How Russian Foreign Policy Affects Political Stability in the Post-Soviet Space

To what extent is Russian foreign policy a source of political stability in the wider post-Soviet region?

It has been over 30 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however the ‘post-Soviet space’ remains a useful descriptor for a region in which many countries remain, for better or worse, interlinked. This space is bifurcated into two primary but not static blocs. One is made up of post-Soviet states that have clearly signalled a separation from Moscow, both socially and politically. These include the Baltic States which, since independence, have joined both the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) despite Russian opposition. Georgia and Ukraine, both of which have experienced instability caused or exacerbated by Russia, also look westwards for security, stability, and economic growth. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy stated that “[Ukraine is] more ready than most countries in the EU [to join NATO]”, although support from within NATO remains lukewarm at best (Weichert and Filtenborg, 2021, online). Additionally, Georgia is an aspirant NATO member and a comparatively large contributor to joint operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (NATO, 2014, online). On the other side, there is a bloc of post-Soviet states that continue to have strong ties to Moscow through collective economic and security organisations like the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In the other post-Soviet Caucasian states, relations are usually close but always characterised by a huge power imbalance. CSTO member Armenia and former member Azerbaijan recognise that the region is in Russia’s sphere of influence, but they cannot both look to Russia to solve their almost irreconcilable ethno-territorial conflict. As such, an increasingly wealthy Azerbaijan looks south towards its Turkic counterparts and further abroad for solutions whilst Armenia remains almost entirely dependent on Russia for economic and military support.

Illiberal and autocratic states are not necessarily politically unstable. Political stability could be defined as “the regularity of the flow of political exchanges”, in which regular exchanges do not violate societal norms and laws, and irregular exchanges do (Ake, 1975, p.271). Essentially, politically stable nations abide by constitutional, institutional, and political norms and experience predictably stable political life and exchanges, however often. Sweden is a stable liberal democracy whose populace respects the democratic process. As such, handovers of power are almost certain to occur without incident. Oman, although neither liberal nor a democracy, is also relatively politically stable, having been ruled by the Al-Busaidi dynasty since the mid-18th century with minimal disruption upon each succession. The post-Soviet space includes both liberal democracies and autocratic dictatorships, as well as states across the spectrum of stability (Global Economy, 2021, online). As Russian influence, and thus its potential to affect stability or instability, is lesser amongst the institutionally strong Baltic states (despite their sizable Russian minorities), this paper will instead focus on Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. This paper argues that Russian foreign policy in the wider post-Soviet space is a largely destabilising influence that contributes to the deterioration of political stability in most, but not all of its neighbours. 

Russia is no longer the premiere power in Eurasia, and is now sandwiched between the growing might of China and the economic superpower of the EU. The EU and EAEU compete over integration projects such as Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) with states such as Ukraine, Moldova, and Azerbaijan (Fischer et al, 2012, p.65). Despite some de facto annexations, it is unlikely that Russia seeks to rebuild its physical empire. Instead, it is more palatable to contemporary international sensibilities to rule via indirect control with socio-economic soft power used more often than hard power (Lo, 2014, p.102). This is easier in theory than in practice, especially as Chinese influence grows through its belt and road initiatives whilst sanctions and tumbling oil prices take their toll on the Russian economy. When soft power fails, Russia has shown it is willing to use force to maintain its sphere of influence in Europe and the Caucasus. This use of hard power has significantly increased political instability in its European post-Soviet neighbours, and any move to use it as a stepping stone towards creating a zone of Russian-dominated stability has never been further away.   

Belarus, often referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, has sustained a level of political stability since the collapse of the USSR under the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus, or ‘white Russia’, is logically a natural ally for Russia, and by most accounts it is. Its strategic location on the eastern edge of the North European Plain- the historical invasion route from Europe- indicates a measure of its importance to Moscow. As such, Russia ought to benefit from a politically stable state inhabiting this region that remains largely reliant on its heavily subsidised oil (Whitemore, 2021, online). This is mostly the case, with the added benefit that bereft of a functioning democracy the country is unlikely to change political tact and look westwards without a lengthy period of indicators and warnings (as long as Lukashenko remains on side). Belarus mostly fulfills what Moscow views as its obligations, although despite their closeness the relationship has not been without incident. Even prior to the ongoing political instability caused by Lukashenko’s persistent electoral fraud, Russian foreign policy never aimed to cement stability in its neighbouring nation. Although Russia would gain little from a union with Belarus, it seeks high levels of control over Minsk and works to prevent Belarusian autonomy or liaisons with the west. In an act of checkbook diplomacy, Vladimir Putin offered a $500M loan in return for Belarus’ recognition of the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to be delivered in Russian, not Belarusian, rubles (Silitski, 2009, online). This would only further cement Belarusian economic dependence on Russia. Moreover, the refined petroleum products that Belarus exports- a cornerstone of its economy- previously were shipped via Latvian and Lithuanian ports to gain a measure of economic independence (Whitmore, 2021, online). As the pro-democracy demonstrations intensified, a concerned Lukashenko finally gave in to Russian demands to export via Russian Baltic ports hammering another nail in the coffin to the prospect of a semi-independent Belarusian economy. There is no love lost between the Lukashenko and Putin administrations, however Russia has continually risked the possibility and eventual fruition of political instability by propping up the strict autocratic regime. It does this as it believes as long as Lukashenko is in power the country will remain in Russia’s domain and outside of the reach of the West (Lo, 2014, p.116).

Ukraine is another European post-Soviet state that many in Russia regard as an integral part of the Russian homeland rather than an independent nation with its own identity. Prior to 2015 Russia exerted significant influence in Ukraine- a largely politically stable if economically precarious power at the time- through the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych and by its status as Ukraine’s foremost trade partner (Kuzio, 2010, p.9). But the prospects of the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution and accompanying reduction in control galvanised Russia which embarked on an information operations campaign to show persecuted and attacked ethnic Russians in Luhansk, Donetsk, and Crimea (Kolstø, 2016, p.702) as a pretext for intervention. Russian involvement in Ukraine during a time of political instability has only served to exacerbate the crisis. The takeover of Crimea, of extreme importance to Russia due to its warm water port at Sevastopol, was bloodless, but was in direct violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances (Vasykenko, 2009, online). This violation and the implications towards Belarus and Kazakhstan only serve to heighten regional instability. Moreover, even despite Crimea’s bloodless pacification, enduring instability is almost certain as a water crisis looms after Kyiv dammed the North Crimean Canal and Moscow failed to prepare an alternative solution (Marques, 2021, online). Ukraine remains Russia’s third largest trading partner and a client of state-owned Gazprom, however the ongoing Russian-backed insurgency in the east serves to only destabilise the state (Lo, 2014, p.107). Whilst the Kremlin’s original intentions for the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics are unclear, as is the extent of its support to the original uprising, the continued Russian backing of the insurgents only prolongs a conflict which is scarcely dampened by official ceasefires. The ongoing warfare and continuous stream of casualties emboldens extremist elements of Ukrainian politics, further destabilising the region (Kolstø, 2016, p.712). Putin’s foreign policy in Ukraine has cornered Russia- to leave or assist Ukraine would betray Russian nationalists and give ground to an increasingly pro-western state on its border. Continuing to assist the insurgents costs resources and human life for little gain, but does stretch Russian control slightly further west and provides a small buffer zone and semi-deniable proxy force. Putin is unlikely to lose face and compromise with Ukraine to solve it, thereby risking extended regional instability for leverage and control over a newly pro-Western Ukrainian state.

Belarus has in the past flirted with stronger EU relations and Ukraine fervently aspires to NATO and EU memberships, but both have the benefit of sharing a land border with several EU and NATO states. The Caucasus, isolated from the rest of Europe by the Black Sea, southern Russia, and Anatolia can rely on no such geographic proximity. It is a region of small states, with only Azerbaijan just exceeding 10 million people, but many ethnic groups. Many of the conflicts present today stem from the Sovietisation of Transcaucasia and reemerged towards the waning days of the Soviet Union. Despite its small size, Georgia struggled to maintain its territorial integrity due to armed opposition from Abkhaz and Ossetian communities in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. A UN observer mission mostly kept the peace between Georgia and Abkhazia but after 16 years was ended in 1999 by Russia using its UN Security Council (UNSC) veto despite no other supporting votes (Harvey, 2009, p.43). This blow to political stability in the region was later compounded by the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 which saw the creation of two new supposedly sovereign entities that even Moscow’s allies largely refused to recognise (Lo, 2014, p.117). It is clear that for the last two decades Tbilisi has aimed to distance itself from Russia, however it remains in Russia’s sphere of interest. With the Baltic states in NATO, losing influence to the West in Ukraine, and Chinese encroachment in Central Asia, Moscow is likely loath to cede influence to external parties in its Caucasian underbelly. Since there is little the Kremlin could do to gain control over Georgia diplomatically with the current enmity, and even before the war was inevitably losing influence to the larger economies in the west, it is now against its interest to allow political stability in the region. A strong, unified Georgia would only be a staging point for Western influence in the Caucasus (Lo, 2014, p.119). Moscow values limited regional control via proxies and leverage rather than political stability in Tbilisi.

Georgia borders both the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and landlocked Armenia, both of which have been locked in a conflict over the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian soft power and influence goes further in both Armenia and Azerbaijan than Georgia. Armenia suffers from its small and declining population, modest economy, and landlocked geography, whereas Baku benefits from a Caspian coastline, booming population, and an economy fueled by vast oil reserves and pipelines (Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, 2016, online). Both, however, recognise Russian hegemony over the region and enjoy close relations to Moscow despite their own rivalry. The frozen Soviet conflict is a source of political instability in both states, however there is little incentive for Russia to work for a permanent solution. Armenia is a member of the EAEU and CSTO, but Russia’s close relations with Azerbaijan deter it from directly supporting the smaller state, however it does supply subsidised or free military materiel- even if it is older stock (Yavuz and Husenov, 2020, pp.106). Equally, whilst Azerbaijan is a member of neither (although formerly in CSTO), Russian maintains significant military and economic interests in the country. Russia stated to Azerbaijani President Aliyev that it ‘holds the key’ to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, although there is no sign it has used it yet (Yavuz and Husenov, 2020, pp.109-110). Maintaining the frozen conflict gives Russia influence over Azerbaijan by assuring it won’t directly aid Armenia, and makes Armenia even more reliant on Russia to supply its military despite its small budget and prop up the faltering Armenian economy. Although politically acquiescent to Russia, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan believes that Moscow benefits from the conflict to reduce Armenia to a “vassal state” which it doesn’t have to govern but can direct when it wants to. The current Russian-orchestrated truce is a “vague, open-ended, unclarified instrument to deepen Russian presence in the region”, leaving two thousand Russian troops in both states (Yavuz and Huseynov, 2020, p.113). Whilst regional political collapse would have negative consequences, the current instability, although not originating from the modern Russian state, is readily perpetuated by Moscow for its own purposes.

Whilst somewhat regulated political instability in the Caucasus in its western border can be accepted, Russia’s southern border in Central Asia covers thousands of miles from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan. This unpolicable border region contains transnational threats such as Islamist terrorism, human and narcotics trafficking networks, and both legal and illegal migration routes which have drawn the ire of Russian right wing nationalists (Schultz, 2021, online). Political instability here could have a drastically different effect on Russia than on its other borders. Most Central Asian borders were drawn by Soviet officials who attempted to delineate ethnic groups and tribes, many of which were nomadic, semi-nomadic or pastoral (Reeves, 2010, online). This has inevitably caused inter and intra-state conflict in what is one of the world’s most illiberal, non-democratic regions of the world. This is not to say that it is a necessarily undeveloped or unstable region, although there are elements of both present, but it does shape how Russia interacts with it. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, are four of the successors to the Soviet Union, however it is the fifth- Kazakhstan- that has grown to be the leading regional power. The region is not notable for its political stability, however despite, or perhaps because of government repression and unfair elections, no country has declined into failed state status (Kendzlor, 2013, online). Kazakhstan with its vast territory, mineral deposits, and growing wealth is seen as a key partner for Russia and is considered a reliable partner in the region (Lo, 2014, p.113). As with its neighbours it is essentially an autocracy with the previous president Nazarbaev ruling for almost three decades (Freedom House, 2021, online), during which he retained a close relationship with Moscow but not at the expense of Kazakh sovereignty. Nazarbaev’s voluntary transfer of power to close ally Tokayev occurred without incident, proving a measure of political stability. Russian foreign policy towards Kazakhstan is dominated by its integration into Russian-dominated organisations, namely CSTO, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the EAEU, however its largest trading partner is the EU and it is also a prominent member of the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Given their enormous mostly unmarked border, Russia benefits from Kazakhstani political stability, but once again it values influence and political area denial above almost all else. In response to Kazakh objections to EAEU expansion into security and immigration, Putin declared that Nazarbaev ruled “a territory that had never had a state before” as a thinly veiled threat denigrating the validity of the Kazakh-majority state (Lo, 2014, p.116). Russian foreign policy has not been a notable contributor to any political instability in Kazakhstan as it maintains what it views as a largely sufficient level of control via bilateral ties, the EAEU, and CSTO, even as it diversifies beyond economic interdependence (Belokrenitsky, 1994, p.1106). 

This is not the case elsewhere in the weaker states of Central Asia. Of lesser strategic importance and with small, remittance-reliant economies, clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over fertile land and water have been ignored despite Kyrgyz pleas (Helf, 2021, online). Although Russia values stability in the region, it is keen to maintain the status quo and thereby its unhindered rights of transit and open borders. Despite Chinese encroachment, Russian influence remains dominant, with Uzbek President Karimov acknowledging that “if the ruble and Russian economy continues to strengthen us, we would not be able to escape its influence” (Bhatty and Shahee, 2011, pp.57-57). Russia is unlikely to work to promote political stability in the region at the risk of alienating any of the smaller, personality-driven autocracies, and as such allows small-scale territorial conflict. But at the very least, Russia prevents undue political instability such as when it took a pro-Tajikistan stance in the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war to prevent a transnational Uzbek hegemony. Moreover, as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan spread to Kyrgyzstan, Russia provided military support to counter the insurgency (Bhatty and Shaheen, 2011, p.60). Furthermore, in 2002 Putin established an anti-terrorism rapid reaction force based out of Kyrgyzstan under the CIS’ collectiive security pact which links all post-Soviet Central Asia save Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (Akbarzadeh, 2004, p.700). But this is not all as it seems- this force was located 50km from the US military base in Kyrgyzstan in use as a staging post for the war in Afghanistan. Central Asia is seeing a convergence of Russian, Chinese, and American influence, and the Kremlin would likely use all of its soft and hard power to keep it within its own sphere of influence.

Russian foreign policy is not applied uniformly across the post-Soviet space, however it all contributes towards the same goal- to preserve and expand Moscow’s influence across its former Soviet republics and deny other parties (namely the West) from doing the same. It can be argued that it is from a defensive perspective and that maintaining this influence provides strategic buffers that allow more effective control over Russia’s vast unpolicable borders. Alternatively, and perhaps a more prominent view in the West and amongst some post-Soviet states, is that Putin’s Russia seeks to regain its status as a great power and is reluctant to view many former Soviet states as truly sovereign. This is reinforced by Putin’s rhetoric about the artificiality of the Kazakh state and his belief that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people…one nation in fact” (AP News, 2019, online). To expand and maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space and deny the West, Russian foreign policy has taken advantage of and exacerbated political instability as seen in Ukraine and Georgia. In Belarus it has risked instability by continuously tightening its economic grip on the country whilst propping up an increasingly unpopular autocrat, and it has worked to perpetuate political instability for its own geopolitical gain as seen with Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Russia’s more vulnerable and less populated southern flank, its foreign policy has worked to maintain the status quo except when responding to encroaching foreign influence. Russia values Central Asian political stability, but could feasibly risk this if its own influence and control of the region was at stake. As long as the political instability in the less developed Central Asian states does not spill over into Russian territory or unduly affect the established order, the Kremlin is content to play little active part in working towards a more politically stable future. Overall, Russian foreign policy has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the political stability of European post-Soviet states and a more minimal impact towards Central Asia. Political instability is not an end Russia seeks to achieve, but a means to disrupt the expansion of western influence and gain leverage over states which no longer respond to its soft power.

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