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Siblings Affairs: Russia’s Foreign Policy toward Belarus and Ukraine

0 Comments 🕔13.May 2014

This article is part of our All Eyes on Ukraine briefing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at the Annunciation Cathedral in Kazan

by Helena Yakovlev-Golani

Is the Russian Federation striving to re-create a new USSR? I argue that it is not. Instead, Russia’s foreign policy is consistent with its traditional aspiration – to establish an informal empire in the post-Soviet space. As opposed to an extreme empire that includes the full control of one nation over another, an informal empire dominates other countries while allowing them some room for maneuvering in certain internal and external issues (Lake 2009, 58). To support my argument, I will briefly introduce some empirical evidence from Russia’s foreign policy toward Belarus and Ukraine – Russia’s western neighbors. I will focus on Vladimir Putin’s first two presidencies (2000–2008) to demonstrate some of the continuous patterns that are still relevant today.

Belarus and Ukraine have always been the most important indicators of Russia’s geopolitical intentions in the post-Soviet space. Almost every Russian regional project in Eurasia has first been introduced, tested, and applied to these two states. These projects began to take shape in the mid-1990s and were primarily driven by geopolitical considerations. As Russia saw the large geopolitical bloc it once led crumble into small pieces and move westward, its leadership decided to act and create a centripetal force that would stop this drift. The strategy was to create a form of an informal empire on the ruins of the Soviet Union with a nucleus that would include Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Ukraine and Belarus were perceived by the Kremlin as the most important players in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that could secure Russia’s geopolitical and economic well-being. The two major transit countries, through which Russia exported its fuels to Europe – the main source of its budgetary income – became crucial in Russia’s aspiration to maintain its regional grip. The Kremlin was determined to preserve their political loyalty by means of multilateral and bilateral projects and agreements.

Already during the 1990s, the Russian Federation achieved two major accomplishments with regard to Ukraine and Belarus. First, by de jure recognizing Ukraine’s boarders in the 1997 ‘Big Treaty’ on Friendship, Co-operation, and Partnership between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, Russia ensured Ukraine’s geopolitical neutrality. Ukraine undertook several legal steps, including revising its constitution, to guarantee its non-alignment status (Rossiia-Ukraina 2001, 125–42). Second, after a series of agreements starting in 1996, Russia and Belarus had created the Union State by the end of the 1990s. Although this state was declarative in nature, it was mainly designed to demonstrate that an independent state was voluntarily willing to reintegrate with its powerful neighbor. Paradoxically, the creators of this integration project intended to mitigate the post-Soviet states’ perception of Russia as a potential imperial threat.

When Vladimir Putin entered the presidential office at the turn of the millennia, one of his first missions was to mold concrete content into the vaguely defined 1999 Union State. In 2002, he proposed to Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko two models for advancing the union: a single federal state or a union that would be similar to the European Union (EU) (Putin 2002). Since Putin knew that Lukashenko would never give up Belarus’ sovereignty and his control over it, the first model could be seen as a bluff that was meant to steer Lukashenko to the second model, which was preferred by the Kremlin. This idea of creating an EU-like union with Belarus seemed optimal, as Russia did not strive to extend its borders, but merely wanted to gain indirect control over its western neighbor. However, Lukashenko refused to embrace either option and only agreed to a confederation formula, which was unacceptable to the Kremlin. The two sides, therefore, reluctantly proceeded with the tense status quo (Grigoreva 2002), while the Kremlin devised other means to increase its influence on Belarus through a so-called ‘valve diplomacy’ (Smith 2006). By manipulating the prices of energy supplies for Belarus and demanding to allow Russian companies to take over the Belarusian energy transit infrastructure, Moscow forced Minsk to align with its policies and to relinquish portions of Belarus’ sovereignty, thereby de facto incorporating it into its informal empire.

During Putin’s first tenure, the relationship with Ukraine seemed to be heading in the same direction. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s political domestic troubles allowed Russia to advance on the path toward greater influence on Ukraine. Agreements were signed to allow Russian companies to invest in the state-owned Ukrainian energy transportation infrastructure (Bojcun 2001; Wolczuk 2002, 42). In addition, the two countries announced their plan to unite their electricity grids (Associated Press 2001). Most notable was Ukraine’s willingness in 2003 to join the Russian-led Common Economic Space, which was supposed to include Belarus and Kazakhstan as well.

The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, however, debunked Russia’s hopes of including Ukraine in a super-national body, which would allow Russia to direct Ukraine’s actions and to align them with Moscow’s interests. Instead, a reactionary government was established in Kiev, which was determined to bring Ukraine closer to the EU and to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Ukrainian pro-Western turn was perceived as a threat by the Russian political elite. It brought concerns regarding a possible repetition of a similar scenario in Moscow to the surface again, and aggravated Russian fears of a modern Western cordon sanitaire, which would isolate Russia from the rest of Europe with the creation of a containment area from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. In light of the Baltic States’ accession to NATO in March 2004 and a possible deployment of a NATO contingent near Russia’s western borders, the regional tensions exacerbated even more. As a result, Russia increased military cooperation with Belarus, which assumed the position of Russia’s front post in Europe. Thus, even at times when there were economic disputes between the two states, security relations remained cordial.

With regard to Ukraine, Russia maneuvered to ensure that Ukraine would not join NATO. Moscow conveyed to both Ukraine and the West that Ukraine’s accession to the military alliance would have devastating implications for Ukraine – its potential disintegration – and urged the Ukrainian authorities to comply with the status quo (Allenova, Geda, and Novikov 2008). As in the Belarusian case, the Kremlin tried to compel Kyiv to give up its NATO aspirations through ‘valve diplomacy’ (Yakovlev-Golani 2011a, 48–49). This strategy contributed to a serious political struggle within the Orange coalition, which considerably weakened its ability to withstand the Kremlin’s pressure. By fostering internal turmoil in Ukraine, Russia chose not to assume direct control over Ukraine, but instead to promote and support its protégé, Viktor Yanukovych, to the highest political post.

Another reason for Russia’s reluctance to establish imperial rule over Ukraine had to do with the domestic interests of the two central political groups that influenced the formation of Russian foreign policy under Putin (Kryshtanovskaya and White 2005; Bremmer and Charap 2006). Although the members of these groups were not officially in charge of dealing with foreign policy issues, they were heavily involved in foreign policy decision-making and were often responsible for enacting policies on behalf of the state.

One group was characterized by ‘liberal technocrats’ who represented the interests of the business community. The members of this group were against restoring Russia’s direct rule over other members of the CIS, as they thought that such policies would be a heavy burden on Russia’s economy and its national budget. The group adhered to the expansion of Russian business abroad and was especially keen on the exploitation of the vast transit pipeline system in neighboring states. The group’s impact on foreign policy was evident in light of the different clashes that Russia had with both Ukraine and Belarus, revolving around Russia’s aspiration to take over their infrastructure and energy-related industries. Liberal technocrats advocated the creation of an informal empire, which would use its economic levers to achieve its foreign policy goals.

Bas relief of workers in Minsk

Socialist realist bas-relief in Minsk

The other influential group was Siloviki (people of power). Siloviki represented military and security services and strove to restore Russia’s great power status and its leadership positions in Eurasia. The group backed the reintegration process with Belarus and promoted arms export to the CIS countries to support Russian military producers, by creating a dependence of the receiving countries on Russia (Lyons 2003). Siloviki were responsible for the good security relations between Russia and Belarus even when the two states had economic and political disagreements. As a security-oriented group, they supported policies that were designed to slow NATO’s advancements into Eastern Europe and promote Russia’s encroachment in Eurasia.

Putin, who interacted with both groups, acted as an arbitrator between them and formulated the final doctrine. His decisions were a result of his perceptions. As opposed to Yeltsin, who felt responsible for the dissolution of the USSR and was determined to rehabilitate his historical legacy by promoting the policy of “the gathering of the Russian lands,” (Yakovlev-Golani 2011b, 397), pragmatic Putin was elected to reestablish order in Russia and not to resurrect the empire (Feduta 2005, 623). Putin’s pragmatism was based on Realpolitik and issues such as balance of power, spheres of influence, and power struggles became evident in Russia’s political thought (Herspring 2005, 264). Accordingly, Russia assertively declared its intention to protect its geopolitical and economic interests in the international arena and in its immediate neighborhood.

The Russian elite also perceived Ukraine and Belarus as fraternal countries with which the Russian people had unique historical and linguistic ties. Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine comprise the so-called Slavic triangle of nations, which many Russians see as a key to the restoration of Russia’s great ‘powerness’. Considering this perception, it is not surprising that a high priority in Russia’s foreign policy has been given to the re-integration with these two states. While Belarus – with its willingness to embrace Russia’s re-integration initiatives – seemed to be already under Russia’s thumb, Ukraine became a focal point of discord and the main target of Russia’s integrationist attempts. The Orange Revolution and Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s aspirations to create an informal empire made the Russian political elite believe that Ukraine, as a ‘lost soul’, should be ‘coerced to love’ and saved from its ‘Orange nationalists’. These beliefs and the Russian desire to keep Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence encouraged the Kremlin to create an internal turmoil within Ukraine in the hope of replacing the pro-Western Ukrainian elite. These actions eventually bore fruit, as Russia’s supporters – led by Yanukovych – gained influence in the Ukrainian government and enabled Russia to continue spreading its web of influence over Ukraine.

To conclude, during Putin’s first two presidencies, Russia was able to achieve most of its goals with regard to Belarus, which became a de facto subject of Russia’s informal empire. Russia’s energy resources served the Kremlin in accomplishing Belarus’ incorporation into Russia’s orbit of influence. However, as the Russian Federation did not want to restore a USSR-like structure with Belarus, it chose not to advance further, even though this option was within its reach. The main reason for this was to avoid economic risks that could have led to Russia’s demise, as in the case of the former Soviet empire. On the other hand, Ukraine, which before the Orange Revolution was almost subdued to participate in Russia’s informal empire, proved a much more difficult partner. Kyiv’s ability to maneuver between East and West and the Ukrainian people’s resolve to sway away from Moscow made it impossible for Russia to get what it desired.

During the six years that followed Putin’s first presidencies, the Ukrainian political pendulum shifted back and forth until the 2014 Euromaidan events in Ukraine, which changed the bilateral relations dramatically. The fall of Yanukovych’s regime in Ukraine was the last straw for Russia. The resolve of Ukraine’s civil society to resist most Russian-led integrative initiatives and the strong pro-European moods within Ukraine made Moscow realize that its aspiration to control all of Ukraine was unattainable. The Kremlin gave up its continuous attempts to convince Ukraine to join its informal empire and instead crossed the Rubicon by occupying and consequently annexing Crimea. Russian policymakers had decided to split Ukraine into smaller pieces just to devour some of them, thereby compensating themselves for the loss of Ukraine. The Russian Federation, therefore, has never sought to recreate the USSR with neither Ukraine nor Belarus, but instead has proceeded in the trajectory toward forming a regional informal empire.

Dr. Helena Yakovlev-Golani is a Research Scholar and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. She received her MA and Ph.D. in Conflict Research, Resolution and Management from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research deals with hegemonic powers and secondary states, emotions in conflicts and foreign policies of post-Soviet and European states.

This article is part of our All Eyes on Ukraine briefing.


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