Russia Moving Quickly to Fill Power Vacuum Left by U.S.

By David Marples
Moscow and Kyiv have put together a plan to incorporate the Transdnistrian region of Moldova into Ukraine, according to U.S. analyst Paul Goble. The move, which would offer a solution to one of the more protracted issues in Europe, needs more verification, but it would be in keeping with Russia's current tendency to engage in great-power politics.

Russia has become an activist player on the European stage. A foreign policy statement, issued on the Internet before President Dmitry Medvedev took office in 2008, indicates Russia's desire to reverse some of the setbacks of the past two decades and reassert its influence in its "neighbourhood."

An opportunity has been provided by several unrelated factors. Most notable has been the change of presidency in the United States. George W. Bush's program of enforcing democracy by threats or military action was perceived widely as a failure. It alienated former allies and caused acute anxiety in Russia.

Yet Barack Obama has neglected to offer any firm initiatives in foreign affairs, which is tantamount to a policy of isolationism. Obama is surely justified in rejecting his predecessor's branding of regimes according to an "axis of evil," but his lack of policy has created a vacuum. In Europe it is one that Russia intends to fill.

Linked to the inertia of the United States in Europe has been the preoccupation of western powers with the struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The Russian authorities are well aware of the problems of warfare in that country and the likelihood that western occupation will end in failure. It is in Russia's interests that NATO forces remain there as long as possible.

A second factor has been this year's change of presidency in Ukraine. Practically from the moment Viktor Yanukovych took office, he has been under pressure from Moscow to take on the role of junior partner, and Russia has exploited Ukraine's economic predicament to acquire some key concessions.

In addition to the extension on the lease of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol until 2042, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has suggested a merger of Gazprom and Ukraine's main energy company, Naftohaz. Ukraine is still mulling the proposal, which would have the effect of allowing Gazprom to control Ukraine's energy supplies, as well as transit of gas to Central Europe.

Russia has also acquired permission to re-establish the presence of its security forces -- the FSB -- in Crimea. Last week, the Crimean parliament resolved to elevate Russian to the status of an official language, to be used alongside Ukrainian in business and education. The peninsula is a potential tinderbox, though its residents firmly backed Yanukovych in the presidential election.

Earlier this year, Russia formed a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, two states that have been ruled by authoritarian leaders since the early 1990s: Nursultan Nazarbayev and Alyaksandr Lukashenka, respectively. Neither, currently, is an acolyte of Moscow and their strategies can be described as "evasive action" to avoid being dragged into the Russian sphere.

Belarus, however, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, is taking part in prolonged military exercises with Russia. Last year, Operation Zapad (West) simulated a response to a NATO attack on Kaliningrad by the supposed advancement of forces into Latvia before repelling the aggressor. The Latvian government, unsurprisingly, was less than amused by the exercise.

Currently, the oddest setback for Russia's strategy has been the fate of deposed Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who lost his presidency after an uprising in Bishkek in early April. Moscow has been manoeuvring for some time for a friendly government in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiyev came to office in 2005 after the "Tulip Revolution" had removed his predecessor Askar Askayev, who fled to Kazakhstan but has resided of late in Moscow.

Bakiyev, however, found his way to Minsk where he and his family have been recipients of Lukashenka's hospitality. Moreover, the Belarusian president has ignored requests for his extradition and incensed Moscow by declaring that Bakiyev should return and take part in a referendum on his presidency. Lukashenka appears to be genuinely afraid that a dictator could be removed by a popular revolution. But in protecting Bakiyev he has, temporarily at least, upset the plans of the Russian leaders.

The Eurasian map is thus a virtual chessboard of moves and countermoves with the involvement of Russia as the constant factor. What it cannot gain through threats or force it can perhaps acquire by economic pressure through the giant, state-owned company Gazprom, of which President Medvedev is former chair of the board of directors.

However, Russia is punching above its weight. Though a major power in the region, it is overstretched militarily. Its armed forces could pacify the Georgians in 2008, but are in no position to assert themselves in larger countries. Moreover, the machinations of the Russian leadership are so blatantly transparent that all Russia's neighbours -- even Yanukovych's Ukraine -- cannot help but be wary.

Two other factors also have an impact on Russia's foreign policy goals. First, although the economy has recovered well from the recession, it remains focused on oil and gas and is helplessly subject to price fluctuations.

Second, the population of Russia has declined at an alarming rate since 1991, with low life expectancy, poor health care and a weak social infrastructure. In 2009, a small population increase was recorded, but Russia has fallen well behind countries such as China and India in human growth.

Russia's deep social problems preclude its return to superpower status in the near future, but it remains deeply dissatisfied with the status quo.

David Marples is a professor of Russian and East European history at the University of Alberta.
Edmotion Journal