Guest Contributor: Aggrieved Russia is Endangering the World
Author: Almas Chukin
Mar 2, 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Caspian Policy Center.
What we see today in Ukraine, from a historical point of view, are the last convulsions of empire. In the post-soviet world, Russia had the option of leading by example or leading by force. It chose the latter, and today we see the consequences. Despite disputes, Europe has long chosen a path of compromise and collaboration. We in the former Soviet states could benefit from adapting aspects of this model.
President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has proven that it is a country that cannot move away from its concept of being a "great power," or, as it sometimes defines itself, “The Third Rome.” But such pride in past successes can become dangerous arrogance. President Vladimir Putin’s narrative that "we [Russia] can do it again" and "we've gotten up off our knees" have become a direct threat to everyone. Specifically, he has recently warned that if any country should interfere in his invasion of Ukraine, then:
Russia's response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have NEVER faced in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All the necessary decisions have been made in this regard. I hope that I will be heard.
Endless Russian public regrets about the collapse of the USSR have made us, in the other independent republics of the former Soviet Union, a little uncomfortable, but we have politely kept quiet. At the same time, we have often also remembered everything good about the former Soviet Union like plombir ice cream or Pioneer camps. We somehow haven’t worried about the USSR, and we have even celebrated the fall of the Soviet Union as a big holiday. Sometimes (actually quite often) we are reminded by Moscow of how wrongly Lenin and Stalin divided things up and that we weren't even countries at all, in the modern sense, prior to the Soviet Union.
In Europe, peace truly prevailed in 1975 with the Helsinki Accords. In Finland, 35 countries signed an agreement on the basic principle of the recognition of the inviolability of established borders. The post-World War II borders were fixed. Therefore, part of what had been Prussia became Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia, Transcarpathia became part of Ukraine, Transylvania became Romania, the Sudetenland was returned to what was then Czechoslovakia, and Alsace was confirmed as a part of France. There are hardly any two neighboring countries in Europe that do not have historical disputes with each other. So leaders had the choice either to present conflicting claims till the end of eternity or to agree and close the subject and live in peace. In Helsinki, Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Gerald Ford (and the leaders of 33 other countries) chose inviolable borders. Even during the tensest moments of the Cold War, Europe remained at peace, and that peace continued until the fall of Yugoslavia.
Generally, we in the former Soviet Socialist Republics seemed to part with the USSR peacefully in 1991 and were able to live amicably and prosperously, establishing new international relations and trading with each other. Russia is a resource-rich country. It has the largest population in Europe, equivalent to about one-third the population of the entire European Union. Geographically, Russia is immense, the largest country in the world. Within Russia, there are many intellectuals and academics. For those in the other republics, it was possible to to increase prosperity by cooperating with such a rich neighbor as Russia. Oil prices began to skyrocket in 2004, Russia's GDP doubled, and Russia’s quality of life increased. Despite the 2009-2010 world economic crisis, business was booming until 2014. This economic growth occurred despite the fact that during the first months of Medvedev's presidency in 2008, the conflict in South Ossetia happened and Russia invaded Georgia. And we well remember what happened in 2014 with Putin back in power when Russia seized Crimea and began its open support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Under President Yeltsin, Russia was a respected country - a member of the G8 (now the G7), an informal club of the world's top countries, and a member of the G20, an expanded club of highly developed countries. President Medvedev signed START-3 with U.S. President Obama, brought Russia into the WTO, built Skolkovo, hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics, and did many other positive things. Despite Russia’s intervention in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the situation between Russia and the international community remained relatively normal.
But everything was ruined by Moscow’s increasingly odious geopolitics and great-power pretensions. In my nation, Kazakhstan, we are worried about various events in the world, but we do not interfere, because we cannot and have no desire to do so. What, after all, are our grounds for interfering in the internal conflicts of other countries? But the Russian Federation considers the events in Syria, Iraq, and many other countries in the world to be of vital importance and require Russian intervention. China is also a major country and a member of the UN Security Council, yet it rarely intervenes in what is happening beyond its borders.
A routine concern of Moscow is the United States’ interventions in foreign countries. Washington certainly does intervene in foreign countries but with one caveat: the United States usually has conflicts with only the most unpleasant of other countries. Well, let them interfere. We can criticize them at the UN and express our concerns. Maybe it is time for Moscow to get rid of the phantom pains of the lost USSR once and for all and to stop playing games with the United States, Europe, and others, and to get busy with enhancing its own economy and finding new ways to become a respected world citizen instead of nursing – and acting on! – its grievances from the past. The Russian Federation accounts for 3 percent of the world economy; the group of developed countries represents 60 percent. While Russia has been defending Syria’s President Assad since 2015, the average income of a citizen of China has surpassed that of Kazakhstan and will soon surpass that of Russia, as well. China has built its own space station, and recently landed on the moon, among many other world-class technical developments. But in Syria, national growth and success are nowhere to be seen.
First Russia was kicked out of the G7, then it stopped going to the G20, and now Russia is threatening to turn into North Korea. I'm not even talking about the economy, that's a separate issue.
And how good it could have been in a friendly Commonwealth of Independent States with Russia, not as an "elder brother," but as a leader, to lead the way in intelligent reforms, to open new markets and international cooperation, and, with kind words and authority, to reconcile other countries among themselves, if asked to do so. Without weapons and pressure, but by good example. The EU wanted to open its doors to Ukraine. We in the former Soviet republics would only benefit from that, because we in Kazakhstan readily sell our goods to Ukraine. But no, the old "barricade" psychology prevailed in Russia: "If you are not with us, then you are against us." We need to learn from Europe. Britain came late to the EU and was accepted. Then they decided to leave the EU and were allowed to do so, without sanctions and embargoes, but, on the contrary, with a comprehensive agreement on future unlimited good relations.
Almas Chukin is Managing Partner of Visor Kazakhstan, a large private equity investment firm. Prior to joining the private sector in 1997 he served in the Ministry of Economy and Finance and as chargé d’affaires of the Kyrgyzstan Embassy in Washington. He previously was an associate professor of political economy at Kyrgyz State University after undergraduate and post-graduate studies at Moscow State University.
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