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Interview with Gerard Toal: Why Does Russia Invade Its Neighbors?

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Crossroads Asia

Interview with Gerard Toal: Why Does Russia Invade Its Neighbors?

“Putin is an experienced geopolitician now, though his ‘victories’ may not look so good in the long run.”

Interview with Gerard Toal: Why Does Russia Invade Its Neighbors?
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Service

Three years ago this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent ripples of concern through Kazakhstan. Amidst the fallout of Russia’s invasion of southern and eastern Ukraine, a Russian student queried Putin about whether there would be a “Ukrainian scenario” upon Nursultan Nazarbayev’s departure from the presidency. Rather than push back at the girl’s line of questioning, Putin intoned that Kazakhs “had never had statehood” prior to the Soviet Union’s demise — a less-than-subtle nod to the Russian nationalists who continue to view northern Kazakhstan, from Petropavl to Oskemen, as part of Russia proper.

Needless to say, Nazarbayev remains firmly ensconced in Astana, but concerns about Russian meddling, or worse, in northern Kazakhstan have only accelerated since 2014. Thankfully, for those watching the space, a new book from Virginia Tech Professor Gerard Toal provides one of the foremost examinations of Russia’s history within the post-Soviet “contested spaces” threading the region, found most especially in Ukraine and Georgia. (The title of the first chapter: “Why does Russia invade its neighbors?”) While Near Abroad focuses largely on Russia’s relations with Kyiv and Tbilisi — as well as its role in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbas — the concept of a flexible, revanchist Russian statehood traces the book, and includes multiple nods to the role northern Kazakhstan plays within the post-Soviet space.

The Diplomat spoke with Toal about Russia’s conceptions of post-Soviet statehood, Russia’s “Monroe Doctrine,” and how northern Kazakhstan fits within Moscow’s broader views on the contested spaces lining its borders:

From your vantage, which aspect of Russia’s relationship with the post-Soviet space — especially as it pertains to the contested spaces your book describes — remains the least understood, or least appreciated, among Western audiences?

Gerard Toal: Russia’s relationship with its neighbors has long been presented within the conventions of melodrama to, as you say, “Western audiences.” In melodrama, one has an innocent party that has been unjustly victimized by an evil figure or force. Thus, the Cold War was presented as a drama featuring an “evil empire” and “captive nations.” This narrative form carried over into the post-Cold War period. The Soviet Union was “dead” and the “nations” it had captured were “free at last.” But then along came a new leader saying the empire’s collapse was a “geopolitical catastrophe.”

This storyline is easy to grasp but it does not serve us well. The Soviet Union was the largest country in the world with over 100 distinct nationalities. Many former Soviet territories have profound legacies of violence and are contested by groups claiming to speak for one nation or the other. In the book I discuss post-Soviet space as a contested geopolitical field of five different spaces: a metropolitan center, a secessionist space within the metropolitan power (an Inner Abroad), a nationalizing state previously part of the empire (a Near Abroad), a region within the nationalizing state where a concentration of a non-core nation has ties to the metropolitan center (a Nearer Abroad), and a normative great power on the horizon developing ties to the nationalizing state (a Far Abroad). This geographical complexity, and the multiple actors that go along with it, remains the least appreciated aspect of post-Soviet space. We prefer melodramatic frames, an “empire versus freedom” plot.

How have the “particularly contentious” post-Soviet borders informed Russia’s relationship with the post-Soviet space?

GT: Borders, as we know, are social constructs. Some are long-standing whereas others are more recent. In the book, I argue that some within the Russian political class in the 1990s felt that Russia was a territorial victim of the Soviet collapse. Compared to the past, post-Soviet Russia was a truncated state, one that needed to “rise from its knees.” They remembered past borders, and a bigger state. The “accident” of Crimea’s allocation to Ukraine in 1954 rankled many (and some, like Solzhenitsyn, were old enough to remember the prior state of affairs). This sentiment, however, was subordinated to the interest of Russia-Ukraine friendship. The 1997 treaty between both countries recognized the inviolability of existing borders. But the memory of different borders remained.

The title of the first chapter is a question: “Why Does Russia Invade Its Neighbors?” Without spoiling the book for readers, is there an easy answer to this question?

Sure. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 because its leadership perceived the need to protect a threatened Russian vital interest at the time. Near Abroad provides a deeply contextualized and geographically grounded account of these two invasions. It is important to remember that Russia already had troops in the two regions where it sent in its armed forces: South Ossetia and Crimea (the Donbas is a different story). Indeed, Russia disputes that its actions were “invasions.” We need to understand their reasoning. The South Ossetia case is particularly interesting because there was an automaticity to Russia’s invasion. From what evidence is publicly available (and, of course, there are still things we do not know), Russian troops started moving through the Roki Tunnel in the early morning of August 8 without a direct order from Russia President Medvedev. Their colleagues in Tskhinval(i), part of the Russian peacekeeping force there, were under attack, and called for help. These rapid response units, stationed next to the Tunnel on Russian soil, had a pre-established order to go into South Ossetia if Georgia attacked. This they did and then waited for Putin and Medvedev to decide what to do next. In the book, I discuss how both invasions were framed as “rescue missions” to protect vulnerable populations from fascistic nationalism (Russia has its melodramatic scripts too!) The Crimean invasion was a state-led enterprise whereas the subversion of southeast Ukraine was a private-public partnership, with a deniability that wasn’t particularly plausible.

How has Moscow’s view of “stranded Russians” and “compatriots” within the post-Soviet space developed over the past quarter-century?

This is a very big question and I can’t do it justice here. The status of ethnic Russians and compatriots in the Near Abroad has always been a geopolitical football available to various players competing for power within the Russian state. Events in the Near Abroad help shape its saliency. It is important to recognize that the Russian state has long been officially opposed to Russian ethnonationalist visions of post-Soviet space. But there is nevertheless also a strong sense of a “responsibility to protect” too. In certain moments when geopolitical competition heats up, the status of so-called stranded Russians and compatriots becomes a potential lever for Russia to use in its dealing with other states in the so-called Near Abroad.

Relatedly, your book describes the earlier parameters of Russia’s “Monroe Doctrine” — can you briefly describe such an outlook, and how, or whether, it has shifted over the past quarter-century?

Yes, I wanted to document this as a structural and cultural feature of Russia’s relationship to post-Soviet space, and not an invention of Putin. As the “state-bearing nation” at the center of the Soviet Union, Russia always enjoyed a preponderance of power among the Soviet republics. When the Soviet Union collapsed, state security officials in Moscow had to adjust to the new reality of sovereign states. Russia still had asymmetric power and they started to re-define Russia’s role as exceptional in former Soviet space. In effect, this was the articulation of a desire for a Russian military sphere of influence.

This desire has remained, though clearly the Russian state has had to make considerable adjustments. The Baltic States entered NATO while Georgia and Ukraine sought a Membership Action Plan in Bucharest in April 2008. I discuss this in detail in the book as well as the limitations of the frame “sphere of influence.”

Turning to Central Asia, your book describes northern Kazakhstan as a “traditional Russian ethnoterritor[y]”  like Crimea, as well as an “imagined Russian geobody” alongside Crimea and Novorossiya — a conception Russian nationalists and officials alike have freely shared elsewhere. From your vantage, why has northern Kazakhstan thus far escaped becoming a contested space like Transnistria, Crimea, or eastern Ukraine? And are there any specific developments that would likely see northern Kazakhstan become the next contested space in the post-Soviet region?

This is a very good question. First, as noted above, the Russian state has never explicitly championed an ethnonationalist vision of Russia in the Near Abroad. Yet, it regularly articulates visions that many would consider quasi-imperial, notions of “the Russian world” as an exceptional sphere, for example. Also, the language of ethnicity appears in coded and not-so coded ways. Second, after August 2008, Putin stated that “Crimea is not a disputed territory.” Yet, in March 2014, that obviously changed. Borders thus are stable until circumstances change.

Northern Kazakhstan is another of Solzhenitsyn’s Russian ethnospaces. He wrote in 1990 that Kazakhstan’s “huge territory was stitched together by the communists in a completely haphazard fashion” (Rebuilding Russia, p. 12). Ethnonationalists implicitly hold the theory that territories are either natural or artificial. The successful historical predominance of certain ethnic groups in particular spaces renders these spaces natural ethnoterritories. States that are agglomerations of multiple distinct ethnoterritories, that have vast spaces that are poorly settled, are held to be artificial entities.

When does this matter? If we generalize from the post-Soviet experiences of Georgia and Ukraine, the Russian state is more likely to give voice to ethnoterritorial language when there is a prospect that the nationalizing state, under a new governing elite, seeks to join a rival military alliance. In other words, fear of geopolitical defection creates the circumstances for questioning a neighbor’s borders. Importantly, this sentiment is self-constructed, difficult to separate from domestic regime legitimacy needs, and not necessarily tethered to facts.

In 2014, Putin said that “Kazakhs had never had statehood” — a comment many found concerning, given Russia’s actions in Ukraine that year. Do such comments parallel Russian rhetoric in contested spaces elsewhere?

Yes, that was a particularly interesting exchange. Putin, as Hill and Gaddy point out in their biography of him, has a “history man” persona that is revealing of his worldview. In the book, I discuss Putin’s widely reported remarks underscoring the historical contingencies that lead to the creation of Ukraine. Now, academics document how states are contingent historical entities all the time. They also challenge their myths. When the President of Russia does it, however, that is another matter! Unlike us, he has armies at his command. His observations on history and geography send signals to different audiences. I suspect that is what he was doing here. Putin is an experienced geopolitician now, though his “victories” may not look so good in the long run.