Russia Regional Relations

Author: Matthew Regenbogen

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of democracy, market economies and civil society among former satellite states, Russia has not given up its aspirations for regional hegemony. The resulting conflict of interest between Moscow and its “near abroad,” has led many Eastern European nations to look to the West for security assurances. Currently, ten members of the now defunct Warsaw Pact have come under the protective umbrella of NATO, originally an exclusively Western institution.1 For Ukraine and Georgia, such an option is also appealing since Russian regional aspirations have threatened the security of both countries.2 For NATO these regional clashes raise concerns about energy security, instability and the overall relationship between the West and Russia.

Russian-Ukrainian Relations

Myriad tensions exist between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. The most significant issue of contention between these two nations, since the Orange Revolution began in 2004, has been Ukraine’s desire for NATO admission. The eastward expansion of NATO has been underway for two decades and with each additional member, Russia’s regional control is weakened. Ukraine’s admission into NATO would be especially damaging for the Russian Federation because of Russia’s extensive interests, economic, military, and demographic–within Ukraine’s borders. Moreover if Ukraine obtains NATO membership Russia would lose its ability to act freely in protection of these interests. The election of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2010, however, has temporarily halted NATO’s expansion into Ukraine. Although the issue of NATO expansion has been sidelined, for at least the next 5 years of Yanukovych’s term, in the eyes of the Russians it remains a powerful political motivator in the region.

Economically, Russia is heavily invested in Ukraine. In 2008, 10% of Russia’s roughly 2 trillion dollar GDP was generated by Gazprom, the world’s largest producer of natural gas and Russia’s largest company. Gazprom provides approximately 25% of the European Union’s gas, and its primary method of delivery is through Ukrainian pipelines.3 Should Ukraine pull itself from Russia’s sphere of influence there would be tremendous repercussions for Russia, Ukraine, and the EU. Russia would stand to lose control over a significant element of its gas industry, – the pipelines which run through Ukraine. Ukraine could expect Russian retaliation in decreased gas supplies and this, in turn, would seriously hurt the Ukrainian economy. Similarly, the EU has reason to fear such a power struggle between Russia and Ukraine because decreased volumes of gas supplied to Ukraine would likely translate to even less gas being shipped to Western Europe. While recent political events suggest that Ukraine will no longer be moving away from Russia, stabilizing many energy assets, the country is hardly united on its new pro-Russian stance, with Yanukovych winning less than 50% of the popular vote in the February election.4

A long standing source of tension between these two nations has been over the naval port city of Sevastopol. This ex-Soviet city within Ukrainian territory represents significant naval investment and a strategic asset, to which Russia would like to maintain access. When the USSR dissolved and the city officially became Ukrainian, the Ukrainian government claimed all assets left in the city and port, including the Black Sea Fleet. This disagreement was settled by the 1997 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in which Russia leased three ports and two airstrips in the city for 20 years (the lease is paid for with Gazprom gas). For a time the future of the lease was uncertain, as former president, Viktor Yushchenko, was opposed to renewal. Yushchenko’s successor, Viktor Yanukovych, is much more open to Ukrainian-Russian cooperation and in April 2010 a new treaty was signed extending the lease for another 25 years after 2017. In spite of opposition in the Ukrainian Rada, this extension was approved.

Another continuing Russian concern about the alignment of Ukraine with the West is Moscow’s desire to maintain a buffer zone between itself and the West. This current buffer zone provides Russia with a feeling of regional security from Western interference, allowing for relatively calm and peaceful relations between Russia and the West. Should Ukraine move closer to the West this cushion will be reduced, a development that might make Russian actions increasingly anti-Western.5 Ultimately the economic and military tensions between Russia and Ukraine stem from Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO and a more general interest in Western alignment. Ukraine’s potential association with NATO magnifies all regional conflicts between these two states because a Ukraine within NATO would bring Western influence to the borders of Russia. Although this issue has lost much of its immediacy, it is unlikely to disappear.

Russian-Georgian Relations

The Russian-Georgian War erupted in 2008 over the areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Northern and Western Georgia respectively. Although it is unclear which side opened fire first, a number of governments have chosen to side with either Russia or Georgia. Put simply, EU and NATO nations sided with Georgia while CIS nations backed Russia. Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding this war’s beginning, its ending was distinctly unfavorable for Georgia, with Georgian authorities forced out of the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia both of which are now recognized by Russia as sovereign states.6

In relative terms, the Georgian War was small and quick; the war’s political implications however, are far-reaching and potentially damaging to Russian-Western relations. Opening shots were fired sometime between August 7th and 8th 2008 near the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali. Georgian forces marched on the region in an effort to quell South Ossetian separatist violence. Russia, wanting to establish friendly satellite nations on its borders, supported the failing South Ossetian forces and occupied much of Georgia within five days. At this point, many Western nations, (most notably those from the EU) intervened diplomatically to mediate a six point ceasefire between the two nations.7

Since the signing of the ceasefire, Russia has used the Georgian conflict as a political tool to challenge the West. Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as sovereign states was a diplomatic challenge to many Western nations, especially NATO members, which refused to do the same, but also served to create a division within the EU, which was slow to present a united front against Russian aggression.8 Russia is now attempting to create internal pressure within the EU so that EU nations no longer support NATO, of which they happen to be an integral part.

This war could also be the harbinger of a dangerous new precedent set by today’s superpowers. Prior to the invasion of Georgia, Russia presented a litany of reasons for its armed involvement, all of which have been discredited over time. As one observer noted, Russia claimed its involvement sought

  • to stop Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetians;
  • to end ethnic cleansing, genocide and war crimes being committed by Georgia;
  • to protect Russian nationals;
  • to defend South Ossetians on the basis of the peace-keeping agreement signed by Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze in 1992.”9

While Georgia did move troops into the region, this was well within its rights as South Ossetia at the time was a province of Georgia. The claims of genocide have been unsubstantiated in the years following the war, and the only reason that South Ossetians have Russian citizenship is that this was granted to them after the fact. Russia’s demonstration that it no longer needs internationally accepted reasons to engage in warfare throws the regional diplomatic playing field askew, making NATO membership of increased importance.

Issues for the U.S. and the West

Russian interests in Ukraine and Georgia have significant implications for U.S. and Western policies. Russian-Ukrainian relations create an issue for EU energy security. Ukraine is important to Russia both militarily and economically. Consequently, Russia will, take whatever action is necessary to keep Ukraine under its influence. As Kiev attempts to move closer to the West, Russia will likely use whatever political sway it holds over Western nations to prevent Ukrainian cessation from the Russian sphere. This means using relations created through Gazprom’s gas and oil to divide the EU and NATO nations. This tactic will be ineffective with the United States and the United Kingdom, however, as neither country is tied to the Russian gas industry. For this reason, Russia will continue to pursue regional influence in broader ways. In the past this willingness to bargain for regional power had been evident in Russian U.S. talks over Iran. While this issue has been temporarily tabled due to recent political dealings with NATO, Ukraine and Russia it is one that is likely to reappear in the future. Another area of frequent contention between Russia and the West is the province of Chechnya which, like Ukraine, is a vital hub in the Russian oil industry and will play an important role in the future of the EU’s energy security. The Georgian conflict also presents major challenges for the U.S. and its European allies, not least because it demonstrated Russia’s willingness to use force to protect its interests. NATO has been spreading into ex-soviet satellite republics for years. It now appears that Moscow has decided that NATO’s further encroachment on the Russian sphere of influence is unacceptable. In the August War, Moscow demonstrated its willingness to openly engage Western ‘soft’ power with Russian military might in order to protect regional supremacy.10 If this pattern continues then in the long term it can only create greater turbulence in the relationship between Russia and NATO.