Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits a front line in Donbas on June 9, 2021. Zelensky has been incrementally rebuilding partnerships with NATO, leading to Russia’s current heavy forward deployments. Photo: AFP / Ukrainian Presidency / Anadolu Agency

On Tuesday, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) commemorated 30 years of its existence. In December 1991, this “informal arrangement” among the majority of former Soviet republics declared the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also ending the Cold War in international politics. 

And now, in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian crisis, this informal summit in St Petersburg – attended in person by all nine national leaders – has radiated goals and implications way beyond their limited to-do list.

Fundamentally, the summit showcased former Soviet republics’ solidarity with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who faces a united West seeking Ukraine’s co-option into NATO’s further eastward strides.

Ukraine, however, was not even mentioned in this year-end get-together of CIS leaders, who reviewed the results of Belarus’ chairmanship of the CIS in 2021 and discussed future plans of their cooperation.

Also read: Putin hints at military options in Ukraine

The subtle tone and tenor of Putin’s short inaugural address, nonetheless, clearly alluded to this unison, that too unlikely to go unnoticed. Commemorating these past 30 years, President Putin credited the CIS members for having preserved their “deeper security and economic cooperation,” and for helping them “getting through these difficult times of the pandemic.”

Putin said: “We have witnessed monumental shifts over the past years.… At the same time … we have been deepening our integration … lingering positive impact from the ties we have been sharing since the Soviet era.”

Focusing on the agenda at hand, Putin said: “One of the main topics that brought us together … is our common efforts to counter the coronavirus pandemic,” whereupon he called on his special invitee, Russia’s chief sanitary physician, Anna Popova – who has been coordinating Russia’s response to Covid-19 with its CIS counterparts – to brief the leaders on work done so far as well as plans for the future, including signing of an agreement on cooperation in response to and relief from sanitary and epidemiological emergencies.

No doubt this allowed Russia to showcase its leading role in providing pandemic relief to the CIS states. But Putin’s hosting it in person and the several bilateral meetings he held also carried a message for all, including American interlocutors for the upcoming meeting in Geneva on January 10 where Moscow wishes to push forward on ways to halt the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s “eastward expansion and end [its] military cooperation with countries such as Ukraine and Georgia.”

From USSR to CIS

It was in 1922 that the Treaty and Declaration of the Creation of the USSR was first signed by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Fast-forward to December 8, 1991, and the same three entities signed the Agreement Establishing the CIS, thus replacing the USSR and inviting other Soviet republics to join.

Eight other republics joined them at their next meeting in Alma-Ata (now Almaty), Kazakhstan, on December 21, 1991, when they all signed a Protocol declaring Russia as the successor state of the USSR and marking this as the foundation day of the CIS.

Georgia joined the CIS later, in 2004, but after it joined NATO – which led to tensions with Moscow and the Russo-Georgian war – it withdrew from the CIS in 2009. Likewise the three Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which considered their integration into the Soviet Union an illegal occupation – never joined the CIS. They instead joined NATO.

Likewise Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, formerly part of the Russian-dominated Eastern Bloc though not actual Soviet republics, also joined NATO, igniting serious insecurities in Moscow.

The Ukraine question

Ukraine, the second-most powerful state of the USSR, had always been the most curious and yet confusing part of the CIS story. Ukraine signed the first two “agreements/protocols” of December 1991 but never ratified the January 1993 Charter of the CIS.

Nevertheless, Ukraine was treated as a founding member of the CIS under Article 7 of that Charter, which defined the signatories of those first two meetings as the Commonwealth’s founding members. Moreover, in 1994 Ukraine joined the CIS Economic Union as an associate member.

So Russia always insisted that Ukraine was a member of the CIS, and therefore the CIS secretariat continued to send it invitations for all the meetings. But for its part, Ukraine had a very different understanding on the role and remit of the CIS, and rarely participated in CIS parleys and programs.

Indeed, on May 18, 2013, then-president Petro Poroshenko signed a decree on Ukraine’s official termination of its participation in the CIS. From 2014 onward, Ukraine gradually distanced itself from the CIS, exiting various statutory bodies, not paying its contributions to the budget and, over time, abandoning more than 50 agreements, memoranda and decisions.

Finally, in August 2018, it not only stopped participating in CIS activities but shut down its representative offices at the CIS headquarters at Minsk, Belarus. 

Though the CIS had de facto reconciled to this reality, how to handle Ukraine remained a puzzle.

It is recognized today that it was the perennial Russo-Ukraine conflict that lay at the center of this confusion. Experts have traced the two states’ differences way back to the Middle Ages.

In the post-Soviet context, other than their contestations about the sharing of Soviet debts and assets, status of the Russian language in Ukraine, ownership of the Soviet-era Black Sea Fleet and its Sevastopol naval base, and the related question of Crimea, Ukraine and Russia had serious differences on the role and functioning of the CIS.

This briefly created serious misunderstandings among several CIS members, impacting its work and stature. Against this backdrop, in 1997, Russia signed a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership with Ukraine recognizing its borders, including the Crimean Peninsula.

The current phase of their conflict, however, is often connected to the rise of Vladimir Putin. This also coincided with NATO’s indulgences with Ukraine, reigniting their differences.

Their conflict was to become public during the presidential elections of 2004 when the so-called “Orange Revolution” prevented pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych from coming to power and pro-West Viktor Yushchenko became the president. Russia responded by cutting off gas shipments to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009, disrupting supplies to Europe as well.

This is why when in 2008 the US president at the time, George W Bush, pushed for inclusion of Ukraine into NATO, European nations managed to forestall his plan, with no timelines finalized. But it triggered a process of NATO’s penetration into Ukraine, emboldening Kiev to withstand Putin’s posturing, where he was seen as contemplating a reunification of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Internally as well, Russian embargoes triggered countrywide unrest in Ukraine leading to Yanukovych fleeing to Russia in February 2014. It was in this leadership vacuum that March 2014 saw Russia annex Crimea. This encouraged Russian-speaking minorities in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine to rise against the Kiev regime and declare the creation of new people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

These crises were resolved in the Minsk Agreement of March 2015, which stands at the very center of their escalating brinkmanship. Under that pact, Ukraine agreed to consider these quasi-republics’ demand for autonomy. However, the nationalist forces at home and NATO’s allurements from the West saw Kiev retreating from implementing the agreement, and an impasse has remained since the December 2019 Russia-Ukraine talks in Paris.

This period has also seen President Volodymyr Zelensky incrementally rebuilding partnerships with NATO, leading to Russia’s current heavy forward deployments.

Role of CIS

This is where it becomes pertinent to understand the role of the Russia-led Commonwealth of nine former Soviet republics. 

Putin is fully aware of the cautious approach of several European NATO member states that will be dependent on Russian gas to revive their post-pandemic economies. This explains why Putin wants to expand the dialogue beyond US President Joe Biden’s domestically driven arbitration on the Ukraine crisis.

Putin’s recent summits with India and China also show that there are other potential customers for Russia’s energy supplies. Indeed, Ukraine itself wants to negotiate with Russia for extension of latter’s gas transit beyond December 31, 2024, when the current agreement expires. Yet Russia remains reluctant, saying it will depend on its own supply contracts and on target recipients’ whims and fancies.

So, have Putin’s summits with India, China and now the CIS revealed the boomerang effect of a united West posturing a tough line? And is it possible that Ukraine, having burned its bridges with Russia, regrets its own absence from this week’s CIS summit?

Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).