Putin's Neighborhood

Some in the West may still be wondering whether there is really any larger meaning to the campaign being waged by President Vladimir Putin against the country's largest private businessman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. If so, they need only consult the would-be independent leaders of more than a half-dozen nations bordering Russia, for whom the consolidation of KGB-style authoritarianism in Moscow this fall has been matched with an acceleration of Putin's effort to rebuild an empire.

While U.S. and European leaders have been preoccupied with Iraq and the Middle East, a series of bald imperialist initiatives by Putin has passed nearly unchallenged during the past two months. The chronology begins on Sept. 19 in Yalta, where the Russian president pressured the leaders of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan into signing a far-reaching economic treaty providing for a "single economic space." This would require the three former Soviet republics to cede sovereignty to a supranational body dominated by Russia. None of the three countries wants the union -- but all are dependent on Russia either for the supply or the transport of oil and gas, allowing Putin to force their acquiescence.

On Sept. 29, Russian naval forces, with no warning, began building a causeway into the Kerch Strait north of the Black Sea in an attempt to seize control of an island and the adjacent shipping channel from Ukraine. Construction was suspended after Ukraine rushed reinforcements to the area, but Moscow achieved its aim: Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has had to agree to "negotiations" over control of the strategic waterway and adjacent Sea of Azov, where new reserves of oil may be located.

On Oct. 5 came the farce of the Russian-sponsored "elections" in Chechnya, a Muslim republic whose attempt at self-rule was crushed by a Putin-ordered military invasion three years ago. Having driven all significant challengers from the race, Moscow gloried in the ratification of its unpopular puppet regime. On Oct. 9, Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov appeared at a press conference and boldly expanded what Russians know as the "Putin doctrine": Moscow, they said, reserves the right to settle any disputes in its neighboring states with military force, and to maintain oil and gas pipelines running from Central Asia and the Caucasus to the West, "even," said Putin, "those parts of the system that are beyond Russia's borders."

Everywhere in the sprawling borderlands between Russia and the Central European states now joining NATO and the European Union, weak and isolated governments are under new pressure. Belarus has been given a target date of Jan. 1, 2005, for adopting the Russian ruble as its currency, part of a Putin-sponsored plan to reincorporate the country into a new union ruled from the Kremlin. Pavel Borodin, Putin's appointee as secretary of the nascent super-state, told the Financial Times in an interview last month that his boss would probably move from the Russian presidency to the presidency of the union in 2008, lead its expansion into other countries and consolidate "a post-Soviet space."

De facto Russian annexation of two provinces of Georgia, meanwhile, is proceeding, as Russian troops remain at their bases in violation of international treaties. Flouting the latest of several agreements with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russian troops are also remaining on station in Moldova. There, Putin is demanding that the elected government scrap its constitution and agree to a "federal" union with the breakaway province of Transdnester, which is ruled by an ethnic Russian criminal mafia backed by Moscow. If Moldova yields, Russia will have a de facto veto over its government and foreign policy in perpetuity.

"The Putin doctrine is dangerous for democracy in Russia itself, but it's also dangerous for the independence of the countries that surround Russia," says Iurie Rosca, the president of Moldova's Christian Democratic People's Party. "We are all suffering from the new Russian policy of imperial expansion."

Rosca and two other Moldovan politicians were in Washington last week in a forlorn and largely futile attempt to solicit support from the United States for their country's independence. Though they found some sympathy from Democratic staff on Capitol Hill, Rosca said there was none at the State Department, which has endorsed Putin's "federal" takeover. That shouldn't have been surprising; the Bush administration also has been lukewarm, at best, about the sporadic attempts of Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia to fend off Moscow by linking up with Western institutions such as NATO. As in the case of Khodorkovsky, Bush's aides are quick to say they don't like what Putin is up to in his neighborhood. They'll also concede that, at least for now, they aren't prepared to do more than talk about it.

Jackson Diehl is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.