In 1991, many were surprised that the demise of the USSR involved so little violence, says Andrey Kortunov. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that “the Soviet Union didn’t really collapse at the end of 1991”. Its true collapse “only takes place now”.
What this means, says the Moscow foreign policy scholar, is that the states that have emerged in the post-Soviet space have not yet gone through all the challenges, risks and pains of imperial disintegration” ( russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/ analytics/tri-desyatiletiya-boleznennykh-korrektirovok-rossiya-na-postsovetskom-prostranstve/; original in English at ip-quarterly.com/en/moscows-painful-adjustment-post-soviet -space).
What happened in 1991 was ‘superficial’, with many in Russia and elsewhere being certain that most or all of the former Soviet republics, with the exception of the Baltic states which had a very different status, ‘would go nowhere but sooner or later” would return to Moscow and that their return was “an absolutely necessary condition for the return of Russia to its former status as a great power”.
But for many reasons, Russia has not achieved this goal. The most important is that “during the 30 years of its independent existence, Russia has not been able to find an effective model of social and economic development that would be perceived as a model in neighboring countries”.
Vladimir Putin’s decision 15 years ago to focus on maintaining social and political stability rather than promoting social and economic modernization meant, according to Kortunov, that “Russia has not become for its neighbors in the CIS what Germany and partly France turned out to be for its partners. in what is now the European Union.
Moscow has relied on a variety of tools to keep the former union republics close to it, but all have become less effective over time as these countries have adopted their own strategies to promote their own national identities, most of which are based on opposition to Russia. , and developed relations with outside powers despite objections from Moscow.
What Moscow did in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 had the effect of putting an end to “any plans for the complete reintegration of the former Soviet space around Russia”, if such plans really exist. Over the past eight years, Moscow has cut its economic subsidies and taken a much tougher stance on its neighbors’ external ties and nation-building efforts.
In many ways, says Kortunov, “the launch of the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine is clearly an exception to the trend towards a more rational, cautious and pragmatic approach to the post-Soviet space.” Indeed, “any rational cost-benefit analysis would suggest that the Kremlin has much to lose but not much to gain by trying to rebuild Ukraine through military means.”
While it is “premature” to analyze what Moscow is currently doing in Ukraine, “one can assume it will be remembered as the final act in Russia’s 30-year drama grappling with its imperial heritage”, a struggle which had the most paradoxical results, argues Kortunov.
Over the past three decades, Russia “has been able to become a very active world power without becoming a regional leader”. And it’s entirely possible that “the very Russian globalism of recent years could be seen as a kind of political compensation for Moscow’s many failures in its attempts” to build more constructive and stable relations with its neighbors.
Despite this, Kortunov insists, “the task of building such relations should sooner or later return to the top of Moscow’s top foreign policy priorities. It will be much more difficult to do than in 1991”, considering all that has happened. But “without addressing this critical problem, any success in other areas of Russian policy will inevitably depreciate” in value.