Staunton, December 19 – Although the Kremlin rarely speaks about this openly, Vladislav Inozemtsev says, “Moscow conceives the post-Soviet periphery in the West and in the south as the place where several ‘near abroads,’” its own alongside Turkey’s and Poland’s, intersect” and where Ankara and Warsaw aspire to expand their influence.
This view, the Russian economist says, has deep roots in Russian history which for many centuries found itself in competition with these two other imperial powers, the Polish and the Ottoman, and continues despite the formal demise of all three empires. They may be gone but imperial aspirations and fears remain (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/12/19/88453-chudesa-na-rubezhah).
What makes these two centers of power so disturbing for Russian leaders today is that historically, they were “not only a source of military threat” to Russia but more than that “existential opponents as representatives of Catholicism and Islam,” something that matters profoundly because in Russia, Orthodoxy has been a more important identity than Russian.
Over the course of history, Russia fought “almost 20 full-scale wars” against these two other empires. Now, there is a danger that they will fight again, if not full-scale wars than post-modernist conflicts of various kinds, all the more so because all three centers are reviving many of the imperial agendas they had earlier.
Turkey has been behaving for half a century much as Russia is today: it intervened to “defend the interests of Turks” in Cyprus in the 1970s, and it is today seeking to “revive attention to the Turkish ‘near abroad’ (from Azerbaijan to Libya), something only a couple of decades ago no one recalled.
“In my view,” Inozemtsev says, “one can confidently assert that tension between Russia and Turkey is arising above all precisely because of the fact that to the south of the borders of Russia, ‘the near abroads’ of former empires are intersecting” once again.
Turkey has continued to support the autonomy of the Gagauz in Moldova, has no intention of recognizing ‘the Russian occupation of Crimea’ and now has actively assisted Azerbaijan in its victory over Armenia.” Such moves undercut any possibility of close cooperation between Moscow and Ankara.
The situation in Poland bears some resemblance to this largely because of Russian actions. Putin 15 years ago made the day of the expulsion of Polish forces from Moscow in 1612 a Russian national holiday, he constantly accuses Poland of being behind the outbreak of World War II, and he does everything he can to blame Poland for the Katyn massacre.
And while Moscow outlets are ess explicit on this point than it might be, the Russian economist says, many in the Russian capital see Western efforts to promote democratization in the former Soviet space as the latest form of Polish expansion of its “near abroad” at the expense of Russia’s.
Once one recognizes this reality, Inozemtsev says, one sees why Moscow is less concerned about Chinese influence than Turkish or Polish – after all, China for centuries was in retreat in the Russian east even if it may have turned a corner – and is driven by old fears rather than any concerns about the treatment of ethnic Russians in its “near abroad.”
This is something both the countries in the region and powers further afield need to recognize instead of focusing on what Moscow says, which all too often reflects what those in power there think the market will bear rather than expressing the older and more atavistic fears that in fact are at work.
In his essay, Inozemtsev makes reference to William Safire’s 1994 essay on the origins of the term “near abroad” (nytimes.com/1994/05/22/magazine/on-language-the-near-abroad.html). What the Russian economist has done is not only to remind that all countries potentially have “near abroads” and that real dangers arise when they overlap.