The term “Near Abroad” was coined in the 1990s by a Russian foreign minister to describe the countries formerly controlled by the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. It is sometimes also called the “periphery” or various other terms, but “Near Abroad” is now the more common term in English-language literature, translated from the Russian phrase. About a decade ago, Vladimir Putin proclaimed the region to be Russia’s official “sphere of influence” along the lines of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine in Latin America. Obviously, given the situation in Crimea, he’s taking that pretty seriously.
This post attempts to provide a very basic, abbreviated background guide to the countries of the Near Abroad and their relationship with Russia since December 1991.
In 1989 and 1990, the USSR followed a new policy of non-intervention in the communist nations outside its borders, in Europe. In mid-1991, member republics of the Soviet Union itself began declaring independence. In August 1991, there was an attempted coup in Moscow by Soviet hardliners and unionists, which was put down by the Russian Socialist Federated Republic government under Boris Yeltsin (who was in charge of the Russian part of the USSR). Following the coup, all other republics declared independence by December 1991. That month, the Russian Socialist Federated Republic became the Russian Federation and the successor state to the USSR.
Some of the countries had experience with independence in the modern era and some had been under Russian domination for centuries. The only places granted independence from the USSR were the other “socialist republics” that were roughly at peer status with each other and Russia (in theory) under the Union. Regions with the Russian Federation itself were not given independence.
The First Chechen War as well as the economic depression and currency crisis that Russia faced in the 1990s helped end Yeltsin’s presidency (also being a raging alcoholic helped) and he quit in 1999. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB, became president and quickly outmaneuvered the elites who helped put him there. He thoroughly disrupted the remainder of the old Soviet system and society and began replacing it with his own neo-imperial model based on high energy prices, the Orthodox Church, conservative social values, a divine right to dominate the region, and single-party rule by a new party centered around him.
The Near Abroad: 4 Former Soviet/Imperial Russian Regions
The Near Abroad can be broken down into 3-4 regions. For this, I’ll use the 3 main regions and then the other region that is more an exception to most rules about the Near Abroad. Below is a map I created from the Wikipedia map of Russia to show the countries and arenas under discussion. Click to enlarge.
This is probably the most Russian-aligned area, in part because of not being directly exposed to the ethnic nationalism movements of 19th century Europe and because they went directly from Imperial control to Soviet control before becoming independent. Stalin actually forced a lot of Russian ethnic minorities to move from Russian-controlled areas of Eastern Europe and the Caucuses into inhospitable prison camps and settlements in Central Asia. This may in fact have forced even more dependency on Russian language and influence in the Post-Soviet era to keep everyone working together and able to cooperate on anything.
- Kyrgyzstan: Formerly the only country to host both U.S. and Russian military bases at the same time. Russia heavily pressured Kyrgyzstan to drop the U.S. air base, which helped cut off the U.S. in Afghanistan. Repeated revolutions/coups in past ten years and an attempted ethnic cleansing campaign in 2010 against ethnic Uzbeks have been a serious problem.
- Kazakhstan: Probably closest and strongest relationship to Russia of any Near Abroad countries. Russian space program and missile testing is still based in Kazakhstan. They are still under control of the same local Communist Party leader in power in December 1991 when they became the last to declare independence. Very repressive society & government. Predominantly Muslim nation. NATO approached them for membership in 2006 and got an initial agreement, but I doubt much will be happening. They expected to join Putin’s “Eurasian Union,” launching in 2015
- Tajikistan: Most notable for a huge civil war in the early 1990s where Russian ex-Soviet troops sat inside their military base the whole time until the war outside was over. Also closely tied to Afghan conflicts of the 1990s and early 2000s on the anti-Taliban side. They are now in talks to join the “Eurasian Union.”
- Uzbekistan: Single-party rule since 1994. Not many successes to report here.
- Turkmenistan: Muslim, Asian, bordering Iran, Afghanistan, etc. and Caspian Sea. They were ruled by a very
crazyidiosyncratic man — their former Communist republic-level leader under the USSR — until he died in 2006. The elites installed a modest reformer after his death. These reforms have largely been limited to rolling back the truly special policies of his predecessor, such as renaming days of the week after himself.
- Bonus country: Afghanistan. Previously the Soviets also occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to late 1980s, very unsuccessfully. The Russians have only interfered in the current war there as it relates to Kyrgyzstan.
Southern Caucasus Mountains
The Caucasus region is the mountainous bridge between Russia and the Middle East and was one of the earlier conquests of the Russian Empire but also one of the least cooperative areas to occupy.
- Armenia: No border with Russia, which probably helps relations. Enemies with Turkey and Azerbaijan (but building new ties to both). Democracy was ended in 1998 and large-scale protests were crushed in 2008 and 2011.
- Azerbaijan: Borders Russia, Georgia, and Iran. Ruled by father-son dictator combo since 1990s. Breakaway ethnic Armenians occupy 16% of the country in an independent puppet state that is not recognized by Russia or Armenia, but which is functionally part of Armenia. Russia brokered a 1994 peace deal to end the civil war in Azerbaijan, but the final settlement is unresolved.
- Georgia: Moderately democratic state aligned with US/NATO/EU until the past couple years, when Russian allies came to power to try to get Russia to ease off economic pressure following the 2008 war. Georgia borders Russia’s most violent regions in the North Caucasus (e.g. Chechnya, North Ossetia, Dagestan, and Ingushetia). Russian “peacekeepers” occupy and control puppet breakaway states in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The “peacekeepers” have been there since early 1990s. There was a second war in 2008, and Russia recently took steps to assert more direct control, even before the similar occupation of Crimea.
This area, apart from the Baltic, was (unsurprisingly) the most European of the non-Russian ex-Soviet Republics. They have also been divided about a million times between every major European power ever active in central and eastern Europe.
- Belarus: Former stronghold of anti-communist forces during the Russian Civil War. Eventually became a key Soviet area. Ruled by a strongman since 1994. He is generally very pro-Russian and anti-Western, opposing both independence from the USSR and Western-style reforms. He actually tried as early as 1994 to reverse independence and re-incorporate the country back into Russia.
- Ukraine: A country with long ties to as well as antipathy toward Russia, Ukraine is one of the largest of the ex-Soviet Republics in the Near Abroad. There is a mix of anti-Russian and pro-Russian areas but a widening sense of Ukrainian national identity.
- Moldova: partially occupied continuously by Russian ex-Soviet troops since independence. It borders Ukraine and is on the Black Sea but has no border with Russia
• Crimea: Heavily “Russified” peninsula of Ukraine, but less now than it was in 1991, with the return of the anti-Russian Crimean Tatars from their Soviet forced-resettlement areas.
• Sevastopol: A city on the Crimean peninsula but outside the “Crimea Region.” Home of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet and, historically, the site of much of the fighting in the 1850s during the region’s influential Crimean War. The city had special status within Ukraine in part to account for its Russian military presence, before Russia occupied the whole peninsula recently.
The Baltic Region
Just north of the Eastern European countries are 3 Westernized ex-Soviet countries and one officially Russian area.
- Kaliningrad Exclave: This is the only area on the Baltic that Russia kept for itself, away from Poland or Lithuania. It hosts part of the Russian Baltic Fleet and nuclear missile batteries now surrounded on all sides by the EU.
- Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania — these 3 countries have been “lost” to the EU and NATO, from Russia’s perspective. They were nearly always the most restive areas and had the longest experience with independence, between the collapse of Imperial Russia in 1917 and Soviet/Nazi occupation in World War II.
1990s: Retreat or Hold in Place?
As noted above, there are Russian troops in many of these “Near Abroad” countries and breakaway areas, even today. The Soviet Military (ground troops and ships) was hastily divided over the course of 1991 between the different new countries. As discussed previously on this blog, Russia made emergency evacuations of its ex-Soviet troops from several countries in 1992, but kept some troops in place to attempt (with mixed success) to mediate the explosive civil wars that were about to start. They also remained in some areas to protect ethnically Russian populations. 1992-1994 saw a number of very serious but rarely discussed civil wars in the former Soviet Union, while the world was busy dealing with Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Russian troops had zero training as peacekeepers because the Soviet Union had been ideologically opposed to the concept of peacekeeping and had refused to participate in any UN missions. In some cases, they were a welcome impartial party. In other cases, they were siding with one party to the conflict. By mid-1990s, Russia had pulled out of most locations in Central Asia but remain in place to this day in certain parts of the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. In addition to persistent non-resolutions of the early 90s conflicts, Russian nationalists refuse to accept that the good old days are gone and it’s time to come home.
The US, NATO, and EU have attempted to gain access to all the independent countries, with some successes and a lot of failures. Russia views this as “encirclement,” which makes sense when considered from their perspective. The US also tried to negotiate putting missile defense systems in former communist bloc countries in Eastern Europe — supposedly against Iran, but more likely against Russia. Russia viewed it as a direct follow-up to Bush’s withdrawal from the treaty banning anti-ballistic missile systems (the theory is that ABM systems negate retaliation capacity, which means the nuclear Mutually Assured Destruction theory falls and thus there is no longer any restraint against a First Strike).
The Interior Rebellions
Unlike the Soviet Republics, the little “republics” within the Russian Federation are essentially the equivalent of U.S. states, except with much less local control. A number of these republics, especially in the North Caucuses, attempted to declare independence from Russia in the early 1990s, leading to two brutal internal wars — between the Russian Armed Forces and the militants, known as the First & Second Chechen Wars — to crush them. This has influenced post-Soviet Russia’s global policy to become strongly:
- anti-Terrorism, wherever it occurs
- anti-ethnically-based self-determination, everywhere except for ethnically Russian populations living outside Russia
- anti-popular uprising, wherever it occurs
- anti-intervention against sovereign state decisions (when convenient)
- anti-intervention against state-sponsored ethnic/sectarian violence (except in sub-Saharan Africa, where they generally don’t care)
- pro-continuity of government (when convenient)
The curious thing about the history of the post-Soviet era of the ex-Soviet Republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia is that they have been wracked with state violence and sectarian mass murder as well as brutally repressive rule, yet they have received less attention on these points than nearly anywhere else in the world since 1990.
More than just their position in the Russian “sphere of influence,” I strongly suspect that this lack of attention is because it does not fit the Western liberal end-of-history narrative (which the Baltic States so perfectly inhabit). That narrative is as follows: The Soviet Union ended, everyone became a happy democracy with a free market once liberated from the backward tyranny of Russia, and integrated with the West. Turns out, only 3 of the countries did.
Reciprocal genocide, political civil wars, democratic failure, and transitions that never launched aren’t part of the preferred narrative. The 1990s were supposed to be a magical time everywhere except for Bosnia, Rwanda, and Congo. Not for all those other countries, too. But this determined ignorance is the only reason that recent developments are a surprise.