Russia hosted an impromptu Commonwealth of Independent States summit Feb. 22. The summit is of critical importance because of what was accomplished there — and because of what was not. Russian President Vladimir Putin's decisions about which leaders to hold bilateral meetings with are telling.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted an impromptu Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Moscow on Feb. 22. The formal details of the meetings are uninspiring, but the summit is of critical importance — because of both what it achieved and what it did not. The summit itself consisted of the same sort of airy discussions on collective trade, migration and security that are hallmarks of CIS meetings. Typically, such discussions result in nothing but framing the talks for the next summit. The real substance at the gatherings of the 12 former Soviet Union states usually comes in the bilateral meetings, during which the Russian president regularly strong-arms his peers into shifting their policies in a more Russia-friendly direction. Putin was under pressure to achieve just that at this summit. Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia is something Putin personally campaigned long and hard against, and if the West can simply ignore Russian objections, then Putin's aura of power — both personally within the Russian government and internationally as a symbol of the inevitability of a return of Russian strength — is endangered. He needed to pull a rabbit out of his hat, and the summit seemed like a good opportunity. At present, it appears that Putin's top hat is empty, and his only victory was proving to the world he could still summon the CIS at will. Information STRATFOR has gleaned from Kremlin sources suggests that Putin's bilateral meetings fell more into the realm of relationship management — smoothing away the rough edges before Putin's official transfer of the presidency to his anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Putin shored up Russia's dominant position in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Moldova, Belarus and Tajikistan while pushing for stronger economic involvement in Ukraine. None of the talks were earth-shattering; all fit with longstanding Russian policy. There certainly was nothing that would spook the West. The most interesting bilateral meeting was Putin's sit-down with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who normally is vitriolic about all things Russian but was more than gracious about Russia in general and Putin in particular. It is easy to see why: Tbilisi is terrified that Russia will use Kosovo's independence as a precedent to call for the independence of Georgia's two separatist regions, both of which are hugely pro-Russian. Putin, however, seemed to accept Saakashvili's groveling and even rewarded him by announcing an imminent end to Russian trade and travel restrictions that have put a crimp in Georgia's economy for more than a year — restrictions imposed due to Saakashvili's past anti-Russian behavior. In exchange, it appears there was talk of Georgia informally agreeing to abandon its NATO membership ambitions. If Tbilisi does back away from its plans to join NATO, this certainly would be the most strategically significant outcome of the summit. But Saakashvili could never announce such a deal publicly and survive back home. If Putin did achieve any strategic gains to mitigate his loss on Kosovo — in Georgia or anywhere else — they will only be realized after the various CIS leaders return to their respective countries and adjust policy. This is not exactly the public victory that Putin so deeply needs. The most important parts of the summit were the meetings that did not take place. During the summit and the days preceding it, Putin did not hold bilateral talks with the leaders of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. These three Central Asian states are the ones working most aggressively with the Chinese to shift their economies away from Russia. Rail projects and pipelines that will move these countries' economic postures eastward already are under construction. In fact, a new Chinese-Central Asian natural gas pipeline broke ground while the summit was going on. Once completed, these projects will reduce, if not outright eliminate, these three states' dependence on Russian infrastructure. All this means that the Kremlin is now in a double bind. It needs a public victory against the West to offset the humiliation of Kosovo, as well as something to frighten the Chinese away from carving off Central Asia. This will require more than just a hastily arranged summit.