Russia Mulls A New Unilateralism

After an informal summit with Central Asian presidents, Russian President Vladimir Putin made surprising remarks about the possibility of moving Russia’s “frontier” south into the former Soviet republics. Putin’s comments ostensibly concerned economic policy, specifically the interests of a Russian-led trade group, the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC). However, the notion of Russia protecting a Central Asian state’s borders is infused with hints of the Soviet-era limited sovereignty doctrine. Russia’s former republics have fixed borders, but Russia’s conception of its own southern frontier appears to remain undefined.

After a casual meeting with the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in Aktau, Kazakhstan on July 6, Putin told reporters that “Russia has to determine whether it needs to fortify its border with Kazakhstan or guard” Kazakhstan’s southern border on its own. Putin modified this comment when he addressed an audience in the Central Russian town of Saransk on July 8. He placed the idea of Russia’s moveable frontier in the context of his interest in developing the EEC, a 14-month-old loose alliance of former Soviet nations. The Russian Information Agency quoted the president as saying that “it would be wrong to make sizable investments in fortifying Russia’s border with Kazakhstan” while an emerging EEC could require recalculating the frontier.

Putin’s remarks are surprising given how inclusive and vague the EEC has been. Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan created it in Minsk in May 2001. (Moldova and Ukraine became non-voting observers to the EEC on May 13; Ukraine had defected from another alliance.) While Secretary-General Grigory Rapota told Interfax on July 9 that the EEC aims to create a “single economic space,” it has not fostered effective treaties. Nor does it have a firm definition: Rapota offered that its structure was so flexible that China, Russia’s strategic rival, could theoretically join the group.

Some observers, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, worry that Central Asian states would suffer if they rely too much on trade with Russia. So the EEC, with a total annual budget of some $2 million, provides a weak explanation for Russia’s idea to guard the EEC common borders in Central Asia. Moreover, Putin is mulling steps that seem unilateral beyond the EEC. For instance, shortly after Russia, Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan failed to delineate the Caspian Sea in April, Putin ordered major naval exercises in the disputed waters. Some observers viewed the flotilla as a warning to other littoral states. Russian border guards are patrolling the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, but no other country has discussed Russian military presence on its borders. Indeed, Putin’s remarks indicate that Moscow might consider the old limited sovereignty doctrine a viable basis for current policy.

In 1968, when Communist Party Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev authorized Soviet forces to invade Czechoslovakia, analysts dubbed the invasion an expression of the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” also known as the concept of limited sovereignty. The concept implied that the sovereignty of the Warsaw Pact states was limited, as the Soviet “big brother” assumed the role of supreme arbiter. While the Warsaw Pact gathered a group of nations under one military cloak against a Western enemy, the EEC is a small and loose collection of nations that are all friendly to the United States and the West. Nonetheless, Putin’s remarks have not met much official resistance.

On the contrary, Russian rhetoric seems to have grown bolder. On July 10, according to Russian press reports, Kyrgyz air defense commander Igor Kurbanov told journalists in Bishkek that Russia might supply advanced S-300 air defense missile systems to Kyrgyzstan. Vladimir Varfalameyev, military attaché of the Russian embassy, reportedly added that Russia was interested in supporting the Kyrgyz army expressly “in order to guard the Commonwealth southern border.”

Russia cannot, of course, resume behaving as if Central Asian republics will line up behind its interests. Tellingly, Kazakhstan signed an agreement with the United States to let American planes use Almaty’s airport. At a signing ceremony attended by U.S. Ambassador Larry Napper in Astana, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev said the Americans would invoke the agreement only when both sides recognize an emergency, such as a flare-up in Afghanistan or a terrorist incursion in the region. Even though the deal proscribes an American military base in Kazakhstan, a development that would alarm Putin, it may indicate that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been the EEC’s most enthusiastic proponent, may have mixed feelings about developing common EEC borders.

Other nations have explicitly objected to Putin’s border maneuvers. On July 7, the Iranian daily Abrar warned against planned Russian maneuvers in the Caspian. The daily said that the upcoming Russian naval exercises “will not in any way contribute to finding a comprehensive and fair legal regime for the strategic waters.” And in the Caucasus, Georgian officials have long complained that Russia fails to grant Georgia an equal share in peacekeeping decisions. Since June, Russia has irked Georgian officials by distributing Russian passports and otherwise hinting at Russian citizenship to residents of Abkhazia, a separatist region. Talking to journalists in Tbilisi on July 11, Russian Security Council chief Vladimir Rushailo defended decisions to grant Russian citizenship to some 50,000 residents of Abkhazia. He reasoned, according to RIA, that the Abkhaz were not Georgian and therefore stateless. Anri Jergheniya, the unrecognized premier of Abkhazia, announced that some 60% of Abkhazia’s population had become Russian citizens. If this status holds, observers say, Russia could use it to justify boosting its military presence in Georgia’s separatist regions.

This summer, Putin has flexed Russian might and hinted at a willingness to assert one-sided geopolitical principles. It remains to be seen whether this attitude amounts to mere occasional occurrences, or whether it will spur efforts to revive the limited sovereignty doctrine in a very different world.