There were several reasons why the recent military conflict in South Caucasus, which resulted in Azerbaijan's decisive victory over Armenia and the return of most Azerbaijani territory occupied in 1992-1994, got huge attention. It marked the first case in the post-Soviet space where the central government restored its control over a separatist province (an important precedent given the numerous other cases that remain); it highlighted economic modernization's genuine impact in changing the power balance between the countries involved in the conflict; and it proved the vulnerability in modern warfare of an army equipped with outdated weaponry.
The conflict was also the first case in which Russia allowed a close ally to lose in contrast to its aggressive defense of separatist regions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014-2015 respectively. Perhaps Moscow's positions in what it proclaims to be "vital interest" areas are weakening. An alternative view suggests that the Kremlin punished the current Armenian leadership of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for its pro-democracy policies and overthrow of Putin's loyalists two years ago and exploited the conflict to expand its footprint in the region via the Russian peacekeepers now deployed in the Nagorno-Karabakh republic.
It was universally noted that the conflict witnessed the introduction of troops and military advisors from outside the former Soviet Union, as Turkey provided supplies, military commanders, and, allegedly mercenaries loyal to Ankara. Still, I believe it is necessary to broaden the frame to appreciate the profound change that the conflict produced in diverse areas.
Let us start with the still broadly unappreciated Russia-Turkey link. I would argue that in the recent conflict Russia and Turkey followed very similar lines of action and realized quite similar strategies.
The Near Abroad Rises As The Soviet Union Falls
To understand this point it is necessary to look back to the conduct of Russia's foreign policy immediately following the USSR's dissolution. The general wisdom that democratic Russia under Boris Yeltsin approached things completely differently than the authoritarian Russia of Vladimir Putin is not entirely accurate. Moscow, apparently, had never reconciled itself to its new role and to the policy autonomy of the post-Soviet republics. The formula employed to describe their status was that these states were "sovereign, but not independent" while the post-Soviet space was almost immediately called the "near abroad" in contrast with the real, or "far abroad" comprised of nations that were independent actors during the Soviet era. The term, which was invented to support the claim that the newly drawn borders may not be the final ones, has been studied by Western experts since its appearance in 1991 when the Soviet Union still existed.
Many experts concurred that its common use was not fortuitous; several American scholars compared it to the famous Roosevelt Corollary that vested in the United States a capacity "to exercise an international police power." The concept of the "near abroad," which was born almost simultaneously with the declaration that the Russian Federation was an independent state, has changed quite substantially over time. First, Russia claimed it enjoyed some "special responsibility" over these territories, as the Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the separatist regions of Moldova and Georgia. Later, Moscow started voicing its discontent over post-Soviet borders as several high-ranking officials, including former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and several influential State Duma deputies, claimed that Sevastopol in Ukraine is a "Russian" city.
Moscow became very concerned in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the former Soviet Baltic republics began an accession process to NATO and the European Union. However, a quasi-consensus existed that these countries occupied an intermediate category between the "near" and the "far" abroad. When other "independent" states pressed similar claims, Moscow's attitude altered. The Russian government displayed extreme sensitivity to attempts by former Soviet republics attempts to station foreign military installations on their soil or to join military alliances (as was the case of Georgia and Ukraine in 2008, President Vladimir Putin addressed in his famous speech at NATO-Russia summit in Bucharest). The last phase that started in the same year was marked by the open use of military force against neighboring nations that sought to "distance" themselves from Russia. Moscow not only recognized two rebellious breakaway republics for the first time but lavished impressive foreign policy efforts on promoting them in the outside world. Around the same time another symbolic measure was taken by the Kremlin: while for some time Russia had illegally disseminated its passports solely for strengthening its positions in the "near abroad," it now started to underscore its special role in the post-Soviet space by declaring that people born in any part of the former Soviet Union or the Russian Empire could apply for Russian citizenship on some kind of "fast track." Finally, in 2020 via the Constitutional amendment process, the Russian Federation (by adding a special article 67 to the constitution) actually proclaimed itself the legal successor state to the Soviet Union – a measure never previously taken by any other European nation that had previously formed part of a continental empire.
The rationale behind all these measures as presented in Russia was essentially comprised of three elements. Firstly, they were dictated by "national security" and preventing foreign (i.e. "far abroad") countries from establishing their influence in post-Soviet territories. Secondly, it was claimed that numerous "Russians" lived in these territories (it was left vague whether these "Russians were Russian Federation citizens, ethnic Russians, or "people who consider the Russian culture and Orthodox faith as their own"), and they should de "defended." Thirdly, Moscow has often argued that former Soviet republics were heavily indebted to Russia for their previous economic successes, and that Russia is making numerous concessions to them and provides them with considerable financial and economic assistance (that is partially true as indirect financial benefits for Belarus alone are estimated to be as high as $100b since 2000).
Due to all the above the "near abroad" merits treatment as Russia's "special interests zone." For securing these interests Moscow employed a policy that was called the fostering of "managed instability" – creating political or economic problems within the neighboring countries. Russia made itself indispensable in "solving" (or more accurately "freezing") them since only one post-Soviet conflict (the Tajikistan civil war of 1992-1994) was successfully resolved with Moscow's help. In all the other cases, Russia tried to prop up the fragile status quo via meaningless talks and negotiations stretching for decades. In recent years an additional and far more disturbing element – historical memory – was added to the aforementioned triad of justifications. Currently, it is common to identify Russia with either the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire when military victories and/or territorial expansion are concerned. No one talks about the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany; it is Russia that is declared the victorious nation, even though the Belarusian people proportionally sustained the largest amount of casualties in that war, and the Ukrainians' share in the Soviet Army was the highest among any other among all the nationalities comprising the Soviet Union.
But this strategy proved quite successful, provided that Russia is the sole power capable of pretending that it enjoys special rights in its "near abroad." Simply speaking, Russia's "near abroad" should be considered everybody else's "far abroad" – and here the Turkish case appears to be an exception.
Turkey Shows Russia That Two Can Play The Near Abroad Game
Like Russia, Turkey has been a powerful multicultural empire for centuries. It was comprised of different territories, and people of diverse ethnic origins rose to the top governmental positions as in Imperial Russia. The Turkic people, like the Slavonic people, inhabited different regions from Siberia to the Adriatic Sea. Moreover, just as the Russian Empire pretended to be the "keeper" of Orthodox Christianity and the protector of the many Orthodox peoples in South-Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire served as the cornerstone and defender of political Islam for centuries, controlled the two holiest Muslim shrines from 1517 till the end of the First World War and was considered a "natural ally" to many Islamic people across its formal borders. The two Empires fought each other in at least 12 wars starting with their first encounter in 1568 at Astrakhan and till the last battle for Bitlis in 1916.
It is worth recalling that the Crimean khans, as vassals to the Ottoman sultans, attempted to capture Moscow in the mid-16th century while the idea of retaking Constantinople from the Ottomans obsessed the Russian elite till at least 1917. But even more important is both states' extensive former reach: dozens of strategic sites and strongholds from Izmail in the West to Tabriz in the East – and almost everything in between of them: Bessarabia, Crimea, Azov, Taman peninsula, Abkhazia and Kars – once belonged both to the Ottoman and to the Russian Empire. So, to rely on historical memories, huge territories may be called the outskirts of both the "Russian" and the "Turkish world." The Northern shores of the Black Sea, the Crimea, coastal Georgia, as well as huge parts of both Armenia and Azerbaijan are not only Russia's, but also Turkey's "near abroad." Therefore, a concept invented in Moscow for securing its political claims, backfires these days in Russia's southern periphery as Turkey effectively makes similar claims and openly calls Azerbaijan "a brother country." Therefore, the highlight of the recent conflict is its emergence amidst competing imperial "near abroads."
The similarity goes further to judge by the modern foreign policy of Russia and Turkey. Russia occupied Ukraine's Crimea presumably heeding the calls of a local populace of Russian descent for independence and protection from Ukrainian "nationalists." The Turks did quite the same when they occupied the territories of Northern Cyprus in 1974 in the wake of a coup in Greece that supposedly threatened Cyprus' reunification with Greece, using similar rhetoric to justify their actions'. Both countries collided in several regions where they think they both possess "vital interests" – from Syria to Libya; the story of Soviet claims on Tripolitania is a long one. Both nations believe their compatriots were, or are, suppressed and discriminated against in Crimea – first Russia acted to prevent hypothetical "ethnic cleansings," and now the Turkish leaders say they are there for the Crimean Tatars and will support the Muslims' interests in the peninsula, therefore unequivocally denying Russia's sovereignty over Crimea. So, I would say that the Russian-Turkish quarrels perfectly reflect a situation where two mighty former empires rethink their current policies in line with the way they categorize their "near-abroads."
Competing Near Abroads Poison Russia's Relations With Poland
But it seems that Russia's interpretation of "near-abroad" currently clashes not only with Turkey's conception. For centuries, Russia fought wars not only with Turkey to its south, but with the Kingdom of Poland to its West. The Kingdom of Poland was a major rival in its incarnation either as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or the Rzeczpospolita. Both countries since 14th century controlled vast territories on Russia's west; they dominated over lands that Moscow considered "historically Russian," like the old princedoms of Kiyv, Chernihiv, or Polotsk. Moreover, the Poles and their allies from nowadays' Ukraine and Belarus emerged as crucial enemies to the early Russian state in the 16th and 17th centuries during both the Livonian Wars and the Time of Troubles when they eventually controlled Moscow (in this respect they were more fortunate than the Crimean Tartars, whose advances in the 1560s fell short of Moscow) and the Russian nobility was considering of recognizing Prince Władyslaw Vasa as the Tsar of Russia. The showdown ended in late 18th century as the Russian Empire together with the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Empire defeated the Poles and eventually dismembered their state in three successive partitions.
However archaic this ancient rivalry may seem, it still dominates Russian political thinking. When President Putin was searching for some significant event that could be celebrated as the "Day of National Unity" Russia's main state holiday that would replace the commemoration of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, he settled upon the 4th of November, a rather mythical date marking the "expulsion of Polish forces" from Moscow's Kremlin in 1612 that preceded the Concilium of the Russian nobility that elected Mikhail Romanov to the throne. Just as Russian propaganda focuses on the Second World War while glorifying the heroic deeds of the Russian people, who saved the world from German Nazism and presumably secured Russia's unique position in both Europe and the world, Putin blames the Poles for their role in allowing the military conflict in Europe to erupt in 1939. In his recent "theoretical" article published in The National Interest, he mentions Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck more frequently than the leaders of all the United Nations combined. If Russia is to appear "on the right side of history" it is crucial to blame Poland. When the Ukrainians rose up during their Revolution of Dignity in 2014, the Russian experts blamed the EU's "Eastern Partnership" for enticing the Ukrainians when the evil genius behind this policy, was created the former Polish defense minister and foreign minister Radosław Sikorski.
Russian historians are currently preoccupied with the massacre of Polish officers by a Soviet NKVD squad near the settlement of Katyń in 1940. Just recently, the Moscow-based Military-Historical Society, managed by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and chaired by former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, openly questioned the very fact that this brutal atrocity had occurred. This historical revisionism was not fortuitous, and it coincided with Kremlin support for Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka's portrayal of the popular protests against his rule as a Polish attempt to restore Warsaw's sphere of influence and undermine the Russian efforts to strengthen the "Union State" of Russia and Belarus.
Warsaw, unlike Ankara, has been extremely restrained in anything that smacks of a Polish "near abroad: It allowed the inhabitants of Russia's Kaliningrad region to enter Poland without a visa to visit borderland towns, and in 2007 introduced the Karta Połaka, which, until 2019, was issued exclusively to citizens of all post-Soviet countries of Polish descent, allowing them to travel and study in Poland. Last year, eligibility was expanded to Polish people in any country. Yet, Poland remains by far the most hated European nation in Russia these days, and this enmity comes from the deep memories created by centuries of geopolitical struggle. Moscow cannot erase these memories nor does it want to do so. Here again the argument holds that Russia, as a former empire, is unable to establish friendly relations with a country that considers an area within Russia's "near abroad" as part of its own "near abroad."
China: The Exception That Proves The Rule
Some experts, both Russian and Western, upon surveying Russia-Turkey tensions, assumed that Moscow's alarm was triggered by the emergence of a new regional superpower on its southern borders. Many argued that Moscow suddenly realized that Ankara currently possesses Europe's largest army, an army equipped with modern and efficient weaponry. The Turkish fleet is quantitatively and qualitatively superior to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. However, the military equation does not suffice to seriously perturb Russia, as can be seen in current Sino-Russian relations. China is stronger militarily, and more revisionist geopolitically than any other of Russia's neighbors. Russia remains totally indifferent toward China's penetration of Central Asia as part of Beijing's "One Belt, One Road" strategy. By 2020, China was more deeply involved in Central Asia and Chinese direct investments in Kazakhstan exceeded Russia's by 1.8 times, and in Uzbekistan by almost tenfold. Moreover, China's economic penetration also extends to the underdeveloped Russian Far East regions.
Nevertheless, signs of geopolitical rivalry are absent. Yes, Moscow highly prizes the strong Sino-Russian alliance, but there are three other contributing factors. First, China never fought any succession of wars with the Russian Empire and was never in direct geopolitical competition with Russia. Secondly, Russia's conquest of Central Asia never resulted in a colonial presence in the region in the strict sense of the word; Russia viewed the vast eastern territories primarily as military assets, and Russian control lasted roughly only a century. Thirdly, China has a long direct border with Russia, and is therefore considered primarily a neighbor and not a competitor for lands in-between the two countries.
Of course, some of my assessments may be speculative, but I feel quite strongly that Russia's continued pretensions to empire form an important component in Russian foreign policy and particularly vis-à-vis post-Soviet nations for at least two reasons.
It must be recalled that Russia was a continental empire, as incidentally were the Ottoman Empire and Polish Rzeczpospolita, and not an overseas empire in the French and British model. Therefore, its relation to its former territories Russia's attitude substantially differed the Western European empires attitude to their dependencies. Russia, and the same applies to Turkey and even, in some sense, to Poland) treated its colonies and possessions as parts of its own territory and therefore the Russian political elite finds it difficult to recognize them as independent states. The concept of a "natural leadership" is inherent to almost any state that was formerly the core of a continental empire, and therefore Russia's attitude to the post- Soviet space or Turkey's attitude to the former Ottoman territories is much more charged than Britain's feeling for the Commonwealth.
However, this attitude to former possessions that have become independent nations is a serious impediment to fostering natural relations between allies. Even if these countries are not viewed as inferior (weaker, economically less developed, or deprived in some other terms) they are still considered satellites rather than allies. The well-known Russian attempt to build a "Eurasian Union" that was to resemble the European Union, went bust mainly because Russia accounts for 86 percent of its combined GDP and cannot be counted as even relatively equal to any other member. And once the neighbors are regarded as satellites, the next logical step is to view them as semi-sovereign entities. Therefore, Russia has never treated its proxies as genuinely independent states and believed that even when it concluded treaties with them, these treaties were optional rather than binding. The Eurasian Union lacks any powers that are not ratified by heads of states, i.e., Russia; the Collective Security Treaty was not invoked even as a Russian helicopter was downed by Azeri fighters over Armenian territory.
In conclusion, Russia's concept of the "near abroad" is an invaluable guide to an evaluation of Moscow's foreign policy. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, once observed that "without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire" – but I would argue that imaginary control may currently prove even more important than "real" control. Ukraine has been a sovereign state for three decades, but due to the "near abroad" concept, Kiev's sovereignty ignites the flames of Russian imperialism rather than extinguishing them.
*Prof. Vladislav Inozemtsev is a Russian economist and director and founder of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies in Moscow.
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