A zone of responsibility

Until only recently, the territory of the former Soviet Union appeared to be a vast geopolitical battlefield on which major world powers fought it out for the choicest trophies. Today, everything has changed.

Almost every major power has run up against its own dire economic and political problems. This has made them too preoccupied with resolving their own problems to pay much attention to what is happening on former Soviet soil. Is Russia capable of taking advantage of these newfound opportunities?

It is as if the situation has reverted to what it was in the early 1990s. Then, amid the chaos and confusion of the Soviet breakup, there were few world powers desirous of getting involved in the murky politics of the newly independent states. Only later did the major powers take a real interest in the region. During the initial and riskiest phase of the early 1990s, Moscow was the only power compelled to participate in events in its neighborhood. This was partly due to having just functioned as the region’s center, and partly because Moscow was unable to isolate itself from the turbulent events occurring in its former territories.

Russian policy was far from ideal. At the same time, Russia undeniably contributed to the emergence of new states and, in some cases, played a key role as a stabilizing force. Only later did the world’s major players—the United States, the European Union and China—begin to develop plans of their own regarding the former Soviet republics.

That stage appears to have ended. The United States has reassessed its priorities, focusing more on South and East Asia and the Pacific Rim than on the former Soviet republics. Washington’s days-long silence over the unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan speaks volumes. Even European Union projects such as its Eastern Partnership, which seemed so promising only 18 months ago, have been largely forgotten. China looks to its neighbors as a means for achieving its own economic goals, and Beijing has expressed no interest in taking responsibility for the region.

New opportunities have opened before Russia, which has long sought recognition for what it calls its zone of “privileged interest” in the region. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s dramatic rapprochement with Russia can be explained not by any deep-seated love for Moscow but because he has nowhere else to turn.

An even greater lack of alternatives exists in Kyrgyzstan, where the violence is dramatically increasing. But how prepared is Moscow to take action?

Despite the presence of military bases belonging to Russia and the United States, Central Asia lacks any security institutions. The Collective Security Treaty Organization has remained little more than a “club of Russia’s friends” that functioned merely as a symbolic counterweight to NATO. Now, however, there is an urgent need for the CSTO to play a role as a capable military and political alliance. What’s more, the CSTO lacks any clear rules or scenarios to govern its actions, and even more important, there is a high level of mistrust between the member states. Most of those states understand the need to stop the chaos in Kyrgyzstan, but they are terribly afraid to set a precedent of interfering in the internal affairs of a partner state. This is especially true considering that in Bishkek itself, the interim authorities do not have legitimacy, and to respond to their call for bringing in peacekeepers would mean supporting one side of the sectarian conflict.

For Russia to send peacekeepers to Kyrgyzstan, it would need if not a formal mandate then, at the very least, the consent of its main neighbors in the region—Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Without that, Russian troops could be drawn into not only a civil war but an interstate war. It is also worth asking whether Russia even has professionally trained units that could play a peacekeeping role in such a delicate and dangerous situation. How and when would such forces be trained?

The post-Soviet world is entering a dangerous new phase. The former Soviet republics have been left to cope with their problems by themselves. The regional efforts that various world powers tried to launch for various reasons in the 2000s did not work. Now it even sounds odd to speak of Russia having a zone of “privileged interests.” If anything, Russia has a “zone of responsibility.” If Moscow does not find a way to respond to challenges such as Kyrgyzstan, any later claims it might make to a special role in the region will be unconvincing.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

Previously published in The Moscow Times.

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