Russia Leans on Its Neighbors

By Stephen Blank

You may have missed it, but on Aug. 14 Russia fired an economic shot across the bow of Ukraine. On that day, Russia’s customs office ordered intensive checks on all Ukrainian goods entering Russia, effectively imposing a de facto ban. This could have ended up costing Ukraine as much as $2.5 billion in lost trade by the end of the year.


The action appeared to catch Ukraine by surprise. No official reason was given for it, but then Moscow rarely gives reasons for imposing sanctions on other states.


After some undisclosed discussions between Russia and Ukraine — and a European Union reprimand on Aug. 20 — Moscow terminated the customs checks.


The reason Moscow struck out at Ukraine is apparent: Kiev has resisted joining Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Community, the centerpiece of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reintegrate the former Soviet republics (minus the Baltic states) under Russian leadership. Instead, Ukraine is seeking an Association Agreement with the European Union, which includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement to be signed in Vilnius this November.


That would allow Ukraine to maintain its independence rather than become economically and politically subservient to Russia.


So Moscow is now seeking to punish Kiev. Sergei Glazyev, an economic adviser to Putin, acknowledged in an interview after border procedures were tightened by Russia that this had been done “in case Ukraine suddenly makes this suicidal step of signing the E.U. Association Agreement.”


Russian media warned that further economic actions might follow if Ukraine signed the free trade accord with the European Union.


Ukraine is not the only country in this part of the world subjected to economic pressure from Moscow.


Russia raised energy prices for Armenia this summer to show its displeasure with Yerevan’s efforts to negotiate a free trade accord with the European Union. It has also plunked down $4 billion in arms for Armenia’s regional rival, Azerbaijan, sharply increasing the chances of a military confrontation between the two.


Even Tajikistan hasn’t escaped Moscow’s wrath: The Kremlin has made it a habit to lash out at Tajik migrants working in the Russian Federation whose remittances — essential for keeping the economy afloat back home — are often withheld by employers.


Russia also has pressured Belarus into selling it a controlling share in its gas pipelines and domestic delivery network, and is bringing pressure to bear on its critical potash company, Belaruskali, to agree to a Russian takeover.


Economic coercion of this kind speaks volumes about Russia’s geopolitical outlook. The Kremlin openly dismisses its neighbors’ independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Glazyev, for example, called the idea of Ukraine’s desire to take a European course an act of “sick self-delusion.”


Only the European Union reprimanded Russia for the move against Ukraine. The United States remained silent.


The failure of Washington and the European Union to articulate a coherent policy for Eastern Europe, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia has been interpreted by Moscow as a tacit recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union — and license for Moscow to seek renewed hegemony there.


The stakes are high. Even if Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan and the rest are not paragons of liberal democracy, their independence and security should be in the interest of the United States and its allies in Europe.


Since it is unlikely that Russia’s neighbors will passively accept a return to a Soviet-style past, Russia’s policies could ultimately mean conflicts and long-term political instability.


Putin may believe, as he so famously declared several years ago, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. But he should not be encouraged by the West’s failure to formulate a coherent policy in Eurasia to believe that he can restore it. That would be the true catastrophe.


Stephen Blank is senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council, in Washington.


The NY Times