The riots in Kazakhstan that brought down its government on Wednesday are just the latest sign of tension under the muddy crust of ice into which the core post-Soviet authoritarian regimes have congealed. The same crust that broke in Ukraine in 2014 cracked, but held in Belarus in 2020 and grew so thick in Russia last year that it started to look like permafrost.
That is a deceptive look. The predatory, repressive regimes in these countries are not permanent — not just because they frustrate the ambitions of their smartest subjects, but also because they depend heavily on formerly charismatic personalities that no longer inspire.
“Grandfather, Go” is a popular slogan among Kazakhstani protesters. They mean 81-year-old ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who left the formal job to a successor in 2019, but has held on to the levers of power. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are “grandfathers,” too. They have held on thanks to a combination of repression and inertia, but their resource is finite.
It is probably pointless to tell Western leaders to take a longer view as they ponder Putin’s most recent security demands, which have led to multi-track talks aimed primarily at stalling a possible Russian re-invasion of Ukraine. They are primarily interested in keeping Putin from starting, and winning, any more wars in the coming months. The violent breaking of ice across the ex-Soviet core — a debacle in the original meaning of the word — looks distant, and perhaps they do not think they will be around for it.
Yet even if immediate concerns have been driving Western reactions to Putin’s open blackmail, an ice-free future is worth keeping in mind, if only to avoid the kind of strategic mistakes made 30 years ago, when the Soviet Union cracked and its bits drifted apart like floes.
Back then, it was easy to treat the post-Soviet world as a bunch of losers — decades of Communist central planning had left it in economic ruins. There seemed no point in rewarding Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians or Kazakhstanis for getting rid of communism, no need for a Marshall Plan of any kind.
Between 1992 and 2019, the World Bank said, Russia received about US$620 billion in foreign direct investment — about half of what Central Europe and the Baltics got, although their combined population is only about 60 percent of Russia’s. Chile, with a population of 19 million, got almost half of Russia’s FDI inflow; Ukraine and Kazakhstan together received about as much as Turkey alone.
There were no advantageous trade deals — Ukraine was only accepted into the WTO in 2008, seven years after still-communist China; Russia in 2012; Kazakhstan in 2015. No visa-free travel for post-Soviet citizens, no debt write-offs on the kind of easy terms showered on West Germany in its early years.
Little consideration was given to Russia’s pleas of NATO non-expansion, and no effort was made to draw Russia into the organization. Even in the early years of Putin’s rule, it would have been feasible. Ukraine and Kazakhstan gave up their nuclear weapons in exchange for weak security guarantees which, in Ukraine’s case, are already known to have been worthless.
Inclusion in Western institutions has been largely symbolic, no matter what post-Soviet countries have done. Membership in what was briefly the Group of Eight, the peak of its success as a friend of the West, brought Russia no benefits worth mentioning — unlike, arguably, participation in the G20, which is not Western-dominated.
Even Ukraine, which ended up invaded by Russia for forming a “deep and comprehensive trade area” with the EU in 2014, barely noticed the economic difference from the deal. Its trade with the EU reached 39.7 billion euros (US$45.1 billion) in 2020, compared with 36.8 billion euros in 2013. Its exports to the EU barely budged at 23 billion euros, after hitting a 24.2 billion euro high in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.
The treatment post-Soviet nations received at the hands of the West in the past 30 years has been dictated by a deep distrust — of Russia’s military might, which needed to be contained with NATO expansion, of the entire post-Soviet space as a source of unwanted migrants, of post-Soviet businesses as potential corruption exporters and state-subsidy abusers.
As a result, of the 15 ex-Soviet nations, only the Baltic states, included in the USSR by force and never quite culturally integrated, are firmly in the Western fold. Russia, along with Central Asia and China, have kept the others in a twilight zone. Even the freest of them, Ukraine, is in a transitional state that could end up in any geopolitical camp or basket.
As such, they are a constant source of instability. They are huge, strategically located, resource-rich chunks of territory from which all kinds of threats — economic, military, terrorist — can emanate. Putin, who runs the largest of them all and has the military power to move borders, is trying to turn this threat potential into a bargaining chip. So far, he has been successful in getting Western leaders to pay attention, especially the US.
Domestically and internationally, Putin has long given up on cooperation. He feels, not unreasonably, that Russia as a global power has not benefited from being cooperative. Instead, he has bet on coercion.
That makes any negotiated solutions between the US and Russia — or more broadly the West and Russia — unlikely while Putin is still around. After his departure, though, a window of opportunity will re-open — not just for a different relationship between the West and Russia, but for a new deal for the entire post-Soviet gray area.
That prospect ought to dictate the Western approach to its current negotiations with Russia. Putin’s proposals for institutionalizing a new balance of forces are so clearly aspirational that reading them even as a starting point for serious negotiations is hard — he cannot really believe that NATO would pull back to its pre-1997 shape in the 2020s.
So the West has an opportunity to respond in kind, talking, in a way, over Putin’s head with future Russian and post-Soviet leaders to lay out some aspirations of its own.
What if Europe offered Russia and the post-Soviet core the prospect of full economic, and potentially political, integration with the EU — something Putin once sought and for which he was ridiculed — and NATO offered Russia a fast track to membership, along with other post-Soviet states?
The proposals could be conditional on steps such as holding elections that would be recognized as free and fair by independent international observers, and resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict via arbitration, the way Croatia and Slovenia did with their territorial dispute as a condition for Croatia’s EU membership.
Such conditions would be impossible for Putin to accept. He no longer believes in any kind of impartial intermediation. However, the pie-in-the-sky proposals would outline an attractive scenario for Putin’s successors, a bridge from confrontation to cooperation from which Russia could benefit. The conditions would also present the Russian people with an alternative way of thinking about the West. Even if they have no say in the Kremlin’s policy today, that might not always be the case.
Instead of mere NATO non-expansion, Russia and its neighbors could be offered integration and inclusion, free travel, and open markets in exchange for alignment with clear rules such as inviolable borders, and values such as the right to elect leaders. Demands to be left alone could be countered with proposals of a full alliance.
That approach would require the West’s willingness to consider such an alliance as an alternative to containment, deterrence and a range of confrontational concepts that have returned in response to Putin’s ressentiment-based anti-Western crusade.
It would require a more powerful imagination than even that displayed by French President Emmanuel Macron, arguably the most visionary of Western leaders, with his ideas for integrating Russia into a new European security system. In a way, it would require a suspension of disbelief that turned out to be impossible even in the heady 1990s.
There is a powerful reason to attempt this approach now. Without an aspirational goal — one akin to what the current EU was in the post-World War II years — no intermediate system of agreements and ad hoc arrangements can be stable even after Putin.
When confrontation is the premise, self-interest always takes precedence, and deals and promises are not be honored, not even those that are in the realm of the possible today — the ones that involve deconfliction and suspension of military plans.
Ice is fundamentally fragile, no matter how thick it might look today. The West must be prepared, on a strategic level, to deal differently with its unfinished post-Soviet business than it did in the past three decades. It should not assume an absence of goodwill on the Russian or, more generally, the post-Soviet side. Post-Putin, much sooner than in another 30 years, goodwill might not be a given.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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