Is today’s Russia a “USSR 2.0”? Putin wants us to think so
The West’s lack of inner cohesion, slow reactions and a preference for dialogue provide the Kremlin with a chance to effectively play its own game. Putin surely discovered a long time ago that bluffing and good brinkmanship are enough for the West to do everything to prevent conflict. There is only one condition: it must believe that Putin’s Russia is a “USSR 2.0”.
“I think that’s right,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on January 9th when asked by CNN if he agreed that Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to restore the Soviet Union. “I think that’s one of President Putin’s objectives, and it is to re-exert a sphere of influence over countries that previously were part of the Soviet Union.” This is exactly what the Russian president would like the West to believe. Whilst the head of US diplomacy was making this statement, Russian-American negotiations were about to start in Geneva.
The officials met for a preliminary dinner to begin high-stakes talks about Russia’s threats to Ukraine. The next day, a three-track dialogue with Russia started. It was crucial from the Kremlin’s perspective that the talks resembled those surrounding the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. As a result, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, commented that the escalating tensions over Ukraine could lead to a crisis similar to this standoff, in which the world stood on the brink of a nuclear war.
The truth is, however, that the only common feature shared by these events is their use of militarisation as a diplomatic tactic ahead of talks. Moreover, the Cuban standoff was far less complicated. Nevertheless, by reviving the Cold War atmosphere, Moscow was supposed to gain worldwide attention, at least for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The talks started amid Russia’s high military build up along the Ukrainian border. Russian troops were also sent into Belarus for military exercises. Meanwhile, six naval ships appeared in the Black Sea. This massive military posture was clearly a signal that Moscow was prepared to use force if diplomacy failed. Ahead of the talks in Geneva, Ryabkov laid out Moscow’s demands in the style of Andrei Gromyko, the most famous head of Soviet diplomacy who is often known as “Mr. Nyet”. Three of these demands are viewed by Moscow as non-negotiable. First, Ryabkov stressed that there should be no eastward NATO expansion, literally understood as “hands off Ukraine!” (and Georgia). Second, no offensive systems should be based in areas bordering Russia, such as Poland, the Baltics and the Black Sea basin near Crimea, which was illegally annexed eight years ago. Third, NATO troops should be pulled back from countries that joined the alliance after 1997. The head of the Russian delegation in Geneva went on to put these demands even more frankly: “NATO should pack up its stuff and withdraw to the lines of 1997.”
If accepted, this would mean that every current NATO member in Central and Eastern Europe would once again find themselves in a geopolitical grey zone. This would make them vulnerable to the Kremlin’s desire to reconstruct its historical sphere of influence.
To increase its position during the bilateral talks with the United States, Russia turned to various Cold War style tricks: tense atmosphere, mutual accusations and a belligerent tone. Whilst Ryabkov headed the Russian delegation, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was in charge of America’s negotiating team. Ryabkov is believed to be the planned successor to the current foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. At the same time, Sherman is known for negotiating with the toughest of regimes, such as North Korea and Iran. They were both accompanied by some of their countries’ top military generals in the form of Alexander Fomin and James Mingus. Both sides quickly realised that the first round had already set up a long-lasting diplomatic process that will push military brinkmanship to the background of talks.
Window of opportunity
The timing of the Russia crisis is by no means coincidental. The most immediate prelude was the escalation in spring last year, which followed a similar scenario and was designed to test possible western reactions. The current window of opportunity came about due to several circumstances. First, the post-election situation in Germany, where the coalition still has no clear position on Russia. Second, the image debacle following the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Third, Moscow currently enjoys a political scene free of opponents. Whilst Alexei Navalny was sent to a penal colony in January 2021, media outlets critical of the Kremlin have increasingly found themselves labelled as “foreign agents”. The legendary NGO Memorial was even made illegal in December. Finally, the wider stalemate over Ukraine has also encouraged this crisis. Kyiv’s army, now regularly rearmed and trained by the West, has been increasing its defensive capabilities. This window of opportunity will close for Russia by 2024, when new presidential elections will take place and the Kremlin will be fully concentrated on domestic issues.
Overall, Putin has no chance to get his ratings back above 80 per cent, as they were after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Indeed, the Crimea card has been exhausted since then, and the Kremlin does not have many cards left to play. The intervention in Syria turned out to be less than spectacular. The associated Astana process organised under the auspices of the Russian foreign ministry has already had 17 rounds and is not likely to end anytime soon. Meanwhile, the expectations of Russians raised by the dream of “collecting Russian lands” continue to collide with ubiquitous state corruption, ongoing COVID-19 problems and strong restrictions that not only affect political opponents.
According to Maria Domańska, an expert at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OWS), Russian opposition and civic movements have been gradually moving to Vilnius, Kyiv and Tbilisi. Re-establishing control over the post-Soviet space has therefore become not only a matter of geopolitics but survival for the Kremlin regime. Moscow’s problem, however, is that many post-Soviet states over the last three decades have managed to learn how to organise a sovereign foreign policy, gain non-Russian partners and, above all, rediscover their own national identity.
Essentially, any Russian intervention in the former Soviet space is not favourable for Moscow, as the message has always been the same: “Today Tbilisi or Crimea, tomorrow Russian troops or little green men may enter any post-Soviet republic”. It is therefore understandable why Belarus’s Alyaksandr Lukashenka was for years pursuing a policy of balancing between Russia and the West. The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas made him afraid of such a scenario in his country. He therefore got involved in the Minsk process. At the end of the day, however, the country’s 2020 fraudulent elections only condemned him to seek help from the stronger partner in Moscow.
The cost of leaving Russia’s grip
It is increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space. Russia’s limited options are causing it to turn more and more to forceful solutions. Moscow has attempted to stop several countries from leaving Russia’s “near abroad” via Soviet-style methods. This is exemplified by Georgia and Ukraine, which experienced these methods first-hand in 2008 and 2014 respectively. The most common method, however, is the carrot and stick policy. Whilst Lukashenka is now especially aware of his dependence on Putin’s will, this situation ultimately allows him to access a small amount of loans from the country.
Generally, a gas tap used to be Russia’s most convenient means of bringing unruly post-Soviet clients back into the fold. Allies are supplied with gas at attractive prices as long as they do not challenge Russia’s interests. Not so long ago, Moldova’s new pro-democracy government led by Maia Sandu clashed with Gazprom. Ever since Moldova’s contract expired last autumn, the gas giant has raised prices dramatically. The crisis turned out to be critical for Moldova, as it is completely dependent on Russian supplies. This event undermined public confidence in the new pro-western authorities. Although a compromise was finally reached and a five-year contract signed, the country will have to deal with more expensive gas and a delay to energy market reforms. The Kremlin above all wanted to send a message that leaving Russia’s grip will be neither easy nor cheap.
President Putin is afraid not only of being deprived of power but of any instability in the post-Soviet republics. At his annual December press conference he made this clear: “Our enemies have been trying for centuries to defeat Russia, but what they can do is only to destroy it from within”.
Putin subsequently had his explanation ready as soon as Kazakhs came out to protest at the very beginning of the year. “These are Maidan technologies”, he commented during a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). He added that “Organised and well-managed militant groups, whose actions should be considered an attack on Kazakhstan, were prepared in terrorist camps abroad.”
Immediately, Putin revived the largely defunct CSTO alliance, which was envisaged as the post-Soviet equivalent of NATO. Officially, a request for “brotherly” assistance was made by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on January 5th. One day later, the first mirotvorcy (peacemakers) appeared in Kazakhstan, supported by troops from Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Overall, it made no difference whether the protests were spontaneous, or were pushed by Tokayev in order to purge Kazakh politics of the influence of his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev. What the mattered most was the demonstration that Russia is the guarantor of security and order in the former Soviet space. Indeed, Russia’s influence in Central Asia has been consistently challenged by China for many years now.
Much like his Armenian colleague, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Putin is caught between more powerful players. In Russia’s case these are the West and the rapidly rising power of China. Too weak to engage in a real confrontation, Russia must talk a good game and play on the weaknesses of others. Beijing is unlikely to have any such deficiencies, whereas the West has multiple. Its lack of inner cohesion, slow reactions and a preference for dialogue provide the Kremlin with a vital chance to play the game effectively. Putin knows that raising the geopolitical stakes is enough for the West, scared of escalation, to do everything to prevent conflict. In order to succeed, Putin must simply convince the West that today’s Russia is the “USSR 2.0”.
There are definitely a few risks in the Kremlin’s calculations. The Russian strategy of convincing the West that it is the reincarnation of the USSR seems to be the only effective approach. The aggressive policies of meddling in the internal affairs of the US (presidential elections of 2016 and 2020), or European countries such as the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic, have caused these states to make a U-turn on their relations with Moscow. It has taken the British a long time to learn their lesson regarding Russia, especially after its influence campaign during the Brexit referendum. Moscow is also believed to have been involved in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, both on British territory. As a result, London now regularly supports Ukraine with arms supplies to build its defence capabilities. The Czech Republic, in turn, went from being a lenient country towards Russia to its fervent opponent, with the state expelling most of the staff of the Russian embassy in April 2021. Prague’s defence minister, Jana Černochová, stated in January that the Czech Republic was ready to consider sending a small contingent to Ukraine if so requested by the authorities in Kyiv. Germany’s stance towards Russia is also slowly changing. In contrast to its Russlandversteher (Russia understander) approach before 2014, Berlin is increasingly recognising that Moscow is not a reliable partner but rather a threat to the security of its European neighbours.
Furthermore, Moscow is risking the chance that the West will stop being so kind, a trait viewed by the Russians as a weakness. Russia has to remember the American soldiers that killed many Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group during the 2018 Battle of Khasham in Syria. For Moscow, this was such a painful slap in the face that so far it has not admitted to this defeat.
The final risk, however, is that Washington is far more determined to achieve success than the Russians assume. Biden has been struggling not so much for re-election but to keep the Democrats in the White House. Restraining Russia may simply be easier to achieve than confronting China. What if the West one day recognises that Russia is not necessarily essential to containing China? This is exactly what the influential British think tank Chatham House argues in its May 2021 report “Myths and misconceptions in the debate on Russia. How they affect Western policy, and what can be done”.
The dismissal of German Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach is symbolic of the Kremlin’s success in influencing western leaders. During a visit to India, the now former vice admiral shared his pro-Russia outlook, saying that Ukraine would never regain the Crimean peninsula. He also stated that “it is easy to accord [Putin] the respect he wants, and which he also probably deserves”.
Agnieszka Bryc is an assistant professor at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. She is a former member of the board of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian foreign policy and Israeli security.