republics have been forced back into the Commonwealth of Independent States. The tactic pursued by Moscow in order to achieve this has been fairly basic: as if by magic, secessionist movements have sprung up in many former Soviet republics, all better equipped than the government they opposed. A brief period of civil war ensues before Russia intervenes to 'separate' the warring parties and impose a peace which, invariably, involves the stationing of Russian forces.

Furthermore, most of the warfare starts and stops exactly when Mosow wants it to: the Abkhazian rebellion in Georgia, for instance, fell strangely silent the moment Eduard Shevardnadze signed a treaty that virtually extinguished his country's independence.

In practice, Moscow is pursuing three different strategies at once. The first consists in destabilising some neighbouring states by exploiting existing ethnic rivalries, although, interestingly, in none of these small wars has the fate of ethnic Russians been at stake, despite Moscow's claims.

The second technique is more sophisticated. In both Moldova and Tajikistan, Russian forces have co-opted a good number of local ethnic Russians, a 'nationalisation' process which renders the presence of these troops almost permanent.

The third strategy is the creation of enclaves which, if put together, coincide with the Soviet Union's original frontiers. The Dnestr enclave in Moldova, the beefing up of the military presence in Kaliningrad, and Yeltsin's declaration that the Tajik-Afghan border is Russia's own frontier are all signs of this strategy. Moscow has also signalled its intention to strengthen its military presence in the Caucasus well beyond the limits envisaged by current arms control treaties.

The logical conclusion of this policy was made clear recently: in speeches in London and the United Nations, Russia's foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev asked the West to allow Moscow to engage in peace-keeping operations throughout the former Soviet empire.

The request is disingenuous at every level. First, peace-keeping operations require a ceasefire which in most former Soviet republics does not exist, impartial forces which the Russian troops cannot be and a degree of military sophistication which Russian officers do not possess. Second, peace-keeping operations need to be accepted by the protagonists in every conflict, not discussed between Moscow and the West. Finally, regardless of the West's opinion, the Kremlin has already embarked on its 'peace-keeping' actions. The troops in Moldova have had their helmets painted blue, even though the local government opposed their presence, and Russia's latest military doctrine envisages the continuation of such operations without anyone's approval. Moscow is therefore not seeking permission from anyone: it merely wants a seal of approval for what are essentially colonial operations in its borderlands.

Confronted with such demands, Western governments have sought a compromise. On the one hand, they intend to refuse Russia's request for a blank cheque. Yet at the same time, since it has no intention of being involved in local conflicts, the West has sought to place conditions on Russia's involvement outside its frontiers. These conditions, likely to be tabled at the ministerial meeting of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe at the end of this month, suggest that in return for international acquiescence, Moscow should be asked to respect the sovereignty of the state concerned, produce a timetable for eventual withdrawal and accept some international observers into the bargain. Moreover, the West has also made clear that Russian involvement in Ukraine or the Baltic republics would be considered quite differently from Russian bullying in Central Asia or the Caucasus: while the latter may be inevitable, the former should be avoided at all costs.

Foreign policy has never been a matter of morality and, if the current Western proposals succeed at least in insulating the European continent from potential turmoil, they will have served an honourable purpose. Unfortunately, they have little chance of achieving anything of the kind.

The limitations that the West is seeking to impose are a set of meaningless declarations of principle that can neither restrict Moscow's scope for action nor safeguard the independence of new states, and are likely only to debase the very concept of peace-keeping operations. What is more, by allowing Russia to exercise almost unfettered influence over the former Soviet republics in Asia, the West is tacitly accepting a set of precedents with long- term consequences. Chief among them is Russia's claim to be the self-appointed defender of ethnic Russians everywhere: if these arguments apply in, say, Kazakhstan, they could become even more compelling in the Baltic republics. The West's position is also logically flawed: if the West refuses to intervene in smaller conflicts in Asia, would it have the stomach to intervene in larger and potentially more dangerous ones in Ukraine? Weakness invites bullying, not respect.

Yet the biggest criticism of the West's current thinking is that it is agreeing to a debate about Russia's involvement in the former Soviet republics according to criteria decided in Moscow. The very same Western officials who assert with confidence that Russia has lost its 'imperial itch' also accept that the Kremlin has 'legitimate interests' in neighbouring states.

So the present discussion about the Western response is not necessarily intended to influence Russia's actions, butto fit existing realities into a set of liberal and high-sounding international principles. In future, leaders of former Soviet republics need not concern themselves with asking for Western help. They would do better to fly direct to the CNN studios in Atlanta, Georgia - for only media pressure can now elicit some concrete Western respect.

The West would do well if, while seeking to limit Russian activities in the former empire, it were also to challenge many of Moscow's current security assumptions. Far from providing added security, involvement in colonial wars would ultimately extinguish any hope for democracy in Russia. Many of those who took part in the bloody riots in Moscow last September earned their first medals in Russia's peripheral wars. Just as France was in danger of discovering in the late Fifties, what begins as a colonial war can eventually spill over into a generalised civil war nearer home.

Instead of seeking to reassure Russian generals who, in any case, will never be convinced of the West's benign intentions, Russia's friends should try to impress upon Yeltsin and his lieutenants - especially the increasingly shrill Mr Kozyrev - that limiting the scope of these wars is in Moscow's best interests. The conditions on Russia's outside military involvement should therefore be exactly the conditions that already apply to any country that seeks to sustain a peace-keeping operation. Then, if Moscow fails to abide by them, the West must seriously consider reimposing conditions on its financial aid. The Kremlin would still be free to engage in colonial wars, but it would do so with its own, rather than with Western money.

The West is mistaken if it believes that allowing Moscow to reimpose its control over the Soviet empire carries no other costs. As long as Russian forces roam free, Ukraine will never be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons. And, as long as the West shows no ability to face up to realities, the pressure from East European states for integration into Nato's structures will only increase.

For years, Western governments have tried everything in order to avoid a new confrontation with Moscow. But relations with a great power cannot be conducted on the basis of a seemingly perpetual honeymoon. They depend on shared interests and, in the coming years, Moscow's actions and Western interests are bound to clash more frequently. Despite its theoretically vast potential, Russia's main claim to superpower status for quite some time to come will still rest on its huge military arsenal, not economic importance. The idea that Russia will not be tempted to flex its muscles is an illusion, and facing up to current realities is therefore in everyone's interests.

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photographs omitted)

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