Russia’s Approach to Peacekeeping Resembles Neo-imperialism – Government Essay

Russia’s Approach to Peacekeeping Resembles Neo-imperialism – Government Essay
Russian peacekeeping operations have been described by McNeill as “…intervention disguised as peacekeeping missions” (1997). In the early nineties there was a

large body of writers arguing that post-Soviet Russian peacekeeping operations were aimed at expanding Russia and consolidating a powerbase throughout the region and subduing the newly independent states of the Transcausas and Central Asia. This essay examines this argument in relation to two case studies of Russian military intervention, Moldova and Tajikistan. The accusation by McNeill that Russian peacekeeping amounts to little more than self-interested military intervention is one that must be rejected upon further analysis of Russian operations as is demonstrated below. After examining the situation it becomes clear that Russia is pursuing a foreign policy that is far from unilateral and self-serving and no different from what any other state would do in a similar situation.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR resulted in a huge shift in the structure of international relations, with balance of power shifting from a bipolar system to a unipolar, or multipolar one depending on one’s point of view (Krauthammer 2002; Huntingdon 1999). This change in the global system and the demise of the USSR caused a large debate in the Russian Federation (RF) about what should constitute its new foreign policy in the post-Cold War era (Shakleina 1995: 83), both in relation to states of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and at a global level. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the severe economic crisis in Russia, it lost its place as a world superpower, having neither the military, economic or political strength to maintain such a position. The post-Cold War world has been characterized by ethnic tensions and regional conflicts, with civil and regional wars becoming the norm, for example the disintegration of Yugoslavia and conflict in Somalia (Nikitin 1996: 83). The greatest concern amongst policy makers is the stability and survival of the RF, threatened both internally and externally by ethnic conflicts. Rejecting the idea of having a concrete doctrine, the first Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation (RF) Kozyrez, instead claimed that Russia would adopt a flexible definition of its national interest, based on “reactions to specific situation[s]” (ibid.). During the early nineties policy makers involved in foreign policy were restricted in both numbers and outlooks, causing policy making to be a confused and fragmented area of the Russian government (Arbatov 1993: 8). Following the break-up of the USSR, there was no mechanism in place to deal with issues of collective security until 1996 when the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) agreed on guidelines, though this was after all the conflicts had started (Yermolaev 2000). Five points of justification for military action by Russia have been identified by Holoboff: it must contribute to maintaining Russia’s position as a great power; protect ethnic Russians; prevent the spread of instability; secure Russian geopolitical interests and finally that it coincides with nationalist opinion (1994: pp156-157). For all the rhetoric of Russia as aspiring to play the role of regional hegemon by the West, it is difficult to see how these foreign policy aims are any different to most other states. This view is backed up when examining the examples of Russian intervention/peacekeeping.

For the purposes of this essay the main focus will be upon the Yeltsin years, as it was during this era that all of the RF’s peacekeeping operations in “near abroad” were initiated. The term “near abroad” is used by Russian policy-makers to refer to the states of the FSU: the old Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) of Central Asia, the Baltic and the Transcaucas (Aldred & Smith 2000). The CIS was formed in 1991 in the final days of the Soviet Union, and was intended to be mainly an economic group, though there were also plans to develop it as a defense organization as well. However as with most groups of this nature it merely reflected existing power relationships, with Galeotti describing it as a “gigantic fig-leaf”, which Yeltsin could use or ignore as he chose (1995: 150). Critics of Western security policy could argue that in this respect it differs little from the US domination of NATO or the UN. The “near abroad” is not quite synonymous with the CIS as the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have so far refused to join. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 25 million ethnic Russians and 5 million Russian speakers found themselves living in the new states of the near abroad outside the boarders of the RF (Tolz 2001: 242). This diaspora has had a significant impact on Russian politics regarding the near abroad, especially in relation to peacekeeping operations (Kolsto, 1993: 198).

As with most political concepts, the term “peacekeeping” has many different interpretations and meanings, resulting in states adopting differing interpretations regarding what can be classed as “peacekeeping” operations. This is one of the main issues of difference between Russian foreign policy and Western foreign policy, both in theory and in execution. Three key differences between the Russian and Western conception of peacekeeping have been identified by Nikitin (1996: 92). Firstly Russia has acted under a reduced mandate in all operations in the FSU. Instead of operating through the UN, it has been enough to have discussed peacekeeping with both, or even one of the conflicting sides and then only to agree in principal, rather than a full plan. Secondly there is no commitment to using military forces from a neutral party with no interests at stake in the conflict so as to avoid accusations of impartiality or the use of “peacekeeping” as a tool for strategic gain (ibid.). The RF has believed that in several of conflicts detailed below that it is acting in a neutral position, as is not directly one of the two sides involved, however the many ties and linkages between the states of the FSU (Arbatov 1993: 7) make true neutrality impossible between any of the CIS states. Thirdly international observers should work separately, rather than alongside peacekeeping forces. Fourthly Nikitin argues that Russia is more concerned with peace-enforcement operations, rather than peacekeeping (1996: 92). These differences in policy help to account for some of the accusations of a neoimperialist agenda.

Intervention has a range of definitions, from economic and political coercion by peaceful means to full scale military involvement in another sovereign states’ affairs (Halverson 1994: 76). The idea that Russia operates totally without regard to world opinion and without caring about UN legitimacy is is shown to be false on examination of the evidence. In 1994 Yeltsin claimed that the norms and principals of international law would be the basis of Russia’s foreign policy (Nikitin 1996: 86). Yeltsin also sought UN recognition that the FSU be accepted as part of the Russian sphere of influence and that she should be granted “special powers as guarantor of peace and stability in the regions of the former Union” (Yeltsin cited in Galeotti 1995: 180). This attempted to give international legitimacy to Russia pursuing an adaptation of the Monroe Doctrine, giving it free reign in its “backyard”. However this rhetoric was greatly weakened by Russian actions in Eurasia contributing greatly to much of the instability (ibid.). In addition Holoboff argues that this was based on little more than Yeltsin trying to bolster public support for him by demonstrating that his sympathies lie with Russian’s in the near-abroad rather than with the West (1994: 170)

Since 1990 Russia has been involved in four main “peacekeeping” operations in the area of the FSU; Moldova (1992), Georgia/Abkhazia (1992-), Georgia/South Ossetia (1992-) and Tajikistan (1992-) (Fleitz 2002: 117) and Chechnya within the RF (1994-). These have all been conflicts of secession based on ethnic, rather than political differences. Many of these conflicts were based on tensions that were suppressed in the USSR as the communist government attempt to unite all the ethnic groups of Russia and the CIS region under the banner of the socialist state (Treninl 2000). Yet the Soviet Union was in many ways a continuation of the Tsarist state, and Russians continued to dominate, especially in the SSRs, where ethnic Russians and Russian speakers were privileged over local ethnic groups. The idea of the Soviet Union as the union of many different nationalities was also predominantly the idea of Russians alone and many non-Russians in the outlying republics had a strong resentment towards Moscow (Kolsto 1993: 198). Russian peacekeeping in these regions has differed greatly from Russian support for UN based missions, for example in Bosnia and Angola where Russian observers supported the UN missions (Yermolaev 2000). Reasons for Russia’s different approach to the near abroad are considered below.

Russian peacekeeping operations in the Transdniestria region of Moldova have been one of the most controversial, due to the lack of adherence to international standards in peacekeeping. Following the independence of Moldova from the USSR in 1990 there were fears amongst the Russian section of the population that Moldova would seek to reunite with Romania (OSCE 1994: 1). The major ethnic group in Moldova are the Romanians, accounting for 65% of the population, in comparison Russians account for only 13% (Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2004). In response to the adoption of Romanian as the official language protests developed in the Transdniestria area, resulting in the declaration of a “Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic” (OSCE 1994: 2). This area had a high level of communist sympathies and a low level of Romanians, with the result that the “elected” communist government was sympathetic to Moscow. Problems were caused by the Russian 14th Army, led by the hard-line conservative Major-General Lebed, openly siding with the secessionist opponents of the Moldovan government (Holoboff 1994: 163). The 14th Army also supplied weapons and training to civilians during the conflict, in contradiction of all peacekeeping norms (OSCE 1994: 4), though whether this was done officially or not is unknown. The conflict started in December 1991 and it was not until July 1992 that a peacekeeping mission was discussed amongst the CIS states. Originally it was agreed that a CIS peacekeeping taskforce consisting of troops from Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Russia and Bulgaria would be sent if the Moldovan government requested (OSCE 1994: 3). This initiative failed however as the other states backed out, leaving Moldova with little option but to accept the Russian plan of peacekeepers from Russia, Moldova and Transdniestria. Moldova eventually secured OSCE observation and assistance in 1994. However, even up the present day the Russian 14th Army remains in Transdniestria, more than 1000km from the Russian border (ibid.)

The former republics of Central Asia have been the other main hotspot of instability which the RF has become involved in peacekeeping operations and provides a useful comparison to operations in Moldova. Peacekeeping operations were started in Tajikistan in October 1993, following the bloodiest stage of the Civil War (Nikitin 1996: 91). The civil war started following the break-up of the Soviet Union and was between the Moscow backed communist government and a lose coalition of tribal and regional clans, some of them Islamic fundamentalists. Tajikistan’s location made it vulnerable to Islamic fundamentalism, a situation which has worried both the nearby authoritarian and largely secular former SSRs as well as Moscow (Vasilyev 1996: 69). Fears of a “domino effect” resulting from the Islamization of one of the former Republics are prevalent both in Moscow and in neighbouring states (Splidsboel-Hansen 1997: 1503; Holoboff 1994: 165). The most distinctive feature of Russian peacekeeping in Tajikistan has been its more multinational dimension and presence of a CIS mandate. In 1993 the heads of the CIS agreed to send a multinational peacekeeping force, consisting of military contingents from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajiks themselves (Nikitin 1996: 91). Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan later changed their minds, and Russia provided most of the troops eventually. Support from CIS states outside of the region was also non-existent; Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova all refused to send troops. Russian troops were used to seal the “transparent” Afghan border to prevent the movement of weapons and drugs and mujahidin. In 1994 a UN peacekeeping mission, UNMOT, was despatched to supervise the ceasefire and to stabilise the country (Taylor 2002). By the time of the UN’s involvement support from CIS states other than Russia amount to little more than a token effort (Shakleina 1995: 103)

The two above case studies arguably demonstrate little in the way of a neoimperialist foreign policy pursue by the RF under the guise of peacekeeping. Certainly Russian conceptions of peacekeeping have differed from traditionally accepted ones in many ways, however there is no strong evidence that Russia is embarking on a deliberately expansionist policy. Firstly in both cases there has been an eventual acceptance of the need to involve supranational bodies, in Moldova the OSCE and in Tajikistan the UN, which is hardly consistent with the idea of an expansionist state seeking to further its own regional gains. Russia also assisted with peacekeeping in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh somewhat reluctantly and at its own expense (Holoboff 1994: 168) In none of the cases has Russia acted unilaterally with no consultation, there has been no Afghanistan or Hungarian type operations in response to perceived security threats. Russia has found it hard to act multilaterally when states in the CIS refuse to send troops to backup their declarations. One of the main reasons for CIS states refusing to send troops is that it would be of no benefit to their state, for example this was the reason given by Turkmenistan for refusing to send troops to assist in Tajikistan (Brown 1996: 237). Russia has also had to step in when other states outside the region have refused assistance. The UN initially refused to become involved in the conflict in Abkhazia as conditions were “not ripe” (Ivanov 1996: 78) for UN involvement, as a result of the bloodshed Russia was forced to step in and provide the framework and troops for peacekeeping, again out her own pocket.

Secondly there appears to be a development of Russian policy as it becomes used to a new concept, for example the adoption of a CIS doctrine on peacekeeping. Peacekeeping formed only a very limited feature of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, instead preferring to see conflicts in a more black and white approach such as its support for national liberation movements, for example in Angola. Thirdly Russia’s approach to its neighbouring states seems more concerned with guarding its own borders and preserving its security. Refusing to allow places such as Tajikistan to become Islamic fundamentalist states represents a prudent, rather than expansionist foreign policy, especially when considering the large level of non-Russian Muslims in the Central Asian states and the destabilising effect this would have on Russia proper. In addition to these factors the RF has also not installed puppet regimes in either of these conflicts, or any of the other ones which it has been involved in, signifying a major break in policy from the days of the Soviet Union. In many ways the shedding of the outlying SSRs in Central Asia has been a benefit to the RF as she would no longer have to economically support them or use troops to resolve ethnic and tribal conflicts (Smith 1999: 49). Regardless of its long lineage, the new RF is less than 15 years old as a democratic state; as such it must be expected to take some time to develop its foreign policies. Certainly in light of recent US/UK actions in Iraq and Afghanistan it is hard to accuse the RF as being alone in pursuing an “imperialist” agenda. A more accurate description I would argue is that the RF is adopting a Monroe Doctrine-esque strategy and that policies in Central Asia and the Transcaucas are more readily comparable to US actions in Latin America than any of the “classic” European Empires such as the British or French.

Russia’s actions in Moldova and Tajikistan appear to have very limited geostrategic benefits for the RF, for example it would not be in Russia’s interests to have another Kaliningrad. It would be incorrect to view them as altruistic peace-orientated acts, though is peacekeeping ever without some form of hidden agenda? The Central Asian states are also dependent on Russia to a large extent to provide security for them. Following the dissolution of the Union, the Central Asian states wanted a common CIS defence force to provide security, removing the financial burden on their already weak economies (Brown 1995: 235). When this failed to happen they became dependent on Russia for training, equipment and enforcement in times of crisis (ibid.). This further weakens the case for the neoimperialist argument, making Russian activity seem more like an “empire by invitation” than imperial aggrandisement. CIS member states have also been unwilling to provide the military personal needed for peacekeeping operations, resulting in Russia bearing the burden unilaterally, despite CIS approval, for example in Tajikistan (Yermolaev 2000). It is also too early yet to see whether hostility will emerge at a governmental level to Russian involvement in Central Asia.

A criticism by Holoboff of Russia’s peacekeeping operations is that despite Russia’s official democratic status, Moscow has supported hard-line communist governments numerous times (1994: 165). This is implying that Russia has not changed her old ways, yet how many authoritarian and repressive governments has the West supported in favour of ones they believe will be more hostile? A good example is the estimated $3bn worth of aid the US has given to Pakistan, despite being ruled by an unelected military junta that came to power in a coup d’etat (Kux 2003). This aid is being given as a reward for Islamabad’s support for the US’ war on terror, even though Pakistan has provided a large level of support for Islamists in the past, has an active nuclear weapons programme, a poor human rights record and a hostile foreign policy towards India over the Kashmir region, which may yet degenerate into nuclear war. When compared to examples like this, Moscow’s realpolitik foreign policy of supporting corrupt or repressive regimes almost looks as if it is just following international norms. Since the “war on terror” was declared by the US, criticism of Russia for its activities in suppressing Islamist fundamentalism has been lessened, especially in Chechnya (Csongos 2001). Criticism against Russian actions in the region have subsided in recent years as Moscow has been transformed into an ally of the West in the “war against terror”. It is also likely that it has become apparent that the “old Russia” of the Cold War has disappeared, and that there is no longer the political will or capacity for future large scale conflicts with the West. Russia has even been criticised for not having an active enough presence in Transdniestria in order to prevent the proliferation of the large amount of ex-Soviet weapons located there (Warrick 2003).

Vasilyev concludes by claiming that Russia’s peacekeeping operations are not motivated by a “neo-imperial ambitions” but by a rational calculation of Russia’s security interests; without peace and stability on its borders Russia will find it difficult to achieve its full economic potential (1996: 80). I would support his conclusion with reference to the lack of unilateral action taken, the acceptance of outside mediation and support and the very real need for Russia to secure itself as evidence for the strength of this conclusion.


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