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Gerard Toal is a Professor of Government and International Affairs and Director of the Government and International Affairs program at Virginia Tech’s Washington area campus. His new book is called “Near Abroad. Putin, the West, and the Contest over Ukraine and the Caucasus.” He spoke with Emil Sanamyan about his reading of Russian policies in the former Soviet space.
ES: One of the questions you pose in your book is “Why does Russia invade its neighbors?” How did you answer that question?
GT: The book seeks to provide a more comprehensive, deeper answer to how that question is answered in the West generally and in the United States, in particular. There are two prevailing answers in the Western geopolitical culture. The first one is that Russia invades its neighbors because it is an imperialist bully and it seeks to establish a sphere of influence in its neighborhood. The second answer is one that comes from a more politically realist perspective, and suggests that Russia invades its neighbors because the West – especially NATO, a hostile military alliance – is encroaching upon Russia’s borders. This is “Geopolitics 101,” as John Mearsheimer suggested. Russia’s response is thus a defensive reaction against this creeping encroachment.
Both of these explanations are inadequate. In the book I make the case for an explanation that is organized around the geopolitical setting, clashing geopolitical cultures and eventful processes. The long histories of political contestation over borders in these areas must be considered. And then there is the issue of timing, and why at certain moments Vladimir Putin appears to be O’K with NATO-Ukraine dialogue (May 2002) or did not consider Crimea disputed territory, and why that changed. I’m interested in what William Sewell termed ‘the structure of the conjuncture’ that produced the ‘two invasions’ as distinct events.
ES: Do you see a direct link between the Georgia and Ukraine conflicts? Could there have been a war in Ukraine without the precedent in Georgia? Or are these events separate and distinct?
GT: Its hard to consider “what if” questions, since what happens today is dependent considerably on what happened in the past. I do think that those two invasions are linked. One hypothetical question worth pondering is if NATO not pledged to one day incorporate Ukraine and Georgia, would there have been these wars? In one sense, we will never know the answer. But one could make an argument, setting NATO aside as an issue, the Kremlin viewed the independent paths taken by Ukraine and Georgia towards democratization and reform, as threatening to the Russian authoritarian state. This is the Kremlin’s ‘domino theory’, the view that ‘color revolutions’ in post-Soviet space are a conspiracy against the ‘last domino,’ namely Russia itself.
ES: When you look at the processes in these conflicts, to what extent were they driven out of Moscow and to what extent Moscow was reacting to events in South Ossetia or Donbass?
GT: Part of the objective of the book was to get away from the sort of “thin” explanations that tend to give major powers exclusive agency in these events. When talking about “Kremlin” or “Washington” doing this or that, people tend to fall into conspiratorial sort of reasoning. My goal was to highlight the roles played by smaller actors and provide a richer understanding of interrelationships between those various actors.
Clearly, great actors have much more power than others to shape the situation if they so decide. Both in Georgia and Ukraine, actions taken by the Kremlin were central to what happened. But that is not to say that the Kremlin initiated the August 2008 war, I don’t think it was the case, but it was ready to respond to what happened. By contrast, the Kremlin did initiate the Crimean intervention. And it is to complicate the understanding of the events in eastern Ukraine: where Russian oligarchic-supported groups, such as those backed by businessman Konstantin Malofeyev, took action that they thought would be welcomed by the Kremlin. In that instance, the Russian government initially extended some support, then recalculated by limiting support, and recalculated again with military help as the Ukrainian military was poised to crush the rebellion. We have to understand these agencies as unequal, but we also have to understand the relational context and the degree of freelancing involved. There’s no simple formula when you are studying conjunctures and historical contingencies.
ES: Russia is the largest country in the world by landmass. Does Russian leaders’ awareness of this make their thinking regarding territory somehow peculiar?
GT: <Laughter> That’s an invitation to environmental determinism and its a cardinal sin for geographers to think that way. But there are the constant material challenges involved in the Russian government’s effort of mastering its territory, giving it coherence and strength. The vastness, the differences in climate, the diversity of peoples populating it, do make the job of running Russia so much more difficult. And that obviously shapes Russia’s geopolitical culture, irrespective of who is in the Kremlin, it is a constant challenge that has an impact on how Russian officials think of the border issues and pursuit of Russian interests in the world.
ES: Do you think this awareness also bears on the thinking of people about Russia in the West or other countries?
GT: That is not necessarily the case. You can see the vastness of Russia on the maps and it may appear to be a dominant power in Eurasia. And if you share the anxieties of classic geopoliticians about ‘control of the heartland’ that may cause you some concern. But I think most people in the West are not threatened by Russia’s geographic vastness, and don’t buy mumbo jumbo about a Eurasian heartland as the ‘geographic pivot of history’. In the U.S., Russia has long been seen as this ‘dark double’ of the United States, an Other that defines the U.S. in positive terms. The content of that contrast varies from period to period, but Russia has a place in the U.S. geopolitical culture that affirms the U.S. as a homeland of virtue and freedom fighting against tyranny. That second understanding is mostly detached from physical geography. Its more a geo-theology.
ES: Putin’s description of the Soviet Union’s dissolution as a “catastrophe” highlights the plight of millions of ethnic Russians who found themselves outside Russian borders, in newly independent states. Comparing Georgia and Ukraine, in the latter there was indeed a large Russian minority, while in Georgia, minorities involved were Abkhaz and Ossetians. How did that impact the Russian leadership’s thinking about these two places?
GT: Considering Putin’s rhetoric about the “catastrophe,” I think one of the central things he was lamenting was the fall of Russia as a great power, a master of imperial borderlands and protector of various small peoples in the Caucasus and elsewhere. Part of Putin’s effort to strengthen the state and make Russia great again, was to make it a gendarme of that post-Soviet area. This vision of Russia was there under Boris Yeltsin from the outset, the understanding that being a great power required being a “peacemaker” in the region, it did not come with Putin.
And, of course, there was an objective need for peacemakers, particularly in the Caucasus, where we saw some horrible ethnicized violence as the repressive Soviet state disintegrated and lost coherence. The objective need for a restraining power was there from the unresolved conflicts of the 1990s. How Russia was going to respond to the legacies of violence was dependent not just on objective needs, of course, but on the larger geopolitical picture. The fact that Georgia moved towards the West and its leader Mikheil Saakashvili played such a polarizing role was of course an important factor. Contrast that to Moldova and Transnistria with a largely Russian population, where you did not have the same geopoliticization occurring.
Putin’s policies are not necessarily about protecting ethnic Russians beyond Russia. The idea of “the Russian world” is not just about ethnicity. It is also a gathering project, to mobilize and involve all those who identify with Russia and see themselves as part of a Russian sphere beyond Russia.
ES: Following the Georgia and Ukraine experiences, and also Syria, do you see Russian leadership retaining the taste for foreign intervention or is there a sense of tiredness? In the Unites States there are periods of activist foreign policy and periods of relaxation and focus on domestic needs.
GT: Well, the United States is a democracy, a very imperfect one as we all know, but this means a regular change of leadership and a possibility of new direction. You don’t have the same dynamic in Russia. I think Putin sees himself as the most experienced statesman in the world, and I expect he is quite self-confident. So, there is a potential for more interventions. I don’t think Western sanctions have hurt to the point that these would stop Russia from acting abroad, if Putin believes it to be in the national interest (which is indistinguishable from his own interest). So, I don’t see a desire for retreat on the part of Putin. Sections of the Russian elite and population, however, may well be weary of Putin and the contradictions of his version of ‘making Russia great again.’
ES: When it comes to the Karabakh conflict, Russia has always been the most important third party, but increasingly there is a notion, articulated by the International Crisis Group among others, of a Russian imposition of some kind of peacemaking intervention, particularly in the case of resumed fighting that would cause significant civilian casualties. To what extent do you see Karabakh as part of this Russian imaginary, when compared to the other places Russia intervened recently?
GT: I think it is a part of it. When Russian foreign policy is framed pejoratively, Russia is said to be seeking a sphere of influence on its borders and South Caucasus is part of that. But, as I argue in Near Abroad, that frame is part of a ‘thin geopolitics’ that inhibits rather than clarifies thought about Russia and its neighbors. Great powers exercise preponderant power in their neighborhoods. Sometimes intervention can be helpful and necessary. Preventing the Karabakh conflict blowing up the whole South Caucasus may be an example. As a recent Carnegie report points out, the U.S. and Russia have a common interest in conflict prevention there, to reduce the possibility of a new war or respond if a war does break out. I think that would be a positive thing, though that would of course depend on the particular circumstances of that intervention.
Will that happen? People reasonably argue that Russia is playing both sides and it remains to be seen.
ES: Back in the early 1990s, U.S. diplomats and others from Europe actively challenged Russia’s role as the preeminent mediator in Karabakh. 25 years later, is U.S. still as interested? Would the American leadership care if Russia decided to introduce its forces in Karabakh and Azerbaijan?
GT: After Ukraine, U.S.-Russian relations are so poisoned that any move by Russia to send forces, even peacekeeping forces to the South Caucasus would be viewed with great suspicion by many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. A zero-sum mentality has returned and anything seen as a gain for Russia is seen as a loss for the West. Even if it is in the area that is not of vital strategic interest to U.S. and has only symbolic significance, it would still be opposed by quite a number of people.
I would hope if there is a Russian military intervention in Karabakh, it would be judged on its merits, but I think suspicions run extremely deep. The Trump Administration is so boxed in by its apparent collusion with Russia and the associated investigations that any kind of cooperation with Russia would seem out of question at this juncture. Prominent Democrats have joined hawkish Republicans to declare that we are effectively ‘at war’ with Russia. This is extremely dangerous. Like it or not, we need to live with Russia, to understand it, and cooperate when we can.
Disclaimer: While a graduate student at Virginia Tech, Emil Sanamyan assisted with research and did translations for the Near Abroad.