“Geopolitics of Russia”

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia is trying to maintain its influence on the post-Soviet countries, whether culturally, militarily, or diplomatically. This strategy of influence involves the creation of intergovernmental instruments, the expansion of propaganda tools, as well as the use of soft and hard power throughout the region. The rapprochement of the Baltic countries with the Euro-Atlantic structures and the general desire of these countries for emancipation in relation to Moscow is against the transnational idea of ​​”Russian world”. The question of Russia’s position on the former members of the USSR deserves to be examined in detail, especially in view of the war it started in Ukraine on February 24.

This excerpt is taken from the book “Geopolitics of Russia” by Lucas Aubin, doctor of modern Slavic studies, expert on Russian geopolitics (Paris Nanterre University – Paris Lumières University), which will be published on September 8 by La Découverte publications. This passage helps to better understand the idea of ​​”near abroad” used in Russia to define the post-Soviet countries and the Kremlin’s policy towards them.


The Concept of the “Near Abroad”: A Post-Imperial Strategy of Influence

If Russia’s geopolitical ambitions are global, then its means of power are primarily regional. They are limited to the post-Soviet space, more precisely, the fourteen countries of the former USSR, that is, the former steps of the empire of Tsar Nicholas II. Since 1991, as the main economic and military power in the post-Soviet space, Russia has been trying to impose itself there as the natural successor of the USSR. This “big brother” attitude stems from the history of the Russian Empire and shows remarkable continuity to this day. As much as the population is in the “mental map” of Russian leaders, Russia should have influence in this space. In December 2018, a survey by the independent “Levada” center showed that 66% of Russians surveyed regret the USSR.

Russian power elites adopted the concept of “near abroad” very early (blijniéié zaroubiéjié). If its origins are unclear, it is found in former foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev in the first half of the 1990s, who then designated the post-Soviet territories where Russia wanted to maintain influence.

Thus, the Kremlin tries to institutionalize its policy of influence in the economic, military and strategic spheres within the former USSR in order to protect its “glaciers”. The establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) jointly by Russia and Belarus in 1992 aims to form its basis.

The CIS, which brought together twelve of the fifteen post-Soviet states, immediately faced rejection from the Baltic states, which decided to look west. This strategy is already experiencing its first failures due to the fact that the post-Soviet space is particularly heterogeneous and now each state has its own geopolitical interests. Later, Turkmenistan (2005), Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) left the organization due to disputes with Russia.

Despite these setbacks, the term “near abroad” has become an integral part of Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. In 2016, Article 49 of the Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation describes the development of bilateral and multilateral cooperation with the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and further strengthening of active integration structures involving Russia in the CIS space. priority axes of the country abroad.

To realize this ambition, the Russian authorities are also trying to create a common economic space in the region. In 1995, the Customs Union was established between Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. It was soon renamed the Free Trade Zone (1996) and in 2014 participated in the construction of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which unites Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Russia.

At the same time, in 2012, these five countries unified a common military command through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which was established in 1992 at the initiative of the Kremlin. According to the Russian authorities, these three organizations (CIS, CSTO and CSTO) are trying to create a post-Soviet space around Russia and build a military, economic and diplomatic defense belt against NATO and the EU. For the Kremlin, it is necessary for Russia to maintain its privileged zone of influence, otherwise NATO, the EU and the US will come dangerously close to Russian territory.

These fears were realized in the 1990s and 2000s, which saw the deployment of NATO right on Russia’s doorstep. While Mikhail Gorbachev wants the creation of a “common European house”, the new post-USSR house is being built without Russia by placing NATO and the EU in the east. Thanks to successive waves of enlargement starting in 1999, all former Warsaw Pact countries joined the Atlantic Alliance. In addition, in 2004, the latter received seven new members, including the Baltic States. For Moscow, the integration of the former Soviet republics into NATO is a turning point.

After that, the geopolitical buffer zone between Russia and the so-called Western world disappeared, and American military bases were placed on the borders of the largest country in the world. According to Vladimir Putin, this US-led strategy is a violation of the February 9, 1990 verbal agreement between US Secretary of State James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in the eastern direction of the Atlantic Alliance. “They lied to us a lot. times […] With the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure on our borders,” the Russian president declared on March 18, 2014, thus justifying the annexation of Crimea.

Faced with events perceived as aggression, Russia raises its voice. In order to maintain and exercise its influence, the Kremlin connects the concept of “near abroad” with the concept of “Russian world” (roussky mir). The latter corresponds to the idea of ​​a transnational civilization that goes beyond the borders of Russia. According to the researcher Louis Pétiniaud, the concept of “Russian world” is “a geopolitical representation with centuries-old roots, reaffirmed in the Russian political sphere in the 1990s, which indicates the existence of a civilizational space centered around values, even ethnogenesis. of the Russian people […]. The Russian world includes the Russian diaspora in some post-Soviet republics” (Pétiniaud, Limonier and Pawlotsky, 2019).

Indeed, in 2020, the Russian diaspora in the world is between 25-30 million people, most of whom are located in the former USSR. Thus, this high proportion of ethnic Russians (otherwise Russian speakers) becomes an important cultural and political leverage for the Kremlin. Back in 2001, Vladimir Putin concluded his strategy by addressing the people he called “foreign compatriots” at the first world congress of the same name. According to him, tens of millions of people living abroad, speaking, thinking and feeling Russian should “walk together” and “help the motherland in constructive dialogue with foreign partners”.

Therefore, the goal is to turn “Russian presence abroad into Russian influence abroad.” Russian Mir (2007) and federal agency Rossotrudnichestvo (2008) confirm this political will. The Kremlin, which already has structures of influence abroad, can apply its strategy in the former USSR through the “Russian world” to direct the policies of target states.

On the one hand, Russia is strengthening its economic agreements (especially gas and oil) with most post-Soviet states. The structural successor of the USSR, it remains the energy, military and cybernetic center of its neocolonial territory, and third countries often depend on it. Regular gas conflicts between Russia and Ukraine (since 2005-2006, 2007-2008, 2008-2009 and 2013) reveal Moscow’s geopolitical use of “near abroad” resources.

However, the centrifugal forces of the “near abroad” have been active since 1991, and many states and nations want to escape the Russian yoke by joining the West. In 1997, the Organization for Democracy and Development (GUAM), which unites Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, was born out of the four countries’ desire to integrate European structures. Later, the Baltic countries with large Russian-speaking minorities joined the EU and NATO in 2004. This was followed by “color revolutions” (the rose revolution in Georgia, 2003; the orange revolution in Ukraine, the tulip in Kyrgyzstan, 2004; jeans in Belarus, 2005) as post-Soviet nations affirm their democratic hopes and further strengthen Russia’s strategy of influence within the former USSR. it shakes.

These revolutions, perceived both as an attempt to intervene in the West and as an attempt to liberate the Russian space, lead to the hardening of the Russian government. In Latvia, Ukraine, and even Kazakhstan, the Russian-language media are active in mass to spread the good word and spread the aura of the Kremlin. For example, the rhetoric of protecting the “Russian world” mistreated by “Nazi” governments has become commonplace to justify diplomatic conflict (Baltic countries) or military intervention (Ukraine).

The American intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999 led to the dislocation of the country and the deployment of NATO military bases, a scenario that the Russian authorities do not want to repeat in the post-Soviet space.

Be it the war in Georgia in 2008, the war in Ukraine since 2014, or the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Russia has been a party to all conflicts since 2000 and stood on its beloved territory. The war in Georgia in August 2008 is probably an important indicator of this new strategy led by the regime. By freezing the conflict through Abkhazia and South Ossetia-Alania, Russian power creates buffer zones where it retains certain powers, as it is one of the only countries that de facto and de jure recognizes them and instills them economically and militarily.

Now these de facto states are numerous and reflect the so-called “frozen” conflicts for which solutions have not yet been found, but where Russian influence prevails: Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and even Crimea. This mix of hard and soft power in strategic areas close to Russia can be likened to what some researchers now call smart power (Nossel, 2004), namely Russia’s ability to use both military intimidation and cultural influence in Russian-speaking areas for political influence. decisions in third countries.

In addition, the “activation of the post-imperial syndrome” by the Russian regime since 2014 on the scale of the Russian Federation is also aimed at uniting and mobilizing the population of the “four Russias” (Zoubarevich, 2015) around a common goal. : Restoration of Tsarist and Soviet rule.


By Lucas AubinPhD in Modern Slavic Studies: specialist in Russian geopolitics and sports, University of Paris Nanterre – University of Paris Lumières

This article was originally published on The Conversation.