I recall this metaphor when I look at the
current reaction from the Kremlin to events in Belarus, in the South Caucasus and in Kyrgyzstan. The
ducklings – each of them in its own way – are deserting the henhouse and are trying to get to the
river. Will they make it? Nobody knows for sure. Vladimir Putin, unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, does not
watch this in bitter despair; he tries to intercept the deserters and to make them return to where
he thinks they belong. Is there any chance that he will be successful?
One can argue that
the year of COVID-19 and the subsequent global recession is an ideal opportunity for the Kremlin to
reassert its grip on at least some parts of the post-Soviet space. The West is much weaker today
that it was just a couple of months ago. There is apparently no appetite for confronting Russia
either in Belarus, or in the South Caucasus, not to mention Central Asia.
The United States
is obsessed with its election drama; the European Union struggles with its immense domestic
challenges; the glorious days of liberal triumphalism are gone. Arguably, the Russian leadership has
much more freedom to line up its remaining clients in the post-Soviet space today, than it had
before the "perfect storm" of 2020 started. One can also assume that today, in the middle of
economic hardships and decline of real incomes in Russia, Putin, more than ever before, needs
success stories in revitalizing the still popular concept of a post-Soviet integration. However, so
far we do not observe any such success stories. Why?
First, the experience of the last
global financial and economic crisis (2008–2009) invites conjecture that, in the current upheaval,
Russia will suffer more in relative terms than most of Western countries. The prospects for even a
partial recovery of global oil prices are dubious. Accumulated financial reserves might shrink
The threat of Russia being pushed out to the periphery of the global economy
remains real, especially with new Western sanctions in the pipeline. Accordingly, the resource base
for supporting Russia's allies, partners and clients is likely to get thinner. On top of that, with
the oil age coming to an end, the Kremlin can no longer count on chip oil and gas as the reliable
foreign policy tool it used for so many years in dealing with its post-Soviet neighbours.
Second, the pandemic is certainly boosting isolationist sentiments inside the country and is
reducing public support for an active and energetic foreign policy. Previously, the public saw
demonstrations of Russia's presence abroad as an affirmation of it as a "superpower", something to
perceive in a solely positive light.
Now, this presence is viewed with increasing frequency
as an unfounded waste of shrinking resources. For instance, the Russian public has expressed an
implicitly negative attitude towards a possible interference into the Azeri-Armenian conflict. It
may be concluded that, given the pandemic, the so-called "Crimean consensus" is becoming entirely
ineffective, and it is becoming harder and harder to justify Russia's hyperactive foreign policy in
the eyes of the country's population.
Third, as long as Russian current political, social
and economic models remain unchanged, it is hard to win the minds and hearts of Russian neighbours –
even those who harbour no strong anti-Russian sentiments. Look at Belarus – it remains one of the
very few Russia friendly countries. However, who in Minsk today would seriously consider imitating
the Russian antiquated and inefficient governance model?
In short, the Russian hen has to
learn how to swim, if she does not want to stay alone on a deserted and unhospitable riverbank.