Who's Winning Eastern Europe's Great Game?
The US is withdrawing from the former Soviet space; the European Union struggles to be taken seriously there. Does that leave Russia free to strengthen its influence in the countries around its borders? Not necessarily, for the situation in the region is complex.
Hillary Clinton toured the Caucasus recently to reassure Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan that Washington had not abandoned them in its quest to 'reset' relations with Russia. Nevertheless, the predominant feeling in those countries is that the US is a lot less interested and engaged than it had been during the presidencies of George W Bush and Bill Clinton. Similarly, many Central Asians feel that the Obama administration pays little attention to them, unless they can serve as launch pads for planes destined for Afghanistan. NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is no longer on the cards.
While much of America's attention has moved elsewhere, the European Union hardly has a foothold in the region.
The EU's neighbourhood policy has proved rather ineffective, and the 2009 'Eastern partnership' has not yet had time to make much of a difference. Ukraine, still smarting that the EU has never offered the prospect of membership, appears to be turning towards Russia. Moldova looks keener than ever to get closer to the EU - with few people in Brussels and other capitals taking notice. The EU's Central Asia strategy has lacked political backing and consistency. In the Caucasus and Central Asia, the EU is a rather new player and its traditional approach of exporting norms and values as the basis for bilateral relations has not been received well. The fact that the EU's foreign policy machinery is currently in bureaucratic paralysis does not help.
In theory, US neglect and European weakness could leave Russia free to consolidate what President Medvedev likes to refer to as a 'sphere of privileged interests'. Russia is certainly trying. But success has been patchy at best.
Although by far the most populous and prosperous country in the region, Russia does not necessarily have the means to project power into the neighbourhood. Its tools looked more formidable before they were actually used. Now some of them have turned out to be blunt.
Russia's use of military force in Georgia last year backfired when even Moscow's staunchest allies scrambled to become less reliant on their dangerous-looking big neighbour: Belarus turned to the EU, Armenia started talking to Turkey and not a single one of the former Soviet countries has followed Moscow in recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia has repeatedly used trade embargoes and other economic means to put pressure on its neighbours, in particular smaller ones where Russia's own business interests are limited, such as Georgia or Latvia. But there is arguably not a single instance where the use of economic sanctions has got Russia what it wanted. Businesses in the countries affected have reinforced their efforts to find alternative markets and sources of investments, making them less dependent on Russia in the long term. Russia's strategy of gaining influence through directly controlling local businesses has proven more successful: in Armenia for example, various sectors from banking to transport are dominated by Russian-owned companies. How this will translate into political leverage remains to be seen.
This leaves energy as the most promising tool of Russia's neighbourhood policy. Russia has used pipeline plans, nuclear projects, gas prices and oil deliveries to get what it wants from its neighbours. But even here, Russia's success rate is mixed. In Belarus and Ukraine, Russia is making headway towards its aim of gaining control over transit pipelines. The recent standoff between Belarus and Russia over gas prices and transit fees only highlighted Minsk's lack of options: Lukashenko's announcement that he would buy gas from Venezuela was little more than symbolic. In Ukraine, Russia managed to use the offer of cheaper gas to get the lease for its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol extended. It has also successfully pressured Kyiv into at least considering merging parts of the two countries' gas monopolies, Gazprom and Naftogaz, which would give Moscow effective control over Ukraine's transit pipelines.
The situation is very different in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where energy producing countries are gaining room for manoeuvre through building stronger links with China, Iran and Turkey. Turkmenistan opened a large gas pipeline to China at the beginning of the year and signed another gas delivery contract with Iran in June. It has invited international oil majors to help build an internal pipeline that could one day deliver Turkmen gas from the massive Yolotan field to the Caspian shores and from there to Europe. It had previously promised to let Russia build the pipeline and buy much of the gas. Azerbaijan has spurned a Russian offer to buy up all the gas from its new Shah Deniz 2 field, instead committing it to Turkey and to European buyers. Russia's attempts to lock up Caspian gas supplies by foiling pipeline projects such as Nabucco are looking increasingly desperate.
The perceived withdrawal of the US and the ineffectiveness of EU policy in the region has not so far played into Russia's hands. Russia (like the EU and other players in the region) has had to learn that the former Soviet Union does not constitute a homogenous neighbourhood. There are cocky and cash-rich energy suppliers such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and there are poor and divided countries such as Moldova and Armenia. Russia can cajole and coerce in one place but it has to plead and please in another. All countries in the region will benefit from being less dependent on Russia, in trade and energy terms as well as in politics. While the US might pay less attention to the region, the EU should redouble its efforts, while also taking more account of the the specific situations of individual countries.