What does Russia offer Ukraine and its neighbours?

Not enough argues Liam O’Shea

A military orchestra rehearsing on Vasilyevsky Spusk near the Moscow Kremlin, on February 4th, 2021. Photo by Michał Siergiejevicz via flickr.

With Russian troops now moving in to eastern Ukraine, most analysis has focused on Russian motives, how an intervention would impact the geo-political map and how the West should respond. However, analysts rarely examine why Ukraine, along with the majority of states in eastern Europe, have drifted out of alignment with Moscow. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has sought to influence the political, economic, social, and foreign policy orientation of post-Soviet states and bring them into its geopolitical orbit. These efforts have been hampered by Russia’s failure to limit corruption which has undermined the appeal of alignment with the Russian state. If Russia wants to build lasting influence with its neighbours, it needs sustained internal reform.

What does alignment with Russia offer?

Alignment with Russia does offer some benefits, though these have been largely insufficient to encourage closer ties with its eastern European neighbours.

Russian speakers living outside Russia look to Moscow to defend their interests, not without reason given the discrimination they have faced since the collapse of the USSR. Though exaggerating, Putin has cited Russophobia as a potential justification for action in Ukraine, referring to the situation of Russian-speakers in Donbas as looking like genocide.

The other potential advantages are stability and resources. Putin’s legitimacy within Russia is based, strongly, on him restoring order after the chaos of the Yeltsin-era. Close partnership with Russia also offers some countries in its orbit access to subsidies and its markets.

Despite some benefits, close alignment with Russia risks greater exposure to the systematic corruption prevalent within the institutions of the Russian state so there are limited prospects for long-term support for alignment amongst the non-Russian majorities living in eastern Europe.

Corruption is a defining characteristic of the Russian state, with the country ranking 129th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2020; the lowest rating for any European country. This essentially means the Russian government is unable or unwilling to control corruption which has a direct impact on its ability to provide key public services. Taking policing as an example. Russian police are comparatively violent, tend to favour the interests of political elites and are highly corrupt. Bribery of traffic police is an everyday occurrence in Russia and, at higher levels, police are complicit in racketeering and organized crime. A high-profile 2021 investigation provided a surreal example of this with a senior police officer found to have used the proceeds of a racketeering scheme to fund an opulent mansion, including a golden toilet. All this is directly linked to the broader political system which authorizes, directs and pays police and does not hold them accountable. Such a pattern is common across the former Soviet Union. The exceptions to this are the Baltic states and Georgia which have reduced police violence and corruption by directly challenging Soviet-era forms of governance.

How its neighbours see Russia

Indeed, Russia’s corruption problems seem to be deterring most of Russia’s eastern European neighbours from pursuing close political ties. In late-2020 a set of surveys carried out by GLOBSEC, a Slovakia-based think tank, examined attitudes in central and eastern Europe. Russia’s geopolitical stance was viewed more positively in countries which share close historical, cultural and ethnic ties to Russia (Serbia, Bulgaria). Where ties were weaker, attitudes tended to be more pragmatic (Czechia) or negative (Poland, Romania).

Surveys like these provide a snapshot of opinion rather than clear explanations of the factors causing the attitudes they describe. Nonetheless, even in those countries where Russia is viewed favourably, when respondents were asked whether they would prefer to remain a part of the West, the East or somewhere in between, more respondents chose the western orientation. The end result is that, even where eastern European populations hold positive attitudes towards Russia, they typically prefer alignment with the west.

Corruption isn’t popular

It is important distinguish between what Russia offers and what its government does. The country has rich cultural and scientific sectors that should not be dismissed because of the limitations of the Russian state.

Nonetheless, the reason most eastern European states are unwilling to align with Russia is not because western powers are seeking to undermine Russia’s geopolitical position (or at least not only because of this). Rather, it is because alignment with the West still offers more hope for a better way of life than alignment with Russia, with its high levels of corruption and poor provision of key public services.

There are good reasons to frame the latest clash between Russia and the West over Ukraine in geopolitical terms as they are its most proximate drivers. However, the underlying challenge Russia faces is that, even if it can manoeuvre a short-term victory, close association with Russia has little to offer ordinary people in its neighbouring states in the long-term. As the Soviet leadership found out at the end of the 1980s, it is difficult to retain long-term strategic partnerships if you bring corruption and offer little in the way of hope. Unless this is addressed the appeal of alignment with the Russian state across eastern Europe is likely to remain limited regardless of the outcome of the current crisis.

Dr Liam O’Shea is an expert on politics and security in the former Soviet Union and police violence and corruption based at the London School of Economics, where he is lead for the www.howtoreformthepolice.com project

This blog is part of the Next Gen IR series which aims to provide a platform for early career researchers working in the discipline.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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