The Policy World Meets Academia: Designing U.S. Policy toward Russia

Chapter 3: Russia, the Post-Soviet Space and Challenges to U.S. Policy

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Timothy J. Colton, Timothy Frye, and Robert Legvold
U.S. Policy Toward Russia

Jeffrey Mankoff

The post-Soviet space is among the most conceptually challenging problems for U.S. foreign policy. The fifteen former Soviet republics are a strikingly diverse group of states, with radically varied income levels, different ethnic and religious compositions, and divergent attitudes toward their Soviet past and toward the current Russian Federation. Moreover, despite the post-Soviet states’ gradual emergence as sovereign members of the international community, many in the Russian elite continue to promote a Monroe Doctrine-like exclusivity designed to deny outside powers (especially the West) any meaningful security role in the region. The perpetuation of the post-Soviet republics’ dependence on Russia is intimately linked to the Russian elite’s desire to restore Russia as a major world power. On occasion, and the 2008 war in Georgia is perhaps the most significant instance in recent years, Moscow has withheld its cooperation, even on areas of mutual interest, in order to pressure the West into accepting its claim to special influence in the post-Soviet space.

The story is more complex than that of a former hegemon forcibly suppressing the interests of its smaller neighbors. For the elites of many post-Soviet countries, geographic proximity and the shared Russophone and Soviet cultural heritage make Russia a natural partner. Russian officials and businesses know how to operate in the region in a way that their Western counterparts do not. Unlike the United States, Russia is also inescapably tied to the region and cannot abandon it when new challenges arise in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, in many post-Soviet countries, the West appears to be a dangerous partner because of its record of working with (even encouraging) opposition movements that have challenged existing regimes.

As long as Russia refuses to recognize its onetime dependencies as fully sovereign states, tension with the West will persist. The challenge for the United States and its allies lies in reconciling Western strategic objectives in the post-Soviet space (including accessing new sources of energy, enhancing security cooperation, and encouraging political and economic liberalization) with the goal of a closer partnership with Moscow. At times, these dual objectives appear to be directly in conflict; integrating them even in the best of times requires deft diplomacy on the part of U.S. and European officials.


Though Russia’s desire to adopt a leading role within the post-Soviet space in many ways resembles other post-imperial complexes such as Britain’s Commonwealth or France’s Francophonie, the historical peculiarities of the formation and collapse of the Russian/Soviet empire have left Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors in a much different position than that of a Ghana or an Algeria on the morrow of independence. Because the Russian empire expanded gradually overland into contiguous spaces (not unlike the westward expansion of the United States), the cultural discontinuities between center and periphery were not as extreme as with the overseas empires of Britain, France, or Portugal. These discontinuities were further diminished after seventy years of Soviet ideological conformity. Furthermore, with the important exception of the Baltic states, the post-Soviet republics did not become independent during a period of mass movements for independence. Particularly in Central Asia, local elites wanted to preserve the USSR long after Boris Yeltsin and his allies in Moscow became determined to sweep it away. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, independence was for many an unwelcome surprise, and nearly two decades later, patterns of trade and migration preserve a significant degree of informal regional integration.

Moreover, with the exception of the Baltic countries, the Soviet collapse did not create a fundamentally new political elite. Nationalist governments seeking a sharp break from their Soviet past briefly came to power in Georgia and Azerbaijan but were soon replaced by regimes dominated by former apparatchiki, or Communist Party functionaries. Elsewhere, the apparatchiki never left. Ten of the twelve non-Baltic republics are currently ruled by ex-Soviet officials or (in Azerbaijan) the son of a Soviet general groomed to be his father’s successor. In Georgia and Moldova, the departure of the apparatchiki was a prolonged, difficult process pushed forward by resentment against Moscow’s overt political manipulation. In Ukraine, vigorous multiparty democracy overlays competition for power and resources among a heavily Sovietized elite.

The perpetuation of a largely Soviet ruling class in these countries has facilitated the development of a peculiarly post-Soviet style of politics across the ex-USSR; it isolates the post-Soviet states from neighbors over which the hammer-and-sickle never flew. Russia remains a significant reference point for post-Soviet elites across the former USSR. Even when diplomatic relations with Moscow are strained, the shared political-cultural heritage of the USSR keeps the post-Soviet states (again, the Baltic states are an exception) from turning on Moscow.1 Indeed, the most notable attempt by the post-Soviet states to counter Russian influence was the creation of the GUAM (or GUUAM) bloc in 1997. Of the five states that once comprised the group, only Georgia remains firmly committed to checking Russian influence.2

Russia shares these post-Soviet traits with its neighbors. It also hearkens back to an imperial past that is inextricably bound up with its self-proclaimed role as a great power.3 With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the territory controlled by the Russian state shrank to dimensions not seen since the time of Peter the Great. Despite the retreat of the state’s frontiers and the economic, social, and demographic collapse that Russia endured after 1991, the Russian elite has continued to view Russia as occupying a special role in the international balance. Fundamental to the elite’s understanding of Russia’s place in the world is a belief that Russia is destined by its size and its history to be one of the world’s major powers, sharing with other large states a responsibility for resolving major issues of world order.4 Throughout Russian history, state power was generally correlated with the extent of territory under state control. As today’s Russia seeks to reassert its international influence, its leaders see a central role in the post-Soviet space as a sine qua non for Russia’s restoration as a major power.

This self-perception provides one of Russia’s principal justifications for seeking a privileged role in the affairs of the post-Soviet space and contributes both directly and indirectly to the difficult relationship between Russia and the West. The belief that Russia will always have a special responsibility in upholding world order is deep-seated and held by figures across the political spectrum. This self-conception shapes Russia’s perception of its interests; according to political scientist Alexander Wendt, “deliberation about national interests takes place against the background of a shared national security discourse . . . which may substantially affect its content.”5 In Wendt’s view, only through a reshaping of the predominant national security discourse can a state redefine the nature of its interests and the policies it pursues in seeking to attain those interests.

In Russia’s case, the shared national security discourse of the elite is clearly focused on promoting and strengthening Russia’s position as a great power in a world dominated by a finite number of great powers. Though rooted in self-perception rather than more objective measures of Russia’s standing relative to other countries, the emphasis on Russia’s role as a great power in itself contributes to competition and confrontation with other large powers by channeling foreign policy into a quest to maximize power at the expense of others.6 This desire for great-power status is a destabilizing factor in Russia’s relations with other states.7

Sovereignty, in its traditional Westphalian sense, implies the ability of each state to choose its own allies and economic partners and conduct its internal affairs free from the interference of any outside state.8 Given their political,cultural, and economic bonds to Russia, however, the post-Soviet states began their history as independent nations at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, Russian policy since 1991 has worked to keep its neighbors in loose alignment with Moscow, regardless of whether a pro-Russia policy is in these states’ interest. Russia has used selective political support for regimes it deems friendly, control over energy distribution networks, and a web of institutions such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) to prevent its neighbors from leaving the Russian orbit.9 Russia’s demand for a droit de regard in the former Soviet Union has prevented many Russian neighbors from pursuing the full range of political and economic opportunities available to them. The majority have not, for instance, been able to sell their natural resources at world-market prices or join international institutions, such as NATO, in which Russia does not play a dominant role.

In the process, Russian policy has not only limited opportunities for its neighbors to pursue full economic integration with the outside world (a step that would in most cases improve their standard of living), it has also inhibited their political development by constraining the choices available to their leadership. Even though official Russian discourse has abjured use of the term “near abroad” for several years, the Kremlin’s approach to the post-Soviet space reflects the continuing belief that the countries of the former Soviet Union are somehow less sovereign, less “real” than countries in the “far abroad.” The war between Russia and Georgia was perhaps the apotheosis of Russia’s policy of keeping the post-Soviet states within its sphere of influence by any means necessary. Whether the ascent of Dmitry Medvedev and the fallout of the 2008 to 2009 economic crisis will loosen Moscow’s grip on its neighbors is among the major questions analysts and policy-makers are asking. A related question is whether Western policy can in any way affect Moscow’s bearing on the former Soviet Union.


From the standpoint of the West, Russia’s behavior in the post-Soviet space is problematic for a number of reasons. The West is not prepared to recognize the post-Soviet space as an exclusive Russian sphere of influence or as the “zone of privileged interests” Medvedev described in the aftermath of the August 2008 war.10 As Western governments and companies seek to establish a presence in the region, they continually face resistance to what the Kremlin views as intrusion in its own backyard. For this reason, the status of the post-Soviet space has become in many ways the most intractable and explosive issue in relations between Moscow and the West.

The post-Soviet space also negatively impacts the West’s relationship with Russia, since Moscow’s cooperation in other areas is often made contingent on the West’s acceptance of Russia’s desiderata in the former Soviet Union. The status of U.S. forces in Central Asia is a good example. Russia shares with the United States and Europe an overwhelming interest in seeing the Taliban defeated and Afghanistan stabilized. Yet Moscow’s attitude toward the presence of U.S. forces in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are important staging points for the Afghan conflict, has vacillated. Though Russia reluctantly assented to the initial deployment of U.S. forces in the region in 2002, Moscow subsequently pressed for those forces to depart, even as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated after 2005. The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis undermined Russia’s influence throughout the region (especially its economic influence), allowing Washington to outbid Moscow for the right to keep its base in Kyrgyzstan, even as Russia offered the use of its own territory and agreed to join the so-called Northern Distribution Network for supplying the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

To be fair, the West has at times made the situation worse by pursuing a strategy designed to bring as much of the post-Soviet space as possible directly into the Western orbit, regardless of the potential impact on relations with Moscow. The United States and its European allies have also fallen into bipolar, confrontational logic over relations with the post-Soviet states. NATO expansion has been the most visible and salient element of this strategy, particularly when discussions have turned to the possible membership of Georgia, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet countries. This approach treats Russia as the main security threat to countries around its borders, reinforcing Russian suspicions of Western intent and often (as in the case of Georgia) undermining the security of the countries that NATO expansion was designed to protect. An effective U.S.-European policy toward the post-Soviet space must overcome this legacy of merely expanding the existing institutions of “the West” closer and closer to Russia’s borders without either reforming the way those institutions function or developing an approach that treats Russia as potentially part of the solution to regional insecurity rather than as a threat.

The West has no reason to oppose close relations between Russia and its post-Soviet neighbors; indeed, good relations among the post-Soviet states would greatly enhance security across the entire region and could improve relations between Moscow and the West. The problem is that Russia’s strategy for promoting closer relations with its neighbors often appears to perpetuate a zero-sum bloc mentality. This approach limits the policy options available to the post-Soviet states and polarizes the relationship between Russia and outside powers seeking to establish a presence in the post-Soviet space. This polarization plays out even in the domestic politics of the post-Soviet states, where the Kremlin has devoted significant effort to preventing uncontrolled political transitions (“colored revolutions”) and where the question of balancing relations with Russia and the West has become a focal point for political competition. Russian intervention has consequently sought to prop up authoritarian regimes in neighboring states, since the perception remains that democratization leads to a pro-Western (and hence anti-Russian) foreign policy.11 Whether the experience of Ukraine in 2010, when a largely free presidential election resulted in the victory of the Kremlin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych, changes Russian perceptions of democracy’s benefits remains to be seen.


Russia’s approach to the post-Soviet space is laid out in the basic documents governing Russian foreign policy, including the Foreign Policy Concept and the National Security Concept. These documents provide a conceptual foundation for Moscow’s conviction that the former Soviet Union plays a fundamentally different role in Russian foreign policy than any other region of the world. According to the version of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept adopted early in Medvedev’s presidency, Russian foreign policy aims to “devote particular attention to activities and structures capable of strengthening the process of integration on the territory of the CIS.”12 The focus on integration has been central to Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space since at least the mid-1990s, when Yeltsin and his team reversed course under pressure from various conservative forces who opposed what they saw as Yeltsin’s headlong and futile rush into the embrace of the West. Even during the first years after the Soviet collapse, Moscow intervened directly in the affairs of some of its neighbors, including Georgia, where Russian troops were dispatched in late 1993 to defend the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze against rebels loyal to his predecessor, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In the process, Moscow pressured Shevardnadze’s teetering government into formally joining the CIS.

The CIS, along with the alphabet soup of multinational organizations across the former Soviet Union territory, has been a central component of Moscow’s strategy for preserving the links between the post-Soviet states. Given the disparity in size and wealth between Russia and any of the other post-Soviet republics, it is hardly surprising that these groups tend to be Russia-dominated and typically prioritize Russian interests, although organizations such as the CSTO, EurAsEC, and the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union provide some benefits to their non-Russian members as well. The CSTO, for instance, allows members to purchase Russian weapons for their militaries at the discounted price offered to the Russian military and provides a security guarantee that allows them to summon Russian military assistance against internal or external threats.13

Despite these benefits, many non-Russian states have decidedly mixed feelings about these organizations, to which membership can seem compulsory and which often seem to subordinate the interests of smaller members to those of Russia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is more popular among its Central Asian members because it provides a forum for playing Russia and China off one another and facilitates China’s economic penetration of a region long dominated by Moscow.14 Other regional organizations lacking a Chinese presence give their smaller members fewer options. Since Russia exports far more to its neighbors than they export to Russia, some officials argue that the Customs Union has harmed the Kazakh and Belarusian economies by leaving their industrial sectors vulnerable to Russian competition.15 The benefits of membership are largely political, helping Kazakhstan and Belarus to maintain a solid relationship with Moscow. Likewise, the CSTO’s charter forbids members from participating in any other military bloc (read: NATO), which limits the options available to member states and perpetuates the idea of a bipolar standoff between the West and Russia.

Military integration under the auspices of the CSTO has also raised concerns among some of Russia’s neighbors because the alliance serves as a pretext for Russia to station troops outside its borders. The messy breakup of the USSR left Russian troops in numerous locations across the old empire. In some places, such as Tajikistan, Russian forces have been an important stabilizing factor under conditions of state breakdown and civil war, but they have also served as a bargaining chip with the local government and an impediment to pursuing security cooperation with the United States.16 Furthermore, Russian troops have been a source of corruption through their participation in the regional drug trade.17 Elsewhere, they have played a more overtly political role. The presence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, on the coast of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, has been a major rallying point for Ukrainian nationalists seeking to extricate their country from Russian influence, in part by expelling the naval base. Russian hardliners, for their part, demanded Russian intervention to ensure the Fleet’s continued presence when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called for its expulsion. Russian diplomats warned at the time that an attempt by Kyiv to expel the Fleet could ignite a military conflict between the two countries.

The role of the Russian military in the so-called frozen conflicts around the former Soviet Union is equally explosive. Though ostensibly deployed as peacekeepers, Russian forces in Transdnistria (Moldova) and South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Georgia) have prevented the Moldovan and Georgian governments from asserting complete sovereignty over their territory. In South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian troops were active participants in the August 2008 war against the Georgian government, and their presence has continued to underwrite the de facto independence of the two breakaway republics. Their presence also helps perpetuate Russia’s estrangement from the West, since the United States and the EU maintain that Russian deployments in Transdnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia violate the terms of an agreement, reached in 1999, by which Moscow agreed to remove its troops from neighboring countries in exchange for a revision of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty to address Russia’s concerns about the effects of NATO expansion.18 Russia’s failure to withdraw its forces from Georgia and Moldova in line with the terms of the Istanbul Commitments has led the West to refuse ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty that the two sides signed in 1999, blocking progress toward a more comprehensive security accord between Russia and the West.


Another component of Russia’s drive for economic and political integration across the post-Soviet space has been control of energy pipelines. Given the importance of energy to the economies of Russia and its neighbors, power over the pipelines gives Moscow significant political leverage. Pipeline construction in the Soviet era did not take into account the interrepublic borders of the USSR and left the successor states with pipeline networks poorly matched to the political and economic needs of independent states. Since the Soviet-era infrastructure was oriented toward meeting demand in the more industrialized RSFSR (which became the Russian Federation in 1991) and delivering hard-currency exports to Europe, the oil- and gas-producing states of Central Asia (and initially Azerbaijan) have had no choice but to send their resources to Russia for export to world markets. Its monopsonistic position for many years allowed Moscow to pay the Central Asian producers a fraction of the price Gazprom charges to the end consumers of the same gas in Europe. It also creates vast opportunities for corruption, as dubious trading companies (of which the Russo-Ukrainian outfit RosUkrEnergo is the most notorious) profit from the large markups imposed each time the gas crosses a national border.19 This revenue stream, which benefits officials across the former Soviet Union, further reinforces Moscow’s drive for integration across the post-Soviet space by creating a community of interest among corrupt officials in multiple countries. The ability to tap these revenue streams has given officials in Ukraine and elsewhere a vested personal interest in preserving the status quo, including financial-institutional ties to Russia.20

During the 1990s, Russia used its control of the pipeline network from Central Asia to pressure Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to exclude foreign companies from signing major energy deals. This strategy was particularly pronounced in Russia’s relations with Turkmenistan, which, due to its geographic isolation from external markets, had few options for breaking the Russian grip on its energy sales.21 Kazakhstan, which moved early to strike deals with foreign oil companies, and which is able to ship oil across the Caspian Sea by barge, has been more effective than Turkmenistan in forging links with Western companies. In the process, it has enhanced its geopolitical leverage as well as its economic development. Azerbaijan and Georgia, in contrast, were able to pursue more independent foreign policies once Western-built pipelines bypassing Russia connected them to world markets in the late 1990s.22

This experience is central to the ongoing debate about the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline, which would extend from Erzurum in Turkey through the Balkans to Central Europe, and which was conceived to operate with gas pumped from the Caspian Basin. Azerbaijan, which has been selling significant quantities of oil and gas to Europe since the mid-1990s, is largely on-board with the project, despite ongoing Russian attempts to encourage Baku to reorient its exports to Moscow.23 Most analysts doubt that Azerbaijan by itself has enough gas to meet Nabucco’s projected volume of 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year on its own. The country will almost certainly have to secure energy supplies from the east side of the Caspian—that is, from Kazakhstan and/or Turkmenistan, or from the Middle East.

Russia has relied on a combination of promised rewards and threatened penalties to dissuade Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan from participating in Nabucco. It has also proposed its own alternative, the so-called South Stream pipeline, which would run beneath the Black Sea to Bulgaria and hence along a route similar to that planned for Nabucco. South Stream was initially projected to carry an amount of gas comparable to Nabucco (31.5 bcm), though in early 2009, Russian gas monopoly Gazprom announced that it would double South Stream’s capacity, undermining the economic argument for the rival Nabucco project.24

From the perspective of the energy-producing post-Soviet states, plans for South Stream (as well as the similar Nord Stream pipeline, which would extend beneath the Baltic Sea to Germany) appear to be designed to weaken support for Nabucco by offering a politically safer alternative for accessing European markets. For current transit states Belarus and Ukraine, the impact of the new pipelines could be especially profound. Without the new pipelines, virtually all the gas Russia sells to Europe (whether that gas originates in Russia or Central Asia) has to cross Ukrainian or Belarusian territory, making it difficult for Gazprom to stop deliveries to Ukraine and Belarus without risking disruptions to its European customers as well. Several times since the Soviet collapse, payment disputes between Gazprom and these transit states have led to partial cutoffs. In January 2009, a major dispute with Ukraine over back payments eventually led Gazprom to shut off deliveries entirely, leaving many customers in Europe without gas in the depths of winter. The economic and political fallout for Gazprom, and for Russia, was steep. (A similar, albeit less far-reaching, dispute in 2007 was even more damaging for Russia politically.)

South Stream and Nord Stream are problematic for the EU (and hence for the United States) for at least three reasons. First, the planned Russian pipelines have been a major source of discord within Europe. Several Western European states, principally Italy and Germany, both of which would become key transit hubs for gas from the new pipelines, have thrown their weight behind the Russian projects, even as some Eastern European states have reacted with alarm to what they see as Russia’s transparent attempt at divide-and-rule tactics within Europe.25 Second, by increasing the overall amount of Russian gas sold in Europe, the two pipelines would deepen Europe’s dependence on Russia and therefore enhance Russia’s political leverage over the EU, at least in the medium term. Finally, the pipelines would change Europe’s political calculus vis-à-vis the transit states. No longer facing the prospect of suffering directly from Russian chastisement of Ukraine or Belarus, the barriers to EU intervention in disputes between Moscow on the one hand and Minsk or Kyiv on the other would rise, further strengthening Russian leverage over its neighbors and reducing the salience of events in Ukraine and Belarus to European interests.


In some ways, the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 weakened Russia’s role in the post-Soviet space. Even though most of the smaller post-Soviet republics have suffered severely in the recent downturn, Russia’s own difficulties have made it more difficult for Moscow to keep its neighbors on a tight leash. Russia’s withering trade and credit have spurred post-Soviet states from Moldova to Kyrgyzstan to look for new sources of funds and in the process to begin to reshape the international environment of the former Soviet Union. The post-Soviet states have additional foreign policy opportunities that have led them in a variety of directions. Authoritarian Belarus has tacked closer to the European Union, even signing up for the EU’s Eastern Partnership program in the face of Russian opposition. Together with Uzbekistan, Belarus has sought to downgrade its commitment to the CSTO, boycotting a summit and (in Tashkent’s case) withdrawing from an agreement to set up a CSTO rapid reaction force that many states fear could be used to bully them into allowing Russian forces on their territory. Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, reversed course on its decision to expel U.S. forces from its base at Manas Airport after Moscow fell through on its promise of a $2.1 billion loan to Bishkek—a decision that appears to have contributed to Moscow’s support for the protests that overthrew former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010. China has been a major beneficiary of Russia’s financial weakness over the past eighteen months. China remains cash-rich and has poured loans and investments in natural resources into the former Soviet Union, including Russia, where Beijing is underwriting the construction of an oil pipeline to the Pacific in exchange for concessionary prices for the oil.

Russia’s economy will eventually recover (by the start of 2010, it already appeared to be gradually turning around), and when it does, Moscow will undoubtedly seek to restore its influence across the post-Soviet space. In the interim, the West needs to strategize on how to steer engagement within the CIS away from a a zero-sum competition with Russia. As long as a major part of Russia’s elite continues to think of their country as a nineteenth-century-style great power, they will seek a dominant role in the post-Soviet space. Therefore, Western policy needs to be twofold: on the one hand, it should bolster the resilience of Russia’s neighbors and thus provide them with the self-confidence to make foreign policy decisions on the basis of national interests; on the other, the West should forge connections that simultaneously encompass Russia and its neighbors, so that every contact between the West and a post-Soviet country is no longer automatically perceived in Moscow as a loss for Russian security.

Strengthening institutions across the post-Soviet space is in some ways the lesser challenge, daunting though it may be. The United States and Europe should avoid military involvement and instead work with the post-Soviet states (as well as NGOs and the private sector to the degree possible) to strengthen institutions of governance, including the judiciary, anticorruption watchdogs, and financial authorities. Policy should also involve greater opportunities for officials to study and travel to the West on professional exchanges. The objective of such exchanges would be to develop the capacity of these weak states to act autonomously, giving substance to the rhetoric of sovereignty that has long underpinned U.S. policy in the region.

On the second policy objective, the United States and its allies need to get relations with Russia right, above all on the question of the CIS. Continually expanding the writ of organizations like NATO without simultaneously engaging Moscow in discussions about collaborative projects in the region only exacerbates the problem of polarization. Russian suspicions and an inclination to play a spoiler role have inhibited progress on this kind of engagement in the past; however, in the wake of the economic crisis and consequent diminishment of Moscow’s loftier ambitions, the moment seems ripe for a new approach that treats Russia as a potential part of the solution to regional instability as well as part of the problem. Given the level of mistrust that exists on all sides, it would make sense to start small, with an emphasis on trade agreements encompassing the EU, Russia, and Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors. More difficult issues, such as security cooperation and the fate of the CFE Treaty, will have to be addressed at some point, but perhaps not at the beginning.


The post-Soviet space represents a unique challenge for U.S. foreign policy insofar as it is intimately linked to, but not fully congruent with, policy toward Russia. The United States has been largely unsuccessful when it has attempted to impose a hard divide between its policy approaches to Russia and policy toward Russia’s neighbors. The ongoing economic crisis reinforces the temptation to ignore Russia’s self-proclaimed interests in the post-Soviet space. Yet while Russia’s recovery may be uneven and halting, it will occur. If past experience is a guide, unilateral gains Washington makes at Russia’s expense in the post-Soviet space will be resented by Moscow and will increase the obstacles facing future U.S.-Russia rapprochement.

Whether Russian interests in the region are “legitimate” is in some ways misframing the problem. They exist, and are intimately linked to the elite’s broadly held conception of Russia’s identity as a state and an international actor. If the United States hopes to work with Russia on issues of surpassing importance like Iran, it must finesse disputes over the post-Soviet space. The United States does not need to abandon support of countries like Georgia or engage in unsavory trade-offs with the Kremlin, but it does need to acknowledge the continued linkage between the two problems and design policies that treat them in tandem—in part because leaders of many CIS states continue to view Russia as their most natural partner and the United States as, at best, an external balancer.

Real change will come only once Russia no longer views the CIS as a “zone of privileged interests” from which other powers are to be excluded. While Western policy cannot force Russia or Russian elites to change their views of the post-Soviet space, it can create incentives to allow Russia to play a more positive role in the region. Time, especially the emergence of a truly post-Soviet generation in both Russia and its neighbors (in many of which knowledge of the Russian language is already declining rapidly) will have to do the rest.


1. See Christopher Marsh and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “The Persistence of Eurasia,” Policy Innovations, The Carnegie Council, November 5, 2009,

2. The five countries are Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. Uzbekistan withdrew from GUUAM in 2005, returning the bloc to the original appellation of GUAM. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova all face separatist conflicts fueled in part by Moscow.

3. I elaborate on this argument in Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), esp. chap. 1.

4. Russia’s view of what constitutes a major issue of world order is in important ways outside the mainstream of world opinion; Russia, for instance, has done little to address the dangers of climate change or other transnational problems characteristic of the twenty-first century. See Samuel A. Greene and Dmitri Trenin, “(Re)Engaging Russia in an Era of Uncertainty,” Carnegie Policy Brief No. 86, December 2009, 4.

5. Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 129.

6. Notably, current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has challenged important pieces of this paradigm. For instance, he declared in his 2009 annual address to parliament that the core goal of Russian foreign policy should be to improve the country’s standard of living and to pursue a greater degree of integration with European structures without surrendering Moscow’s claim to a predominant role in the former USSR. See Medvedev, “Poslanie Federal’nomu Sobraniyu Rossiiskoi Federatsii,” November 12, 2009,

7. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 29–54.

8. See Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001). For more information on the applicability of traditional concepts of sovereignty in the post-Soviet space, see Martha Brill Olcott, “Sovereignty and the ‘Near Abroad,’” Orbis 39 (3) (Summer 1995): 353–367.

9. Mark Kramer, “Russian Policy Toward the Commonwealth of Independent States: Recent Trends and Future Prospects,” Problems of Post-Communism 55 (6) (November/December 2008): 5.

10. To read Medvedev’s comment, see “Interv’yu Dmitriya Medvedeva rossiiskim telekanalam,” August 31, 2008,

11. Thomas Carothers, “The Backlash Against Democracy Promotion,” Foreign Affairs 85 (2) (March/April 2006).

12. “Kontseptsiya Vneshnei Politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii,” July 12, 2008,

13. “Ustav Organizatsiya dogovora o kollektivnoi bezopasnosti,”

14. See Alexander Cooley, “Cooperation Gets Shanghaied: China, Russia, and the SCO,” Foreign Affairs (online version), December 14, 2009,

15. Author’s interviews with Kazakh officials, Astana, Kazakhstan, July 2009.

16. Zafar Abdullayev, “Tajikistan, Russia Probe Military Partnership,” Eurasia Insight, EurasiaNet, March 4, 2004.

17. Kathleen Knox, “Tajikistan: Heroin Bust Ties Russian Military to Drug Trade,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), May 7, 2004.

18. Vladimir Socor, “Russia Repudiates Istanbul Commitments in JCG Meetings,”Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, November 16, 2004.

19. Vladimir Milov and Martha Brill Olcott, “The Great Uncertainty: Russian-Central Asian Energy Relations,” presentation to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 13, 2007. Before 2008, for example, Gazprom purchased gas from Turkmenistan for about $130 per thousand cubic meters (tcm) and sold it at the Ukrainian border for more than double that amount.

20. See Misha Glenny, “Gas and Gangsters,” New Statesman, March 3, 2008.

21. Adam N. Stulberg, Well-Oiled Diplomacy: Strategic Manipulation and Russia’s Energy Statecraft in Eurasia (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2007), 93–132.

22. The Baku-Supsa oil pipeline was completed in 1998, though the much larger Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline did not become operational until 2006.

23. Bruce Pannier, “Russia, Azerbaijan Achieve Gas Breakthrough,” RFE/RL, June 30, 2009.

24. “Putin and Berlusconi seal ‘South Stream’ pipeline deal,” EurActiv, May 18, 2009,

25. In 2006, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski (then minister of defense) famously compared Nord Stream to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; see “Nord Stream ‘a waste of money,’ says Poland,” EurActiv, January 11, 2010,