July 21, 2011 | WebMemo on Russia and Eurasia
For many years, Russian diplomats have openly proclaimed that the former Soviet republics that make up the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are not truly sovereign states. Russian analysts have stated that Russia regards the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy as a U.S. admission that the CIS is within Russia’s sphere of influence. The reset policy has hitherto conspicuously failed to address important U.S. interests in Eurasia, including preventing the emergence of a hegemonic power in Eurasia, maintaining a level playing field in access to markets and natural resources, and developing democracy and free markets based on the rule of law. Since the “reset,” President Obama has downgraded his meetings with post-Soviet heads of state, signaling a lesser U.S. involvement and interest. Some senior U.S. officials have even told their subordinates not to bother them with the problems of the Caucasus.
It is clear that Washington needs a new approach to Eurasian foreign policy to prevent an emergence of a Russian sphere of influence or another regional hegemony. The United States should boost its diplomatic support of sovereign states, such as Ukraine and Georgia, and expand a real commitment to the region. Specifically, Washington should provide political support to East–West energy pipelines and uphold sovereignty and territorial integrity under international law—even if this upsets Russia—while at the same time becoming an active mediator in the Transnistria and South Caucasus disputes.
In Search of Eurasian Hegemony
Since Boris Yeltsin demanded a sphere of influence in the CIS in 1993, that goal has been the driving force of Russian foreign policy. Toward that end, Russia employed every instrument of its power: energy, trade, investment, the linkage of these factors with Russian organized crime, political subversion, intelligence penetration, and expansion of military bases. Russia has threatened and even used military force, such as in Georgia in 2008. Today Moscow is pressuring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Ukraine to join a Russia-dominated customs union that also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Russia also controls military bases and key military industrial facilities in Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It has been trying to subvert the Georgian government and is using constant economic pressure to take control of Belarus’s natural gas company and pipelines. Moscow’s policy remains to pressure the CIS countries to turn their backs on Europe and preserve Russian leverage over its neighbors’ politics and economics. Concurrently, despite official disclaimers to the contrary, Moscow assiduously attempted to expel the U.S. from Central Asia even as the countries in the region assist the U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan.
This adversarial view of the U.S., inherited from the Soviet past, helps Moscow ensure that the reset policy effectively reduces U.S. influence in Eurasia and Eastern and Central Europe. U.S. gains from the reset policy are limited to support in Afghanistan and the New START arms control treaty, both of which Russia would have pursued without U.S. concessions regarding the CIS.
The High Price of Reset
As Moscow is trying to block NATO missile defenses and arguing that sanctions and pressure against Iran are unnecessary, the reset policy is backfiring and needs to be reassessed. While the Administration and NATO have commendably acted to strengthen the defenses of the Baltic states, it has not done nearly enough in the CIS. Absent coherent U.S. policies in the CIS, the vast region is likely to destabilize. Central Asia is already highly unstable, and Moscow is seeking pretexts for inserting military forces into the area while simultaneously strengthening the autocratic regimes that rule there.
New Policy for Eurasia Needed
Under the circumstances, it is very much in the U.S. interest to refashion a coherent policy to strengthen the CIS’s sovereignty and security.
Invest Now, Save Later
Clearly, the paramount geopolitical interest of the U.S. remains prevention of a return of a Eurasian empire or reversal of the post–Cold War settlement in Eurasia. Moreover, failure to invest the needed resources now all but guarantees that when the next crisis occurs—whether provoked by Islamism, Russian imperial overreach, or Chinese truculence—the cost of confronting it will be greater than any investments that America could presently make. Prevention is always cheaper than the cure.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. , is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. Stephen J. Blank, Ph.D., is Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College.