From Katinka Barysch, the Center for European Reform: The US is withdrawing from the former Soviet space; the European Union struggles to be taken seriously there. Does that leave Russia free to strengthen its influence in the countries around its borders? Not necessarily, for the situation in the region is complex. …
Although by far the most populous and prosperous country in the region, Russia does not necessarily have the means to project power into the neighbourhood. Its tools looked more formidable before they were actually used. Now some of them have turned out to be blunt.
Russia’s use of military force in Georgia last year backfired when even Moscow’s staunchest allies scrambled to become less reliant on their dangerous-looking big neighbour: Belarus turned to the EU, Armenia started talking to Turkey and not a single one of the former Soviet countries has followed Moscow in recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia has repeatedly used trade embargoes and other economic means to put pressure on its neighbours, in particular smaller ones where Russia’s own business interests are limited, such as Georgia or Latvia. But there is arguably not a single instance where the use of economic sanctions has got Russia what it wanted. Businesses in the countries affected have reinforced their efforts to find alternative markets and sources of investments, making them less dependent on Russia in the long term. Russia’s strategy of gaining influence through directly controlling local businesses has proven more successful: in Armenia for example, various sectors from banking to transport are dominated by Russian-owned companies. How this will translate into political leverage remains to be seen.
This leaves energy as the most promising tool of Russia’s neighbourhood policy. Russia has used pipeline plans, nuclear projects, gas prices and oil deliveries to get what it wants from its neighbours. But even here, Russia’s success rate is mixed. …
The perceived withdrawal of the US and the ineffectiveness of EU policy in the region has not so far played into Russia’s hands. Russia (like the EU and other players in the region) has had to learn that the former Soviet Union does not constitute a homogenous neighbourhood. There are cocky and cash-rich energy suppliers such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and there are poor and divided countries such as Moldova and Armenia. Russia can cajole and coerce in one place but it has to plead and please in another. All countries in the region will benefit from being less dependent on Russia, in trade and energy terms as well as in politics. While the US might pay less attention to the region, the EU should redouble its efforts, while also taking more account of the the specific situations of individual countries.
Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Center for European Reform. (graphic: Encyclopedia Britannica) (via Global Europe)