For nearly twenty-five years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the former Soviet lands now collectively referred to as Eurasia defied the best and the worst expectations of students of the region’s history. Unfortunately, the worst case has now come to pass with the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine. The conflict has cast a long shadow over the entire region, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has put Russia on a dangerous, confrontational course with the United States and Europe that is likely to last for many years.
Central Asia—the region viewed at the outset of its independence as the most likely to fail—has remained relatively stable, or to be more precise, stagnant. The three countries of the South Caucasus remain plagued by the threat of war—the only common feature they share. Georgia continues on its Western trajectory, Armenia is firmly (albeit unhappily) under Russia’s thumb, while Azerbaijan has become an authoritarian kleptocracy that has difficult relations with Russia and the West. The war in Ukraine and the collapse in Moscow’s relations with the West have deeply unnerved the leaderships of all of the Eurasian countries, highlighting the risk of further Russian meddling and aggression—and the inadequacy of Euro-Atlantic security structures. Each of Russia’s neighbors feels vulnerable and uncomfortable about the possibility of getting caught between Moscow and the Western powers in an increasingly zero-sum environment.
Russia’s erratic course continues to have far-ranging effects on the entire region. The story of Russia in the past quarter century is one of dramatic change, rapid gains in national wealth (see table 1), and a persistent undercurrent of resentment and hostility toward the Western-led political and economic order. Putin’s lengthy tenure has continued several of the centuries-old patterns in Russian domestic politics and foreign policy.
The dichotomy between the new and the familiar in contemporary Russia can be broken down into a handful of contradictions that neither Putin nor the country at large has been able to resolve and that will remain at the top of Moscow’s agenda at home and abroad:
- Russia has made the difficult transition from central planning to market, but has yet to resolve the tension between its tradition of heavy-handed state involvement in the economic life of the country and free market principles.
- Russia owes its recovery from the economic collapse of the 1990s to a combination of important economic reforms adopted early in Putin’s tenure and the dramatic rise in the price of commodities during the first decade of this century. But the country’s long-term development will depend on the government’s and elites’ ability to wean themselves from the Russian economy’s overwhelming dependence on commodities exports, especially oil and gas.
- Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world. It has also faced major demographic problems and has suffered a population decline of some 7 million since 1991.
- In the wake of the Soviet collapse, Russia embraced democracy. Today, a majority of Russians believe that democracy is the right form of government for Russia. But they accept suppression of civil society and endless manipulation of the constitution in the name of stability. Russians accept a rubber-stamp parliament and a tsar-like presidency that towers above all other branches of government.
- In foreign policy, Russia has insisted on the primacy of the United Nations but has repeatedly violated the organization’s founding principles, all the while accusing others of doing the same.
- Russian elites bristle at their exclusion from Europe, while at the same time telling their people that Russia is not of Europe.
- Putin has embraced a partnership with China and pivoted to Asia, but the Russian elite mistrusts and fears Chinese dominance. Moscow has no long-term Asia strategy beyond taking a subservient position vis-à-vis China—a prospect some Russian policymakers see as risky.
- The Russian military handily defeated Georgia and Ukraine, and is challenging the United States in Syria. But these battlefield victories have resulted in new, long-term security challenges and threaten to alienate the populations and elites of post-Soviet neighboring countries.
Having found itself between two global gravitational poles—Europe and the United States in the west, and China and the Asia-Pacific region in the east—Russia appears adrift, still searching for a comfortable and secure place in the world. Russia aspires to be a rule maker, not a rule taker. But its current weight in global affairs is modest and, looking out a decade or more, it will decline (see table 2).
Russia’s position in the world rests on its nuclear arsenal, its seat at the table of major powers, as it was constituted at the end of World War II, and its size. None of these three factors is likely to retain its importance in the future. The new revolution in military affairs is making nuclear weapons increasingly obsolete. Cyber, space, and high-precision conventional capabilities are crowding out nuclear weapons from future arsenals. Russia remains an important military actor whose ability to project power around its periphery will remain a serious challenge for the West to reckon with, but over time, its bleak economic prospects will make competition with China and the United States and their far better resourced militaries an uphill struggle. As other countries and nonstate actors acquire better kinetic and nonkinetic capabilities, Russia will face more, not fewer security challenges.
Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council too is an impermanent foundation on which to rest its major power claim. The inability of the United Nations to address key international problems—with Russian and Chinese obstructionism often being a major obstacle—may continue to erode the organization’s stature and Russia’s importance with it. As coalitions of the willing take shape, the United Nations’ relevance—and Russia’s leverage—may fade.
Russia’s size, which makes it such an important presence in both Europe and Asia, too promises to become a source of its weakness rather than strength. Located between two gravitational poles—Europe and Asia—both possessing far greater economic dynamism, military capabilities, and global clout, Russia will find it increasingly difficult to project economic and political power or shore up its international standing.
There is only one plausible strategy for Moscow to tackle these challenges—modernization of the country’s political, economic, technological, military, legal, and societal foundations. Russian elites, including Mr. Putin, have been well aware of this imperative for decades. Without modernization, Russia can neither compete with the West nor be a partner to China. Without modernization, it is bound to be a “raw materials appendage” to Europe, or Asia, or both.
But therein lies the biggest dilemma facing Russia over the next decade: Can it modernize but not destabilize? It failed to do so on Gorbachev’s watch. Mr. Putin has acted in a contradictory fashion during his long tenure. He was an advocate of modernization early in his first term as president, but proceeded to build an increasingly unmodern system on the twin pillars of petrodollars and his personal power. He gave a mandate to Dmitry Medvedev to pursue economic modernization. But he pulled back abruptly when he reclaimed the presidency in 2012 in the face of street protests by the country’s nascent middle class—the chief beneficiary of his rule.
If Putin can modernize the country in the next ten years or at least undertake meaningful reforms that keep Russia economically prosperous and politically stable, his legacy as a great leader will be assured. At the moment, his chances for success look bleak, as he is taking the country farther into the past rather than into the future.
The outlook for Russia’s relations with the West is equally bleak and offers few signs of change in the foreseeable future. Mr. Putin’s current term ends in 2018. He can then run for reelection and in all likelihood be reelected for another six-year term. The liberal opposition in Russia has been decimated by the Kremlin’s relentless campaign against it. The antiliberal opposition unleashed, encouraged, and, for the time being largely controlled by the Kremlin makes Putin appear as by far not the worst leader Russia could have. The Putin era could easily last for another decade or longer.
Putin’s record since his return to the presidency—the crackdown at home, the war with Ukraine, and the intervention in Syria—has been described as a series of reactive moves that betray the absence of a strategy on his part. But these reactive moves have a great deal of internal consistency and a common logic. In domestic affairs, they are aimed at consolidation of an increasingly rigid authoritarian system buoyed by a xenophobic, anti-Western ideology. In foreign affairs, they are aimed at the restoration of the Soviet empire and the positioning of Russia as a leading adversary of the West.
Predicting Russia’s trajectory at home and abroad over an entire decade is an impossible task, but the internal consistency of this course and the persistence with which Putin has followed it leave little prospect for a significant change. Putin’s actions have repeatedly surprised the West—in Georgia in 2008, in Crimea in 2014, and, most recently, in Syria. At every point along this trajectory, Russian actions have defied conventional wisdom and predictions that relations with Moscow can’t possibly get worse. Putin is not done yet, which warrants looking beyond conventional wisdom about Russia.
The same can be said about potential developments in other parts of the former Soviet Union. The speed of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine surprised all observers, including a great many Ukrainians. After many years of taking the status quo in this region for granted, Western policymakers should brace themselves for any number of crises, disruptive events, and reversals.
Ukraine is likely to remain in the spotlight for the foreseeable future. The largest and most important of Russia’s neighbors, Ukraine’s first quarter century of independence was largely squandered. By the time the street protests against the government of then prime minister Viktor Yanukovych began in late 2013, Ukraine was well on the way to joining the ranks of increasingly authoritarian kleptocracies. However, the 2014 Maidan revolution generated a sea change in the country’s direction. The new, postrevolutionary government of Ukraine has implemented many substantial reforms and is attempting to implement an even more ambitious agenda of change. The fact that the war in eastern Ukraine has come to an uncertain stop is potentially beneficial to the reform effort, but Moscow retains a great many levers over its adversaries in Kyiv and can opt to escalate the conflict at any time of its choosing.
Besides the unresolved conflict in eastern Ukraine, the country faces many other obstacles—a powerful and entrenched oligarchy; a Russian economic blockade; an underperforming, unreformed economy; and the ever-present threat of Ukraine fatigue among key Western partners, to name just a few. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s record to date is impressive. It has stood up to Russia in the east. It has conducted several free and fair elections. It has concluded a debt-restructuring deal with creditors and—despite many dire warnings—avoided defaulting on its obligations. The way forward promises to be very difficult, as none of Ukraine’s accomplishments to date has the quality of permanence.
If reform in Ukraine succeeds, the country could emerge over time as a powerful barrier to further Russian expansion and, perhaps, a security provider to its neighbors; it could become a regional economic player with important links to Europe and Asia; and it could act as a magnet for attempts to counter Russian influence in Eastern Europe from Belarus to Georgia. In sum, it could emerge as a truly pivotal state in European security. But that moment is still far in the future, and any number of downside scenarios may yet materialize.
Central Asia is another part of the post-Soviet world that at first glance appears stuck in the past. The leaders of the region’s two most populous and most important states—Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—have ruled their countries since before the Soviet breakup. Both Nursultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov are in their seventies; they were reelected in 2015 with over 90 percent of the vote. Kyrgyzstan, the region’s most democratic state, is also its least stable, having survived two government overthrows and a major outbreak of interethnic violence in the past decade. Tajikistan is a semifeudal state run by the same leader since 1992, surviving thanks to the lucrative illicit drug trade that passes through it from Afghanistan and remittances from Tajik migrant workers—the vast majority of whom work in Russia—who contribute nearly half of the country’s GDP. Turkmenistan is a reclusive dictatorship that sits atop the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves and follows a doctrine of positive neutrality, which translates into near isolation from the outside world. A potential security problem may be brewing as a result of the increasing activity of Islamic extremist elements across the border in Afghanistan.
However, despite the appearance of being frozen in time, Central Asia is changing. Kazakhstan has emerged as the undisputed economic and political leader of the region. Its GDP of well over $400 billion exceeds the combined GDPs of all of its neighbors in Central Asia, and Astana’s skilled and active multivector foreign policy has earned it widespread recognition. The prospect of leadership change in the next decade raises questions about the country’s untested mechanism for political succession, but with its vast wealth, a record of significant economic reforms, a new generation of elites (many of them educated abroad), and a relatively soft form of authoritarian governance, the country stands the best chance of sustaining its leadership in the region and enhancing its position beyond it.
Kazakhstan’s foreign policy has enabled its leaders to adapt to the changing geopolitical environment around Central Asia and pursue a form of nonalignment that is the exact opposite of Turkmenistan’s disengagement. Kazakhstan has pursued a policy of active international engagement with Russia, China, and the United States—the three major powers that have sought to project their influence into Central Asia in the past quarter century—yet has carefully avoided getting too close to any of them.
Uzbekistan, with its large security establishment and history of intervening in its neighbors’ affairs, is likely the only regional country, besides Russia, with the capabilities to respond to a security threat in the region. Such threats could include the rise of extremist elements in Central Asia, the political or economic collapse of a Central Asian government, or the type of ethnic conflict that has twice inflamed the densely populated Fergana Valley—a region split between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. With its own mounting economic problems, a rigid authoritarian government, and a leadership transition on the horizon, it is uncertain whether Tashkent actually could serve as a security provider—or if such moves would be compatible with Western interests.
The most significant change in Central Asia’s geopolitical environment is the emergence of China as the dominant player in its economic and increasingly political affairs. In the past two decades, China has become a leading investor in the region’s energy sector, built multiple infrastructure projects, and financed several major pipelines that now account for 20 percent of China’s domestic natural gas consumption. Chinese trade with Central Asia has increased hundredfold in the past two decades and has surpassed $50 billion annually. The One Belt, One Road giant project to build overland links from China to Europe and South Asia announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping promises to generate further infrastructure investment resources for Central Asia—and, not coincidentally, secure the region’s place as an economic satellite of China.
With the United States and Europe looking to disengage from Afghanistan, which for nearly a decade and a half has been the key anchor for their engagement in Central Asia, Western interest and presence in Central Asia are likely to fade. Russia, lacking the economic resources to compete with China, has been steadily losing ground in the region. The possibility of Iran coming out of its international isolation raises the prospect of another key neighbor restoring ties to the region. In sum, these developments promise to reduce the influence of Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community on Central Asia, and to increase the role of Asia, and especially China, in its development.
The impact of these changes is uncertain. It holds out the possibility of greater economic resources flowing to Central Asia and the region developing ever-closer political ties to Asia and to China in particular. At the same time, there is likely to be less external pressure for political reforms. The net result overall may be a region that enjoys somewhat greater prosperity, but at the price of political stagnation. The inevitability of political succession and the possibility of future regional instability raise uncomfortable questions about the prospect of security vacuums and disorder. High-level Russian rhetoric about Eurasian integration and restoring historical, Soviet-era ties looks increasingly anachronistic and unrealistic against this backdrop.
The Gray Zone
The six countries of the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe—Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus—do not at a glance represent a coherent group. Upon closer examination, however, they share many common features, chief among which is their geopolitical in-between place—their position between Russia and the West.
The past quarter century has been a time of great dislocation for all of these countries. Five out of six—Belarus is the sole exception—have lived through wars, some more than once. None has fully recovered. The region is home to five so-called frozen conflicts, although these conflicts are anything but frozen. Instead, they simmer and occasionally flare up, as was recently the case between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Violence and war easily could engulf the region again. All six countries have, at various times, attempted to sever their ties to Russia and move closer to the West. None has succeeded. None has been welcomed in the West with promises of membership in NATO and the European Union. All six have had to confront the unhappy realities that are part and parcel of so-called buffer zones located between various former and present empires—between the Russian empire and the Persian, the Ottoman, the Austrian, and the German empires, as well as the European Union, which may not have imperial aspirations but nonetheless is the center of its own geopolitical universe. All experience simultaneously the competing gravitational pulls of different historical legacies, cultures, and economic and military spheres of influence. For all, transition to the post-Soviet has been exceedingly difficult.
Azerbaijan, despite the trauma of the war with Armenia and loss of nearly one-fifth of its territory, in its early postindependence period showed promise as a secular, predominantly Muslim country with great wealth potential and hope for a transition from an authoritarian system to a more tolerant and open society. Instead, it has retreated into an increasingly rigid, oppressive, authoritarian kleptocracy that has turned away from both the West and Western values.
Armenia, having defeated Azerbaijan on the battlefield, has paid a heavy economic and political price for that victory, and for the two decades since then, it has limped along with a fragile economy, a modest democratic record, and a questionable security guarantee as a client state of Russia. It at times has aspired to closer relations with the West, but has been hemmed in by its economic, political, and military dependence on Moscow. With the economies of both Azerbaijan and Armenia deteriorating, recent months have seen a worrying spike in violence and skirmishes between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces.
Georgia emerged from the 2003 Rose Revolution full of promise and achieved considerable progress. However, an ambitious push to join the West ran into two obstacles—the 2008 war with Russia and the long-term, heavy burden of building Western-style institutions in a country that had never had them before. The country had a peaceful transition of power when former president Mikheil Saakashvili and his party went into opposition in 2012. Georgia’s leadership remains committed to a Western path. But Georgia remains plagued by personality politics, a stagnating economy, and Saakashvili’s controversial legacy. A significant minority of the population (about 30 percent according to recent polling) looks to Russia as the country’s preferred partner. It is these internal challenges that are proving even more difficult for Georgia to overcome than the legacy of its two frozen conflicts—in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—and the war with Russia.
Moldova’s brush with war was relatively brief, but its legacy has endured. The country has the dubious distinction of being this region’s poorest. It has had multiple competitive elections and inched closer toward the EU and NATO—though membership in either is not even a remote possibility. Moldova’s political stability is hamstrung by weak rule of law, endemic corruption, and perennial rounds of political protest—all of which raise questions about the country’s long-term direction.
Belarus—written off early and often as the last dictatorship in Europe—has survived for the quarter century as a Russian dependent. Belarus is joined with Russia in a construct called the Union State. Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashanka has been able to maintain domestic political calm through a combination of repression and multibillion-dollar energy and economic subsidies extracted from the Russian government. However, his room for maneuver is narrowing in the wake of the war in neighboring Ukraine. The leaders and people of Belarus have no illusions that Russia is prepared to use force against its closest allies and neighbors in order to maintain its regional dominance. Lukashanka has tried to put some distance between himself and Moscow and rehabilitate his tarnished image in the West, but even in the best of circumstances, Belarus’s path to the West is certain to be long and arduous.
Russia and Eurasia twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union comprise a region in the midst of a major, historic transition. None of the twelve countries has put its Soviet legacy firmly behind it. All can backslide in the next decade, due to either domestic or external factors. All remain a work in progress.
This assessment was prepared for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace-Chicago Council on Global Affairs task force on U.S. policy toward Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. The views expressed here are solely of the authors and do not represent the views of any of the task force members.