Despite Ukraine triumph, Russia's relations with its neighbors are under strain

November 28, 2013

Russia’s success in getting Ukraine to pull back at the last minute from signing an agreement with the European Union obscures a deeper trend: Moscow’s relations with its neighbors have been on a downward slope for several years, and they show no signs of improving.

Ties with E.U. members Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Lithuania have experienced sharp strains since Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012.

But the deterioration is evident closer to home despite Putin’s considerable effort to restore Russian influence in the former Soviet space.

“Putin has a vision of Russian interests that’s shortsighted and counterproductive,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who teaches at Columbia University. “Russians misunderstand and overstate their leverage in most of the relations they screw up.”

Ukraine is not alone in being targeted by a Russia that uses restrictions and bans on trade as a weapon. Moscow seeks to punish neighboring countries economically if they disagree on policy.

Despite clear Russian trade threats, two former Soviet republics, Moldova and Georgia, still intend to initial association agreements with the E.U. on Friday even as Ukraine has pulled out. Moldova has far more trade with Europe than with Russia. Even its outlaw region of Transnistria, populated by ethnic Russians, carries on 30 to 40 percent of its foreign trade with Europe.

Georgia’s new government is ostensibly friendlier with Russia than the one that fought a war with Moscow in 2008, but not so friendly that it would turn its back on European ties and European markets that offer far more potential.

Russia has wielded trade bans against both countries, based on supposed sanitary infractions, and promises to keep doing so. That was one of its main tactics against Ukraine this past year.

Even as Russia tries to exert its will within the former Soviet Union, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a foreign policy magazine, wonders whether the country isn’t going through its “Little England” phase. That is, he said, Russia is still trying to find its place in the world after the downfall of empire, just as Britain did after World War II, and that can involve a fair amount of small-minded petulance and occasional compensatory swaggering.

The European Union

Ukraine, lying between Russia and the E.U., has taken heed of Russian threats and won’t sign with the E.U. in Vilnius this week. But Russia’s bullying has won few friends among Ukrainians, who are extraordinarily wary of rushing into a deal to join Putin’s Customs Union and will now look for any counterweight they can find.

Even Belarus, already a member of the Customs Union, though a prickly one, recently had a nasty dispute with Russia over control of the fertilizer trade that included the jailing of a prominent Russian business executive. A faction within Belarus’s authoritarian government thought that Ukraine’s proposed deal with the E.U. would make it easier for their country to trade with Europe and thus give it more leverage against Moscow.

And some, in Moscow and in the West, question whether the triumph of the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy is worth it. European officials have made it clear that they are mightily annoyed at Russia’s threats to harm the Ukrainian economy and at its frustrating of Europe’s “Eastern Partnership.”

Yet Russia has far more trade with the E.U. than it does with Ukraine and its other post-Soviet neighbors: a 4-to-1 differential in exports and nearly 3-to-1 ratio in imports, said Alexei Kuznetsov, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) here.

“We have spoiled our relations with Europe,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a onetime Kremlin strategist. “That’s strategically very dangerous. Putin has been discrediting himself.”

In some ways, the question about whether Ukraine would sign the agreement with the E.U. became much larger this fall than was justified by the stakes, Piotr Koscinski, a Polish foreign policy analyst, said at a forum that was held before Kiev backed out.

Irina Kobrinskaya, also of IMEMO, said the Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yanukovych was playing the decision for all it was worth.

“It is not Russia which wants to play the game with Ukraine and not Europe,” she said. “It is Ukraine that is playing the game.”

Given the country’s tottering economy, “I do not know what is driving Europe in regard to Ukraine, frankly,” she said.

Putin’s plans

The Customs Union consists of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Armenia, which at one point hoped to sign an agreement with the E.U., gave in to Russian pressure and has asked to join with its post-Soviet neighbors. Putin has talked about creating a Slavic league, with its own values, that would be apart from Western Europe (although neither Armenians nor Kazakhs are Slavs). But the Customs Union was designed as simply a trade bloc.

The hope was that it would help its members’ economies modernize, but this hasn’t happened, said Kobrinskaya.

Putin appears to have been encouraged by President Obama’s decision in 2009 to dial back American involvement in Russia’s neighbors, especially Georgia, Ukraine and Central Asia. At the time, Obama was hoping to improve relations with Moscow, as part of his reset of relations, and he also realized that the former Soviet countries do not constitute a prime American interest.

If Putin thought he had a freer hand, he was neglecting the E.U. as well as the calculations of the neighboring nations. Critics say that Putin sees all foreign policy in light of Russia-U.S. relations and that this may blind him to the complications and nuances closer to home.

The result has been no small amount of exasperation in what Russians call the “near abroad.”

The Central Asian nations are rapidly orienting their trade toward China. Russia has organized a military assistance program for Tajikistan, with an eye toward NATO’s withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan next year, and a few critics have pointed with alarm at what they term a Russian military revanche.

But the Russian army and navy remain staggeringly inefficient and crippled by manpower shortages and corruption. A serious reform program initiated by the former defense minister, who lost his job over allegations of graft, is now dead in the water under his successor, Sergei Shoigu, analysts say.

As Ukraine experienced, Russia tends to adopt an adversarial stance when dealing with other nations. This makes its victories painful for the other side, and they leave a residue of resentment behind.

Viktor Kremenyuk, a veteran hand at the Institute for the U.S.A. and Canada, says he has a message for Putin, if only the Russian president would listen: “You’re not in a hostile world where you always have to be tough. You’re in a friendly world. Someone should explain this to him.”

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