Russia’s “Backyard” on Fire: What Does it Say about its “Near Abroad” Policy?

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Edward Snowden’s recent Twitter announcement of seeking Russian nationality shows Russia’s posture worldwide: from allegations of involvement in US’ elections to cooperation with Chinese authorities concerning the pandemic, Kremlin aims at standing as a player on the global stage. However, current events occurring in its neighborhood serve as a reminder for the central power in Kremlin. The different situations, whether in Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, or Nagorno-Karabakh, are highlighting a certain reality. A reality that indicates that Russia currently struggles to shape events in its close environment and that the Near Abroad policy still has a long way to go before being fully realized.

As Putin previously stated, “Russia’s borders don’t end anywhere.” The Near Abroad policy is an intensive focus for Russia to regain its core influence in the neighborhood. It is based on the precepts of the Primakov doctrine, which criticizes a possible hegemony of the US and, therefore, encourages a multipolar world, along with a Russian focus to its neighborhood. This policy also attempts a great deal on balancing and leveraging relations with multiple players.

This policy emphasizes three main aspects: military (threats, support), political (opposing pro-Western groups), and economic aspects (energy monopoly). Along with this, Russia’s tendency to defend state sovereignty and its economic status as the largest energy producer gives the country an important monopoly in the region.

However, along with China’s growing influence in Central Asia, this spatial hegemony slightly erodes over time, showcased by current events in its neighborhood, threatening several aspects of this policy.

In Kyrgyzstan, riots have exploded after parliamentary elections, as opposition forces broke into governmental buildings and elections were cancelled. Consequently, the pro-Russian president Jeenbekov had to resign, leaving turmoil for Moscow and a victory for the opposition. As the country has the highest percentage of Russian speakers among Central Asian states, Russia fears a rise of instability, bringing back memories of the 2005 Tulip Revolution, categorized as “Color Revolutions” that Russia hates. This slightly threatens Russia’s political aspect of the policy. Indeed, any rebellion is labelled as a “possible Western influence”, along with possible intimidation for the Russian diaspora. Nevertheless, as Kyrgyzstan is highly dependent on Russia’s energy and hosts a military base, it will remain in Russia’s sphere of influence.

For the case of Belarus, mass protests were occurring to denounce Lukashenko’s official electoral victory, under a torrent of corruption suspicion. As Belarus’ president has been a long ally for Moscow, Putin publicly backed Lukashenko, preferring a long term ruler for its interests over an insecure change. Traumatized by the political situation of Ukraine’s 2014 uprising, which resulted in Yanukovych’s fall, Russia does not want to witness another neighborhood evolution. As the opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, built ties with Western leaders, Kremlin’s political aspect is threatened as Russia’s focus on reducing Western influence in its neighborhood remains one of its core battles.

As the bloody conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh continues*, Russia’s stance is delicate. Though Russia is treaty-bound to protect Armenia, Putin specified that Russia’s military obligations extend only to the territory of Armenia and not to Nagorno-Karabakh, demonstrating an equilibrium that the Kremlin must have in the region. The conflict reflects on Russia’s loss of influence in the region, been threatened by the growing presence of Turkey, which takes more assertive steps in backing Azerbaijan. As such, Russia cannot risk losing Azerbaijan, as it has already lost the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine. As it is nicely stated by Anna Arutunyan, “Russian foreign policy in this area is like a game of Jenga – so multi-layered and complicated that removing one little block at the wrong time risks making the whole edifice crumble”.

Despite all being members of the military Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and of the Eurasian Economic Union (trade organization as the Kremlin’s answer to the European Union), the events occurring in those countries remind us that Russia’s stranglehold does not mean that Kremlin can control anything. In fact, Russia loses its grip as it focuses more on the global stage, and ironically, while the cat’s away the mice will play.

*PS: For a deeper insight into the ongoing escalation of violence in the conflict, check Anne’s latest interesting article on this topic! 

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