Editor's note: This is part one of a four-part series that examines Russia's efforts to exert influence beyond its borders.
As Russia seeks to expand its influence outside its borders, it has identified four countries that are crucial to its plan to become a major power again. Of those four countries — Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Georgia — the first three are already under Russian control. The last one, Georgia, will be the center of Russia's very focused attention until it too is back in the Russian fold.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, most of Russia's buffer (made up mainly of former Soviet states) fell under pro-Western influence and drifted away from Moscow. But the past few years have seen a shift in global dynamics in which much of the West — particularly the United States — has been preoccupied by events in the Middle East and Afghanistan, leaving little time and energy to devote to increasing its influence in the former Soviet sphere. Russia has used this time to begin rolling back such influence. But Moscow knows that this opportunity will not last forever, so it has prioritized the countries involved. This essentially has created four tiers: countries Russia has to consolidate, countries it wants to consolidate, countries it can consolidate but are not high priority and regional powers with which Russia must create an understanding about the new reality in Eurasia.
The countries in the first category — Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Georgia — are the most critical to Moscow's overall plan to return as a Eurasian power. For Russia, these countries became a major focus even before the Kremlin was done consolidating power at home. These countries give Russia access to the Black and Caspian seas and serve as a buffer between Russia and Asia, Europe and the Islamic world. So far, Russia has consolidated its influence in three of the four countries; Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all have pro-Russian leaders, and the last country — Georgia — is partially occupied by Russia. Solidifying plans for these countries will be Moscow's main focus in 2010.
Ukraine is the cornerstone to Russia's defense and survival as any sort of power. The former Soviet state hosts the largest Russian community in the world outside of Russia, and is tightly integrated into Russia's industrial and agricultural heartland. Ukraine is the transit point for 80 percent of the natural gas shipped from Russia to Europe and is the connection point for most infrastructure — whether pipeline, road, power or rail — running between Russia and the West.
Ukraine gives Russia the ability to project political, military and economic power into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Ukrainian territory also pushes deep into Russia's sphere, with only a mere 300 miles from Ukraine to either Volgograd or Moscow. To put it simply, without Ukraine, Russia would have fewer ways to become a regional power and would have trouble maintaining stability within itself. This is why Ukraine's pro-Western 2004 Orange Revolution was a nightmare for Russia. The change in government in Kiev during the revolution brought a president that was hostile to Russian interests, and with him a slew of possibilities that would harm Russia, including Ukraine's integration into the European Union or even NATO.
After 2004, Russia was content to merely meddle in and destabilize Ukraine in order to ensure it never fully fell into the West's orbit. However, the West's distraction outside of Eurasia has given Russia a limited amount of time to decisively break Ukraine's pro-Western ties. Ukraine is one of the countries where Russia has the most leverage to increase its influence.
- Population: Russia's greatest tool inside of Ukraine is that the population is split dramatically, and half the population has pro-Russian leanings. A large Russian minority comprises about 17 percent of the total population, more than 30 percent of all Ukrainians speak Russian as a native language, and more than half of the country belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow patriarch. Ukrainians living east of the Dnieper River tend to identify more with Russia than the West, and most of those in the Crimean peninsula consider themselves Russian. This divide is something Russia has used not only to keep the country unstable, but to turn the country back toward the Russian fold.
- Politics: Russia has been the very public sponsor of a pro-Russian political movement in Ukraine mainly under newly elected President Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of Regions. But Russia has also supported a slew of other political movements, including outgoing Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and her eponymous party. According to polls, Ukraine's only outwardly pro-Western political party — that of outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko — has support in the single digits.
- Energy: Russia currently supplies 80 percent of Ukraine's natural gas, and 2-3 percent of Ukraine's gross domestic product (GDP) comes from transiting natural gas from Russia to the West. This has been one of Moscow's favorite levers to use against Kiev; it has not shied away from turning off natural gas supplies at the height of winter. Such moves have created chaos in Ukraine's relations with both Russia and Europe, forcing Kiev to negotiate on everyone else's terms.
- Economics: Russia controls quite a bit of Ukraine's strategic sectors other than energy. Most important, Russia controls a large portion of Ukraine's metal industry, owning factories across the eastern part of the country while influencing many Ukrainian steel barons. The steel industry makes up about 40 percent of Ukrainian exports and 30 percent of its GDP. Russia also owns a substantial portion of Ukrainian ports in the south.
- Oligarchs: Ukraine's oligarchs are much like Russia's in the 1990s in that they wield enormous power and wealth. Quite a few of these oligarchs pledge allegiance to Russia based on relationships left over from the Soviet era. These oligarchs allow the Kremlin to shape their business ventures and have a say in how the oligarchs influence Ukrainian politics. The most influential of this class is Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, who not only does the Kremlin's bidding inside Ukraine, but also has aided the Kremlin during the recent financial crisis. Other notable pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs include Viktor Pinchuk, Igor Kolomoisky, Sergei Taruta and Dmitri Firtash.
- Military: One of Russia's most important military bases is in Ukraine, at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol — the Russian military's only deep-water port. Russia's Black Sea naval fleet in Crimea is many times larger than Kiev's small fleet. The Russian Black Sea Fleet also contributes to the majority of Crimea's regional economy — something that keeps this region loyal to Russia.
- Intelligence: Ukraine's intelligence services are still heavily influenced by Russia; not only did they originate from Moscow's KGB and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), but most of the officials were trained by the Russian services. The descendant of the KGB, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), has a heavy presence within Ukraine's intelligence agencies, making the organization a major tool for Russia's interests.
- Organized crime: Russian and Ukrainian organized crime have a deep connection that has lasted more than a century. Russia has been especially successful in Ukraine's illegal natural gas deals, arms trade, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit business.
Russia's Success and Roadblocks
The tide of Western influence in Ukraine was officially reversed in early 2010, when Ukraine's presidential elections brought the return of a pro-Russian government to Kiev. Furthermore, all the top candidates in the election were pro-Russian or at least had accommodating attitudes toward Russia. This was not Russia taking hold of Ukraine via some revolution or by force, but the Ukrainian people choosing a pro-Russian government, with the majority of independent and European observers calling the election free and fair. Ukraine chose to return to Russia, proving that all the levers Moscow used to influence the country were effective.
Russia still has work to do, in that half of Ukraine still believes the country can still be tied to the West. Also, Ukraine's inherent instability — mainly due to its demographic split — can make controlling Kiev problematic. Furthermore, the West's ties to Ukraine grew stronger after the Orange Revolution. The West has infiltrated Ukraine's banking, agricultural, transportation and energy sectors. Russia may have had solid success in Ukraine recently, but it will have to keep focusing on the critical state to keep Western influence from pulling Kiev away from Moscow again.
Belarus is the former Soviet state that has stayed closest to Russia. The Belarusian identity has strong ties to Russia; most Belarusians are Russian Orthodox, and Russian is one of the country's official languages (the other being Belarusian). Belarus, along with Ukraine, links Russia to Europe, and the distance between Minsk and Moscow is merely 400 miles. Belarus lies in one of Russia's most vulnerable areas, in that it is on the North European Plain — the main invasion route from the west, used by both the Nazis in World War II and by Napoleon in 1812.
Belarus is different from the other former Soviet states in that it did not flirt too much with the West after the fall of the Soviet Union, creating a Commonwealth of Russia and Belarus in 1996 — an alliance that transformed into the present-day vague partnership of the Union State of Russia and Belarus. Belarus rushed to strengthen ties with Russia because Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko believed that if the two countries integrated, he would naturally become vice president — and next in line for the Russian presidency.
Instead, Russia used Lukashenko's ambition to keep Belarus tied to Russia without providing any real integration between the countries. Russia and Belarus have independent governments, militaries, foreign policies, economies (for the most part) and national symbols. Belarus has never been reintegrated into Russia because Russian Prime Minister (and former President) Vladimir Putin, like most Russians, believes Belarusians to be naturally inferior. Moreover, Putin openly loathes Lukashenko on a personal level.
But this does not mean that Russia does not want to secure Belarus as a buffer between it and the European Union, or risk allowing Belarus to become seduced by the West. Russia simply wants Minsk to know that in any formal alliance between the countries, Belarus will not be an equal partner.
- Population: Belarus' demographic makeup is Russia's greatest lever. Russians make up roughly 11 percent of Belarus' population. More than 70 percent of the population speaks Russian, and some 60 percent of the population belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church.
- Political: Belarus is politically consolidated under the authoritarian Lukashenko. Though he has regular spats with Moscow, Lukashenko is manifestly pro-Russian and even aspires to be part of the Kremlin's leadership. Russia and Belarus have their own union state, though the definition of this alliance is extremely vague. The countries have discussed sharing a common foreign and defense policy, monetary union and even a single citizenship.
- Economic: Belarus is heavily tied to Russia economically, with the latter providing more than 60 percent of Belarus's imports, 85 percent of its oil and nearly all of its natural gas. Belarus also transports 20 percent of Russia's natural gas to Europe. Russia is deeply integrated into Belarus' industrial sector, which makes up 40 percent of the country's GDP. During the financial crisis, Russia has also supplied Belarus with loans totaling more than $1 billion.
- Military: During the Soviet era, the Russian and Belarusian military and industrial sectors were fully integrated. Those ties still exist; the Belarusian military is armed exclusively with Russian or Soviet-era equipment. Belarus is a member of the Russian-led military alliance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which allows Russian soldiers access to Belarus at Moscow's will. Russia and Belarus also share a unified air defense system, something that has led Russia to consider stationing its Iskander missile system along Belarus' European borders.
- Intelligence: The Russian and Belarusian intelligence services are nearly indivisible. The Russian KGB is parent to the Belarusian KGB, and today's Russian FSB and SVR are still deeply entrenched in Belarus.
Russia's Success and Roadblocks
Russia has long kept Belarus close, but ties grew even stronger on Jan. 1 when the two countries, along with Kazakhstan, launched an official customs union. This is the first step in creating a single economic space. The union is also beginning to consider expanding to include security issues, like border control. Such a move would nearly completely integrate Belarus with Russia politically, economically and in security matters. Russia is formally reassimilating Belarus, preventing Minsk from having any meaningful relationship with the West.
But Russia will have to watch out for Lukashenko's argumentative tendencies. Belarus' erratic behavior hardly ever creates real breaks between the two countries, but does allow a very public display of Russia's lack of control over Minsk's theatrics. The second thing for which Russia must account is increased attention from the European Union; trade with the union accounts for one-third of Belarus' total trade. Many EU states have pushed for closer ties to Belarus through the union's Eastern Partnership program, though there is hardly a consensus in Europe or any agreement from Minsk as to what the EU partnership deal should mean. Belarus wants expertise and funding, while the European Union wants concrete political changes — and neither is likely to get any significant portion of what it wants. Belarus has never worried Russia too much, but Russia is taking precautions to keep Belarus pro-Russian, if not part of Russia.
Kazakhstan protects Russia from the Islamic and Asian worlds. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has been the most important of the Central Asian states. It is the largest and most resource-rich of the region's five countries and tends to serve as a bellwether for the region's politics. Kazakhstan is strategically and geographically the middleman between its fellow Central Asian states (all of which it borders except Tajikistan) and Russia.
Moscow intentionally made Kazakhstan the center of the Central Asian universe during the Soviet era. The reason for this was twofold. First, Russia did not want Central Asia's natural regional leader, Uzbekistan, continuing in this role since it rarely followed orders from Moscow. Second, Russia knew Kazakhstan would be much easier to keep handle than the other Central Asian states, since Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian state Russia borders. Ease of control aside, Kazakhstan is critical to the Russian sphere for myriad reasons. Kazakhstan possesses plentiful oil and natural gas resources, and is a key access route for Russia to the rest of Central Asia and Asia proper. Furthermore, Kazakhstan abuts Russia's transportation links to the rest of Siberia and Russia's Far East. Essentially, losing Kazakhstan could split Russia in two.
- Geography and population: Kazakhstan's size — nearly one third the size of the continental United States, but with 5 percent of the population — makes it a difficult country to consolidate. Kazakhstan and Russia share a nearly 5,000-mile border that is almost completely unguarded. The population is split between the north and south with vast barren stretches in between. Russians make up nearly 20 percent of the Kazakh population. Around 25 percent of all Kazakhs work abroad, mostly in Russia, and 6 percent of Kazakh GDP comes from remittances.
- Politics: Kazakhstan has been ruled by a single dynasty under Nursultan Nazarbayev since before the fall of the Soviet Union. Of all the leaders of non-Russian former Soviet states, Nazarbayev was the most vocal about not wanting the Soviet Union to disintegrate. Since then, Kazakhstan has flirted with the possibility of forming a political union state with Russia as Belarus has done.
- Economics: Most of Kazakhstan's economic infrastructure — pipelines, rails and roads — is linked into Russia. Ninety-five percent of all natural gas and 79 percent of all oil from Kazakhstan is sent to Russia for export. Kazakhstan's exports to China are increasing and it sends a few sporadic shipments to Europe via Azerbaijan, but Russia still controls most of Kazakhstan's energy exports. During the recent financial crisis, Russia penetrated Kazakh business, buying up banks and industrial assets.
- Military and security: Kazakhstan and Russia are heavily militarily integrated; Kazakhstan is a member of the CSTO, and nearly all of the Kazakh military uses Russian or Soviet-era equipment. Roughly 70 percent of Kazakhstan's military officers are ethnically Russian and trained by Russia. Kazakhstan's largest security concern is from its regional rival, Uzbekistan. Russia is Kazakhstan's main protector.
- Intelligence: The Kazakh security apparatus KNB was born out of the Soviet KGB and is closely linked into Russia's present day FSB and SVR. Most Kazakh security chiefs were trained by and are loyal to Moscow.
Russia's Success and Roadblocks
Though Russia and Kazakhstan have shared a close relationship since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow solidified its hold on its southern neighbor by creating the aforementioned customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus on Jan. 1. For Kazakhstan, this union makes it generally more expensive to purchase non-Russian goods and weakens the indigenous Kazakh economy. It essentially starts the re-creation of a single economic sphere for the three states under Moscow, which they have pledged to complete by 2012. As mentioned before, the customs union is also considering expanding into security.
But unlike Belarus, Kazakhstan has yet to agree to any political union with Russia. There are two large problems that Russia must watch in order to keep Kazakhstan in its fold. The first is China. Kazakhstan has flirted with the West, but Western infiltration has been limited to energy projects and has not entered the political realm. However, this is not true for Chinese influence. China has been slowly and quietly building ties with Kazakhstan on energy, politics and economics and on the social level. Russia will have to keep the Chinese in check just as it must with the West in the other former Soviet states. The other potential problem for Russia's plan would arise if there were a leadership change in Astana. It is not clear what the result of a succession crisis would be in Kazakhstan or if it would change the country's willingness to work with Russia. Such an unknown is something Moscow must consider.
Of the four countries Russia believes it has to pull back into its orbit, Georgia is the one with which Russia has the most problems and is the least consolidated. Georgia borders Russia on the strip of land known as the Caucasus — a region between Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The Caucasus is critical for Russia to protect itself from all those regions. Georgia, as the northernmost country in the Caucasus (besides the Russian republics), is an Achilles' heel for Russia. Georgia also flanks Russia's southern Caucasus republics — including Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan — and acts as a Christian buffer between Islamic influences from the south and Russia's Muslim regions.
Though Russia and Georgia share many social attributes, such as the Orthodox religion, this state was one of the first former Soviet states — after the Baltics — to formally move toward the West. In 2003, the first of the pro-Western color revolutions swept into the former Soviet states with Georgia's Rose Revolution. Since then, Georgia has sought formal membership in several Western institutions like NATO and the European Union.
Because of the decisive break from Russia, Georgia and Russia do not formally share official diplomatic ties; the countries' leaders are not even on speaking terms.
- Geography: Russia formally occupies the two main secessionist regions of Georgia: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two regions, which make up a third of Georgian territory, have declared their independence with Russian recognition. Russia also heavily influences Georgia's southern secessionist regions of Adjara and Samtskhe-Javakheti.
- Population: Though there is no sizable Russian population in Georgia, nearly 80 percent of the Georgian population is Orthodox with close ties to the Moscow Patriarch. The Russian Orthodox Church does not formally preside over the Georgian Orthodox Church, unlike in Ukraine and Belarus, but the ties between the two groups have long helped Russia to push into Georgia socially.
- Politics: The Georgian government is led by vehemently anti-Russian President Mikhail Saakashvili, but more than a dozen opposition groups have tried to destabilize the Rose Revolution president — something that Russia has sought to take advantage of in the past year. Moreover, Russia is just now starting to organize a formally pro-Russian opposition movement in Georgia.
- Military: This is the main lever Russia holds in Georgia mainly due to the large Russian military presence inside of Georgia and flanking the country's southern border. Russia proved in its 2008 war with Georgia that it can quickly invade the country should the need arise.
Russia's Success and Roadblocks
Russia may have many levers in Georgia, but none has allowed Russia to consolidate control over the country. Instead, Russia has had to prove to Georgia (and the West) that it would never be allowed to stray from its former master. Essentially, Russia had to very publicly break the country. In 2008, Russia carried out a five-day war with Georgia, pushing the Russian military nearly to the capital of Tbilisi. Though Georgia was an ally of the United States and NATO, the West did not involve itself in the conflict. Georgia ended up having a third of its territory split from the country and declared "independent," with Russian forces formally stationed in the regions.
This war has had enormous repercussions not only for Georgia, but for the entire Soviet sphere and the West. Russia proved that it could do more than use its political, economic or energy levers in former Soviet states to influence their return to the Russian fold; it could force them back into submission.
But Russia has a long way to go in getting Georgia under control. Tbilisi still openly defies Moscow and has asked the West for any kind of support possible, especially military support.
With the other three imperative countries falling back into Russia's orbit, Georgia will have Russia's most focused attention. Russia must have all four countries under its control in order to succeed with any other part of its plan to become a major power in Eurasia once again.