Staunton, March 20 – Vladimir Putin may be seeking to restore a Russian empire, but his annexation of Crimea is destroying many of the things that had tied the former Soviet republics together and simultaneously allowed Moscow to be able to count on influence across that region and permitted outside analysts to speak of it as a relevant unit of analysis.
The most dramatic events on this path came yesterday, when Ukrainian officials announced they were introducing a visa regime for citizens of the Russian Federation who wish to visit Ukraine, building up an army to defend against further Russian aggression, and taking steps to leave the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States.
It is perhaps tempting to view all these developments as Ukraine-specific. After all, Russia has attacked Ukraine and Ukraine is taking steps to defend itself in the future. And it is certainly true that Putin may have seized Crimea only at the price of creating a Ukraine that will be permanently hostile to Russia and even Russians, something it was not before.
But each of these developments cast a much broader shadow because they will serve as precedents for other countries both Russia and the non-Russian states. First, Ukraine’s introduction of a visa regime against Russians will almost certainly lead Russia to reciprocate. It will certainly make it more likely that Moscow will introduce visa regimes against gastarbeiters from other former Soviet countries.
The consequence of that will be economic hardship in both places – there will be fewer transfer payments from Russia to the others because there will be fewer immigrants in Russia, and there will be greater willingness by Central Asian and Caucasian countries to counter with visa regimes of their own.
As a result, the visa-free space of the Former Soviet Union is likely to be a thing of the past relatively quickly, and its demise will accelerate the tendency of people in the non-Russian countries to look away from an increasingly nationalistic Russia rather than be attracted to it and willing to cooperate.
On the one hand, that is likely to make the Russian use of force more likely rather than less and to lead ever more of these countries to look beyond the borders of the former USSR for allies and support. They may not get it or they may not get it from conventional sources, but the effort will change their orientation.
Second, Ukraine isn’t going to be the only country concerned with building a modern and effective army. Other countries in the region will do the same. And even though none of them, including the Ukrainian armed forces, are likely to be able to defeat a Russian thrust, building armies and talking about how they might have to be used have consequences.
As any number of studies has shown, armies are an intensely nationalizing institution. People passing through them come out with more clearly defined ideas about who is the enemy of their country and who is not. The chief enemy for many of the military forces in this region after Crimea is going to be different and very clear.
Moreover, armies have to be supplied, and states are unlikely to want to purchase weapons systems from countries that they believe are a threat. Consequently, the post-Soviet states are in many cases going to look beyond the old Soviet borders rather than to Russia for equipment and materiel, to the US, China, and Israel in the first instance.
And third, Ukraine’s exit from the CIS has profound organizational and ideological consequences. Without Ukraine, the CIS membership drops to 10 – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were never members, and Georgia left earlier after being initially forced in by Western diplomacy earlier.
The remaining members are Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, and six Muslim-majority countries, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. If Russian pressure on Moldova continues to increase with a seizure of Transdniestria, Chisinau is likely to leave as well in the near future.
What does that leave? Except for Belarus and Armenia, Russia’s CIS “allies” are six Muslim countries, all of which are upset by the increasing xenophobia and anti-immigrant attitudes of people in the Russian Federation and all of which are the portion of the Soviet Union that many Russians hoped to escape from by becoming an independent country.
Thus, neither side is likely to be particularly happy, and consequently, the CIS which Putin has made a centerpiece of his foreign policy faces a troubled future. And consequently, he may discover that his efforts to restore the empire in Crimea and elsewhere will end by destroying any possibility of cooperation among the former Soviet republics.