Last week Foreign Policy published an article on how Russia’s energy policy has pushed Europe and Asia to find alternatives to Gazprom. No surprise here. It is the quintessential flaw in all Russian government policies: the strongman approach. Russia continually miscalculates its own strength, offering only the stick with very little carrot. The country is locked in a time when Moscow controlled a huge swath of the globe, including Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It seems that Moscow is unable to accept that countries like Moldova, Georgia, and Tajikistan are not only independent from the Russian Federation, but have options besides Moscow for international partnerships. Sorry Putin, there is no such thing as the “near abroad” (ближнее зарубежье), anymore. Much of Eastern Europe is effectively integrated into NATO and the E.U.; the South Caucasus has cultivated strong relations with Turkey and the “West”; and even Central Asia is starting to loosen its Russian chains with China, India, and the U.S. eager to move in.
The most exciting part of the article is that it shows how small states are actually benefiting from a belligerent Russia. Wouldn’t we assume that small countries neighboring large, aggressive states would suffer as a result, bullied into policy changes and controlled from outside: their de facto autonomy weakened and pulled into “satellite state” status? Indeed, this seems to often have been the case. Historically, it was certainly the case for Russia’s neighbors until just recently. I identify three important takeaways from this article (in the context of post-1990 developments): 1) spheres of influence are dead; 2) even powerful states can over play their hand; 3) small states adapt quickly.
The term “sphere of influence” declined in use with the end of colonialism/WWII, but the general idea can still drive policy making on the part of large powers. Russia certainly still finds the term relevant with frequent references to a so-called “near abroad” (the term used for post-Soviet countries, suggesting that they are not fully independent of Moscow, essentially referring to a sphere of influence), and a persisting sense that Russia can and should play a special role in post-Soviet countries. A “sphere of influence”, whereby de jure independent states are under the de facto control of a large power, and that other large powers are not permitted to engage within this sphere no longer exists. Today, as Petersen’s article shows, Russia is not the only country engaging in the post-Soviet space, and in the case of Eastern Europe and some of the South Caucasus, it is not even the main player. True, much of Central Asia (especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) does not seem terribly eager to run away from Russia, and are even looking for an expanded role for the CIS and Customs Union. But, even these nations are increasingly able to step away from Moscow for security, economic, and energy needs/sales. Most Eastern European states are now firmly under the NATO security umbrella, and have the resources of the European Union to balance against dependency on Russia. Turkey, the U.S., and some E.U. member states are active in the South Caucasus. The Central Asian states are courted by the E.U. and U.S. for global security concerns, and China and India are moving in for geostrategic and energy-related reasons. Russia no longer has a recognizable exclusive sphere of influence or a “near abroad”, something Russia policymaking appears to be slow to realize.
Russia is laboring under the one of the biggest foreign policy flaws that powerful countries can and often do make: might makes right, or, to use a more classical cliché, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. The assumption is that since Russia is strong, its neighbors can’t afford to do without it. I am not arguing that Russia’s neighbors can actually ignore it, but since these states no longer exist in an exclusive sphere of influence, they have choices. Had Russia opted for a non-confrontational stance and worked with the newly independent states as opposed to undermining their legitimacy and autonomous decision-making processes, the countries of Eastern Europe might have effectively straddled the space between Europe-proper and Russia, to their own benefit (Finland is a clear example). The South Caucasus and Central Asia have been more willing to cooperate with Russia, because they do not have the security of the E.U. or NATO to cushion the fall, but they have been persuaded to stay closer to Russia if Moscow was a reliable and benevolent ally. As Russia increasingly looses its foothold even in Central Asia, where up until a decade ago its position was entrenched, one can’t help but declare a complete policy failure. Russia overestimated what it could get away with, and now it is looking increasingly isolated.
Finally, this is yet another example of how small states are not only highly adaptable, but also able to make independent policy decisions with whom they do and do not cultivate international partnerships. Small states may lack the ability to make their own rules, but they are more than capable of choosing by whose rules to play. Russia pushed Europe to find energy alternatives, and Europe did just that: forging partnerships with the states along the Caspian Sea and building pipelines through Turkey. Now Gazprom’s profits have fallen 15%, and with it Russia’s control over neighboring energy resources. Small states will seek to cultivate relations with as many players as possible, with a clear preference for extra-regional/non-neighboring countries. Such a strategy is essential for small states to maintain their autonomy and independence. When Europe opens it doors to energy resources from outside the Gazprom monopoly, small states are going to respond. Likewise, when Russia makes unfriendly policies towards its neighbors, they are effectively justifying and encouraging those same countries to further entrench with the “West”. Georgia and Ukraine are two clear examples. Dr. Drezner argued in a recent article that low energy prices might actually promote instability since oil producing states rely on high prices to fund their own stability. This is certainly true in Putin’s Russia, where his popularity is largely based on petroleum-bankrolled development. However, for the smaller states bordering Russia, it appears to be the opposite.
Talk of a “new great game” should shift to a “global great game”, not confined to Central Asia, but an emerging trend throughout the international state system in response to new emerging powers and re-engagement by established global leaders. The basic policy considerations presented here are necessary considerations for larger states to effectively interact with smaller countries. As this article has pointed out, small certainly does matter in energy politics, when small states are necessary producers and transit countries for petroleum resources. While the same points hold for the U.S. and China as much as the Russian Federation, the difference is that the U.S. and China have already taken actions in this direction. China reiterates its “peaceful rise”, and the United States promotes itself as a “benign hegemon”. Mistakes are made and small states remain suspicious of China’s rise and America’s pivot, but it seems that China and U.S. have won this soft power battle in the “global great game”. Russia will have to significantly adjust its foreign policy ideology to win the war.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.