In Russian political vocabulary, Near Abroad is a very instrumental term that puts a particular stress on military security. This is Russia’s external perimeter, the territory of the Kremlin’s “red lines”.
“Near Abroad” is a very useful term for anyone who tries to understand and predict Russia’s foreign policy.
“Near Abroad” is an expression of unknown authorship, popularized by the first FM of post-Soviet Russia, Andrei Kozyrev.
He started to use it about all the former Soviet republics. Despite their newly-won independence, these nations continued to be connected to us by thousands of ties. This made everything that happened there of particular relevance for too many in the Kremlin, as well as among the rest of our nation.
In the West, they often talk about the “sphere of influence” to describe our approach. However, this is too broad and imprecise. Closer to truth would be the ancient Roman word foederati that described tribal territories outside the Empire. Their relevance to Rome was mostly in the sphere of security. They were too poor to be interesting markets, or objects of colonial exploitation—but very useful as a kind of cordon sanitaire against external military threats.
External security perimeter
Since the word foederati seems to be known to few specially interested, “near abroad” is a good substitute. Albeit these territories are not exactly “ours”, we need to watch what’s happening there very carefully. This also covers NATO members in the the Baltics. Their decision not to have foreign bases and keep down the concentration of the NATO’s military is therefore very wise. This makes us less nervous, and reduces the pressure on them.
The leader of Russian nationalist insurgents blamed for downing of MH17 insisted that he knows who shot down the airliner, and it wasn’t his fighters. But he refused to point either to the Kremlin or the Ukrainians.
Predictably, he denied his involvement in the incident. The form of the denial, however, was quite strange. Quote:
“Strelkov: The militia did not shoot down the Boeing, I won’t give further comments.
Reporter: There were many scenarios of what happened, but what is your version?
Strelkov: What I think, I will keep to myself. That is, if I live another 20 more years, wait and look for it in my memoirs.
This is an interesting answer, because if it were the simple case of
the Ukrainians shooting down the Boeing, you probably would have said
Strelkov: I repeat, no comment.”
the interview is not fake, and the quote is correct, it looks like
Strelkov suspects some kind of a deal between the Kremlin and the West
is being discussed around the MH17 settlement. Any settlement must
involve indictment of the people implicated in the crime. Therefore, the
The man doesn’t like what is happening. He
expresses it by refusing to recount the established Russian narrative of
MH17 downing as a Ukrainian provocation.
He makes it clear that
the BUK unit who shot down the plain, was not a part of the separatist
force, and he himself cannot be indicted for it. It is supported by the initial VK report about the shooting, that contains no claim it was done by Strelkov’s insurgents.
essentially supports the Bellingcat version that MH17 was shot by
troops on the separatist territory under operative control of the
Leaving politics aside, Crimea as a place seems to be profoundly jinxed. Bad luck hovers over the place, with no end in sight.
Consider the following facts from history:
Vladimir who brought Christianity to Russia was baptized in Crimea by
Greek Orthodoxes. This confessional choice cut Russians from the support
of Catholic Crusaders against Mongols and Turks in the XIII-XV
centuries. The absence of the Catholic tradition of proselytism lost for
Christianity our Turks and Mongols, as well as the Central Asian
1343: Asian traders bring the Black Death along the
Silk Road to Crimea. A few years later, the deadliest epidemic in the
history of our continent is shipped from here to the rest Europe on
Genoese ships. (thanks, Achilleas Vortselas!)
century: Tatars start to settle down in Crimea during the era of
Mongols. So stupid of them. They built here a mighty civilization that
competed both with Russia, Poland and Turkey, only to be razed to the
ground by Czars and Bolsheviks. The Crimean Tatar community who live
there now, are tiny crumbles of it.
1854: Czar Nicholas I
decided to make the peninsula the fortress of rising Russian naval power
aimed toward the Mediterranean. Again, bad decision. He brought upon
himself the wrath of Great Britain and France who crushed him in the
Crimean war. The Czar died in the process. The Black Sea fleet never
since won a single major naval battle, and sits now behind the Straits,
completely at the mercy of Turkey in case things suddenly flare up.
The Crimean peninsula became the last stand of the old
pre-revolutionary Russia in their struggle against Communism. Extremely
poor choice of place. 50 thousand were summarily executed by Bolsheviks
to celebrate the win, maybe as many as 100 thousand.
Western powers agreed here to give the Eastern and Central Europe to
Stalin. Great decision for Stalin, bad for everyone else.
1953: The attempt by Khrushchev to resuscitate Crimea after the devastation of WWII and Stalin’s ethnic cleansing
by giving it to Ukraine. Bad decision, again. Crimea remained a drain
on the Soviet economy, and in addition the entire Russia views
Khrushchev now as a traitor—despite the fact that the man threw open the
hell gates of Gulag and really tried hard to improve the lives of
August 1991: The attempt of Soviet old-timers
to trap Gorbachev at his summer resort Crimea and persuade him into
introducing a nation-wide state of emergency. An extremely stupid
decision that effectively killed the USSR.
Crimea goes to Ukraine. The new country soon finds itself mired neck
deep in corruption and incompetence of its elites, and trails more and
more behind almost all its neighbors.
2014: Putin makes the
place Russian again—and then is mightily surprised to find himself
kicked out of the G-8 and put under Western sanctions. Now, evil spirits
of the place are slowly turning Russia into a cold periphery of the
global Chinese sphere of influence.
wouldn’t be able to take Crimea back, even if they had some nuclear
warheads. The atomic weapon works great at preventing wars, not winning
Crimea was a
loss-making project anyway, with a big nationalist Russian majority and
a Russian naval base smack in the middle of it. Now, when Crimea is
already lost, it makes much more sense for Ukraine to let it be where it
is as long as Putin stays in power, and capitalize on the fact for what
their own nuclear weapons would not only drain too much resources, but
also damage the relations between Ukraine and their Western friends who
don’t want the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons take another heavy blow right in their neighborhood.
How come Russia and Ukraine are different countries?
Kievan Rus emerged as a major power and prospered on the back of the
trade transit from the Baltic Sea to Black Sea. During the XIII century,
the Black Sea trade collapsed, due to the sacking of Constantinople by
Crusaders, and the subsequent weakening of the Byzantine Empire. This
was exacerbated by an increasing deficit of silver in the Arab
principalities farther south.
major decay in the economic base resulted in eastern principalities
(the future Muscovy) being subjugated by Turkic ethnicities that
controlled the trade route from the Baltic sea toward Iran along the
Volga river. The pivot to Asia included also the northern regions of
Novgorod and Pskov, even though the Turkic influence there was more
balanced by Swedish and German business interests.
Kievan Rus’ heartland along Dnieper was included into the domain of
Poles and Lithuanians. Before the arrival of modern agricultural
techniques, they never managed to recover the economic strength of the
old Rus, and remained a large, but not very significant periphery of
Lithuania-Poland, and later the Polish Kingdom. Until the XVII century,
Poles dominated here economically and culturally. As a result, two new
ethnicities took shape: Ukrainians and Belorussians, both with their own
identity and language, different from what formed in Russia farther
east and north.
put. Those who lived along river routes toward the Caspian Sea, became
Russians. Those who lived along river routes toward the Black Sea, and
further west, became Ukrainians and Belorussians.
The Russian concept of “Near Abroad”, i.e. former Soviet state around our borders, is aking to the Roman concept of Foederati. We provide benefits to them in exchange for a certain degree of protecting our security and military requirements.
Soon after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Kremlin launched the concept of “near abroad“. It included all former Soviet republics that had gained independence. Yet, these continued to be connected to us by thousands of ties. This made everything that happened there of particular relevance for too many in the Kremlin, as well as among the rest of the nation.
In the West, they often talk about the “sphere of influence” to describe our approach. However, this is too broad and imprecise. Closer to truth would be the ancient Roman word foederati that described tribal territories outside the Empire. Their relevance to Rome was mostly in the sphere of security. They were too poor to be interesting markets of objects of colonial exploitation but very useful as a kind of cordon sanitaire against external military threats.
Baltics sit pretty awkwardly between us and the Baltic sea, cutting us
off from the Kaliningrad enclave. Estonia is also too close to St.
Petersburg for comfort.
Ukraine is sort of an ex who left and
slammed the door with too much broken china and bad blood left behind.
If they build their military to the Turkish level, or just join the
NATO, it would mean their tanks can theoretically reach Moscow in a
matter of one day or two. We never had to live with a neighbor like
Georgia is more or less a settled case. Putin won’t let
them take back Abkhazia or South Ossetia, so his presidential palace in
Sochi is pretty safe for some time ahead. Turkey seems to be friendly
right now. Yet, if Turkey decide to move in and take Georgia under their
wings, then our union with Armenia, and the base there will hang in a
very thin thread. No time to relax about Georgia either.
This way, these are not exactly “our” territories, but we need to watch what’s happening there very carefully. This also includes the NATO members, the Baltics. Their decision not to have foreign bases and keep down the concentration of the NATO military is therefore very wise. This makes us less nervous, and reduces the pressure on them.
As to the other former Soviet states, any sign of alienation there signals to us a dangerous breach in the foederati perimeter of security right outside our borders.
How would you solve the Ukraine crisis if you became President of Russia?
way in a million years I would touch this with a barge pole as a
president. The Ukrainian crisis is insolvable in its present form. Why?
serves Putin’s personal political interest. Including Crimea into
Russia—instead of leaving it as another formerly independent breakaway
region like Abkhazia, or Transdniestria—was intended as a “poisoned
pill” that any successor of Putin must swallow. Handing back Crimea, in
any form, means for many years ahead a political suicide for every
would-be Russian ruler.
It serves Russia’s interest, because the
annexation of Crimea builds up the expansionist imperial strand of
Russian nationalism. Hence the unique cohesion of the Russian political
class we have seen ever since 2014.
It serves Ukraines interest,
because the external threat from Russia has done more for Ukrainian
national self-awarenes in the last three years than in all preceding
decades and centuries.
It got off Ukraine’s back the
most pro-Russian and least economically effective regions, and
pulverized the political influence Russia was painstakingly building up
during the last decades.
It serves the NATO’s interest, because
it takes off the agenda the Ukrainian NATO membership issue. While at
the same time it vindicates a program of a massive rearmament of Ukraine
as a standalone military power directed toward Russia and serving as a
buffer against any Russian move westward.
It serves the West’s
strategic interest. Annexation by Russia of a another European country’s
terrotory is a profound disruption of the post-WWII European security
system. It fills the void that during the post-Soviet era weakened the
military, political and ideological cohesion of the NATO countries, and
created a new impetus for the American presence in Europe and NATO
In plain terms, Russia’s neighbors where Russian-speaking minorities experienced injustice ran the risk of losing the territories where these minorities lived. Just like this happened to Ukraine. On March 7, 2014, President Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov, announced that Putin was the guarantor of security in the Russian World.
Where exactly are the borders of the Russian world? Pretty much where Russia’s territory goes now, with some additions:
Estonia and Latvia (large Russian minorities there)
Belarus (we consider them to be Russians that need to be rescued from under an unfortunate Polish influence)
Ukraine, with the possible exception of its fiercely nationalistic westernmost part. We see them as slightly retarded Russians that speak a weird archaic dialect.
Transdnestria, the Russian-speaking enclave in Moldova.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions of Georgia with pro-Russian minorities.
The whole of Kazakhstan, or the northern part of it. Russians used to make up at least half of its population.
Alaska. It used to be Russian, before we made fools of ourselves selling it to Americans in the middle of 18th century.
Port-Artur and Dalian in China used to be our naval bases before the Japanese messed up with us a hundred years ago. We also built a railroad connecting Vladivostok with Siberia directly over the Chinese territory. Would be nice having these back.
Svalbard archipelago in Norway. We mean to be the first settlers there, not the Norwegians.
The entire Arctic Ocean in the triangle between the Bering Strait, the North Pole and the Russian border with Norway. If Alaska returns to Russia, we would like that additional slice of Arctic sector too.
Serbia + Montenegro + a selection of Orthodox monasteries in Greece would be an excellent addition to heartland Russia. Our brethren in the Balkans may have some doubts about losing their statehood, but we’ll explain how it is much better than being part of Godless, gay-loving, Muslim-infested Europe.
Armenia. The little nation’s only chance to withstand enmity from their Muslim neighbors.
Istanbul/Constantinople, with a sizable addition of adjoining territories. The Promised Land of Russian Orthodox church. Superior location for coronation of Russian presidents, winter Olympics and Mr Putin’s second winter residence.
The logic behind this is rather straightforward. The Russian world is the territories that at some point in time were controlled by the House of Romanov, or considered to be under their spiritual protection, or frequented by Russian colonizers.
With the capacity for Mutually Assured Destruction still present on both sides, the likelihood of an all-out nuclear strike from either side is rather small. Whatever propaganda on either side is saying, there are hardly any issues between Russia and the US/NATO that can’t be sorted out in a considerably less costly way, through negotiations or conventional proxy conflicts.
But if, against odds, Black Swans arrive and the nuclear option comes to table, we’ll most likely see a carefully scaled conflict. The first shots would be delivering tactical nuclear munitions, in order to measure public and military response from the other side.
Right now, the most likely area for such an exchange seems to be the Baltic Sea nations and the Ukraine. The rationale for that might be Putin testing NATO’s resolve to invoke Article 5 in the face of the imminent threat of nuclear escalation. “Is President Trump willing to sacrifice Pittsburgh for Pärnu?” Most likely, Trump and the Germans would stand down, NATO would collapse, and the prospect of global nuclear war would blow over.