Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Non-Russian Countries Growing Ever More Non-Russian, Reducing Moscow’s Soft Power Options

By Paul Goble

Moscow has sought to rely on ethnic Russians and some non-titular nationalities in the former Soviet republics as a means of exerting influence on the governments of those now independent states. But that “soft power” option is increasingly less available as these countries become more ethnically homogeneous with the exit or dying out of the ethnic-Russian communities, the growing share of the population formed by the titular nationalities, as well as the ever greater role played by neighboring states whose own majority nationalities form co-ethnic minorities in these countries. All these trends—and the fact that they are leaving Moscow with fewer options besides economic power or the direct use of coercive force—are suggested by newly released data from and about Kyrgyzstan.

According to Kyrgyzstan’s Statistics Committee, the population of that country has grown by 8 percent over the last five years and now stand at approximately 5.7 million. The share of ethnic Russians has declined slightly; and the fraction occupied by Uzbeks and certain other nationalities has gone up. Meanwhile, the ethnic-Kyrgyz share of the population has continued to increase, rising from 71 percent in 2010 to 72.6 percent at the beginning of this year (

Over this five-year period, Kyrgyzstani officials said, the number of ethnic Kyrgyz increased by 10 percent, slightly more than the population as a whole and slightly less than the 14 percent increase registered by ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan but in stark contrast to the ethnic Russians there whose numbers continued to decline, albeit less rapidly than in the 1990s, and now stand at 375,400. Moreover, the Russian community increasingly consists of older people rather than those of working age and thus is less influential than it was in the past.

The rise of ethnic Uzbeks is especially striking and has given Tashkent—but not Moscow, as was the case in Soviet times—significant leverage on Bishkek. Indeed, one cannot make sense of the unrest of the last several years in the southern portion of the country without taking into account the rise of the Uzbek minority and Uzbekistan’s interest in using it in order to extract more water and deference from Kyrgyzstan.

According to the Bishkek statisticians, there are also five other ethnic groups who now make up part of the Kyrgyz Republic’s citizenry: 63,000 Dungans, 51,000 Uighurs, 40,000 Turks, 49,000 Tajiks and 33,400 Kazakhs. The first three of these, along with the Chinese who reside in Kyrgyzstan but are not citizens and thus were not counted in this enumeration, are deeply involved in Bishkek’s relationship with Beijing, often creating problems for the former and sometimes offering opportunities for the latter. The Tajiks and Kazakhs, in turn, often look to Dushanbe or Astana and are influenced by those capitals. They do not look to Moscow as they might have in the past.

Demography, of course, is not destiny except in the very long term, but such changes over the last five years are having an impact on power relations and especially in the current climate on Moscow’s apparent interest in using hard power now that its soft power options are declining.

Ukrainian Crisis Update: Special Operation Shows Promise

By Maksym Bugriy

The central government’s counter-terrorism operation against separatists in Ukraine’s southeastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions has shown the first signs of success. Notably, Ukrainian government forces, which included the military as well as police and security agencies special forces, were able to defend the airfield in Kramatorsk against separatists attack. During the operation, a Ukrainian Su-27 fighter jet circled over the airfield and opened fire on the attacking pro-Russian militants. The resoluteness exhibited by the Ukrainian military and police must have had a visible effect as the separatists reportedly left the seized Kramatorsk police station building and will probably also leave the town administration office to avoid further police assaults (

The Ukrainian force involved in the counter-terrorism operation employed security professionals to streamline the management of the response. Such was the appointment of former KGB veteran terrorism expert and operative General Vasily Krutov, one of the first senior officers of the Ukrainian Security Service’s (SBU) elite “A” counter-terrorism unit ( General Krutov knows his trade well: he is KGB-trained and also participated in an operation to free 22 Ukrainian hostages from Somali pirates in 2005. Previously, he has served as president of the International Counter-Terrorist Unity organization, which brought together many former Soviet KGB and GRU (Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense) special forces officers. Thus, General Krutov’s current appointment is also a deterrence signal to his former peers at Russia’s security services.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian counter-intelligence leaked an April 14 recording of an alleged GRU officer in Slovyansk with his Moscow coordinator, which suggested that “reinforcements” to eastern Ukraine were expected. According to the audiotape, the Moscow handler tasked his Slovyansk operative with achieving two new political objectives: 1.) immediate governor elections to replace the pro-Kyiv governors currently in place in eastern Ukraine; and 2.) banning the Ukrainian parliament from being allowed to attract international loans without consent from regional governors ( This is a clear case of attempted economic warfare aimed at preventing Ukraine from receiving vital International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing. Remarkably, Ukrainian Pravda identified the Moscow-based coordinator as possibly a Russian political consultant who was involved in Russia’s Crimean operation ( This draws a direct connection between what is currently happening in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s previous tactics in Crimea.

Further Russian moves should be expected. On April 15, Vladimir Putin had phone conversations with the leaders of Israel ( and Germany ( as well as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon ( In all these conversations, Putin lambasted the Ukrainian government’s counter-terrorism operation in its eastern regions and the Russian leader issued warnings about a brewing “civil war” in Ukraine. Politically, Russia may try to present a strong case against Ukraine during the Geneva four-party talks scheduled for April 17. Further unconventional and provocative military operations by Russia against Ukraine are, of course, also possible. But any such moves would entirely preclude the possibility of holding the Geneva negotiations this week.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Russian Flag Over Gagauzia

By Paul Goble

A group of pro-Moscow Gagauz activists have raised the Russian flag in their capital city of Komrat, on March 15, in support of the Crimean “referendum” Moscow organized and are insisting that Gagauzia—an autonomous region of Moldova populated by the Gagauz, an Orthodox Christian Turkic people—should have the same right as Crimea or Kosovo to hold a referendum on independence, especially given that the Moldovan government is pursuing a pro-Western and anti-Russian policy that closely resembles the Ukrainian Maidan and against which the Gagauz like the people of Crimea have protested. 

One Gagauz leader, Ilya Uzun, a deputy in that nationality’s Popular Assembly, told the group that he was “glad that such an enormous country [as Russia] has a president like Vladimir Putin. Everything that there is in our land was built by the Russian people and by our people,” not the Moldovans. And consequently the Gagauz have every right not only to speak in defense of the Crimean people and their choice but to demand a referendum on their own future status (

That is all the more so, he and other speakers at the weekend meeting said, because Chisinau has repeatedly declared that it “does not recognize” the Crimean vote, that it considers it “illegal,” and that it supports “the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

When analysts focus on separatist challenges to Moldova, they not surprisingly devote almost all of their attention to the breakaway republic of Transnistria, an enclave with a Slavic majority, even though Moldovans outnumber either ethnic Russians or ethnic Ukrainians there, and one that has by its alliance with Moscow and its selling off of Soviet-era arms dumps to various groups around the world sustained itself since 1991.  The Gagauz are mentioned, if at all, only in passing.

In addition to the political resources of Tiraspol, there are three reasons for this. First, the Gagauz are far smaller in number, with a total population estimates at around 200,000. Second, they live not in a single compact area but are dispersed among other ethnic groups, including Moldovans, in a region about 130 kilometers southeast of Chisinau. And third, their political activism has almost perfectly tracked that of Trans-Dniestria, simultaneously highlighting the extent to which the Gagauz are very much a Moscow project directed against the Moldovan state and justifying in the minds of many ignoring this group.

But now that Putin has thrown the dice in Crimea and signaled that he has no intention of respecting the sovereignty and integrity of any of the former Soviet republics or then-occupied Baltic states, there are three reasons why the Gagauz should receive more attention.  First, because they can be so easily put in play, Moscow may use them to overload the capacity of Chisinau to respond in a crisis. Second, because they are a Turkic people, the Russian authorities may use declarations of support for them to cover a new wave of repression against the Crimean Tatars.  And third, because Turkey thus far has not been able to do very much for the Crimean Tatars, Ankara may want to do even more for the Gagauz, a group with which it has close ties.  That sets the stage for the kind of conflict that could easily get out of hand.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Vladimir Putin’s Allies in the European Far Right

By Richard Arnold

One of the stories that in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis has escaped the notice of journalists and analysts alike is Vladimir Putin’s attempts to build support amongst the European Far Right. Perhaps the most notable instance of this was the meeting in January 2014 of the leader of the French Front Nationale Marine Le Pen and senior figures in Russia politics Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Dmitry Rogozin ( The meeting with Rogozin was particularly noteworthy as in the past Rogozin served as the Russian ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and currently holds a senior position in the government, overlooking the defense industry. In the meeting, Le Pen argued that “France is not a democracy” and praised Putin for saving Bashar al-Assad in Syria. While Le Pen has been generally thought of as trying to make the Front Nationale respectable as a way into politics in France, such flirting with the enemy is sure to damage her career.

However, Le Pen is not the first European far-right politician to have had contact with the Russian establishment. The Hungarian nationalist party Jobbik is also known to have links to the Kremlin. In 2013, Jobbik leader Gabor Vona met with Eurasianist ideologue and sometime fascist Alexander Dugin (; Dugin was an advocate of Ukraine’s dissolution into a confederation and the absorption of certain parts, like Crimea, into Russia ( The recent events in Ukraine do indicate that Dugin’s star is rising in the Kremlin. “Observers” from the European Far Right (including Spanish far-right leader Enrique Ravello, Bela Kovacs from Jobbik, and three members of the Dutch party Vlaams Belang) were present at the Crimean referendum, purportedly to ensure its neutrality ( In 2011, British far-right leader Nick Griffin, famous for his denial of the Holocaust and currently suspended from a two-year prison sentence for inciting racial hatred, also visited the Kremlin. Griffin visited three polling stations in Russia and found the vote there to be democratic. Likewise, former member of the Polish Sejm from the nationalist-populist agrarian “Self-Defense” (Samoobrona) party Mateusz Piskorski visited Russia in 2007, ostensibly to observe the Duma elections ( It is also worth remembering that Norwegian far-right mass murderer Anders Bering Breivik praised Putin lavishly. Russia, it seems is becoming the hope and focus for extreme nationalists all across Europe.

Indeed, this was the hoped-for outcome of the 2006 conference “on the future of the white world” which was held in Moscow and had white supremacists and extremist nationalists from all across Europe and even David Duke from the United States in attendance (Richard Arnold and Ekaterina Romanova, “The White World’s Future” in Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 2013). While there was no suspicion of Kremlin involvement with this conference at the time, in light of later events it seems very convenient that such a conference was held. The conference was organized by the far-right organization Atheneum and concluded by calling on Russia to unite the Aryan race under “white Eurasia.” The statement on Crimea from the Alliance of European National Movements ( indicates that someone in this movement is taking seriously the construction of a pan-European racist organization.

In light of all this, the Kremlin’s denunciation of Svoboda and Pravyi Sektor, the Ukrainian far right-wing movements involved in the ouster of Viktor Yanukovich, is all the more noteworthy. After all, one would assume that the Ukrainian far right would be welcome in a pan-European alliance of far-right movements. On the other hand, Svoboda have been largely outside the process of European racist collaboration and the anti-Russian content of their ideology prevents them from being natural bedfellow for the Russians.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cossackia Re-Emerges as an Issue

By Paul Goble

Few subjects were addressed so furiously by Soviet propagandists as any mention of Cossackia, or “Land of the Cossacks,” in the United States’ 1959 law on captive nations. The Soviets referred to US support for Cassackia as an indication of what they described as the absurdity of support for all the nationalities of the USSR, which, according to Moscow, already lived in a state of “friendship of the peoples.” A major reason Soviet officials attacked the idea of Cossackia was that their reports on it were often picked up by and enjoyed the support of Western analyst and commentators.

On the one hand, many in the West and even more in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) accepted the Hollywood version of the pre-1917 Cossacks as a kind of proto-fascist and anti-Semitic force that deserved to be thrown into the dustbin of history, even though that characterization was inaccurate and tendentious in the extreme. And on the other, more knowledgeable people pointed out that there was no obvious “Cossack land” because there were Cossack communities spread out across the Soviet Union from Ukraine to the Pacific. How, many asked, could one unite them, especially since they were officially a “social stratum” and not a “nationality?”

But three developments since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 have led to the re-emergence of Cossackia as an idea and even a goal. And these developments have been exacerbated by Vladimir Putin’s moves toward the Anschluss of Ukraine’s Crimea and the extent to which that has highlighted divisions among people that many in both Moscow and the West have assumed can be collectively grouped as Russians (

First of all, the Cossacks have re-emerged as a public force. The 12 voiskas or “armies” are not only seeing the coming out of many who never forgot their Cossack roots despite Soviet oppression, but also the emergence of a neo-Cossack movement among Russians who look to the Cossacks as a model of discipline. Second, Moscow has not handled the Cossacks in a sophisticated fashion. As long as the Cossacks are prepared to be an ethnographic curiosity willing to do what the center wants, the Russian authorities tolerate or even support them; but when the Cossacks advance their own agenda, Moscow has been unprepared to meet them even half way. And third, an increasing share of those who call themselves Cossacks say they are not just a “social strata” as Moscow insists but rather a nation in their own right and that they have the right to national self-determination up to and including the formation of their own republic or republics.

Putin’s Crimean adventure has intensified such feelings and made it obvious that an increasing fraction of Cossacks today do not view themselves as part of the Russian nation but rather see themselves as a nation of their own that has rights and is ready to reach out to other nations within and beyond the borders of the Russian Federation to gain support. They may not succeed, but they can no longer be dismissed by anyone as simply figments of their own imaginations or a joke. Instead, they bear watching.           

Friday, February 28, 2014

Russian Neo-Nazis React to Events in Ukraine

By Richard Arnold

While the exact role of Ukrainian far-right groups in removing President Viktor Yanukovych is disputed, they were clearly present among the protestors and well represented by, amongst other organizations, Pravyi Sector (Right Sector). The role of the ultra-radicals is one of the variables on which the stability of Russia’s most important neighbor now rests.

Like other Russians, the Russian far-right is monitoring the events in Ukraine closely. They are even sending their own reporters to Maidan in an attempt to produce “news without censorship” ( The overall tone of articles concerning Ukraine does not suggest a clear indication in favor of either Ukrainian nationalists or the government. An article reporting on Viktor Yanukovych’s February 27 appeal to “loyalists” in Crimea openly criticizes him ( On the other hand, an article regarding the mobilization in Crimea argues that people should not be deceived by claims that the “Russians have all won” and calls on Russians in Crimea to oppose “the new government” under which “the [Crimean] Tatars are the complete masters” ( What unites these seemingly disparate articles, however, is anti-Putinism and populism. The prospect of a Maidan-like protest movement in Moscow sponsored by extremist Russian ethno-nationalists has to frighten the Russian government.

Illustrative of this threat, a January 26 article titled “How to carry out a people’s assembly” and sent from Ukraine provides instructions on mobilizing ethnic Russians in a similar manner to events at Kondopoga in 2006 and Biryulyevo in 2013 ( The article offers advice to protesters on how to avoid detention, including directions to record the protests and post the videos on the internet. It ends with a warning that Vladimir Putin’s regime has passed a law increasing fines on attendees of unsanctioned meetings to 10,000 rubles ($278) and 100,000 rubles ($2,782) on the organizers of such meetings. While the far right has been trying to hold such rallies frequently, the events in Ukraine cannot fail to have provided them with inspiration.

Indeed, March 1 will see a series of Neo-Nazi rallies held across Russia. The main one will be in Moscow, in part organized by Slavyansky Soyuz (Slavic Union). The “Day of Heroes,” which these events will be commemorating, is not an official holiday but rather honors an action by Russian troops in the second Chechen War (August 1999–May 2000). The organizers of the rally suggest such symbolic actions as “carrying flowers to the tombs of dead soldiers” and singing songs to praise the “heroes of your city” ( The Moscow march will begin at 2:00 p.m. local time, and there are separate marches planned in Ryazan, Volgograd, Nizhny Novogorod, St. Petersburg and Khabarovsk (, on February 26). The Vkontakte (popular Russian social network) page of the rally showed that, as of February 25, over 5,000 people had promised to attend and another 10,000 were listed as “maybe” ( There may also be people who turn up spontaneously and do not register their participation ahead of time. In the current atmosphere, even a patriotic rally has the potential to scare the Kremlin. With the ability of ethno-nationalist ideas to bring masses of people out into the streets, the warning of Emil Pain that the ethno-nationalists are, indeed, the main opposition to the Kremlin seems like it is being borne out (

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ukraine: Countering Threats of Strategic Drift and Economic Collapse

By Matthew Bryza

This article first appeared on Eastbook and on the International Centre for Defence Studies (ICDS, Tallinn) blog page.

Last weekend’s breathtaking triumph of those who seek a democratic, prosperous, and modern future for Ukraine will remain fragile for months to come, even in a best-case scenario. Assuming Ukraine succeeds in forming a new government, revising its Constitution, and electing a new President, the country will remain vulnerable to two other serious threats: strategic drift and economic collapse. Now is the critical moment for the European Union and United States to act together as a lighthouse, guiding Ukraine’s new ship of state toward a safe geopolitical harbor where groundbreaking reforms will be rewarded with lifesaving economic support.

Strategic drift is perhaps the more urgent threat. Tension is likely to persist in pockets of eastern and southern Ukraine, where sentiment runs strong for Ukraine to sustain its historical closeness to Russia rather than Europe. Moscow is feeding these tensions: Foreign Minister Lavrov has denigrated Yanukovych’s ouster as a coup d’├ętat, while Kremlin-controlled Russian media warn of possible civil war and partition. The Russian government may step up the pressure by withdrawing promised economic support, restricting imports of Ukrainian goods, manipulating natural gas supplies and prices, issuing Russian passports to residents of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and supporting pro-Russian politicians (whether openly or covertly). Such tactics have a twofold aim: to hamper the push by Ukraine’s new leaders toward Europe; and to counter the West’s pull of Ukraine toward a modern future outside Russia’s geostrategic orbit.

Moscow’s tactics appear to be working in Washington. Since the dramatic events of Saturday, February 22, the White House has claimed that Ukraine is not the object of an East-West tug-of-war, despite a myriad of signs from Moscow to the contrary. The White House seems to ignore that the genesis of these past three months of popular unrest in Ukraine was Russian President Putin’s successful intimidation of Yanukovych into abandoning the then-Ukrainian President’s own policy of signing an Association Agreement with the EU last November at the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. Moscow will now employ the growing range of tactics outlined above to pursue President Putin’s most urgent geopolitical goal: preventing Ukraine from aligning with the EU and sliding from Russia’s exclusive geo-economic grip.

There is nothing Washington can do to dissuade President Putin from his zero-sum approach, or to convince him that the U.S. and EU did not somehow engineer Yanukovych’s ouster. In fact, by pretending they do not have a profound and historic strategic interest in Ukraine’s deeper integration with into the West, the U.S. and EU risk tempting Russia to manipulate centrifugal political forces in eastern Ukraine and Crimea with increasing intensity.

In reality, the Kremlin does not seek civil war or the partition of Ukraine. On the contrary, as President Putin contemplates a long-term plan to counter his humiliating defeat in Kyiv, his fundamental goal remains—over time—to reintegrate a united Ukraine into Russia’s economic and political orbit. President Putin’s greatest geopolitical project, the Eurasian Union, can achieve genuine geopolitical and geo-economic heft only if all of Ukraine—not just the eastern half—joins Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in this embryonic bloc.

There is, therefore, little to lose and everything to gain by Washington articulating clearly and loudly the geostrategic truth: Ukraine’s closer alignment to the European Union is a key strategic interest of the entire Euro-Atlantic community. Such a rhetorical shift by the White House would provide both the strategic guidance and shot-in-the-arm that Ukraine’s new government and the brave protestors who got it there so urgently need.

At the same time, the EU and U.S. should also demonstrate their readiness to help Ukraine tackle its second serious vulnerability, economic collapse. The Ukrainian economy is stalled, with zero percent GDP growth in 2013—and far worse expected this year. The country’s huge debt burden is unserviceable absent serious external help, with 25 percent of some $75 billion in external debt due within the next 18 months. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s currency has been depreciating sharply, thanks to rising prices for natural gas imports, decreasing prices for Ukraine’s metal exports, and a flight toward the safety of international currencies during political crisis; Ukraine’s foreign currency reserves can now cover only two months of imports. Finally, Ukraine’s new government will not be able to sustain the Yanukovych regime’s unrealistic budgetary promises in pursuit of political stability, which included subsidies to inefficient heavy industry and its oligarchs in the East and social welfare programs that eat up 50 percent of GDP. Cancelling these benefits will not boost the stability of Ukraine’s next government.

Fortunately, the EU and U.S. are scrambling to provide Ukraine a hefty bailout package, which EU Economic Commissioner Olli Rehn said during the G20 meeting in Sydney “will have to be measured in the billions rather than hundreds of millions.” Such Western aid was unthinkable during Yanukovych’s criminally inept and kleptocratic regime. Nor was it possible following the Orange Revolution of November 2004, the first time when Yanukovych was ousted by mass protests, as Ukraine’s victorious “reformers” disappointed their domestic and international supporters with their inability to break the inefficient and corrupt practices stretching back to the Soviet era, which continue to hamstring the Ukrainian economy to this day.

This time, however, things could be different. The historical stakes seem higher today than following the Orange Revolution in late 2004, given the loss of life and the new generation of political leaders that have now emerged in Ukraine. If Ukraine’s new leaders demonstrate the same commitment to groundbreaking reforms as did their predecessors in neighboring Poland in 1989, they should enjoy similar aid from the international community, including help from the IMF in restructuring official debt, as well as technical assistance and budgetary support from the World Bank and EU. Such resolve would be unprecedented in Ukraine’s political history, but must remain a precondition for any international bailout. Otherwise, Ukraine will likely return to the darkness that has plagued the country over the past few months.

At the center of any serious reform effort must be Ukraine’s natural gas sector, where massive corruption has allowed Moscow’s favored Ukrainian political and business leaders to become oligarchs; it has also perpetuated Ukraine’s vulnerability to Russian gas cutoffs during disputes over Ukraine’s non-payment and exorbitant transit fees to pump Russian gas to European markets.

Many American and European politicians now hope that by soft-pedaling the geopolitical contest that has undeniably taken shape over Ukraine, they can bring along Russia as a partner in stabilizing its big neighbor. A litmus test of this approach’s integrity could be whether Moscow is willing to abandon its hardball tactics on natural gas supplies to Ukraine and instead partner with Brussels and Kyiv to develop a transparent and efficient transit system for Russian natural gas to cross Ukraine and reach European markets. Such a solution would mark a joint victory for Ukraine, the EU and Russia itself. And, precisely because of its win-win nature, this option will likely be rejected by Russia. Moscow will instead likely choose to stick with its hardball tactics of gas cutoffs and gargantuan subsea pipelines like Nord Stream and South Stream, each of which costs more than the entire Sochi Olympics and drains the Russian treasury of resources that could be better invested in the welfare of Russia’s own citizens.