The American Interest
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Eurasian Abrasions

Habits, not interests, are behind U.S.-Russian tensions in the post-Soviet space.

Published on February 2, 2012

The tension between the United States and Russia over post-Soviet Eurasia1 has significantly undermined the prospects for mutual trust and cooperation on global security issues between Washington and Moscow, as well as stunting the region’s development. Much of the rancor is rooted not in an inevitable clash of interests, however, but rather in the way the two governments conduct their policies in the region. Both U.S and Russian modi operandi, or at least the aspects that cause trouble, flow in large part from certain habits that have proven extremely hard to break.

Russian political elites can’t seem to help but treat bilateral relationships in the region of the former Soviet space differently from those it has with other countries; proximity, economic links and cultural commonalities from a shared Soviet and in many cases also pre-Soviet past all but make this inevitable. Nor is Russia unique in this respect. Any country’s immediate geographic neighborhood constitutes a major source of concern and opportunity. For example, the United States is deeply involved in law enforcement and counter-narcotics work in Mexico, and NAFTA is the most far-reaching trade deal in U.S. history. The European Union encourages countries in its immediate neighborhood to the east and south to adopt its norms and values, even if they are not ready for full EU membership.

Yet Russia’s engagement in its backyard is different. Its “special treatment” has at times evinced a lack of respect for the sovereign choices of post-Soviet Eurasian states. Moscow has occasionally used economic means to pressure neighbors with whom it has had political disagreements. The import ban on Georgian mineral water and wine, deportation of ethnic Georgians and suspension of visa-free entry of Georgian citizens into Russia in 2006–07 escalated tensions and placed the two countries on a collision course. Russia also allegedly intervened in Ukraine’s autumn 2004 presidential election, when, in addition to overtly supporting Viktor Yanukovych, it prematurely congratulated him just before his victory was annulled by the Ukrainian Supreme Court. There are also unproven but widely believed rumors concerning sub rosa Russian financial support for Yanukovych, reinforced by the overt work of Kremlin-connected spin doctors on his campaign. 

It may be that in some cases Moscow was pursuing a reasonable or even a just outcome, or seeking to prevent an unjust one. However, instead of going through diplomatic channels, providing transparent incentives to change behavior, or consulting directly with whichever party caused Russia’s concerns, it has all too often resorted to coercion. The 2003 Kozak Memorandum episode is a clear example of coercive methods that spoiled an otherwise largely unobjectionable regional policy initiative. 

The Kozak Memorandum was a draft agreement aimed at thawing the conflict, “frozen” since the early 1990s, between the government of Moldova and separatist authorities in Transnistria. The substance of the deal (with the exception of the continuation of a small Russian military presence in the region) was not hugely controversial since it recognized Moldova’s territorial integrity. However, Russian Deputy Head of Presidential Administration Dmitri Kozak negotiated the memo by means of heavy-handed tactics and in secrecy, skirting the existing multilateral negotiating format. In the end, the Moldovan government, allegedly following phone calls from Washington and Brussels, pulled the plug on the agreement. It might have represented the best possible deal available under the circumstances, but Russia pursued it in such a way that both the Moldovan and U.S. governments saw it as an imposition from Moscow. 

Why has Russia behaved in such a heavy-handed fashion? Some chalk it up to a security imperative to control the Eurasian landmass, or to an ingrained imperialist instinct. For example, Thomas Graham, a former NSC adviser to President George W. Bush on Russia, says:

Russia’s interests in this region extend back at least 300 years; they are bound up in the exigencies of guaranteeing security on the central Eurasian plain. Russia has historically sought to drive its frontiers out as far forward as possible to keep external powers as far as possible from the Russian heartland, that is, to create as much strategic depth as possible. At the same time, the lands of the former Soviet space have also provided resources essential to the production and enhancement of Russian power. Russia’s effort to reassert its presence throughout this region is today’s manifestation of this historical drive.2

We do not think this explanation fully fits the evidence. First, it doesn’t make sense for Russia to reduce so significantly the size of its conventional standing army if it is supposedly seeking to expand the landmass it controls, but that is what it has been doing. The Russian leadership has planned to significantly downsize the ground forces—from around 360,000 in 2008 to 270,000 by 2012.3 Second, Russian elites treat their neighbors much differently than the Czars or the Soviets treated their satrapies and satellites. 

Russian actions that arouse concern in Washington are not sourced in centuries-old bad habits. Historical or geopolitical determinism does not suffice as explanation in the age of global flows of trade, investment and information. Rather, the sources of Moscow’s troublesome behaviors lie in the much newer habit of senior Russian policymakers who belonged to the all-Union elite before 1991: namely, the tendency to see post-Soviet Eurasian states as though they were still Soviet Socialist Republics. We see signs of this habit in the fact that a special ministry for CIS affairs existed in the 1990s to manage such relationships; these states weren’t nearly “foreign” enough to fall under the responsibilities of the Foreign Ministry. This habitual attitude has complicated Moscow’s ability to form policies toward these countries in a way that allows Russia to further its interests while respecting their sovereign choices.


eanwhile, some aspects of the U.S. approach are also shaped by the past. In the 1990s, the main U.S. policy objective in the region was strengthening the newly acquired statehood of Russia’s neighbors. Washington acted on the assumption that the existence of a multitude of sovereign states would best serve U.S. security interests by preventing the emergence of an anti-Western bloc to take the place of the Soviet Union. As Strobe Talbott recalls in his memoir:

Even before [U.S. President Bill] Clinton assumed office, he set as a guideline for his administration’s policy toward the former Soviet Union that we must convince everyone in the region that ‘Russia’s not the only game in town’ and that the U.S. was committed to helping what we called the new independent states survive to become old independent states.

That made good sense at the time, but twenty years later the same fossilized policy instincts draw the United States into outright balancing games. Thus the goal of bolstering post-Soviet Eurasian sovereignties somehow became conflated with the need to counter all forms of Russian influence there. For example, in the 1990s, the U.S. government pushed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in part to provide an independent revenue stream for Azerbaijan and Georgia, when it was not clear that they could survive without one. The project would never have proceeded if the private companies involved had determined that the pipeline would not be profitable, but U.S. government support did not hurt. More recently, however, under significantly changed circumstances, the U.S. government lent political support to the Nabucco pipeline project before its economic viability has been thoroughly established. While profitability is contingent on a set of factors beyond any government’s control, American officials have given a sympathetic hearing to the claims of Nabucco contractors, who are prone to equating the failure of their project with a “geopolitical disaster.”5 Just as generals are said to still be fighting the last war, these policymakers are pursuing dated strategic goals.

The U.S. government also seemed to be overreacting to Russian influence when officials welcomed Georgia’s decision to make English rather than Russian the main foreign language taught in Georgian high schools. To be sure, facilitating contacts between Georgian youth and the English-speaking world is a laudable goal, but discouraging students from studying Russian will gratuitously complicate Georgia’s future relations with its largest neighbor, not to mention hindering reconciliation with Russian-speaking Abkhazians and South Ossetians. 

This U.S. attitude extends even to the trivial. For example, U.S. officials allegedly discouraged the managers of the Ukrainian stock market depository system from entering into a cooperation agreement with their Russian counterparts, apparently out of concern that any integration represents a threat to U.S. interests.6 This kind of thinking reflects dated assumptions about Russian intentions, inflated assessments of Russian capabilities, and Russian-Ukrainian enmity, none of which are borne out empirically. In the end, such actions are more likely to alienate Ukrainians and Russians alike from the United States.

U.S. advocates of geopolitical tit-for-tat tend to overlook the fact that over the course of the past twenty years the former-Soviet republics (with several prominent exceptions involving separatist disputes) have fully consolidated their sovereignty and nation-building projects. They have also developed a decent record of withstanding pressure from both Washington and Moscow when they deem it necessary. For example, Uzbekistan withdrew from a defense alliance with Russia in 1999, returned to it in 2006, and may be preparing to leave it again. Moscow thus far has seemed unwilling or unable to influence the outcome of Uzbekistan’s decision-making processes, as well. Two other post-Soviet Eurasian states, Azerbaijan and Armenia, have successfully resisted pressure from Russia (and the United States) to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Despite President Dmitri Medvedev’s many hours spent lobbying these countries to negotiate matters of substance, neither side has agreed even to a set of guiding principles for a resolution. In other words, domestic and regional dynamics, not great power competition (or even cooperation), are the driving force behind developments in the post-Soviet Eurasian space.

Any domestic political change that could result from the protest movement that has gathered momentum in Russia in the aftermath of the December 4, 2011 parliamentary elections is unlikely to significantly affect the country’s policy vis-à-vis its post-Soviet Eurasian neighbors. The region will be a top priority for any Russian government. To quote Aleksei Navalny, one of the leaders of the movement, “[Russia] remains the dominant state in the region in both economic and military terms. Our task is to preserve and augment it.”7 Indeed, if Russia successfully reforms, its power of attraction in post-Soviet Eurasia will likely increase, but there’s no indication that its approach to the neighborhood will change.


re Washington and Moscow doomed to jointly reap the whirlwind of their old habits? They don’t have to do so, if they take the following steps. 

First, both sides should embrace more transparency with respect to their policies and activities in the region. They need to focus on routinely and directly conveying on a government-to-government basis the details of their engagements with all the states of the region (excepting classified or proprietary information, of course). This has clear practical applications with regard to competing integration initiatives in the region. Transparency, for instance, would help cool off the temperature of the debate on post-Soviet Eurasian states’ participation in either free trade arrangements with the European Union or Russia-led common economic space initiatives. This would allow the countries concerned to make sober decisions based on national interests, and it might even prove to Moscow and Brussels that their integration projects need not be mutually exclusive.

Furthermore, Russia and NATO could implement a set of openness guidelines regarding their respective postures on NATO enlargement in the region (that is, if the time ever seems ripe for it). While it is provocative for the Alliance to argue that refusing entry to an aspiring country would undermine NATO’s credibility, it is equally inflammatory for Moscow to draw “red lines” and to threaten sanctions if certain post-Soviet Eurasian states wish to join. NATO allies should make it clear that, while the decision to apply for NATO membership is the sovereign prerogative of any country’s elected leadership, NATO will follow a transparent set of criteria to determine whether it should accept a country’s application. If, in addition to that, NATO and Russia agree not to question the legitimacy and raison d’être of their respective defense alliances and economic groupings, they would likely defuse much of the tension surrounding the “rival” bloc activities in post-Soviet Eurasia.

After they establish a habit of transparency, Moscow and Washington should begin regular working-level consultations on regional issues. Officials in both governments who cover the countries of the region should stay in regular contact and meet face to face periodically, as opposed to the present practice, in which the Russian officials who manage the U.S. portfolio meet with the U.S. officials who manage the Russia portfolio. The constructive bilateral interaction in Kyrgyzstan following the bout of instability there in the spring of 2010 demonstrates that such transparency measures need not be formalized or even based on an expectation of reciprocity. In that case, Washington made a high-level push on its bureaucracy to be open about U.S. programs and activities; Moscow eventually responded in kind. Even if it had not, the additional clarity about American activities would have served U.S. interests. Since the instability in Kyrgyzstan, diplomats from both countries at the Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador levels have met specifically to discuss the region.

Finally, both Moscow and Washington would benefit if they would adjust their rhetoric. Public statements often employ language that needlessly inflames a situation. Given the threat perceptions created by the Soviet legacy, every utterance of the phrase “sphere of influence” by senior Russian officials serves to undermine Russian influence by alienating elites and publics alike—as well as arousing overreactions in Washington. Indeed, Russian officials seem to be uniquely tone-deaf when it comes to understanding the impact of their words in the neighborhood, and the secondary impact of those words in Washington. U.S. officials indulge in similar short-sightedness when, for example, referring to Abkhazia and South Ossetia as merely Georgian “territories” or “areas”—terms which, given the current perceptions and recent history of ethnic victimization, imply the United States endorses wholesale denial of their aspirations for self-determination, regardless of the form it takes.

Instead of using such rhetoric, senior political leaders should point out win-win-win possibilities for the United States, Russia and the post-Soviet region. There has been marked improvement on this score. In July 2009, President Obama said in Moscow:

Unfortunately, there is sometimes a sense that old assumptions must prevail, old ways of thinking; a conception of power that is rooted in the past rather than in the future. There is the 20th-century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th-century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another. These assumptions are wrong.8

President Medvedev echoed this sentiment in June 2011:

It is ridiculous to say that in the 21st century that the world is divided into parts, with a state responsible for each of them, e.g. America is responsible for this country, Russia for that, China for that. This is just not serious. This does not fit my conceptions either.9

The month prior, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigori Karasin, whose portfolio includes post-Soviet Eurasia, foreshadowed President Medvedev’s remarks:

Russia is not laying claim to any exclusive role in Central Asian affairs and is open to cooperation with other states. . . . Russia still believes that the Central Asian region can be an arena of broad international cooperation in the interests of ensuring its stability, security and sustained economic development.10

These steps—transparency, consultation and appropriate rhetoric—can erase the muscle memory of past policies and put an end to pointless tug-of-war games rendered obsolete by more than twenty years of post-Soviet history. While great-power bargaining conducted “behind the backs” of the post-Soviet Eurasian states is definitely not a policy option in the 21st century, zero-sum games in the region do not serve their interests either—nor those of the United States and Russia. 

1“Post-Soviet Eurasia” here refers to the 11 former Soviet republics, besides Russia, that are members of neither NATO nor the European Union.

2Thomas Graham, “U.S. Policy Options for Managing Relations with Russia in the Former Soviet Space”, in Paul Saunders, ed., Enduring Rivalry: American and Russian Perspectives on the Former Soviet Space (Center for the National Interest, 2011).

3See, for example, Rod Thornton, Military Modernization and the Russian Ground Forces, U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute Monograph (June 2011).

4Strobe Talbott, Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (Random House, 2003), p. 78.

5Quoted in Rawi Abdelal, “The Profits of Power: Commercial Realpolitik in Eurasia”, Harvard Business School Working Paper (March 2011).

6Author’s interview with senior Russian financial sector official.

7Navalny interview with Boris Akunin, Echo of Moscow Radio, January 3, 2012.

Samuel Charap is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow currently on leave from the Center for American Progress, where he is director for Russia and Eurasia. Mikhail Troitskiy is an adjunct professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. They are co-authors of U.S.-Russia Relations in Post-Soviet Eurasia: Transcending the Zero-Sum Game, published by the Working Group on the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations (