“Moscow is concerned that the West, mainly the EU, is advancing in the ex-Soviet space, considered its natural geopolitical habitat. On the one hand, Russian actors want to counter the growing influence of the EU in the region, and, on the other hand, modernize the work agendas of the CIS and the Eurasian Economic Union so that they correspond with the Western discourse...“
In the context of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Russia demonstrates clear intentions to mobilize political and diplomatic capabilities to strengthen its positions in the area considered its natural geopolitical habitat. Ensuring the relevance of the CIS in the post-Soviet space, including by stimulating integration within the Eurasian Economic Union, does not disappear from Russia’s foreign policy priority list. On the contrary, this issue came to the fore again, after the authorities revitalized the political regime of Vladimir Putin, by forcing an electoral victory in the legislative elections of September 17-19, 2021.
The role of the Russian factor in the management of the most important international dossiers is (for the moment) difficult to replace. Russia’s involvement appears to be inevitable and highly unpredictable in various international issues: from the stabilization of natural gas prices on the European market and the situation in Libya, to the territorial reunification of Ukraine and the mitigation of regional security effects after the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. Some critical positions, but somewhat general, have emerged (EU, September 2021) on the quality of the recent parliamentary elections. However, no intention was observed to coordinate a common position among Western forces on the non-recognition of the newly voted Russian legislature. In the context of tacit external acceptance of Russian electoral realities, the Putin regime is determined to refresh the external defiance of EU-US positions in the post-Soviet space. Furthermore, at least declaratively, Moscow takes the development priorities promoted by the West in the field of digital or climate policy and puts them on the agenda of the CIS and the Eurasian Economic Union. In this way, these organizations can be updated in some way, at least tangentially approaching Western standards of interstate cooperation. Even so, Russia used the declaration dedicated to the 30 years of operation of the CIS to claim the sovereignty of the states in the face of unilateral external measures and interference in the internal affairs of the CIS states, which were intended to intrepret the actions of the Western forces.
The post-election emancipation of Russia
Although Putin’s “circle” gained a solid result in the parliamentary elections, the means applied to achieve it completely discredited the notion of democratic elections in Russia. The perpetuation of control over the legislative power was destined to feed the public perception of the population about the invincibility of the regime. The aim was also to block the penetration of autonomous political elements into the Kremlin “command center” of the decision-making system. The need to renew the foundations of public legitimacy explained the determination with which the regime used the restrictions before and during the elections to the opposition, the media, local and international observers.
Thus, hindering the participation of the non-systemic opposition or limiting the activity of the independent media, declares “foreign agents”, has been combined with the widespread use of traditional techniques of rigging. In this sense, the online space has been flooded with evidence of various cases of introduction of falsified ballots, even by representatives of local electoral committees or repeated cast of votes. As a result, of a total of 450 seats in the Russian Duma, 72% or 324 seats went to Putin’s “United Russia” party. If it were not for the mixed vote and the elections were well organized, then the vote based on the party list would have favored Putin’s party with almost 39% of the votes, followed by the Communists with 24% (Levada-Center, October 2021). The West has openly admitted that the conditions in which the elections took place did not allow a fair electoral process to take place (Reuters, September 2021), and representatives of the opposition in exile demanded that the election not be recognized by the external actors. However, international affairs are too intertwined with Russian foreign policy. Therefore, although in the face of autocratic-style elections, the deprivation of foreign legitimacy by the Russian parliament may provoke a chain reaction, with an impact difficult to estimate, on the already weakened international architecture. The latter would most likely occur without achieving any disciplinary effect on the Putin regime.
The three Russian lenses for interpreting the Western influence
Building on its own constraints in relations with the West, since the sanctions in force in 2014, Russia is ready to share with others its own example of resistance to external pressure. President Putin has presented Russia’s survival under Western sanctions as a sort of know-how that can be transferred, if necessary, to other member states of the Eurasian Union (Kremlin.ru, October 2021). The spread of Russian practices in the ex-Soviet space is by no means a new phenomenon. Previously, Russian anti-LGBT legislation (adopted in 2013) served as a source of inspiration for some conservative governments in the former Soviet Union, but also within the EU. Although partially overlooked, the Russian model of opposition to Western influence poses a significant risk to the Eastern Partnership states. In particular, it refers to those countries facing democratic transitions rooted in stagnant reforms for purely political reasons. Most reforms also require insufficient institutional capacity and human and financial resources.
Russia is trying to implant in the public perception, mainly from the post-Soviet space, with the idea that the “collective West” wants to install “democracies from outside” with the help of non-governmental and international organizations, led by the Western secret services (SVR.ru, October 2021). Along the same lines, sanctions are interpreted as an instrument of intervention when the components of soft power are not operational.
Therefore, the use of sanctions is the first reproach that Moscow uses to discredit the pro-democratic motivations of the EU and the US in the ex-Soviet space. According to the Russian perception, the sovereignty of local political and electoral processes prevails over democratic institutions and human rights, which the West defends and promotes. The Belarus case is widely used by Russian officials to add substance to anti-Western criticism. At the CIS meeting in Minsk, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that the sanctions against Belarus violate the charter of the UN and that such attempts must be “firmly repressed” (MID.ru, October 2021). The Russian side has expressed interest in supporting the Belarusian authorities, as well as other strategic partners, in creating a common front against sanctions not approved by the UN Security Council. Faced with a new wave of sanctions, which is ending due to facilitating migrant smuggling into the EU, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime wants to use the potential for cooperation within the CIS to reduce the impact of external pressures (Belta.by, October 2021). The externalization of economic costs is the only way that Minsk can survive in the face of sectoral sanctions, and the CIS and the Eurasian Union can offer markets and other resources vital to absorb socio-economic shocks more effectively.
The second angle of reproach expressed by Russian political actors is that the EU not only offers support to Ukraine but also takes a firm stance on Russia’s direct involvement in the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The EU Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, has expressed these objections openly in a dialogue with his Russian counterpart Lavrov (EU, September 2021). In June 2021, the EU issued guidelines on relations with Russia based on selective cooperation, sanctioning and pushing back. They specified that Russia is a “party to the conflict” and that it is committing aggression against Ukraine (EU, June 2021). Very similar views were found in the Declaration of the EU-Ukraine summit of October 12, 2021, to which Sergei Lavrov reacted sanguinely. He accused the EU of explicitly classifying Russia as an “aggressor”, which as a party to the conflict is obliged to implement the Minsk Agreements (MID.ru, October 2021). In fact, the irritation emanating from Russia seems to be due to the fact that the EU has practically synchronized its public discourse with that of Kyiv, which benefits Ukraine in the “Normandy Format”, where France and Germany try to play a neutral role. Moscow clearly fears that once the European vision overlaps with that of governments in the ex-Soviet space, the EU increases its local legitimacy and that of Russia diminishes.
The third lens through which Moscow looks at the EU and blames its impact on the region is the degree of independence of pro-European governments in the post-Soviet space in pursuit of an autonomous foreign policy. In this context, Lavrov considers that the reluctance of Moldovan President Maia Sandu in relation to Russia is due to the fact that European policy makers would remotely direct Moldova’s foreign policy (MID.ru, October 2021). The active contacts between Chisinau and Brussels, intensified after the early elections of July 2021 (IPN, October 2021), in the context of the disinterest of the presidential office in Chisinau to interact with the Kremlin, create a kind of frustration among Russian officials. Although she started her mandate in December 2020, President Sandu did not prioritize clarifying relations with Russia, which after the mandate of pro-Russian President Igor Dodon remained in a sort of suspense. Recently, Prime Minister Natalia Gavriliță suggested that Moldova is still interested in the CIS Free Trade Agreement, but that it should be really functional. Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu will travel to Moscow in November to begin preparations to reactivate eventually the bilateral dialogue, but the main issue that puts pressure on the bilateral dialogue is the contract for the purchase of natural gas. Moldova is currently totally dependent on Russia’s gas supply. Therefore, if the October price ($ 790 per thousand cubic meters) remains throughout the cold period of the year, then the socio-economic situation of the country will be undermined before the recovery from the shock caused by the pandemic. Lavrov’s statements about Chisinau’s lack of autonomous foreign policy towards the EU can be analyzed in light of the country’s looming energy crisis. Therefore, it is not excluded that Moscow signals that it expects the direct participation of the Moldovan president in the negotiation of the gas contract.
In lieu of conclusions…
Moscow is concerned that the West, mainly the EU, is advancing in the ex-Soviet space, considered Russian natural geopolitical habitat. On the one hand, Russian decision-makers want to counteract the increased influence of the EU in the region and, on the other hand, modernize the work agendas of the CIS and the Eurasian Economic Union to correspond with Western discourse (digitization, green economy, etc.).
Non-intervention in internal affairs and respect for the sovereignty of electoral democracy are the front parts of Russia’s movement against the West. The latter is criticized for at least three lenses of reproach. Russia believes that Westerners are using sanctions to trigger regime changes after the outbreak of public discontent, citing the case of Belarus. At the same time, the Russian side is irritated by the fact that the West, and the EU in particular, is allegedly not impartial in resolving critical situations in the post-Soviet space. In this sense, Moscow seeks to question the unconditional solidarity of the EU with Ukraine. Last but not least, Russia blames the EU (less the US) for putting pressure on pro-European governments in Eastern Europe, which would prevent them from developing a constructive dialogue with the Russian side, referring to Moldova.
As the main exponent of Western influence in the region, the EU must ensure that the sanctions policy is refined to take effect before the Lukashenko regime absorbs the shocks, using the Russian model of adaptation. With regard to Ukraine and Moldova, in the current situation, European solidarity would have considerable weight if it included the acceleration of the integration process of the two countries into the European energy space and the reduction of Russia’s energy dominance through the full implementation of Third Energy Package throughout Europe.
This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency. FOMOSO got permission to publish it as well.