There have been extensive discussions about the next phase of NATO enlargement to the east and Russia’s right to defend its interests on its borders. However, little or no attention has been paid to factors forcing former Soviet republics, particularly Georgia and Ukraine, to rush to join the alliance.
Russian political mentality has been extremely reluctant to accepting the fact that the Soviet Union ‘passed away’ more than a decade ago and that Russia is no longer the only major player in the post-Soviet sphere. Russia’s former President and current Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, even lamented about the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
Being heavily obsessed with neo-Soviet nostalgia and revanchist nationalism, Russian political elite still envisages territories of post-Soviet republics as its backyard where it can impose a Russian version of “Monroe doctrine”. For them it is just a matter of time before Russia re-establishes itself as a regional and global superpower and re-asserts its interests in the international arena as it used to do during the Soviet times. Therefore, it is vital for the new leaders of Kremlin not to allow further expansion of NATO, which it considers as the biggest threat to its neo-imperialist ambitions.
From the perspective of the West, NATO’s enlargement has not been a military threat to Russia since the end of the Cold War. Quite on the contrary, admission of Central and Eastern European countries to the alliance has made those regions more stable, democratic and prosperous. Instead of accusing the West in absorbing former Warsaw Pact members in its military alliance, Russian political elite should have being blaming themselves for not building a reputation of a trustworthy neighbor in terms of security and not dissolving the fears of the former Communist satellite republics to be re-annexed by Russia.
In case of Georgia and Ukraine, apart from their legitimate wish to integrate into the Western democratic community, the unwillingness of Russian foreign policy makers to provide security guarantees and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of those republics has been the primary push factor for the two to bid for NATO membership. Instead of engaging in a meaningful dialogue with Georgia and Ukraine, Russia chose to use its energy and military muscles against its neighbors. As an illustration:
In Ukraine, despite the popular support for pro-Western Victor Yushchenko during the presidential elections of 2004, Russia openly supported recognition of fraudulent election results to ensure the victory of pro-Russian candidate. Allegedly, during the presidential campaign, Russian security forces even tried to kill President Yushchenko by dioxin poisoning. Since 2004, ‘Energy blackmail’ has been a favorite political tool for Moscow to punish Ukrainians for choosing the pro-Western course. Last year, Putin even threatened Ukraine to target with nuclear missiles if it joined NATO. Some Russian politicians have even called for Russia to disintegrate Ukraine, particularly to take Crimea peninsula from it and to support separatist movements in largely Russian speaking eastern parts of the country.
In Georgia, Russia has been largely responsible for provoking two separatist wars in the country, particularly in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With the help of Russian official and paramilitary troops, the separatists conducted ethic cleansing of Georgians in both regions. All attempts of Georgian government to solve the conflicts peacefully have been blocked by Russia. Moreover, while ethnic Georgian refugees are not allowed to return to their home places, Russian citizens have moved from various parts of the Russian Federation to occupy their properties in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Both separatist regions have been tightly controlled by Russian military and security forces. In direct violation of all international laws, Russia has broadly granted Russian citizenship to Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatists and pledged to defend its new citizens if Georgia attempted to use force to reassert control over those regions. As a reminder, Nazi Germany had used similar tactics against Czechoslovakia prior to its occupation in 1938. Specifically, during the 1930s Hitler massively granted German citizenship to ethnic Germans living in Sudetenland, western part of Czechoslovakia. Later, in order to ‘defend’ German co-nationals, Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.
Moscow’s pursuit of neo-imperial policies towards Georgia and Ukraine has left no alternative to those countries but to seek NATO membership.
There is no doubt that security concerns of Russia should be heard. However, Russia has to learn to respect security concerns of its neighbors too. Moscow has no right to dictate Georgia and Ukraine or any other country to reverse the pro-Western course. Neither should Western powers betray young democracies in the post-Soviet sphere because of increasing dependency on Russian energy supplies.
As for Russia, instead of nostalgic preoccupation with superpower status, it would have benefited more from vigorously developing its democratic institutions. Running the country better than President Yeltsin and selling oil for higher prices during the world oil crisis are not signs of great leadership. Russia should understand that neither will bullying of neighboring countries by supporting separatism movements alleviate Russian security concerns nor will it deter pro-Western democratic aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine.
Grigol Ubiria is a PhD scholar in Political Science and International Relations at the Australian National University.
The article was also published at www.atlantic-community.org under the title "Russia’s Neoimperial Policies Make Georgia and Ukraine Seek NATO Membership."