Russia’s meddling in countries along its borders “ has deep roots” and likely would continue after President Vladimir Putin finally leaves the Kremlin, an expert in political risk said Wednesday.
Agnia Grigas, a fellow at Occidental College and author of the newly released Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire, said its efforts from soft power involving the Russian Orthodox Church — with its 150 million members — proclaiming Moscow is defending traditional Christian values to providing humanitarian assistance, small pensions and remittances to Russian speakers living abroad to information warfare against nations such as Estonia to encouraging transnational groups such as the Cossacks, manufacturing ethnic tensions where none exist or stronger measures and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine “are all intermeshed.”
Russia says it uses these “compatriot” policies to protect “the human rights” and uses aggressive propaganda campaigns opposing “various sorts of discrimination” against Russian speakers living in other nations to achieve its goals.
Through what she termed “passportization,” where Moscow is accepting these Russian speakers outside its borders as citizens, the Kremlin can ramp up pressure on its neighbors.
She told the Atlantic Council forum in Washington, D.C., Moscow does not limit itself in neighboring nations in the Baltics, Central Asia or near its western borders to these activities. “I see some similarities in Syria” in explaining its intervention in the civil war there.
“The final step can be annexation” as was the case in Crimea, Grigas said,is only one option. Another is letting the situation settle into a “frozen conflict” that severely curbs nations such as Georgia or Ukraine moving toward membership in the European Union or NATO.
Sometimes, as has been the case with South Ossetia which broke away from Georgia, Russia was content with “federalizing” the province but not incorporating it as part, leaving it in an international “gray zone.”
“Frozen conflicts” also can be the breeding ground for Russian criminal activity spreading throughout a region, she said in answer to a question.
But having the presence of large number of Russian speakers inside its territory as Latvia has “doesn’t mean they are receptive to Russian influence,” particularly among the young. The Baltic States also have the advantage of European Union and NATO membership — which others don’t.
As a result of its involvement in eastern Ukraine, younger residents in many of these bordering countries, including Ukraine itself, “have become more cautious” in accepting Russia’s view of events.
The story is slightly different in the Islamic former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
There, states, such as Kazakhstan, an “autocratic regime is stamping red lines against passportization.” President Nursultan Nazarbayev “doesn’t have rose-colored glasses” on when it comes to judging the Kremlin’s intent. The point to consider in Central Asia for the future is that many of these leaders rose to power in the last days of the Soviet Union and what will happen when they die.
“If countries turn more liberal, there would be more Russian involvement” in their affairs, Grigas said.
As for the cost Moscow is paying for pursuing these policies, “Putin doesn’t now care much about it.” His goal remains “making Russia great” because it is “a re-imperializing power” intent on regaining lost territory and influence.
Although recognizing that these policies have limits, they remain “low-cost, high-return” for Moscow, so it will keep using them as it sees fit.
The “mistake is if we think [these actions, including buying media outlets in bordering nations and broadcasting popular programs from Russian outlets to them] is only aimed at Russian speakers.”
Grigas said the task for all the bordering nations “is to integrate their minorities” and “not leave that space to the Russian government.”