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The Fall of the Superpower Myth

With Malina Kaszuba on Russia’s superpower ambitions and the shrinking sphere of Russian political influences in the world talks Tadeusz Wróbel.

When Vladimir Putin took the power in Russia, he tried to gain the spheres of influences in the world, but he didn’t have enough means for global activity, and he was forced to concentrate on selected areas. Which regions of the world were most important to the Kremlin?

Surely these were – and still are – the states of the closest neighborhood, which were created after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The exception here is Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which long ago took their political direction onto the West, and they managed to integrate with the European Union and NATO, which made Moscow recognize them as lost. Still, however, Moscow made all the attempts, by means of different instruments, to make former USSR republics dependent on Russia. As one of its ways of impact, Moscow chose to provide shelter to the Russians living there, in order to strengthen their political power. Economic cooperation – including trade exchange and delivery of energy raw materials at preferential prices – turned out to be yet another instrument.

How much impact had these instruments of power on gaining influences?

Russia’s military cooperation, at least with some post-Soviet states, was of crucial significance in the context of sustaining their influences. In 1992 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the Collective Security Treaty (CST), which was a foundation for military cooperation within the frames of the Commonwealth of Independent States, was signed. In 2002, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan established the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which can be treated as a counterpart of NATO, because its mainly task was to be common defense. The signatories obliged themselves to help every attacked member state. There is however a difference – in practice, the organization, from the moment it was established, was the tool of the Russian foreign policy towards the remaining member states. The key position in the organization is held by Russia, which for years decided on the directions for its growth, and on the territories of some of the member states, Russia keeps their military bases and installations.

The CSTO was used, so far, only once – to suppress the riots in Kazakhstan in January 2022. It however remained passive, when in the fall of 2020, Azerbaijan was attacked by Nagorno-Karabakh controlled by Armenia.

Several weeks ago, there were again some Armenian-Azeri clashes. When the CSTO did not grant Armenia expected support, in the public space there could be heard a number of opinions questioning the idea of its membership in this organization and the grounds for allowing Russia to keep its military infrastructure on Armenian territory. The problems of the Russian army in Ukraine earlier forced Russia to withdraw their soldiers from Armenia. The role and significance of the CSTO are also being questioned by other member states. It’s quite significant that apart from Belarus, no CSTO members voted on the UN forum against the resolution condemning Russia for the annexation of the four oblasts of Eastern Ukraine. In fact, neither did other important partners of Moscow: China and India. Against resolution voted, next to Belarus, only North Korea and two other states, which clearly shows how Russia’s position in the world has weakened.

Considering the above, are Russia’s allies from the post-Soviet region prone to relax these relations?

Yes, we can actually see the tendency among Central Asian states to reach a sort of political autonomy. It stems from the belief that a weakening Russia focused on the war in Ukraine will not be able to execute their mutual obligations. This situation allows their leaders for a greater freedom in making political decisions, without considering Moscow’s reaction. During the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand and Central Asia-Russia in Astana they made Vladimir Putin realize that he was no longer treated with esteem and respect as he’d used to be. These leaders are searching for new partners to cooperate with, for example China, France or Turkey. However, at the same time, one must keep in mind that due to a diverse potential, the functioning capabilities of these states without any cooperation with Russia are different. One example of such dependency is Belarus, where the regime of President Aleksandr Lukashenko wouldn’t survive without the Russian economic support. On the other hand, Armenia – which until recently has had a close relationship with Russia – takes attempts to become close with France, using the existence in this country of a large and influential Armenian diaspora, as well as the tensions in the relationship between Paris and Ankara.

How the Caucasian countries, Azerbaijan and Georgia which do not belong to the CSTO, are responding to the fact Russia is getting weaker?

Georgia sustains its aspirations for integration with western structures, but does it carefully keeping in mind its five-day war experience in 2008. At that time Russia showed to their neighbors that it was ready to engage its armed forces if it considers their activity to be a threat for its interests. A signal, which indicates that Russian influences are getting weaker in Caucasus, was a military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. The fact that Russian Federation is not reaching its goals in Ukraine puts more courage in the hearts of Georgians and Azeri.

The weakening of Russia is a chance for the Moldavia on which Russia is putting pressure, using the separatists from Transnistria. Is it possible that Moldavia takes control of this region?

think that the failure of Russia in the conflict with Ukraine determines the fate of separatists not only from Transnistria, but also from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the quasi-states which exist only owing to Moscow’s protection. Surely, Georgia and Moldavia will take advantage of the situation to try and regain control over the breakaway regions.

Let’s talk about the places more geographically distant. In the recent weeks, Russia was forced to withdraw a significant part of the troops from Syria. What did Moscow want to achieve by participating in the civil war in this country?

The engagement in Syria was an element of the wider political plan. Vladimir Putin recognized the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest political tragedy in the 20th century, and when he came into power, his intention was to expand the influences of Russia in the world and strengthen Russia’s position as a power state. At that time, the prices of energy raw materials were getting higher, which allowed Putin to stabilize Russian economy and provide financial resources necessary for his aggressive foreign policy. The Middle East seemed a good start for building the net of influences, as it had been earlier one of the areas of American and Soviet rivalry, and he could find his allies there. In this context, the participation in the war in Syria was a good opportunity to rebuild the influences in this region of the world. Apart from that, it was of crucial military importance, being a sort of experimental military field for the Russian forces.

When the Kremlin first thought of sending troops to the Middle East?

In 2011, Russia quite negatively reacted to the social protests in the Middle East and North African states, called the Arab Spring. The Kremlin feared that their success could become a reason for further strengthening the already strong position of the Americans in the region. That’s why Moscow, among others, were against the military intervention of the West in Libya, where the civil war broke out. In my opinion, Putin himself was quite shocked with a devastating end of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and for that reason in a similar conflict in Syria, he decided to militarily support President Bashar al-Assad. With this move, Putin sent a message to the states of the region, who were not in favor of the USA, that Russia is a credible partner, capable of conducting military operations outside post-Soviet area.

What did the Kremlin achieve with their Syrian escapade?

In effect of Russia’s support, Syrian dictator survived, and is now obliged to Moscow. However other Arab countries now keep their distance. Probably one of the reasons for such attitude are close relations of Russia with Iran, which is in conflict with most of the Arab world. Other reason for this restraint of Middle East politicians is the fall of the myth of Russia as a power state, which is being confirmed by the incapacity of Russian forces in Ukraine.

Apart from the Middle East, Russia has also been active in Africa in the past years, where they delivered weapon and mercenaries. Do the Russian authorities plan in a long-term to expand their influences on this continent, just like China is doing now?

I think that, contrary to China, which build its influences in African states by means of economic cooperation – I mean here all sorts of investments – Russia has quite significantly limited capabilities in this aspect. My analysis of geostrategic directions of the Russian Federation revealed that Africa was not a region of particular interest, but it stems from the above limitations. Sharing the Wagner Group (a private military company, related to Russian intelligence service) as a form of support to the politicians friendly to Moscow is supposed to bring immediate profits from various shady deals, such as illegal gold or diamond extraction. However, such engagement does not translate into unequivocal political support for Russia, which was seen during voting on the already mentioned UN resolution, condemning illegal Russian referenda and annexations in Ukraine. Not a single African state voted against the resolution.

Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, claimed however that many states voted for the resolution or abstained from voting as a result of pressure, or even threats. The politician also blamed the West for using the “methods of diplomatic terror” at the UN.

The fact that the West was able to influence the standpoint of many third-world countries is another argument for the weakness of today’s Russia on the international arena. As it turned out, the country that is economically less and less productive, cannot offer its potential partners enough to risk their participation in the conflict with powerful rivals. On the other hand, voting in the UN revealed the power of the United States and their allies.

To what extent the influence of Russia in different parts of the world is weakened by current political activity of the United States?

Significant. President Joe Biden was clear to say that he has no intention of negotiating with Vladimir Putin, whom he publicly called a “pure thug,” “a murderous dictator” and “a war criminal.” In diplomacy, words sometimes express more than deeds. Biden’s words were de facto American assessment of Russian politics, and a signal of readiness to stand against the Kremlin. At present, the activity of Russia in various parts of the world is limited by the problems with the war in Ukraine, the course of which is affected by a powerful American military support for the attacked country. This conflict exhausts the Russian military and economic resources. Russia, with one erroneous political move, lost everything, which it had managed to gain on the international stage during Putin’s rule.

Americans however were concerned about Russian activity in Latin America. Are Moscow’s influences in this region of the world stable?

Probably, they are not. Initially, the aggression on Ukraine was supported by Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, but recently the leaders of the first two countries became more careful in what they declare. In the UN voting, only Nicaragua univocally pronounced for Moscow, but a behavior of its president, Daniel Ortega, can be treated as a sort of political folklore. The sustainability of every alliance is determined by the fact it’s advantageous to all parties involved. When a leading – so far – partner is clearly losing on significance, any serious politician should start questioning the very point of such alliance. Even more when their own countries are economically and politically unstable.

Russia may be forced to reconcile with the fact it has to limit its activity in Africa and Latin America, but in case of Arctica, the same wouldn’t be good for Russia?

No, it wouldn’t, since Arctica is for Russia as important as the post-Soviet area, because it’s about the access to the energy raw materials which are there. The question arises, however, whether due to political, economic and military weakening Russia will be able to compete with very strong players, vividly interested in this part of the world. The sanctions imposed on Russia cut it off from the newest technologies, and make its situation worsen every coming day.

Would Russia have a chance to regain influences that are currently being lost, if there was a change in power in the Kremlin?

I think that a political stagnation will come, because the rulers of Russia originating from special services are incapable of changing the power system. Putin himself, as long as he is seen by his entourage as a rationally functioning leader making sure that his people get financial benefits, he will remain intact. Besides, we cannot be sure that his removal would be a change for the better.


Malina Kaszuba, PhD, is the Dean of Social Sciences at Siedlce University of Natural Sciences and Humanities. She specializes in international security, specifically in foreign and security policy of the Russian Federation.

Tadeusz Wróbel

autor zdjęć: Wydział Nauk Społecznych Uniwersytetu Przyrodniczo - Hutniczego w Siedlcach

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