The third workshop of the working group of the CRS-NED project
12 June 2023
The third workshop of the working group discussed papers on the influence of history on countries' war policies, end-of-war scenarios, Russia's influence on post-Soviet countries, and Georgia's Foreign Agents Law. The speakers' papers have been published on the CRS website at https://www.crs.ge/en/ned-essey-collections. At the beginning of the seminar, project organizer David Darchiashvili recalled that this was the third seminar of Georgian and Russian scholars and that the whole project aimed at improving policy analysis, policymaking, and cooperation between scholars from Georgia and Russia.
The papers develop different aspects of the situation in which the world has found itself since the outbreak of the war, with a particular focus on the South Caucasus. It is essential for the region, David noted, what is happening and what will happen next in Russia and how its relations with the region's countries will change. He mentioned that the final event of this project is in September. The moderator of this session, David Bakradze, spoke about the rules of the conversation and gave the floor for the first report to Ivan Kurilla, Professor at the European University in St Petersburg.
The historical past and attitudes toward the war
Ivan Kurilla analyzed how history influenced different countries' positions towards Russia's war in Ukraine. How does the historically formed image of Russia and its foreign policy influence the country's position in the debate about the war today? Of course, history is not the only significant factor determining countries' attitudes to the war. For example, foreign policy strategy and moral outrage have a more substantial influence. Even so, historical experience significantly influences how we talk about the war. It influences the assumptions that societies in different countries make about Russia.
There are several ways in which the past impacts today's understanding of events, says Kurilla. For example, perceptions of each country regarding traditional allies and rivals (at least since the emergence of modern nations) are influential. Many of Russia's neighbors have perceived Russia over the centuries as the main challenge to their independence, the main threat to their national project, and a force bent on suppressing their sovereignty—these perceptions of Russia date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. These countries' historical memory and history textbooks include chapters on Russian invasions.
In 2022, these perceptions were actualized. The Russian attack on Ukraine fell into a series of events that created for these countries a frame of understanding about what was happening: "We had the same thing once, too." Different countries have similar experiences and perceive the war by analogy with their own historical experiences. Another set of historical factors, Kurilla continues, relates to relatively recent events when today's Russian policy is compared with the policy towards Russia itself. In Germany, a reassessment of Angela Merkel's legacy is part of the discussion about the current vector of Russian policy. The mistakes made by Merkel (and, to a lesser extent, her predecessors) are under discussion.
In Georgia, the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili is being discussed, and this is part of developing an understanding of how Georgia should respond to war and how it behaves. For Georgia, it is a part of the painful trauma associated with the memory of the restoration of national independence and the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Many countries also have their own historical traumas of oppression, genocide, and tyranny, which these societies project onto current events. The parallels with Ukraine are clear in Germany, where recent decades have seen the Nazi past being addressed. Germans are prepared to understand the Russians as a society that has also been in a situation where the government has done something terrible. For Germans, processing their own historical experience adds an extra dimension to their attitude to what Russia is doing now.
The perception of today's war is also influenced by historical responsibility (this also applies to Germany, but not only). Germany remembers the war it fought in the East. Therefore, it was not very popular for a German public figure, if not forbidden, to condemn Russia. German guilt and responsibility towards the Soviet people put a block on condemning what Russia is now doing. Now, this block is breaking down, but it still exists and frames the conversation about Russia in Germany. Now, Germany is the leader of modern Europe, pushing Germany to break that block.
Kurilla went on to talk about China, on which both the Kremlin and the West are pinning their hopes (the latter hoping that China will contain Russia). China maintains a favorable neutrality towards Russia. There is a view in China, expressed by the Chinese ambassador to France, that the former USSR republics have no sustainable sovereignty apart from Russia. China's own experience has had a significant influence on this.
China has a historical concept that in its 5,000-year history, it has periodically broken up into warring powers but reassembled into a unified whole. For the Chinese, this includes Tibet, Xinjiang, and some other regions that are now perceived by the outside world as part of the Chinese empire. The perception of their history, in which the collapse and reassembly of the empire is a normal phenomenon, is projected onto the situation in the post-Soviet space.
For some Chinese, what is happening in the Russian imperial space is an era of warring kingdoms, a disintegrated empire that will sooner or later come together again. In this sense, no country that was part of the USSR or the Russian empire has any guarantee that it will not revert to an empire, as has happened with Tibet, Xinjiang, and, the Chinese hope, Taiwan. Such comparisons are popular among the Chinese elite.
China's attitude towards Russia is explained not only by strategic considerations of building a game against the United States not only by plans for Taiwan, but also by its own historical experience.
For Iran, the history of the past centuries has been a constant struggle against Western colonialism, Kurilla continued. Iran compares the sanctions it has lived under for 40 years with those imposed on Russia. Russia is becoming another leader and ally in the anti-Western coalition, which is very important for Iran. The mutual interest of the two countries is very high. Iran's historical experience urges it to support Russia.
Serbia is the only European country aspiring to EU membership that has not imposed sanctions on Russia. There were not only pro-Ukrainian but also pro-Russian mass rallies. Serbia has traditionally seen Russia as an essential ally. The First World War began with Russia coming to Serbia's aid. When Serbia was bombed by the NATO planes, already strong anti-Western sentiment further strengthened there. What matters to Serbia is not that Russia is at war with Ukraine but that Russia is at war with the West. This Kremlin narrative is prevalent in Serbia. The comparison of the Russian-Ukrainian war with the Serbian-Croatian clashes of the 1990s is also popular there. Something similar is happening to them.
Georgia's experience with Russia was dramatic in the early and late twentieth century. During Mikheil Saakashvili's presidency, NATO membership was essential to the political discourse. For today's Georgian authorities, Saakashvili is a political opponent. For them, the perspective of the alliance with Ukraine and attempts to support it are perceived as beneficial for him. This creates a situation in which the Georgian leadership is playing along with the Kremlin. This led to internal conflicts within Georgian society.
A large part of Georgian society feels solidarity with Ukraine. It sees a common historical destiny. In addition, the history with Abkhazia and South Ossetia is directly projected onto what is happening with Crimea and other occupied territories. This creates a framework for Georgian society in which Russia's war with Ukraine is perceived, Kurilla noted.
The US faces geopolitical challenges threatening its role as the "world's policeman." However, what is also important in the attitude to the war is that Russia is, as constructivists say, a traditional constitutive other for the US. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire, then the USSR and today's Russia, has been the country with which the US constantly compared itself and which posed an external challenge to it.
Much has been written about the Cold War nostalgia in the United States. After the end of the Cold War, the absence of an external adversary, an enemy, an Other, led to deepening internal divisions in the US. Amid this nostalgia, much of the American elite breathed a sigh of relief when Russia re-emerged as a significant threat: "We have an enemy again against which we can construct our own identity," concluded Kurilla on American perceptions.
The Georgian foreign agent's bill
Sarah Slay, a lecturer at Batumi State University and Ilia State University, spoke next. Her presentation focused on the Georgian draft law on foreign agents. David Bakradze noted that all of us in Georgia have been involved in these protests and debates. The attempt to pass this law in the Georgian parliament was accompanied by numerous debates about whether it was copied from Russian law (as the public believes) or from the American law, FARA (as the authors of the bill claim). In fact, the Georgian parliament processed two draft bills - on transparency of foreign influence and on registration of foreign agents. Russian law is much more comprehensive - it consists of many amendments to existing laws and implies limiting the activities of so-called foreign agents and controlling their activities.
Sarah believes the Georgian laws were comparable to the Russian one, although they did not have the same repressive solid character. The aim of one of the Georgian bills, which eventually got endorsed by the parliament (though not yet wholly, through three readings), was not to make the activities of foreign-funded organizations transparent but to put pressure on NGOs and opposition media that have been declared hostile. The ruling party disguised this aim by talking about some foreign-funded forces.
FARA requires organizations subject to its regulations to register independently as foreign agents if they act in the interests of a foreign principal. On the contrary, the Georgian draft law demanded automatically registering NGOs and media outlets as agents if they receive more than 20 percent of their funding abroad. The Russian authorities use a similar norm to recognize anyone they wish as an agent. Although the Georgian bill was milder than the Russian one, it would allow for an equally arbitrary increase in pressure on civil society, opening the door to further repression.
The second Georgian bill, submitted as an alternative to the first one, was a partial copy of the American FARA. However, it was being introduced in parliament to confuse and deceive society. When the public expressed dissatisfaction that the first bill was a copy of the Russian one, the ruling party pointed to the second bill and asked, "Do you want us to adopt the American version"? In fact, American law is much better (although it has drawbacks) because it protects the media and does not endanger dissenters. However, the ruling party knows that most people will not compare the bills. Like the authors of the Russian bill, the authors of the Georgian bills claimed that both bills were better than FARA. These are false claims. It is just that the authors of the Georgian bills were using the rhetorical tactics of Russia's "big brothers", Sarah points out.
FARA (passed in 1938) responded to a challenge from the Nazi government, which sought to covertly influence American officials and taxpayers by working through "neutral" Swiss companies that hired American public relations firms. US lawmakers wanted to identify foreign clients by registering their agents and publicizing this information.
On the contrary, the Russian authorities, who recognized many people as foreign agents, aimed to suppress the growing discontent with Putin's regime since the 2011-2012 protests. The Georgian bills aimed to hit NGOs and media that criticize the political regime for corruption and its departure from the principles of democracy and Western values.
Will the Georgian authorities be most concerned about the 2024 parliamentary elections? Alternatively, is the chief motivation to increase pressure and punish the main actors of Georgian civil society? While these may be elements of the decision to push forward with this initiative, Sarah believes that the primary goal of the Georgian Dream is ideological. It needs the label of 'foreign agent' for propaganda purposes to impose the view that civil society is just a tool in the hands of the West. This is how Putin has acted to discredit civil society in Russia. The ruling party's rhetoric disconnect from reality reached new heights in Georgia during the attempt to pass the draft law on foreign agents. It looks very similar to Russian propaganda. Without facts and arguments, the ruling party's rhetoric reproduces the Russian one, presenting the struggle with civil society as a cosmic struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, and truth and lies. The attempt to pass the bill on foreign agents showed the Georgian regime's willingness to enter the Russian orbit. The ruling party in Georgia is less and less playing a double game of maintaining relations with both the West and Russia. Sarah believes that pro-Russian rhetoric in Georgia will increase attacks on civil society infrastructure, including universities.
If there is no destabilization in Russia, the Georgian ruling regime is likely to include Georgia in the group of countries that support Russia, despite the protests of the population. Both Moscow and Tbilisi repeat like a mantra that the authorities in these countries are democratically elected and express the will of the people. Moreover, all those who disagree with them are foreign-funded minorities. In this scenario, Russia could even help Georgia to calm possible protests against the government if necessary. While the Georgian authorities eventually decided to withdraw the bills on foreign influence/registration of foreign agents due to mass opposition rallies and disturbances in the center of the capital, Sarah yet believes that the struggle of the democratic movement against the concentration of power in the hands of the Georgian Dream has not been successful so far. All this will lead to more conflicts, tensions, and protests.
The end of the war and Russian relationships with Central Asia
The third speaker was Arkady Dubnov, a columnist and political analyst specializing in the analysis of post-Soviet countries of Central Asia. He spoke about Russia's possible defeat in the war with Ukraine and its relations with Central Asian countries. The war launched by Russia in Ukraine has led to a weakening of Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. More importantly, however, is the attempt to answer the question of what the space around Russia will look like after the hostilities in Ukraine end in peace.
This moment will be a turning point in the long and still unfolding story of the collapse of the USSR. Arkady argues with his colleagues, who estimate Ukraine's victory and Russia's defeat in the war. When working with the concepts of 'victory' and 'defeat,' we must develop clear criteria to separate one from the other. However, leaving aside moral, criminal, and historical assessments of the war, we will find that neither Russia nor Ukraine has the strength and capabilities to achieve their goals by military means, Arkady believes.
Russia cannot "denazify" and "demilitarize" Ukraine, let alone change the ruling regime there. Ukraine, which is finding its identity in this struggle and fiercely defending its sovereignty with unprecedented support from the West, has proved to be beyond the reach of Russia's military machine, which is many times larger in terms of resources. Despite its outstanding successes in confronting the Kremlin, Kyiv cannot return its lost territories in the near future.
If we have no illusions, we will have to admit that Ukraine's victory at this stage will be the very fact that it has survived," says Dubnov. If Russia will see this as its defeat - all the worse for it. It will probably be enough for Moscow to signify its victory with the territorial gains it has made so far in the form of the partial annexation of Zaporizhzhya, Kherson, and part of Donbas. The fate of the Ukrainian-Russian confrontation will be decided in the course of many years of painful negotiations, summits, and international conferences that will determine the new world order.
It is possible that the West is not ready to deal with a defeated Russia, the world's nuclear power, Dubnov notes. However much one may downgrade the Kremlin's narrative of nuclear assault readiness, seeing in it the bluff that if Russia is threatened with losing its current statehood, this threat could become a reality. The deployment of nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus is an integral part of this narrative.
No observer has yet described what a "defeated Russia" might look like. The fragmentation into separate quasi-princedoms led by regional barons? The secession of national republics? Civil war? In sketching out these scenarios, commentators forget to consider who and how will control the world's second most powerful nuclear arsenal under these conditions. However, we remember what US President George Bush Jr. asked Boris Yeltsin in December 1991 when the latter informed him of the collapse of the USSR.
A victorious outcome acceptable to the West (but not to Ukraine) could be the fall of the personalist Putin regime (regardless of Putin's personal fate). The arrest warrant issued for Putin by the International Criminal Court is an excellent PR move by the collective West. This decision may ultimately influence Putin's formal relinquishment of supreme power in Russia. After all, it is hard to imagine that the global community would be willing to discuss the post-war world order with such a toxic leader. Putin's horizontal shift in Russia's power hierarchy may suit the Russian elite and Putin himself.
Suppose the West wants to see this as a victory. In that case, the Russian public can accept the Kremlin's ingenious propaganda cliché: the war is the price we paid to draw the West into a real dialogue about a new world order in Russia's national interests. Putin will remain somewhere nearby as the high priest. Putin's place (even if he does not voluntarily step down) could be taken by a member of Putin's circle, who was not involved in the decision to go to war or even spoke out against it.
For example, Dmitry Kozak, the former deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration, who was stripped of his powers immediately after the war started. He apparently did not support the decision to send troops to Ukraine. A member of Putin's team since the early 2000s and an authoritative and experienced negotiator (Moldova, Ukraine, Central Asia), he could prove to be an effective frontman for the Russian negotiating team.
Dubnov believes it is time to stop dreaming of a "beautiful Russia of the future". Even if one considers these words to be merely a rhetorical turn of phrase describing the happiest scenario of Russia's future path, the Russian population, corrupted by unimaginably false, cynical propaganda, will have to go through a challenging period of adjustment to the new reality. I am not sure that this period will be peaceful, says Dubnov.
The China factor should be added to the system of equations with many unknowns describing Russia's post-war structure. President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow in 2023 showed that China has no interest in seeing Putin swept out from his leadership position in Russia in the coming years. Xi was very demonstrative about this, almost ordering a presidential election in Russia in 2024 and declaring Putin the winner. China is not interested in Russia's defeat in the war with Ukraine, as this would weaken its upcoming confrontation with the US, which seems to be the main content of the new Cold War.
Moscow will become Beijing's junior and extremely dependent partner in this confrontation. This course of events rules out a total military defeat for Russia but does not allow it to achieve an unconditional military victory. In this scenario, the post-Putin elite will remain faithful to the main historical or even existential instinct for Russia's survival - the imperial instinct. So, what "beautiful Russia of the future" do we dream about?
What kind of relationship with such a Russia will its partners and allies seek to build in the coming years? The Kremlin will remind them with renewed vigor that the post-Soviet space is a zone of special Russian interests. These interests will have to be combined with much greater geopolitical precision with the new role of the Chinese big brother, which wants to become a hegemon in this space.
China's influence in Central Asia will grow, Dubnov said. The China-Central Asia summit in May 2023 adopted a staggering plan for Central Asia's economic, military, and cultural development. Against this background, the scale of US and EU assistance to Central Asian countries does not look serious.
Moscow's relations with Kazakhstan clearly illustrate Russia's engagement with the post-Soviet countries. There seems to be much to suggest that the more the Kremlin becomes involved in the Ukrainian military campaign, the more Kazakhstan will be alienated from it. This is suggested by President Tokayev's statements on the non-recognition of the quasi-state formations in Donbas, numerous signs of support for Ukraine in Kazakh society, and the unexpectedly harsh rhetoric of Kazakh politicians in response to Russian propagandists' insinuations that Kazakhstan does not want to follow Moscow's imperial course. This is all the more the case as Kazakhstan's rapprochement with the West, particularly the US, is underway. The Kazakh authorities have taken the United States insistent calls for strict compliance with sanctions against Russia very seriously.
However, does this mean that Kazakhstan's drift away from Russia will continue? Dubnov believes that it will not. It is difficult, if not impossible, for Kazakhstan to abandon close relations with Russia. Kazakhstan and Russia share 7,500 kilometers of the common border (not counting the 500 kilometers along the Caspian Sea). The two countries' economies are closely intertwined, as is their histories. The problem of Kazakhstan's northern territories, which Russia almost officially regards as Russian land, will continue to dog relations between Moscow and Astana for a long time to come. Now, this issue has been downplayed in Russian propaganda. Despite this fact, Astana is aware that in a changed political climate (for example, in the event of Russia's humiliating defeat in Ukraine), the Kremlin could try to save its image and restore the consolidation of the loyal part of the population by raising the issue of the return of Kazakhstan's northern territories.
It is, therefore, essential to recall the Kremlin's decision to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus. A similarly brutal decision, if the Kremlin needs to assert its indestructible statehood, could be taken with regard to Kazakhstan. It is unlikely that the West, particularly NATO, will be prepared to stand up for distant Kazakhstan. That is why President Tokayev, aware of all the risks of the current situation, has only taken serious steps towards Moscow in recent months, especially in the economic sphere. However, Tokayev firmly and dignifiedly rejects all attempts by the Kremlin to draw Kazakhstan unequivocally into the orbit of Russia's vassal encirclement.
Astana is trying to protect itself from dependence on Russia by uniting with its neighbors on a regional and ethnic basis. Creating an organization of Turkic states (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Hungary) will hardly guarantee security for Kazakhstan. However, it could become an additional support in a situation of regional instability. Tokayev also strengthens the Chinese foreign policy vector. Astana's recognition of the Chinese doctrine on Taiwan ('one country, two systems') and the trust between the leaders create the impression that China could become a political shoulder of security for Kazakhstan.
Nevertheless, this impression is deceptive, says Dubnov. A pragmatic President Xi would never trade strengthening strategic ties with Moscow for helping Kazakhstan in the event of a Russian threat.
Of course, Russia's influence in the post-Soviet space is weakening due to the war in Ukraine. However, it does not follow that the Kremlin is ready to abandon the use of force to influence its partners and assert its right to remain the hegemon in the region. Kazakhstan is the clearest example of the type of relationship that Russia's other partners in Central Asia will seek to build. Fear and extreme caution are the ingredients of this style.
A recent example: before Kyrgyz President Zhapparov visited Moscow in May 2023, the Kyrgyz authorities cracked down on Russian returnees, forcing them to leave the republic. Moscow considers them traitors, as almost all of them oppose the war. The same goes for the revelation of mythical preparations for a coup d'état in Kyrgyzstan. Such a threat could be a reason for Russian military intervention. Bishkek is too dependent on Moscow's financial and other aid to afford to be on the front line, even against a half-defeated Russia.
On the other hand, Lavrov's visit to Tajikistan in the summer of 2023 showed the failure of the Russian attempt to persuade the country to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community, which is coming apart at the seams. Dushanbe responded with a categorical "no" but remains a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, whose erosion as a result of Armenia's (and to a lesser extent Kazakhstan's) disillusionment with this structure is evident. The future picture of relations with the protégés of the Russian (Soviet) empire will be more complicated than those who are convinced of the inevitability of Russia's defeat can paint today, Dubnov noted.
Russia retains other means of influence, even of subjugating post-Soviet states. In Central Asia, these include millions of migrant workers working in Russia. For the other places, the ability to manipulate the politics of the post-Soviet countries through Russian oligarchs can also be added (Bidzina Ivanishvili in Georgia, until recently Ruben Vardanyan in Nagorno-Karabakh). In conclusion, Dubnov stressed that the relations between Russia and allied countries will depend not only on the war in Ukraine but also on whether Kazakhstan will stand in the field of tough confrontation with Moscow. We need to keep a very close eye on Kazakhstan, said Dubnov. It is an important indicator.