- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

The Soviet Union may be dead, but it is not forgotten in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Clashes along Russia’s vast borders and the December parliamentary elections, in which strongly nationalist parties were among the big winners, have raised new concerns that Russia under Mr. Putin has embraced a sharp-elbowed new approach to the country’s “near abroad.”

From Central Asia to the Caucasus to Ukraine and Belarus in Eastern Europe, assertive military and economic moves by Russia in recent months have drawn concern in the West.

“Great-power ideology is the absolutely dominant ideology in today’s Russia,” political analyst Vitaly Tretyakov wrote in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta after the State Duma elections in December.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made U.S. concerns about recent Russian policy moves explicit in a widely noted Jan. 26 opinion piece in the Russian newspaper Izvestia, published as he began high-level talks at the Kremlin.

“We recognize Russia’s territorial integrity and its natural interest in lands that abut it,” Mr. Powell wrote. “But we recognize no less the sovereign integrity of Russia’s neighbors and their rights to peaceful and respectful relations across their borders, as well.”

The State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry traded charges of interference in the political crisis that ousted longtime Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in November. The Kremlin vowed to respect Georgia’s sovereignty, but then invited leaders of three Georgia separatist movements to Moscow for high-level talks, and eased visa restrictions for residents of the breakaway regions.

Across the Black Sea, Ukraine and Russia exchanged harsh words in October after Russian workmen were found building an unauthorized causeway across the Kerch Strait linking the Black and Azov seas. Kiev accused Moscow of a blatant territorial grab on the navigable parts of the strategic passage, which belong to Ukraine.

“The pressure the Ukrainians feel these days from Moscow is very real,” said a senior State Department official in a recent background briefing on developments in the former Soviet republic.

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said during a Washington visit last week that Moscow increasingly sees its relations with restive countries on its borders as a “zero-sum game” in competition with the United States. In the past year, the Kremlin has used festering insurgencies in countries such as Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan as opportunities to exert its influence, Mr. Geoana said.

“It’s a very recognizable, 19th-century game that is being played,” he added.

In word and deed, Russian officials have shown an increasing penchant to use the country’s leverage — military, political, economic and cultural — in pursuit of their interests in the countries formed in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin himself has been careful in his public comments on Russia’s foreign-policy assertiveness.

“We cannot apply this principle [of territorial integrity] to ourselves and deny it to our neighbors,” he said during a Dec. 18 telephone call-in show.

But he also has insisted that Russia will keep control of critical oil and gas pipelines that run through former Soviet territories, and his aides have much more openly asserted an expansive definition of Russia’s rights over its borders.

In a news briefing last fall, Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov, a close ally of Mr. Putin’s, said explicitly that Russia retains the right to use military force on the territory of former Soviet republics, collectively known as the Commonwealth of Independent States. The defense minister said Russia intends to increase its military presence in “the near abroad.”

“The CIS is a very crucial sphere for our security,” Mr. Ivanov said.

“Ten million of our compatriots live there, and we are supplying energy to them at prices below international levels. We are not going to renounce the right to use military power there in situations where all other means have been exhausted,” he said.

Mr. Putin’s defenders argue that many of Russia’s recent moves on its borders have been defensive, a reaction to American moves along its periphery.

The U.S.-led war on terrorism, the expansion of NATO, and the war in Afghanistan have brought U.S. military forces right to Russia’s borders. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will soon join NATO, U.S. military advisers are in Georgia, and new U.S. bases and supply depots have been established throughout Central Asia.

Mr. Ivanov, the defense minister, has pointedly warned that Moscow only accepted the U.S. Central Asian outposts on the condition that they be temporary and would be abandoned once the Afghan campaign was over.

Mr. Powell, in a radio interview while in Moscow, denied any U.S. plan to encircle Russia with American bases.

The Bush administration “may want to put some temporary facilities in some of the countries that used to be part of the Warsaw Pact,” he said, but these would be “small places” to provide access to troubled regions such as Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.

A dozen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia itself retains Cold War-era military outposts in Georgia, Armenia, Tajikistan, Moldova and Kazakhstan, a radar post in Azerbaijan and a military missile- and rocket-launching pad in Kazakhstan. Russia has also stalled on withdrawing troops stationed in Moldova and Georgia, where Moscow stands accused of aiding pro-Russia separatist movements.

A new air base, opened Oct. 23 in the Kyrgyzstan town of Kant, is the first new overseas Russian outpost since the end of the Cold War. Symbolically, the base is a short drive from a major new U.S. military base at Manas.

Russia is also pushing to convert a temporary military deployment in Tajikistan into another permanent base, according to Stephen Blank, an instructor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, in a recent analysis.

“Since Russia is not fighting anyone in Central Asia and cannot spare troops to defend this base’s perimeter, it looks more like an attempt to show the flag and counter the American presence,” Mr. Blank noted.

The Kremlin also sees the presence of sizable Russian minorities in its neighbors as a strategic asset.

In Moldova, Russian forces remain in the country, despite calls for their withdrawal from both Mr. Powell and the pan-European Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The force in Moldova is widely seen as shielding a breakaway movement in the former Soviet republic’s Transdniester region, a Russian-speaking enclave. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin last month again rejected a Russian-backed peace plan that would require a referendum on making Russian an official language alongside Romanian in a new federal government.

Russia under President Putin has also shown a willingness to use the country’s economic power as a way to keep border states in line.

Russian-owned power grids dominate the market in Georgia and other CIS states, and Moscow has also used discounted energy and arms sales as an inducement for a number of states on its periphery.

Mr. Putin was the driving force behind the creation of a new economic bloc formed Sept. 19 with the leaders of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The accord, signed in the Ukrainian port of Yalta, calls for closer economic and trade integration leading to the creation of a common currency.

The agreement created such controversy in Kiev that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was forced to include a reservation that any progress on the economic union would not interfere with Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with the West.

The Duma elections in December, and Mr. Putin’s expected overwhelming victory in the presidential race next month, have increased concerns that nationalism and power politics are the order of the day in Russia.

United Russia, a party closely allied to Mr. Putin, won the largest share in the new legislature, with 223 seats in the 450-member chamber.

Two other parties — the Liberal Democrats under Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the new Motherland Party — have a strong nationalist bent and did surprisingly well. Motherland, which was formed just months before the election, took 9 percent of the vote and 37 seats, not far behind the second-place Communists.

Motherland Party leaders, including Dmitry Rogozin, former chairman of the Duma’s international-affairs committee, campaigned on the slogan: “Russians Must Take Back Russia for Themselves.”

Motherland lawmakers say they dream of restoring Russia’s empire lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Rogozin was one of the loudest voices urging Mr. Putin to take a tough line in the boundary dispute with Ukraine over the Kerch Strait.

Mr. Rogozin said Russia must act more forcefully to counter the U.S. encroachment in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.

Writing in the Moscow daily Trud, he observed, “If I only could, I would create similar problems for [the Americans] in Mexico and Panama.”

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