Russia's Vladimir Putin says his country has approved the first vaccine for Covid-19. Credit: AFP

Last week, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic offered a lavish welcome to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tens of thousands flooded Belgrade to greet Putin in front of the Orthodox Saint Sava Church, waving Serbian and Russian flags and banners praising Putin for trying to rebuild a Russo-centric, pan-Slavic world and to counter global Americanism.

Serbia – despite its new pro-Western leadership and EU ambitions – has deep historical ties with the Slavic “big brother” that has supported Belgrade over the centuries, most recently during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign.

It is the only European nation that is truly close to Russia, with common Orthodox and Slavic roots, a daily Moscow-Belgrade train and a bilateral visa-free entry agreement. Putin pledged to invest US$1.4 billion in gas pipeline infrastructure for Serbia, which already buys all its natural gas from Russia.

But ties extend far beyond cultural and ethnic similarities, to Moscow’s wider geopolitical strategies.

Russian World

The Belgrade love fest is just another brick in the giant international structure Russian officials label Russkiy Mir, or Russian World.

Moscow media cover “Russkiy Mir” and conferences of “Russian compatriots” on a daily basis. Though the USSR has dissolved, step by step, Putin’s Kremlin is bringing the vast lands of its former empire back into the fold.

“Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so,” Putin declared in front of Duma, or parliament, deputies on August 16, 1999, as he sought their approval for his prime ministership. “It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest abroad in both the former Soviet lands and elsewhere.”

That turned out to be a policy declaration for years to come. The would-be leader promised to completely reshape a humiliated country that, after years of Boris Yeltsin’s chaos, was teetering on virtual collapse.

One year earlier, Russia had defaulted on its debt. Pension and public salaried workers were paid months late. Infrastructure was crumbling. Much wealth sat in the hands of a few “oligarchs.” In the Russian Far East, many were reduced to a virtual hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Russia’s once-mighty army had lost two wars in Chechnya. Three former Soviet allies had joined NATO, bringing the alliance to Russia’s borders. And NATO had driven Serbian forces out of Kosovo only months earlier.

Those were agonizing developments for ex-KGB agent and patriot Putin. He set new goals for foreign policy: Put Russia back on the world stage, boost power and influence and re-claim Soviet territories.

Back to the future

The drive started in Chechnya, the rebellious Russian province that symbolized Yeltsin’s impotence. In only four years under Putin, Chechnya separatists were crushed and “territorial integrity” secured.

Evading the revolution, ideology and Stalinist excesses, Putin selectively praised the past. He brought back old Soviet symbols, including the Stalin-era national anthem – albeit, with new lyrics – and lauded Soviet scientific achievements, such as space explorations and the Soviet victory in World War II.

He also embraced pre-Soviet themes including the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian writers and philosophers.

Putin’s domestic view blends Czarist glories, selected elements of the USSR and a racial-geographic Russia. In 2014, he laid out a “zone of legitimate interests” – The CIS countries, the Baltics and the so-called “Russian world,” areas with sizable Russian communities. This is the empire the Kremlin seeks to hold.

In a 2006 parliamentary address Putin, said: “We should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster …for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”

The millions of ethnic Russians in ex-Soviet states means Russkiy Mir extends far beyond Russia’s borders.

“In the early 20th century the Russian world and the Russian Empire were basically the same thing. The empire’s population was about 170 million – one seventh of the global population of one billion. Now, with well over six billion on the planet, only 1/50th of the world’s population are Russians. That’s unfair, given our geographical size,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, the head of the Russkiy Mir Foundation.

Hot spots

Central to this “Russian world” is Crimea, which offers Russia critical Black Sea access. Hence, Moscow’s sudden and highly successful 2014 takeover. That move killed two birds: restored Russian territory and defied the West.

“We have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, conducted in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today,” Putin said in a speech announcing the annexation and about the West. “They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position.”

Crimea, a province of pre-revolutionary Russia, was “gifted” to Kiev in 1954. Putin spoke for millions of Russians when he said: “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.”

An overlooked hot spot is tiny Transnistria, in eastern Moldova, that has a predominantly Russian population. Moscow supports the separatist regime there despite commitments made at the 1999 Istanbul OSCE Summit to withdraw its military presence.

The pendulum is now swinging. There’s good news coming not only from staunchly pro-Russian Transnistria, but from Western-leaning Moldova itself. New President Igor Dodon holds pro-Russian views, admires Putin and is critical of NATO, Romania, and the West.

He opposes any NATO liaison in Moldova and has promised to cancel a bilateral military cooperation agreement with Romania. That would mute anti-Russian politicians in Moldova and ensure a continuing Russian military presence in Transnistria.

Ukraine is a different story. In the March presidential election, it looks virtually impossible for a pro-Russian candidate to win. Crimea, the military stand-off in east Ukraine, disputes over the Kerch Strait and a steady flow of weapons to Russian separatists looks set to keep the country destabilized.

However, that is in Moscow’s interests. So, even though Kiev is “lost” to Moscow, Putin is managing the situation.

Moscow also has an uneasy relationship with Georgia, and boots on the ground in Transnistria and Abkhasia. Where might the next hot spot be?

Noted Russian economist Andrei Illarionov suggested the Baltic states, with their ethnic Russian populations. “Putin still has two more years to materialize his ambitions – before the next American presidential elections,” Illarionov said.

But with the Baltics in NATO, that would be high-risk – even for Putin.

Hanging together

Despite the loss of Ukraine and the Baltics, Putin has largely prevented a disintegration that looked very possible under Yeltsin.

When the Soviet Union broke up in December 1991, agreements on CIS formation were signed in Minsk, the Belarussian capital. Belarus remains the most staunchly pro-Russian of ex-Soviet states.

Strongman President Alexander Lukashenko has run it with an iron fist for a quarter of a century and sometimes challenges the Kremlin, but overall, is loyal. The two countries have virtually merged into a confederation.

After Belarus, the third major pillar in Moscow’s Russia-centric alliance is Kazakhstan, with its own strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled since the 1980s. Nazarbayev has cultivated an unprecedented personality cult, with palaces, museums and even a would-be mausoleum awaiting him, all in the new Kazakh capital Astana – Nazarbayev’s brainchild.

There’s a similar, though smaller Russian community in mountainous Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is staunchly pro-Russian, though after two bloody revolutions, is more democratic than Kazakhstan. With many Kyrgs working as cheap labor in Russia, Kyrgyzstan is heavily dependent on Russia.

Moscow still maintains military in Tajikistan, but Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are more politically distant, especially after many ethnic Russians fled in the 1990s in fear of lslamic fundamentalism. Yet Central Asian is glued together by all kinds of Moscow-initiated treaties, economic or military.

Moscow fully leverages the 2003 Collective Security Treaty Organization. The brainchild of Russian strategists and generals, the CSTO allows Moscow to establish bases and hold joint drills.

Energy also plays a role. Many former Soviet satellites, especially in the west, depend on Russian natural resources – such as Belarus. The prices of these resources have long been a tool for Moscow to keep Minsk obedient.

Russian energy companies like Gasprom change prices almost on a monthly basis; occasional discounts are trumpeted in Moscow and Minsk as exemplars of brotherly bonds.

Big picture, distant horizons

Though Putin now faces domestic criticism over his actions in Ukraine and his overseas war in Syria, and local issues such as pension reform chip away his ratings, his big-picture achievements are clear.

Overcoming massive challenges, he held an unwieldy empire together. He is a key player on the world stage, despite the modest size of his economy, lack of brands and minimal soft power. Moreover, he has re-stanced Russia against a threatening “West,” and restored national pride and confidence.

These successes suggest he is unlikely to shift his focus on his historic mission to restore Russia’s regional role and influence any time soon.

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