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Russia: Between interventionism and isolationism

CIS summit
13:21 11/03/2011
By Mikhail Pogrebinsky

Territorial and inter-ethnic conflicts in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are simultaneously a legacy of the past and its uncertain present. The Soviet Union’s uncontrolled collapse could not but produce a wave of inter-ethnic confrontations and territorial conflicts.

The Soviet model for maintaining inter-ethnic accord was based on three factors: first – a massive, systemic and purposeful ideological effort (the ideology of socialist internationalism); second – willingness to use the mechanisms in place to ruthlessly suppress ethnic tensions and any form of separatism; and third – the ability to use censorship to suppress information about inter-ethnic conflicts emerging, thus preventing “a spark developing into a fire” of a fratricidal war.

The collapse of this complex system of interconnected instruments of state led to a series of bloody conflicts that only by miracle failed to develop into a “war of every man against every man” in the post-Soviet space. No replacement to this relatively efficient system of influence on the inter-ethnic situation has been created to tackle inter-ethnic conflicts in the post-Soviet space.

Re-creating something similar in the CIS in this globalized world and in today’s information era is fundamentally impossible.

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It is obviously impossible to prevent this growth in inter-ethnic tension without a strong external influence. But international bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose remit includes objectives of this kind, both lack authority within the CIS and appropriate instruments of implementation.

Russia has no dominating influence over the post-Soviet space, and more often than not it is easier for it to find allies on international issues that concern it (like the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) in Latin America than among its neighbors in the former Soviet republics. It is common knowledge that this kind of vacuum is immediately filled by Russia’s geopolitical rivals. The United States made great headway on this in the 1990s. But the U.S. is not now in a fit state either to resolve frozen conflicts or prevent sporadically recurring inter-ethnic conflicts in the CIS without Russia. No broadly efficient international instrument exists today to resolve issues of this kind.

Things are complicated by the fact that current inter-ethnic and territorial conflicts within the CIS are sometimes encouraged and sometimes, conversely, restrained by external influences. They often involve a fierce struggle to control energy resources and their transit routes, including in the Caspian-Black Sea region. For example, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict is one aspect of competition between Russia, the United States and the European Union over the region’s energy future.

The striving to re-ignite some or other ethnic factor may be linked to a policy of exerting lateral pressure on Russia. For example, the “Orange” scenario in Ukraine saw the appearance of websites focusing on Russia’s Finno-Ugric ethnicities.

When the issue is one of internal inter-ethnic strife: in today’s post-Soviet space this can be sparked by commercial interests, including those of a criminal nature. Cliquish trade concerns, occasionally criminal in origin, can exploit ethnic conflicts in their struggle for market share, exploiting groups of young people to further their own interests. Historians note that this has happened before. For example, some Ukrainian researchers believe that the first Jewish pogrom on our soil occurred in the 19th century in Odessa during a clash between Greek and Jewish trade capital. 

There is one more factor to consider. Russia, or the former Soviet Union, and the United States are known for the strongly messianic message of their respective ideologies. These two alternating cycles are typical of such systems:

  • political interventionism connected with the striving to expand their external influence and convert all other nations to their beliefs and
  • isolationalism when they tire of political interventionism and opt instead for “exclusively focusing on resolving their domestic problems.”


In the Soviet period Russia was in the interventionist phase. The U.S. was in this phase during both Bush administrations, but especially that of Bush Jr. In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union’s ideological messianic drive crashed, Russia turned to accented isolationism, seeking to cut back its external influence and related costs as much as possible.

In the late 2000s, Russia seemed to opt for a gentle return to the era of interventionism (Putin’s Munich speech; mention of a zone of strategic interests, which the West interpreted as an intention to return to “Russia’s zone of influence”; and the August conflict with Georgia). This claim, however, does not seem all that convincing following the heavy blow the global financial crisis inflicted on Russia’s economy. And it is not yet clear how Russian policy will shape up after the upcoming presidential elections in 2012.

Both these projections, when taken to extremes, are fraught with colossal problems. Several times, extreme interventionism brought Russia (as the Soviet Union) to the point of a near “imperial overstretching of its forces”, which was one of the factors that contributed to the Soviet Union’s collapse. The extreme isolationism of the 1990s, on the other hand, lost Russia its influence even on its immediate neighbors which is hindering it in its mission of working with its neighbors to prevent inter-ethnic conflicts. The lingering conflict in the Caucasus is creating a negative background to any Russian attempts to regain its natural role of peacekeeper-in-chief within the CIS.

In tackling the current complicated situation that has no obvious solutions, Russia has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to take an active role in peacekeeping missions, which itself is evidence of its increased political weight.
The recent meeting of the presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia in Sochi held to discuss ways of stabilizing the South Caucasus is proof of this.

The talks were held at a very apt time, as increased regional tensions have become apparent to all observers, including those in Ukraine. A recent statement by a high-ranking Azerbaijani diplomat in Kiev confirms the gravity of the situation. He said: “We are considering a range of scenarios and will take every effort to restore our country’s territorial integrity.”

The organizers of the Sochi talks could, of course, be blamed for their failure to offer breakthrough diplomatic solutions. Indeed, they have only signed a declaration of intent to resolve all disputes peacefully and pledged to complete the POW exchange programs. But skeptics should be told that giving the talks a boost is in itself a vital achievement.

Mikhail Pogrebinsky is Director of the Kiev Center for Political and Conflict Studies

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RIA NovostiCIS summitRussia: Between interventionism and isolationism

13:21 11/03/2011 Russia has no dominating influence over the post-Soviet space, and more often than not it is easier for it to find allies on international issues that concern it (like the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) in Latin America than among its neighbors in the former Soviet republics. It is common knowledge that this kind of vacuum is immediately filled by Russia’s geopolitical rivals.>>

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