Russia’s neo-imperial aggression in its near abroad is a product of its desire to prove it is still a great power and that it maintains control over its former sphere of influence.
After the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, the Soviet Union’s satellite states began claiming their independence. Once the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, they scrambled to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) because these institutions “provide security, stability, sovereignty, and development.” But recently, Moscow has reinvented its Soviet-era expansionist tendencies and moved aggressively again into Eastern Europe. Its annexation of Crimea, a region of Ukraine with an ethnic Russian population, has set off in Europe the “gravest crisis since the end of the Cold War.” What explains Russia’s neo-imperial aggression in its near abroad? It is Russia’s profound desire to prove it is still a great power and maintain control over its former spheres of influence.
The Kremlin is now trying to woo or coerce many of its former European satellites into submission in order to prove its global prowess. Russian President Vladimir Putin is leveraging trade deals, energy deals, and promises of loans to keep economically vulnerable countries with a voice in the European Union dependent on Russia. In Hungary, for example, Mr. Putin offered to build and mostly finance a nuclear power plant. Russia is also courting Greece with possible aid if the Greek government is unable to reach a satisfactory conclusion with the European Union over its debt and its future in the Eurozone. In fact, Russian money is now buying leverage across Eastern Europe. Coercively, Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians. And this is not the first time in recent years Moscow has used force against a former Soviet republic. In 2008, Russia provoked Georgia into a strong reaction over Russian activity in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, regions of Georgia with a high population of ethnic Russians and separatist desires. Russia was then able to invade on the false premise of protecting minorities. Similarly, in Moldova, Russia has long supported the breakaway region of Transnistria. In addition to purchasing leverage, it seems Moscow “fans ethnic tensions and applies limited force at a moment of political uncertainty” in order to gain influence and power in its near abroad.
How successful has the Kremlin’s strategy been? The evidence suggests a mixed bag of results. Somewhat counter-intuitively, many of former Soviet-bloc countries that immediately joined the Western institutions after the collapse of the Soviet Union have become more sympathetic to Russia. For example, politicians in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have openly criticized strict EU sanctions on Russia and stated that stationing NATO troops in their countries is not necessary. Above all, they stress the importance of maintaining business relations as they “seek to preserve access to [Russia’s] energy resources and consumer markets.” Hungary’s prime minister has even praised Putin as a model of illiberal democracy to emulate. Conversely, in the states that have experienced more economic difficulties and were not immediately invited into Western institutions after the Cold War, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is having the opposite effect, causing some to do away with dependence on Russia and turn toward the West. For example, both Georgia and Ukraine both continue to pursue NATO membership and Moldova has implemented reforms to align itself closer to Europe.
Among the former Soviet satellites, Poland and the Baltic nations have been the most critical of Russia. The Polish prime minister recently revealed her fear of Poland becoming isolated within Europe as a result of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and the Baltic nations are very wary of Russia’s intentions after the annexation of Crimea. All want tougher sanctions and NATO troops in their countries. These reactions stem from the fear that the Ukrainian crisis is “spilling over into a broader Cold War-style effort by Russia to assert influence abroad.” EU countries are now afraid that confrontation with Russia could cause its belligerence to spread. EU leaders charge Russia with “undermining the ability of democracies in the former Soviet sphere to chart their own course.” Although NATO was initially cautious about expanding eastward, especially into the Baltic countries for fear of provoking Russia, it soon overcame that fear and began expanding anyway. This has brought it into potential conflict with Russia’s own desire to enlarge its presence in Eastern Europe. Clearly, Russia’s attempts to prove it is a great global power have generated significant tension and uncertainty with the West over its former Soviet sphere of influence.
Russia is now building a “web of economic ties” in its former satellites. Its loans, trade, and energy deals are attempts to regain geopolitical influence in the region. Economics are not the key driver behind Russia’s aggression; it boils down to Russia’s deep fear of EU and NATO expansion. Thus, Russia’s intentions are to destabilize the region to demonstrate that it—not the West—is the true sovereign in its former sphere of influence. Mr. Putin argues that Russia is simply protecting the rights of ethnic Russians and those who favor closer ties. This, however, is a façade, and one Russia uses to falsely justify any aggressive action. Russia is vigorously trying to prevent these countries from joining the Western institutions that it thinks were created to stifle its power. The recent aggression is simply about regaining the clout that the Soviet Union once had. But the evidence so far suggests Moscow’s machinations bear significant risk. Only time will tell if its former satellites capitulate or decide to join the West once and for all.