Russian policies and attitudes towards the other former Soviet republics – collectively known to Russian foreign policy-makers as the `near abroad’ countries [1] – have been a source of continuing controversy and uncertainty. Many in the West have detected `neo-imperialist’ overtones in Russian policy. They have argued that Russia has, since 1992, increasingly been seeking to assert itself as the dominant power throughout the territories formally melded together in the USSR [2]. In Russia itself, a confused picture has emerged. Certain political and military leaders, the best-known and most extreme being Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have argued overtly for Russian dominance over the near abroad. Such figures have frequently made reference to alleged abuses of the rights of ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking populations in near abroad countries in justifying these calls [3].

Having discussed in general terms the nature of `humanitarian’ intervention and assistance, the authors will argue that history, geography and power relations dictate that Russia is almost bound to intervene in some way, shape, or form in affairs in the near aborad. In order to explore this proposition, the discussions will then focus on the evolution and nature of Russian relations with specific near abroad countries since 1992. The areas to be examined in detail will be relations between Russia and the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, and Russian policies towards the secessionist crisis in Moldova. It will be asked to what extent it can plausibly be argued that Russian policy has been motivated by genuine humanitarian concerns about the fate of Russians outside Russia or whether professed concerns basically amount to little more than a diplomatic figleaf for a neo-imperialist agenda.

‘Humanitarian’ Intervention and Assistance

Issues surrounding the question of humanitarian activity have become an increasing preoccupation of writers on contemporary international affairs. There is no consensus on whether there is or should be a right to intervene within the borders or with the affairs of a sovereign state. Adam Roberts, a leading expert in the field, has argued that, notwithstanding recent academic debates and attempts to nuance its meaning, the term `humanitarian intervention’ essentially refers to “military intervention in another country”[4]. In the near abroad context, such use might help explain the activities of `Russian’ armed forces in Moldova since 1992 which have openly intervened on the side of separatists against the central government, citing in part at least the protection of ethnic Russian rights to self-determination in the disputed region. It does not, on the other hand, help much in examining relations between Russia and the Baltic states.

In the Baltics the status of local Russians has been a key problem area since 1992. It is true to say that this has been closely bound up with the question of the withdrawal of former Soviet Russian forces from the region. However the Russians have chosen to rely principally on diplomatic methods of pressure, occasionally supplemented with hints of economic sanctions (in the form of possible termination of energy supplies to the Balts). The alleged plight of the Baltic Russians has not at any stage prompted Russian humanitarian intervention of the kind defined by Roberts. In terms of the officially-stated goal of Russian policy, the mainly diplomatic pressure can be conceived of as being humanitarian assistance. Whilst Russian forces have not been used within the borders of either of the Baltic states, the Russians (and others) have still sought to pressure and influence the policy-making process in Estonia and Latvia with a view, they have argued, to improving the lot of the Baltic Russians.

The concept of humanitarian assistance is even more ill-defined and contested than that of intervention. Many argue, at least implicitly, that humanitarian intervention or assistance should only be considered as an option by outside powers when large-scale abuses of human rights are taking place; i.e. when the lives of people are in danger either directly from persecution or as a result of their being caught up in conflict. Stanley Hoffmann, for instance, argues along these lines. His criteria justifying humanitarian intervention “would encompass genocide, ethnic cleansing, brutal and large-scale repression…..famines, massive breakdowns of law and order, epidemics and flights of refugees that occur when a `failed state’ collapses” [5].

There is, additionally, the question of when pressure on one state by another (or a group of others) moves from being `humanitarian’ to being something else. Some have asserted a pristine view of humanitarianism, arguing that activities which cross a certain line should not be dignified with the label. In a recent paper published by the UK arm of the United Nations Association, for example, it was argued that “humanitarian intervention should have as its primary goal the protection and preservation of lives and should not aim at challenging…..regimes in power”[6]. For a number of analysts however, such a distinction is, in practice, impossible to maintain. Michael Mandelbaum has made this point succinctly: “humanitarian intervention…..leads, ineluctably, to political intervention, and political intervention by the strong in the affairs of the weak is as old asinternational politics itself” [7]. Intervention or assistance, if it is to offer more than the temporary amelioration of discrimination or suffering, will very likely have to involve changing the status quo in the target state. As Richard Falk has put it, “intervention seeks some degree of political restructuring or, at the very least, a shift of fundamental policy on the part of the target society” [8].

It is in this context that the `humanitarian’ motives of Russian leaders in their dealings with near abroad countries will be assessed in the discussions which follow. Even if Russia has been seeking to bring about changes in policy, or even changes in regime, this is not here considered, in itself, sufficient to render invalid claims that Russian policy has embraced a humanitarian dimension. Finally, there seems to be a prevailing consensus amongst writers and commentators on humanitarian intervention and assistance that such activities should be conducted, wherever possible, within a multilateral framework. The extent to which Russian policy has been founded on such a basis will thus be a focus addressed in the sections which follow.

<h2Russia, the other Republics and the Collapse of the USSR
Any discussion of Russian activity in the near abroad can usefully begin by noting the extent to which the collapse of the Soviet superstructure at the end of 1991 left Russia and the fourteen other newly-independent republics still very tightly integrated both socially and economically. The overriding social issue, from the perspective of the analysis here, has been the presence of 25-30m ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking peoples outside Russia in the near abroad countries. They have been scattered throughout the other republics, and their presence and status has become a political issue to some extent throughout the former Soviet space except, perhaps, in Belarus. Their position has been especially controversial in Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan (where ethnic Russians are almost as numerous as ethnic Kazakhs) and Moldova [9].

Although some political and military figures inside Russia have undoubtedly used the issue of Russians abroad to further their own narrow nationalist or personal agendas, there is little doubt that many Russians, at least amongst the political elite, have felt a genuine sense of kinship with their compatriots abroad, and a feeling that the welfare of those people is something in which Russia itself has a legitimate interest. In trying to explain why this is so, it is useful to focus on the impact of the Soviet collapse on the Russian national psyche. Maxim Shashenkov has argued that “the collapse of the USSR was tantamount to the collapse of the Russian state itself – the Russians did not have any other `core’ nation-state to return to after the break-up of the Soviet empire”. He further contends that the post-1917 process of building the Russian state became fused with the construction and consolidation of the Soviet empire. As a consequence, many Russians inside Russia have found it hard in emotional terms to come to terms with the `loss’ of the former empire [10]. The presence and status of the millions of ethnic or linguistic compatriots on the territory of the other republics has, as Neil Melvin has noted, “become a central concept in defining Russian national identity” since the Soviet collapse [11].

This is, in part, because a sense of national identity within Russia itself has been relatively weak since 1991. Russia is an ungainly federation; a veritable patchwork quilt of smaller republics, regions, districts and other units. These have varying degrees of autonomy and a host of differing relationships with the central authorities in Moscow. Whilst few western specialists expect the Russian Federation to fall apart, [12] the administrative and political difficulties caused by its current composition do serve to provide a stimulus to those who prefer to stress the ethnic and cultural components of Russian-ness, a broad concept embracing people who live outside the political and administrative state of Russia proper.

A pervasive sense of insecurity has arisen in Russia, not just because of the parlous state of the Russian economy or the poor state of the military machine, but also, as yet, a relatively weak sense of national identity. In an insightful analysis of factors motivating Russian foreign policy published in October 1994, Stephen Covington argued that Russia since 1991 has been following an “insecurity policy”. By adopting what to western observers may appear to be rather negative or even aggressive policies and attitudes, Covington argues that Russian leaders have been seeking to try to both disguise and ameliorate an underlying sense of insecurity. In Covington’s view the near abroad has a key place in this insecurity policy. He argues that Russia has been seeking, through the structures of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), to create a “strategic corset, pulling these nations closer to Russia in order to hold Russia together” [13]

When considering relations between Russia and the other republics since 1991 one should also take into account the very tight economic integration which existed amongst all republics during Soviet times – with Russia very much at the centre of things. Some have doubted whether the other republics can become economically less dependent on, still less independent from, Russia in the foreseeable future [14]. Because economic relations within the Soviet Union were based substantially on inter-republican division of labour, Russia for its part is dependent on technology or other products from near abroad countries in key economic sectors [15]. Whilst this does not extend so far as genuine economic interdependence, Russia nonetheless has incurred substantial financial costs as a result of the continuing pattern of economic relations carried over from the Soviet era. It was reported by the Russian newspaper Sevodnya, for example, that in 1992 Russia had given economic aid to near abroad countries to the tune of $76bn. This was the equivalent, according to The Economist, of 10% of Russia’s Gross Domestic Product [16].

The living standards of ethnic Russians in the near abroad countries have on occasion been cited as justifying such a level of aid. A key consideration here has been the view that the best way to prevent a flood of ethnic Russians from migrating to Russia itself is to seek to improve conditions in their country of residence. During 1992 and 1993 proportionally more ethnic Russians migrated into Russia from Tajikistan, which had slid into civil war, than any other former Soviet republic. According to one estimate, of the 387,000 ethnic Russians living there in 1989, some 300,000 had migrated by mid-1993 [17]. During this time Tajikistan became a major area of focus in Russian foreign policy. Russian forces were deployed there on a loosely-defined `peacekeeping’ and border-patrol mission. In justifying this to the Russian people in August 1993, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev argued that “what is at stake is ensuring the security and legitimate rights of the 200,000 person [sic] Russian community. We cannot abandon those people under any circumstances” [18]. Quite so, if the alternative was for those people to flee en masse to a Russia that was widely felt to be chronically ill-equipped to absorb and integrate them. Russian economic support for the Tajik government was also being increased. In December 1993 it was reported that Russian aid made up 70% of the annual state budget of Tajikistan; 25% more than in Soviet times [19].

Many Russian policy-makers have perceived a link between influxes of refugees and the treatment of Russians living in the near abroad. Even the relatively liberal Andrei Kozyrev argued, in April 1995, that mass migration – (he claimed that over 250,000 had migrated to Russia from near abroad countries in 1994) – represented “the most palpable proof” of the “unsatisfactory” attitude towards ethnic Russians’ rights by the authorities in the near abroad [20]. The refugee question provides the key element of the overall framework within which Russian leaders consider their activities in the near abroad to be motivated by humanitarian concerns. It is not disinterested humanitarianism, because Russian leaders believe that it is in their own best interest to avoid economic and social dislocation arising from an unrestrained influx of refugees.

There is a further issue of relevance here. Given that the traditional western definition of humanitarian intervention has stressed its status as an activity taking place within the boundaries of sovereign states, it is worth noting that doubts have been cast on whether at least some of the former Soviet republics really have and can become independent, fully-sovereign states. Martha Brill Olcott has argued that only half of the former Soviet republics apart from Russia even “have full sovereignty as their goal”. In Olcott’s view the republics which do seek full sovereignty are the three Baltic states, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. The others, according to Olcott, are prepared to limit their aspirations to either “quasi-sovereignty” (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), basically depending upon Russia to assure their security and provide generous economic assistance, or else are “undecided” (Georgia, Moldova and Armenia) [21]. Significantly, none of the three within which Russian military operations have been conducted since 1992 (Tajikistan, Moldova and Georgia) belong to Olcott’s first category of unequivocal sovereignty-seekers.

Alexander Tsipko, a researcher working for the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow, has argued that only the three Baltic states are fully committed to consolidating their independence [22]. Tsipko believes that the other republics are all, to some degree, drifting back towards Russia for economic, social and cultural reasons. For Tsipko ” `Russian’ is an adjective which denotes belonging to a particular culture, history and – what is more important – to a state, rather than to an ethnos”. Russian language and culture are, he argues, “a product of the empire. Therefore, they rightly belong by right to all the ethnic groups inhabiting it” [23].

By virtue of geography, history, economics and cultural issues, the other Soviet successor states are bound to be affected by what Russia does – or chooses not to do. All of them are dependent on Russia to some degree, especially in the economic sphere and, as Hans Morgenthau argued in 1967, for relatively small and weak new nations, “the supplier of foreign aid holds the power of life and death over them. If a foreign nation supplies aid it intervenes; if it does not supply aid it also intervenes” [24]. The specific case studies in the section which follows are, however, less concerned with the rationale for Russian near abroad intervention per se than with examining the extent of what may be called the genuine humanitarian component of the Russian activity which has taken place with regard to the Baltic states and Moldova.

Russian Policy in Practice – Two Case Studies

i) The Baltic States

The position of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the Baltic states has garnered much the most political and popular attention in both Russia and the West, relatively speaking, since 1992. In the West this has undoubtedly been due in large part to a common view that, as former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt noted in 1994, “Russia’s policies towards the Baltic countries will be the litmus test of its new direction” [25]. Thus, western governments have been particularly concerned about the fate of the Baltics [26]. International concerns up to the summer of 1994 were focused mainly on the question or whether and to what extent Russia would use the question of the withdrawal of its troops from the Baltic states as a bargaining chip with which to lever political and diplomatic concessions in other areas from the Balts. In Russia too, there has also been a tendency to treat the Baltics as a special case. Russian analysts like Alexander Tsipko who believe that the other former Soviet republics are drifting towards a closer Russian embrace have tended to exclude the three Baltic states from their argument.

Undoubtedly, future relations with the Baltic republics have been seen by some in Moscow as a key test of Russia’s continuing great power aspirations. Some important figures close to President Yeltsin seem to have found it difficult to bring themselves to admit that the Baltics have or should move out of the Russian orbit. This thinking was clearly illustrated in the spring of 1994 when a decree was issue in Moscow, signed by President Yeltsin, concerning the establishment of Russian military bases on the territory of CIS member states “and of the Latvian Republic”. The Latvian government had not been consulted about this in advance and would certainly not have consented to hosting Russian bases had it been so. Its diplomatic protests were met on the Russian side with the frankly incredible explanation that the inclusion of Latvia in the text of the decree had been an `administrative mistake’. Far more likely is that the Russians were trying to unilaterally reinterpret an outline accord previously reached with the Latvians. This would allow the Russians to retain a single intelligence-gathering base on Latvian territory for a limited period after all other forces were withdrawn. The Yeltsin decree seemed like an attempt to frog-march the Latvians into agreeing to turn this limited agreement into a more general authorisation for future Russian military deployments in Latvia [27].

On the other hand, many Russian leaders have harboured a significant degree of real concern about the treatment of Russian communities in the Baltics; specifically in Estonia and Latvia. This helps to explain why Russia’s relations with Lithuania have, in general, been more harmonious than those with either Estonia or Latvia. The last Russian forces were withdrawn from Lithuania in August 1993; a full year before their final departure from either of the other Baltic states. Lithuania has a significantly smaller Russian community than the others. In 1993, 9.4% of the population of Lithuania were estimated to be ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers. Comparable figures for Estonia were 30.3% and for Latvia 34%[28]. No doubt helped by the relatively small number of ethnic Russians on its territory, Lithuania has adopted liberal citizenship laws. Citizenship has been offered to all permanent residents of the country. Russia itself adopted similar laws in 1992 when citizenship of the Russian Federation was offered to all those who had been permanent residents in the country at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Further, Russia had negotiated agreements with both Latvia and Estonia during 1990 and 1991 (when the USSR was still together but the Balts were pushing towards independence) which formally encapsulated this liberal attitude to citizenship. Under these accords all people living in either Russia, Estonia or Latvia at the time the agreements were signed were supposed to be granted “the right to maintain or achieve citizenship” in either Russia or the Baltic republics “according to their expression of free will” [29].

Attempts to partially backtrack from these commitments on the part of both the Estonian and Latvian governments has, since 1992, been at the heart of tensions in their relations with Russia. The legal basis cited by the Balts for reviewing the situation has been the fact that the 1991 agreements had been negotiated within the framework of the still-extant Soviet Union and had no continuing validity once that state had ceased to exist. The Latvians could also point to the fact that their agreement had never been ratified by the Russian parliament.

Whilst these arguments had some legal foundation, they have proven to be politically and diplomatically unfortunate. Whatever the Baltic republics intended to do about the status of their ethnic Russians under the revised citizenship laws was almost certain to be interpreted in a negative way in Russia, because they involved defining citizenship and residency rights for ethnic Russians in a more restrictive way than the 1991 agreements. The citizenship debates and law-drafting processes in Estonia and Latvia have been extensively reported in the Russian media, almost always in an unfavourable light. Particular attention was devoted to the 1993 draft Estonian `Law on Aliens’ governing who would be permitted to reside in Estonia. Some inside Russia argued at the time that this law would, if adopted, lead to the mass expulsion of ethnic Russians. With regard to Latvia, the main focus of Russian criticism has been the proposals put forward in the parliament during 1993 and 1994 for the introduction of quotas limiting annually the numbers of Russians who could apply for Latvian citizenship. Without citizenship, the ethnic Russians would be denied some important rights – including the right to own land and to stand as candidates in elections [30].

In the West too the impression that the Balts were in danger of infringing upon the rights of ethnic Russians gained currency. In late 1992 former US President Jimmy Carter was quoted as referring to “what I consider to be mistreatment of Soviet minorities in Latvia and Estonia”[31]. In 1993 Bill Wallace, a British academic specialist, argued that the Balts’ treatment of their ethnic Russians “raises serious doubts about their political maturity”[32]. By that time, western governments, with Sweden in the vanguard, had become sufficiently concerned about the situation in the Baltics as to have successfully persuaded the governments of Estonia and Latvia to permit fact-finding teams from the United Nations to visit both states to assess the position of Russian communities on behalf of the international community. These missions were followed up by concerted diplomatic pressure (by this time the United States was becoming interested in the issue) on the Balts to submit their proposed citizenship legislation to international scrutiny by experts working under the auspices of the Council of Europe (CoE) and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE)

The international pressure was not just designed to encourage the Balts to think again. Carl Bildt, who played an important role in focusing international attention on the issue during 1992 and 1993, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1994 that the main reason for CoE and CSCE involvement was to “make it difficult for Russia to use trumped-up charges of human rights violations in these countries to exert pressure” [33] By no means all western experts have subscribed to the view that the treatment of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states has been unduly harsh. In a useful study, based on opinion polling of ethnic Russians in the Baltics, William Maley concluded in 1995 that whatever local discrimination might actually exist had not proved sufficient to persuade significant majorities of the ethnic Russian populations that emigration to Russia was a desirable alternative to life in the Baltic states[34]. Bildt made a similar point in his Foreign Affairs article. Here he argued that the involvement of international bodies was basically designed to place constraints of Russian freedom to manoeuvre diplomatically, and that the Balts have essentially been given a clean bill of health under existing international norms and conventions.

The UN fact-finding mission to Latvia in October 1992 did conclude that there was no evidence of “gross and systematic violations of human rights”. The mission noted however that it had received over 300 petitions from Russians and representatives of other ethnic groups complaining specifically about “arbitrary and discriminatory practices in the registration of Latvia’s inhabitants”. In consequence of this the mission did register concern about the nature of Latvia’s draft citizenship and residency legislation [35]. This has evidently continued to be an issue of some contention. In November 1994, the annual report published by the Secretary-General of the CSCE made referrence, in language strikingly similar to that used by the UN missions two years earlier, to “rigid and even arbitrary administrative practices” by Latvian officials with regard to citizenship applications [36].

The situation in Latvia appears to have been more problematical than either Lithuania or Estonia, with nationalist sentiments running stronger in the former republic and the local Russians being more isolated from mainstream Latvian society in consequence [37]. Because of this the Latvian government has encountered the more significant problems in framing citizenship legislation which is fully acceptable not only to Russia, but also to the international community. This has been demonstrated by the fact that, whereas both Lithuania and Estonia were admitted to the Council of Europe in the course of 1993, Latvia was still being denied full membership (for which acceptable citizenship laws are an important precondition) at the beginning of 1995.

In order to secure its admission to the CoE in May 1993, the Estonian government promised significant amendments to its draft Law on Aliens in order to ease the process by which Russians and other ethnic groups could apply for permanent residency permits. Western pressure on this question continued even after Estonia’s CoE admission. In July 1933, it was reported that the Estonian President had proposed 27 amendments to the aliens law, based on recommendations made by the CSCE and CoE [38]. In 1994 the European Union, arguably the most powerful western institution, was reportedly also being used as a forum for the articulation and application of western diplomatic pressure [39]. In Latvia the process of persuading the political leadership, particularly in the parliament, to modify its proposed legislation was slower to bear fruit. Nevertheless it was reported during the summer of 1994 that the Latvian parliament had finally agreed to compromise on the most contentious of the proposed provisions – the annual naturalisation quotas [40].

A number of general observations can, in summary, be made about relations between Russian and the Baltic states in the period since 1991. It would, firstly, be foolish to make the claim that the Russian agenda has been entirely motivated by concerns about the fate of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states. There has undoubtedly been an element of great power posturing and pressurising in Russian diplomacy, and by no means everyone amongst the Russian elite has given up the belief that the Baltics could and should one day be `reintegrated’ with Russia. Having said this, many Russian leaders have been genuinely concerned about the fate of local Russians and this has contributed to the Baltics becoming one of the main focal points of Russian diplomacy, certainly in the context of the near abroad as a whole [41]. Furthermore, the evidence discussed above of proposals to restrict citizenship and residency for ethnic Russian communities in Estonia and Latvia, does provide a measure of justification for Russian concerns.

In the earlier discussions on the nature of humanitarian intervention and assistance, it was noted that an important criterion suggested by many for the label `humanitarian’ to be justly applied is the extent to which recognised international bodies – chiefly the UN – are invited to become involved. In the Baltics an array of international agencies have been centrally involved in trying to broker compromises. The UN, the CSCE (OSCE after November 1994) and the Council of Europe have all been used as fora within which these problems have been tackled by Russia, the Baltic states and shifting coalitions of western states. In Russia itself, there has been some resentment of alleged western interference, expressed by for example former Yeltsin aide and leading political figure Sergei Stankevich [42]. Nevertheless the Russians have been prepared to accept this high degree of `internationalisation’ of the issue.

Finally, in assessing the balance between great power ambition to re-establish imperial control and genuine humanitarian concern in Russia’s Baltic policy, it is surely important to bear in mind the argument eloquently made by Martin Klatt in August 1994, just as the last Russian troops were leaving Estonian and Latvian territory. “It is remarkable, wrote Klatt, “that a superpower has voluntarily given up strategically important territory. Such a concession is exceptional in history, despite the fact that the annexation of the Baltic States was a breach of international law” [43].

ii) Moldova and the Transdniester Dispute

In 1991 a rebel group in eastern Moldova formally declared secession from the Moldovan state and proclaimed the establishment of a `Dniester Republic’. The `borders’ of this new `state’ coincided with the area within which a substantial proportion of Moldova’s half million strong ethnic Russian community resided. This helped to ensure from the start that some leading figures in Moscow (chiefly the then Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi) saw the dispute as being one in which Russia had a legitimate – and partisan – interest. Once again however the question arises as to the extent to which the Russian interest was really motivated by concerns for the welfare and wellbeing of Moldova’s Russians. Or has this merely served as a diplomatic figleaf obscuring a Russian neo-imperialist agenda?

At the time of the secession, Russian military forces were were based in the Dniester region and they have, to date, remained there. Their role has been a matter of controversy for both Russian and western observers. Few would argue that local Russian forces have been openly partisan in their support of the Dniester rebels. What is in dispute however is the extent to which this support has been directed from Moscow and is in accord with a centrally-determined Russian policy. Has there, indeed, actually been a single, unified, Russian policy on the Dniester issue?

Some informed observers appear to think so. In August 1992 for example, Vladimir Socor concluded an assessment of the Moldovan problem by stating that: “while feeding to a limited degree on ethnic issues, the conflict can be traced directly to Moscow’s interest in maintaining a political and military foothold in a strategic area” [44]. This is a common (though not unanimous) view in the West. A closer examination of the issues however suggests that the true situation might in fact not be so black-and-white.

The key issue in this context is the extent to which the Russian forces in Moldova (which became the Fourteenth Army in 1992) have been acting in accordance with orders from the responsible central authorities in Moscow. A good deal of evidence is available to suggest that in fact they have not, and that their status as `Moscow Russian’, forces are questionable at best. When the Dniester separatists declared independence in 1991, they appointed as their `Defence Minister’ none other than the then commander of the Fourteenth Army, General Gennady Yakovlev [45]. Under his regime the Fourteenth Army provided extensive de facto support for the Dniestrian rebels [46]. Those who favour the view that Moscow has been heavily in involved on the side of the rebels have produced little in the way of firm evidence to suggest that this support was ordered from Moscow as opposed to resulting from unilateral activity on the part of highly partisan local commanders. In this context it is worth bearing in mind that, according to figures produced by Neil Melvin, up to 40% of the commissioned officers, and 90% of the NCOs, in the Fourteenth Army at its creation in 1992 came from the Dniester region [47].

An attempt to reassert central control probably lay behind Boris Yeltin’s decision during 1992 to formally reconstitute what was left of former Soviet forces in Moldova into the Fourteenth Army and to appoint General Alexander Lebed to succeed Yakovlev as commander. Far from seeking to escalate the conflict with the Dniestrian secession had provoked, Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev sought to damp down secessionist tendencies and preserve the unity of the state of Moldova. To this end Lebed was dispatched to impose a truce, by force if necessary, between the warring factions (this he did, though in a somewhat draconian fashion). At the same time, Kozyrev was touting a diplomatic plan under which Moldova’s immediate neighbours to the east and the west (i.e. Ukraine and Romania) would join Russia and the Moldovan central government in underwriting the territorial integrity of the state. The Kozyrev plan did include provisions for autonomy for the ethnic Russian and other communities in the Dniester region, but not for a separate state.

Thus, the maintenance of the territorial integrity of Moldova has been the essence of the Yeltsin-Kozyrev strategy. The position of local Russians was an important issue in their thinking. Two factors were of especial importance. Firstly, there was concern about the possible impact of continuing violence and uncertainty about the future of the Moldovan state on the number of migrants coming into Russia. The influx of migrants has been, as noted above, an issue of major concern in Russia. Moldova has not been among the main sources of migrants in the near abroad but there have evidently been fears that it might become one if a secessionist dispute became protracted or got out of hand.

The second important factor is that, Russian leaders in the Yeltsin-Kozyrev camp, whilst not seeking a new imperial role in Moldova, have been reluctant to contemplate the bulk of what is now Moldovan territory being `lost’ to another state. This could conceivably happen if the area containing most of that country’s ethnic Russians was allowed to break away. Romania, with which many ethnic Moldovans feel a sense of affinity, might then either move, or be invited, to annex the remainder of Moldovan territory. The basic strategy pursued by Yeltsin and Kozyrev since 1992 may be said to have worked in the sense that the Dniester region has been prevented from breaking away, whilst the initial violence provoked by its attempt to do so has been effectively contained. However, central policy has been beset, in both the political and military spheres, by Yeltsin and Kozyrev’s inability to control activities of other important figures in the Russian elite. In the political sphere there has been open dissention from the Yeltsin line by Vice-President Rutskoi and from within the Russian parliament [48]. To an extent at least, this was diminished following the storming of the Russian parliament building in Moscow by forces loyal to Yeltsin in October 1993. More significant has been the continuing role of the Fourteenth Army which, under General Lebed, continued to function effectively as a law unto itself in Moldova.

Lebed scarcely troubled to hide the extent to which he set his own agenda. In February 1993, in an interview published in Izvestia, he made clear that the Fourteenth Army would not be withdrawn from Moldova until he and his fellow officers decided that the time was right. He added that “people in the Kremlin, the White House or somewhere else may get indignant over this and adopt all manner of decisions but no orders or arbitrary decisions will help”. This was open defiance indeed because, as the interviewer from Izvestia noted at the time, talks were then underway between Yeltsin and Moldovan President Mircea Snegur on a timetable for the progressive withdrawal of the Fourteenth Army from Moldova [49]. As these talks continued, so did Lebed’s public boasts of his independence. In August 1993 he was quoted in The Economist as saying that “I’m a cat that likes to walk by itself”. On this occasion he added that “theoretically we are under the orders of the commander-in-chief of ground forces in Moscow. In practice we take decisions here” [50].

In the event an agreement was eventually signed between the Russian and Moldovan governments providing for a phased withdrawal of the Fourteenth Army. It remains unclear when, and indeed whether, the army will actually be pulled out, however. Prospects may have improved following the mercurial General Lebed’s decision in the spring of 1995 to resign as commander in order to pursue a political career in Moscow. On the other hand, Russian policy on Moldovan questions has been so badly fragmented that it is by no means clear that the moderates in Moscow will be able to assert themselves; particularly if the predicted swings towards more hardline and reactionary parties and leaders do in fact come to pass in the upcoming Russian parliamentary and presidential elections.

In assessing Russian attitudes and policy towards Moldova overall it can be said that assertions that the central authorities in Moscow have articulated and consistently pursued a clear neo-imperialist agenda have been exaggerated. On the other hand, the more moderate objectives of President Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Kozyrev have undoubtedly been undermined; both by the activities and pronouncements of more hardline Russian political leaders, and by the military freelancing on the part of commanders of the Fourteenth Army on the ground in Moldova itself.

As regards the issue of the rights of ethnic Russians, these have been used principally as an excuse for supporting the Dniestrian secessionists by hardliners in Moscow and within the Fourteenth Army. There is little hard evidence to suggest that the rights of Moldova’s ethnic Russians have in fact been significantly infringed by the Moldovan authorities [51]. Indeed, the more moderate elements amongst the Russian leadership in Moscow have evidently felt that local Russians would be less likely to leave Moldova if the unitary state were preserved than if there were a potentially bloody and protracted struggle for a separate Dniester republic.


This study has not aimed to offer a comprehensive or inclusive analysis of Russia’s relations with the other former Soviet republics since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Rather, it has been focused on the importance of the question of the status of rights or ethnic Russians or Russian speakers living outside Russia in specific near abroad countries. The two case studies chosen do not, of course, represent the totality of tensions and conflict in the former Soviet space. However they do represent the two areas of tension and conflict in which the position and rights of ethnic Russians abroad have been a significant factor; more so than with regard to, for example, the various disputes which have beset Georgia since 1991, or the ongoing sparring between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The evidence presented and discussed in this study cautions against the assumption that Russian military and diplomatic activity in the near abroad since 1991 has been motivated solely, or even mainly, by a desire to re-establish some kind of imperial control over the region. The analysis of the situation in the Baltic states in particular suggests that the position of ethnic Russians, principally in Estonia and Latvia, has been an important factor in determining the course and nature of relations between these states and Russia. Russian concerns have been understandable, even though the more outlandish claims of grave human rights abuses have been unfounded. The extensive involvement of international organisations in advising the Baltic states on possible amendments to draft legislation on citizenship and residency reflects the extent to which the rights of non-indigenous ethnic groups in these countries were not fully accounted for in the original draft versions. Russia’s willingness to acquiesce in this high degree of internationalisation, rather than attempting to resist it and pursue its own agendas offers further support for the view that Russian leaders have not simply sought to use stated concerns about the position of ethnic Russians in the Baltics as a stick with which to beat the Baltic leaderships or as a pretext to intervene unilaterally `in defence of human rights’. Indeed, notwithstanding some disputes and occasional holdups, the years 1992-1994 were marked by the progressive Russian military withdrawal from the Baltic states.

The status and rights of ethnic Russians has not been as prominent (at least in terms of gaining and holding the attention of the intertional community) in the Moldovan context. Nevertheless they have been an issue. The secessionist movement which triggered the crisis in 1991-92 originated in the region where most of Moldova’s ethnic Russians were concentrated. Largely because of this, the Dniester issue was seized upon by hardline political and military elements in Russia and turned by some of them into a question of the extent to which `Mother Russia’ was prepared to support the aspirations of its brethren abroad for freedom. The situation was complicated and made much more intractable by the presence of a Russian army on the ground in the disputed region, and by Moscow’s continuing inability to bring this under firm and reliable central control.

In both the cases discussed in this study even the more moderate Russian leaders have undoubtedly sought opportunities to maximise Russian influence over the other former Soviet republics. Many would argue that bigger powers will naturally tend to seek to exert influence over the smaller powers in their vicinity, though only occasionally will this extend to attempts to incorporate the latter – by force if necessary – into an actual empire. That Russia has been engaging in this kind of activity since the collapse of the USSR should not, therefore, be seen as either surprising or a cause for undue western pessimism or alarm.

Ken Aldred is Director of the Council for Arms Control, an independent charity which promotes the study of contemporary arms control issues. He is a former Secretary-General of Peace Through NATO.

Martin Smith teaches and researches in the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, from which he received his PhD in 1994. He is currently writing, with Ken Aldred, a book about hegemonic power in post-Cold War international relations for publication by Brassey’s in 1997.

Notes and References

This article benefitted significantly from presentation to the International Relations and Security Studies seminar held in the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, in November 1995.

1. These are Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The status of the three Baltic republics (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) is ambiguous. They are the only ex-Soviet republics never to have joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, which Russians often use to denote the area of the near abroad. Sometimes however, Russian leaders refer instead to the territory of the ex-Soviet Union which does, of course, embrace the Baltic states.

2. For a sample of these views see: Suzanne Crow, `Russia Prepares to take a Hard Line on “Near Abroad”‘, RFE/RL Research Report (hereafter RFE/RL) 1 32 1992, pp21-24. Bruce Porter & Carol Saivetz, `The Once and Future Empire: Russia and the “Near Abroad”‘, The Washington Quarterly 17 3 1994, pp75-90. `Still on the Prowl’, The Economist 28 August 1993, pp13-14.

3. On this see Neil Melvin, Russians Beyond Russia. (London: Pinter 1995), p10ff.

4. Adam Roberts, `Humanitarian War: Military Intervention and Human Rights’, International Affairs 69 3 1993, p445.

5. Stanley Hoffmann, `The Politics and Ethics of Military Intervention’, Survival 37 4 1995-96, p38.

6. Comfort Ero & Suzanne Long, Humanitarian Intervention: A New Role for the United Nations?. (London: United Nations Association 1994), pp11-12.

7. Michael Mandelbaum, `The Reluctance to Intervene’, Foreign Policy 95 1994, p12.

8. Richard Falk, `Hard Choices and Tragic Dilemmas’, The Nation 20 December 1993, p756.

9. These are the states and regions surveyed in Melvin op.cit. (n3).

10. Maxim Shashenkov, `Russian Peacekeeping in the “Near Abroad”‘, Survival 36 3 1994, pp47-48.

11. Melvin op.cit. (n3), p22.

12. On this question see: Mark Smith, Russia’s Regions – Attitudes to Central Authority. (Camberley: Conflict Studies Research Centre 1994). Susan Clark & David Graham, `The Russian Federation’s Fight for Survival’, Orbis 39 3 1995, pp329-351.

13. Stephen Covington, Moscow’s Insecurity and Eurasian Instability. (Camberley: Conflict Studies Research Centre. 1994), p16.

14. See, for example, `Why Soviet republics cannot go it alone’, The Independent 3 September 1991.

15. See J.Lough, Russia’s Influence in the “Near Abroad”. (Camberley: Conflict Studies Research Centre 1993), p2

16. Sevodnya 28 September 1993. Translated in the Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press (hereafter CDPSP) XLV 39 1993, p27. `Great Russia revives’, The Economist 18 September 1993, p41.

17. See Sheila Marnie & Wendy Slater, `Russia’s Refugees’, RFE/RL 2 37 1993, p49.

18. Quoted in Izvestia 4 August 1993. CDPSP XLV 31 1993, p7.

19. `In the “Near Abroad”, Unfamiliar Roles for Russian Army’, International Herald Tribune 1 December 1993.

20. Kozyrev’s remarks are reprinted in `Fate of the Russian-Speaking Population of CIS and Baltic Countries’, International Affairs (Moscow) 6 1995, p109.

21. Martha Brill Olcott, `Sovereignty and the `Near Abroad”, Orbis 39 3 1995, pp353-367.

22. Alexander Tsipko, `A New Russian Identity or Old Russia’s Reintegration?’, Security Dialogue 25 4 1994, p443.

23. Ibid., p452.

24. Hans Morgenthau, `To Intervene or Not to Intervene’, Foreign Affairs 45 3 1967, p427.

25. Carl Bildt, `The Baltic Litmus Test’, Foreign Affairs 73 5 1994, p72.

26. For evidence of the special status accorded to the Baltics in British foreign policy in the early 1990s see James Mayall, `Non-Intervention, Self-Determination and the `New World Order’, International Affairs 67 3 1991, pp425-426.

27. On this incident see the series of articles in the Russian press reprinted in CDPSP XLVI 14 1994, pp1-4.

28. Figures taken from Marnie & Slater op.cit. (n17), p47.

29. Riina Kionka, `Russia Recognizes Estonia’s Independence’, RFE/RL Report on the USSR 3 5 1991, pp15-16.

30. For a sample of Russian press reporting of Baltic citizenship issues see Izvestia 30 June 1993. CDPSP XLV 26 1993, pp16-17. Izvestia 19 January 1994. CDPSP XLVI 3 1994, pp23-24. Rossia 18-24 May 1994. CDPSP XLVI 20 1994, p13. Sevodnya 11 June 1994. CDPSP XLVI 23 1994, p16.

31. Quoted in Richard Krickus, `Latvia’s “Russian Question”‘, RFE/RL 2 18 1993, p29.

32. B.Wallace, Changes and Options: The Peoples of the Soviet Union since its Collapse. (London: International Security Information Service 1993), p6

.33. Bildt op.cit. (n25), p81.

34. William Maley, `Does Russia Speak for Baltic Russians?’, The World Today 5 1 1995, pp4-6.

35. Krickus op.cit. (n31), p30.

36. CSCE Annual Report 1994. (Vienna: CSCE Secretariat 1994), p8.

37. See the chapter on the Baltics in Melvin op.cit. (n3).

38. Izvestia 10 July 1993. CDPSP XLV 28 1993, p24.

39. Sevodnya 5 May 1994. CDPSP XLVI 18 1994, pp12-13.

40. See Saulius Girnius, `Relations between the Baltic States and Russia’, RFE/RL 3 33 1994, p31.

41. It has, indeed, been argued that Russia has over-focused on Baltic Russian issues, to the detriment of ethnic Russian communities elsewhere in the near abroad whose rights are being more seriously threatened. See Renee de Nevers, Russia’s Strategic Renovation (Adelphi Paper 289). (London: IISS 1994), p60.

42. Sevodnya 8 April 1994. CDPSP XLVI 14 1994, p23.

43. Martin Klatt, `Russians in the “Near Abroad”‘, RFE/RL 3 32 1994, p38.

44. Vladimir Socor, `Russia’s Fourteenth Army and the Insurgency in Eastern Moldova’, RFE/RL 1 36 1992, p48.

45. Suzanne Crow, `Russian Moderates Walk a Tightrope on Moldova’, RFE/RL 1 20 1992, p10.

46. On this see Socor op.cit. (n44), pp41-46.

47. Melvin op.cit. (n3), p64.48.

See Crow op.cit. (n45), pp11-12.

49. Izvestia 26 February 1993. CDPSP XLV 9 1993, p27.

50. `The Threat That Was’, The Economist 28 August 1993, p19.

51. See the chapter on Moldova in Melvin op.cit. (n3).

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