Russia’s Unwelcome Embrace

by David Satter

Russia is increasingly moving into a confrontation with its neighbors.

The country has put huge pressure on its neighbors to join Russian-dominated institutions, the most important of which is the Customs Union that Russia has formed with Kazakhstan and Belarus. In September, Armenia, whose borders with Iran and Turkey are guarded by Russian troops and which is heavily dependent on Russia for energy, agreed to join the Customs Union. Moldova has faced similar pressure and was implicitly threatened with a gas cutoff if it sought closer ties with Europe. Ukraine has faced halts in imports to discourage it from signing agreements with the European Union.

Russia promotes the free movement of people and capital in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and Putin has opposed the introduction of a visa regime among them precisely because it would cut off Russia’s initiatives in the region.

None of this, however, has prevented the Russian leadership from inciting xenophobia and racism at home. While their countries are being pressured to join Russian-dominated institutions, however, the citizens of the former Soviet republics are the targets of discrimination and violence when they go to Russia looking for work. Late last year, Putin instructed the law-enforcement bodies to battle against “ethnic crimes.” Previously, he had divided Russians into “natives” and “non-natives” in an interview with Russian television. The Russian public, in the meantime, has become increasingly anti-migrant, even though the Russian economy would quickly fall into crisis without immigrant labor. Nationalists have staged pogroms in Russian cities, most recently in the Moscow suburb of Biryulyovo, and these evoke no moral response from Russian leaders. Even the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has warned about the threat of “ethnic crime.”

Citizens of the former Soviet republics are aware of the increasing hostility toward them in Russia. The Putin regime’s success in coercing their countries into disadvantageous cooperation, as a result, can only be short-lived. In the meantime, Russia’s drive to control countries in whose independence and prosperity it actually has a stake will only make more enemies for it with every passing day.

— David Satter is affiliated with the Hudson Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. His latest book is It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past.