In Caucasus and Central Asia, Does Kremlin See More Ukraines?
Ukraine's post-Soviet neighbors have been closely watching the events in Kiev -- in particular, to see how Russia responds. The spark for the protests was an unusually geopolitical one, President Viktor Yanukovych's abrupt decision to slow down negotiations with the European Union in favor of the Russia-led Customs Union. The "loss" of Ukraine, from the Kremlin's perspective, would be a huge blow to Vladimir Putin's dream of post-Soviet integration, as exemplified by the Customs Union, the Eurasian Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So how might Russia's policies toward the other countries in its orbit change as a result of what happened in Ukraine?
Putin sees the events in Ukraine as the result of destabilization (albeit possibly accidentally) by the West, writes Fyodor Lyukanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs in a trenchant analysis of how the Kremlin is likely looking at the situation in Kiev:
In his view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls. The West is destructive. It is either unable to understand the complexity of the situation and acts in a primitive way, designating "good" and "bad" players, or it deliberately destroys undesirable systems. The result is always the same - things get worse. The desire to limit Russian influence and hinder Moscow's initiatives is the invariable imperative of the Western policy.
The same argument, referring specifically to Central Asia, is made by Vitaly Khlyupin, editor of the news website CentrAsia.ru, in a piece entitled "Lessons of the Maidan for Central Asia." Yanukovych is "a tragicomic figure absolutely identical to all the current Central Asian leaders," wrote Khlyupin, who cranked up the rhetorical volume to 11 in this piece: "Small countries can play the "Great Game" only as pawns to fight over. The Kyrgyz president and other related political animals should understand -- they are no more than krill, plankton, mollusks and bottomfeeders in this big, cruel ocean of real political life, an evolutionary dead end and the lowest in the food chain. No one is interested in them for their own sake. Their entire fate: fodder." The powers he was speaking about were the U.S. and Europe, though it would seem equally applicable to Russia.
The belief that the unrest in Ukraine was provoked by the West could result in a hardening of Russia's integration efforts, said Nargis Kassenova, an Almaty-based political scientist, in an email interview with The Bug Pit. "The Kremlin will feel even more vulnerable to the 'systemic attack' carried out by the West in the post-Soviet space. Perhaps that would result in more of the same: pushing integration, security cooperation, etc."
Mikhail Troitskiy, a Moscow-based analyst, told The Bug Pit that the most likely target of Russian pressure would be Armenia, and that the Kremlin may be happy to see some of its more difficult allies in Central Asia get overthrown:
One Russian ally where civil unrest could develop around similar controversy of the Customs Union vs. association with the EU is Armenia. Moscow may now be more careful trying to speed up Yerevan's movement towards the Customs Union. As for the rest of post-Soviet Eurasia, I think Moscow, first, clearly understands the limits of its influence and, second, would not mind some of the incumbent leaders being toppled. The friendliest of those leaders seek to milk Russia for cash (Lukashenko, Atambaev). Others are either succeeding in rooting out Russian influence or even using Russia, its language and culture as antitheses in their mobilization projects (largely all other Central Asian/Caspian friends of Russia). So Moscow is either unable to help CIS leaders, such as Nazarbaev, should they begin to falter, or unwilling to do so (the likely cases of Rakhmon, Karimov, and even Lukashenko).
But he added that the country most likely to see an analogous uprising emerge is Russia itself, so the Kremlin may be more concerned about taking care of matters at home than in shoring up its empire. This is also Lyukanov's conclusion: "The main driving force behind his policy towards Ukraine will be not a desire for expansion, but a desire to reduce the risk of chaos spilling into Russia."
The view from Yerevan is that Russia may lost interest in Armenia as a result of the Ukraine events. Sergey Minasyan of the Yerevan think tank Caucasus Institute told The Bug Pit that Armenia was the recipient of Russian pressure mainly as a lever against Ukraine, rather than for its own sake. And in that case, Armenia may be of lesser strategic value to Russia now:
After the events in Ukraine the most popular perception in Armenia is that the Kremlin might lose its interest toward Armenia and Armenia's accession to the Customs Union. As the Russian pressure on Yerevan last summer was targeted mainly against Ukraine and Armenia doesn't have its own value for the Kremlin both for economic and even political reasons (as long as it is a CSTO member with a Russian military base located on Armenian territory), so there may be some decrease in the Kremlin's interest. At least, they hope that after the Ukraine's events and likely continuation of the EU institutional involvement on the post-Soviet space, Armenia receives additional leverage in the bargaining with Russia.
But personally I also think that Russians could be in some kind of panic and misperceive "domino effects" and may even strengthen its pressure and accelerate the creation of the Customs Union - here much depends on the attitudes of Lukashenko and Nazarbaev.
With things changing so quickly, though, it's obviously very difficult to say how this is going to develop. Stay tuned.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.