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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Tail Wagging the Kremlin Dog

Imagine a crank who tries to pass himself off as a 19th-century Russian baron. He grows sideburns, wears a long frock coat and carries a walking stick. Anyone who would run into such a character would surely sneer and mock him. Now, suppose that same crank attempted to treat passers-by as if they were his serfs. In that case, he would risk getting a beating, though perhaps a few beggars would indulge his fantasies in the hope of duping him out of his money.

Something of this sort now characterizes relations between Russia and several former Soviet republics. The foreign policy doctrine that guides the Kremlin is a preposterous mix of 19th-century Realpolitik and early 20th-century geopolitics. According to this view, every great power should have a collection of satellite countries in its portfolio. Under such an approach, NATO’s expansion is represented as an extension of the U.S. sphere of influence — to the detriment of Russia, of course.

In order to compensate for its growing inferiority complex, Russia has cobbled together the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which, by its title and constitutional principles, is a parody of NATO. For all this, the Kremlin is not in the least embarrassed by the fact that the CSTO is essentially a hodgepodge compilation of bilateral military agreements between Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia.

Nobody knows what vision of collective defense is to be implemented. It is hard to imagine Belarussian paratroopers defending the Tajik border. Moreover, the constitutions of a number of CSTO countries expressly prohibit sending troops outside their national territories. But the Kremlin’s myopic fixation on military matters and its pointless attempts to play a zero-sum game with the West has turned Russia into an object for manipulation by its junior partners.

The virtuoso of such manipulation is Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus’ economy can function only if Russia subsidizes energy prices and allocates “loans” that never get repaid. Yet, despite all this, Lukashenko manages to avoid implementing economic projects profitable to Russia — namely, a single currency. Whenever Russia applies pressure, he immediately starts yelling about Moscow’s “ingratitude,” claiming, among other things, that “10 million Belarussians protect Russia from NATO’s tanks.”

Worse, whenever Moscow persists in its demands, Lukashenko abrogates agreements on a whim. Thus, when Russia banned imports of Belarussian dairy products in an attempt to punish Lukashenko for accepting a $2 billion credit but not fulfilling his promise to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Lukashenko refused to attend a CSTO summit or join its collective agreement for the establishment of a rapid-response force.

Lukashenko avoids any major integration projects, even those in the military sphere. The most telling example is the creation of a joint air defense system. Both Russia and Belarus have been trying to realize this project for 10 years. Countless agreements have been reached on paper, yet no concrete actions have been taken. Lukashenko is simply dead set against subordinating even a small part of his army to Moscow.

Although the military threat from the West is illusory, the threat from Central Asia is real. In the event that the coalition of NATO forces in Afghanistan is defeated, a wave of Islamic extremism could easily submerge the Central Asian states and incite local civil wars. For Russia, this could mean, in the best case, tens of thousands of refugees or, in the worst case, the arrival of armed militias on its territory.

As a result, the Kremlin has a vital interest in NATO’s success in Afghanistan. Yet for the last four years, Russia has tried to hinder NATO in every possible way. In 2005, at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, then-President Vladimir Putin pressed for the final declaration to include a demand for withdrawal of U.S. bases from Central Asia. Kremlin strategists explained that they feared the United States would oust Russia from Central Asia. But, now that a U.S.-Russian agreement allows supply flights to Afghanistan to go through Russian airspace, it is clear that Moscow sought only to monopolize the military cargo transportation routes in order to gain leverage over Washington.

Soon after the U.S. military was allowed back into the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan after initially being kicked out, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov were sent to Bishkek in an effort to get something for the $500 million the Kremlin sent to Bishkek as an unofficial quid pro quo for expelling the Americans from Manas. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev seems to have said, “So, you are worried about the U.S. military presence in Central Asia and you want to confront it. Fine. The Americans can have one base in Kyrgyzstan and Russia can have two.”

But the Kremlin’s “military asset” — its second base in Kyrgyzstan — is strategic gibberish. It is located in the country’s lawless Osh region, with its appalling poverty, drug trafficking and ethnic tensions. But in a way, the lawlessness in Osh is a fitting setting for a Russian military base. The soldiers stationed there will be de facto hostages to the Kremlin’s bankrupt foreign policy.

Alexander Golts is the deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal. © Project Syndicate