The tension between the United States and Russia over post-Soviet Eurasia1 has significantly undermined the prospects for mutual trust and cooperation on global security issues between Washington and Moscow, as well as stunting the region’s development. Much of the rancor is rooted not in an inevitable clash of interests, however, but rather in the way the two governments conduct their policies in the region. Both U.S and Russian modi operandi, or at least the aspects that cause trouble, flow in large part from certain habits that have proven extremely hard to break.
Russian political elites can’t seem to help but treat bilateral relationships in the region of the former Soviet space differently from those it has with other countries; proximity, economic links and cultural commonalities from a shared Soviet and in many cases also pre-Soviet past all but make this inevitable. Nor is Russia unique in this respect. Any country’s immediate geographic neighborhood constitutes a major source of concern and opportunity. For example, the United States is deeply involved in law enforcement and counter-narcotics work in Mexico, and NAFTA is the most far-reaching trade deal in U.S. history. The European Union encourages countries in its immediate neighborhood to the east and south to adopt its norms and values, even if they are not ready for full EU membership.
Yet Russia’s engagement in its backyard is different. Its “special treatment” has at times evinced a lack of respect for the sovereign choices of post-Soviet Eurasian states. Moscow has occasionally used economic means to pressure neighbors with whom it has had political disagreements. The import ban on Georgian mineral water and wine, deportation of ethnic Georgians and suspension of visa-free entry of Georgian citizens into Russia in 2006–07 escalated tensions and placed the two countries on a collision course. Russia also allegedly intervened in Ukraine’s autumn 2004 presidential election, when, in addition to overtly supporting Viktor Yanukovych, it prematurely congratulated him just before his victory was annulled by the Ukrainian Supreme Court. There are also unproven but widely believed rumors concerning sub rosa Russian financial support for Yanukovych, reinforced by the overt work of Kremlin-connected spin doctors on his campaign.