Mustafa Fahs

Russia and the Holes in Its Soviet Space

Empires often dress themselves in lavish garments whose burdens they, at some point, cannot bear, failing to find a way to pay the steep costs required to expand, maintain or defend them. These empires lose their minds when those garments are ripped apart, behaving as though they are totally exposed geopolitically. Thus, as they are rising or retrieving a previous role, they pay no mind to geographic or socio-demographic factors when they are afforded the opportunity to impose the furthering of their interests. They do not hesitate to resort to force or use historical justifications to impose their will near or far under the pretext of protecting their strategic political, security, economic or cultural interests.

Russia lost two dominions 30 years ago. The first dominion, the Soviet Union, is private, and the second, the socialist camp, is public. Losing both left a massive hole in its public sphere, and they could puncture that sphere further, leaving scar tissue not only in the Soviet sphere it had but even in its Russian national sphere, having ramifications on the unity of the federal state’s territory. Two weeks ago, President Putin announced what resembles the Ridda Wars, a heated battle over what remains of his country’s Soviet sphere, which is now being punctured heavily and could change geopolitics in Russia’s backyard. Putin said it unequivocally; Russia will not allow for color revolutions in former Soviet republics.

From the colored revolutions to the Arab Spring uprisings, the Kremlin has taken actions to prevent protests in Russia. This distant pursuit to countries like Syria and then to Libya, and the preparation to ward off the threat stemming from Russia’s European neighbors, Ukraine and Belarus. Then came the unexpected shock from Kazakhstan, the strongest and most stable country of the Central Asian republic. This crisis differs from those that preceded it, as the Kazakhstan crisis threatens the stability of the Islamic sphere in southern Russia and may stir sectarian tensions, especially since this region had fostered Asian jihad movements was home to a corridor that extremist groups could use to move between the Ferghana Valley to Afghanistan.

Moscow is facing a difficult challenge then. It wants to retrieve Kiev, the mother of the Russian cities, where the nucleus of the first Russian Orthodox empire took shape, and to impose stability in the Turkish space, which builds China’s appetite for more economic and political penetration of its capitals. Beijing and Ankara also have geographic, ideological and political justifications for safeguarding their geopolitical influence in Central Asia, and that makes Moscow even more concerned.

The balance of power between Russia and the West on the one hand and Russia and China on the other leaves Moscow with little room to make challenges unless the Russian leadership considers this crisis existential. It managed to keep China far from the crisis in Kazakhstan by utilizing the Collective Security Treaty Organization and marginalizing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, in Ukraine, it must intervene directly to defend its national borders and its historical heritage before Ukraine positions itself in the Western orbit once and for all.

In the stage of Russian ascension and restoration of its position in the world, Vladimir Putin laid the groundwork for the idea that Russia would burst back into what had been known as the Soviet sphere and is now known as the Russian sphere. Meanwhile, the West calls it the former Soviet sphere, one Moscow cannot legitimately, neither in regional nor international terms, impose its control over. It can only do so through the use of force, and this is the reality it is currently contending with in its negotiations with Washington over Ukraine. Imposing terms on how NATO operates in this space is impossible. It is also difficult to go back and meddle with the political and economic choices of the peoples of these countries the way it had done previously in Budapest, Prague, and then Syria, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

What could be called black holes in its Soviet space did not emerge after a particular moment during a color revolution or popular uprising. Indeed, it is the product of the accumulation of dozens of decades of Russian colonial policy, sometimes under Tsarist imperial pretexts and at others under ideological socialist pretexts. That widening social rifts and leading to the rise of nationalist and religious tensions between the Russians and the peoples of those countries, who suffered from the policy of undermining national and religious identities and engineering demographic changes. Hostility to Russians thus gained strength, and it was manifested in violence at times and, at others, the adoption of firmly anti-Russian political positions, as seen in Georgia, Ukraine and even Belarus, all of which so because of the specter of persecution, forced deportation, and so on.