Empire by Other Means: Russia’s Strategy for the 21st Century
Who needs territory? Russia uses soft power and information warfare to win control over former Soviet states
by Agnia Grigas
During the first phone call between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on 28 January, both sides agreed on the need to improve the US-Russian relationship. While it’s still uncertain how this new relationship will evolve, the conclusion of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing that “we’re not likely to ever be friends” is telling. More importantly, Tillerson noted that the Kremlin has “a geographic plan” and that it is “taking actions to implement that plan.”
Russia has much more than a simple territorial plan. In fact, in recent decades Moscow has actively pursued Putin’s long-term vision of reestablishing Russian power and influence in the former states of the Soviet Union and not shied away from redrawing borders and launching military campaigns.
Since the 2000 Russia has shown increasing tendency towards “reimperialization” of the post-Soviet space, especially in regards to the territories inhabited by ethnic Russians, as I argue in my book Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire. Moscow counts some 35 million Russians and Russian speakers abroad as compatriots concentrated in states such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Latvia and Estonia and has repeatedly demonstrated commitment to engage and protect these populations. In other words, broad reimperialization is the end-goal of Moscow’s policies, and Russian compatriots are among the means for Moscow achieving that end.
The concept of reimperialization should not be solely understood in the narrowest sense of the term. An empire does not simply result from acquisition of territories. Rather, reimperialization should be understood as a process allowing a dominant country to have indirect control over the sovereignty of other states.
To achieve this end, namely dominance of the post-Soviet region, Russia uses a consistent seven-stage trajectory of policies to reimperialize the former Soviet republics. This trajectory begins with soft power and cycles through humanitarian policies and compatriot policies, which create institutions, laws and policies to co-opt the Russian diaspora. This proceeds to information warfare; “passportization,” which hands out Russian citizenship and passports to compatriots abroad; calls for compatriot protection, which can eventually result in annexation of territories. Although various stages can occur simultaneously or in different order, the general trajectory involves cooptation of the Russian diaspora to achieve territorial expansion under the guise of compatriot or minority protection. All of this occurs under the veil of a blitz of information warfare.
Russia has already achieved various degrees of success with these policies across former Soviet republics, but possibly the most effective application is in Ukraine. Russia’s use of soft power instruments in Ukraine traces back to the early 1990s and gained considerable momentum after Ukraine’s attempts to turn westward with the Orange Revolution of 2004. For example, in October 2008, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, called on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to monitor the rights of Russians in Ukraine. He claimed that Ukraine used “restrictive measures without taking into account the interests of the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine.” However, no international human rights organizations had received personal complaints from ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. The timing of Moscow’s policies was related to Ukraine’s ambitions of moving closer to institutions like the EU and potentially NATO, which from Russia’s point of view could have been perceived as a security threat. If Kiev had succeeded, it would have not only removed Ukraine as a neutral buffer state, standing between Russia and the West, but would have also reduced Moscow’s sphere of influence in the region.
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