Russia's New Europe

By Bugajski, Janusz | The National Interest, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Russia's New Europe


Bugajski, Janusz, The National Interest


A SPECTER IS haunting the new Europe, the specter of "Russian pragmatism." After a decade of ambiguity and uncertainty in Russian policy, Vladimir Putin's Kremlin has embarked on a coherent and rational plan to regain its influence over former satellites and to limit Western penetration in key parts of the former Soviet Union.

Two recent dramatic events have highlighted President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy ambitions: the crackdown on independent-minded big business and the assault on Ukraine's territorial integrity. Putin views the mammoth energy industries as valuable tools to expand Moscow's foreign policy influence. While Yeltsin used the oligarchs to guarantee his own power, Putin is determined to control the oligarchs to expand Russian state interests. YUKOS CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky not only crossed the line in his domestic political ambitions, but also increasingly contradicted the Kremlin's external goals. A telling Pravda editorial on November 7 expressed outrage over the hue and cry in the West at Khodorkovsky's arrest. According to the editors, Putin is putting Russia back into the hands of the authorities after a "decade of lunacy under Boris Yeltsin" and is "placing a damper on the assault on Russia's resources by American companies." In recent weeks, Exxon Mobil and Chevron Texaco were wing to acquire a large part of YUKOS' shares, and this seriously disturbed Moscow.

Meanwhile, the extent of Russia's growing assertiveness toward its neighbors was on display when workers constructed a causeway across the Kerch Strait that links the Black and Azov seas between Russia's Taman Peninsula and Ukraine's Tuzla islet. Ukraine's Foreign Minister warned Moscow that the construction violated his country's territorial integrity. The Kremlin is applying strong pressure to Kiev in demanding shared sovereignty over the navigable parts of the Kerch Strait that legally belong to Ukraine, and it wants to turn the Azov Sea into an "internal water" of the two states despite Ukraine's substantially longer coastline. The incident demonstrates how Moscow has unilaterally assumed the role of a guarantor or violator of its neighbors' security. The Kerch provocation is intended to gain territorial concessions from Kiev and to test the international response. Putin has openly challenged the legitimacy of an existing CIS border, and the muted Western response will simply encourage bolder moves in the future.

Moscow is intent on steadily rebuilding Russia as a major power on the "Eurasian" stage. For this purpose, it has defined three categories of states in the eastern half of Europe: former Soviet republics that can develop into vassals, ex-satellite states that need to be politically neutralized and former non-allies that can become useful partners. The first category, consisting of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, constitute the core of Putin's current "empire building."

In the first few years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, Moscow was accommodating toward its neighbors while it pursued a policy of radical democratization at home. This position altered as Russia's foreign policy became more assertive. Key policy documents, including the foreign policy concept and the military doctrine, were characterized by marked suspicion of Western intentions and a resolve to restore Russia's waning position as a global power. Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev announced a more stridently imperialist position by claiming that the entire eastern European zone remained a "sphere of Russia's vitally important interests." Such trends were reinforced after the December 1993 parliamentary elections steered Yeltsin on a more nationalist course.

With the appointment of Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in January 1996, Russia took a more active and expansive role toward its former satellites. Few political leaders were willing to acknowledge the permanent loss of the union of subordinate Soviet republics. Primakov's tougher stance, coupled with his espousal of a multipolar world and the expansion of Russia's economic reach, prepared the ground for Putin's recasting of Russian foreign policy. …

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