1. By recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s “independence,” Russia is engaging in a kind of petty tit-for-tat use of minor statelets, often manufactured by the Kremlin, in order to amend its own position internationally, at the expense of its neighbors. In doing so, Russia doesn’t come off especially well, and as I’ve said before, it seems that the Kremlin is lacking in any sense of soft power (or in the ability to project it). In a world in which Russia’s natural allies are rising powers, almost obsessively concerned with national sovereignty, [territorial] integrity and prestige, committing one’s self to reclaiming great power status by nibbling away at the edges of neighboring states erodes credibility and respect. Both states to the west, in Eastern Europe, and the east, in Central Asia, are bound to be incensed by an aggressive Russia. In the west they are driven towards America. In the East, they are driven towards China.
Not only is Russia’s behavior bound to isolate it from the West, but also in time from Central Asia and China, as well as from many of the other global relationships it has been eager to cultivate. Though the Russians maybe believe that they can establish pseudo-vassal-like relationships with post-colonial states in Africa and Asia, history and fear make this less likely in the wake of its Georgian rumpus. Russia’s willingness to use gas as a weapons has raised North Africa’s strategic value in Western Europe and their eagerness to aim towards a monopoly on that region’s gas supplies has made them more independent minded. All of this, along with Russia’s mediocre economic performance aside from hydrocarbons and its sickly and declining population, seems to say that Russia is not such a hearty bear as many might think. The statements on the South Ossetian conflict that came out of Algiers, Tehran, Astana and Dushanbe are strikingly similar, cautious and aloof. They hardly resemble Russia’s aggressive and righteous rhetoric and do not indicate that the Russians have been especially persuasive in their historic spheres of influence. (The exception has been Venezuela.) This makes Russia potentially more dangerous but not much more powerful.
2. The SCO is Chinese led, and the Chinese do not want to import Russia’s western baggage, and possible hostilities emanating from it, to their relations with either America or the EU. While the SCO supported Russia’s “active role in contributing peace and co-operation in the region,” it did not endorse Russia’s actions or the “principles” upon which they were based. The SCO’s agenda is in part based on fighting “three evil forces” — terrorism, extremism and separatism. Recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia hardly combats that last “evil.” China’s borderlands are fraught with the potential or mutiny, and it would surprising to hear the SCO endorse Russia’s new interventionism. Russia’s conduct this month has been rather mismatched with the SCO’s members’ world view. Appeals to the value of “self-determination,” and even the Right to Protect, fall rather flat on the steppes. As a Kazakh friend described Medvedev’s essay in the Financial Times as sounding “awfully Western sounding and inconsistent.” The SCO isn’t interested in picking fights.
The Chinese cannot and will not legitimize intervention based on moral imperatives. If the Chinese were moved by ethnic cleansing or genocide, they would behave treat Sudan and Myanmar differently and they would behave themselves in their western provinces. Yet they do not, and they will not heed to Russian blathering about the right of tiny nations to secede from only slightly larger ones because of contrived accusations of “genocide.” So long as this is the name of their game, the Russians will find little sympathy in eastern quarters. Russia is not strong enough on its own to muster a “bloc” aside from Belarus and its minor league friends. It cannot afford or prosecute neo-Cold War. It would need a set of strong states, like the Eurasian ones and China to do so.
Russia’s lack of fidelity to the principle state sovereignty in favor of self-determination could lead to a parting of ways. Sino-Russian cooperation is, to a great degree, based on one or the other’s weakness. They tend to piggy back on one another’s success, and when one becomes too powerful relative to the other, they part ways. When China was weak, it fit within the Soviet orbit. As became stronger, it moved away. When Russia collapsed, it joined China’s push to build a more robust Eurasian geopolitical framework. As is often the case, Russia feels and looks much stronger than it actually is, and this renewed sense of confidence could drive them to seek a dominant role in their relationship with China in Eurasia. The Russian organization in Central Asia, the CIS, is a failure and the Chinese one, the SCO, is an actionable alternative. The Russians will come to resent this, but probably cannot do much to change it, as former clients flee and the Chinese consolidate their place in the region. If the SCO continues to recoil from Russian behavior and press the importance of sovereignty has it did this week, the Russians could try to form their own architecture (which is very unlikely) or go it alone. Russia’s prestige and influence has not been enhanced by its action in Georgia and its capabilities politically or militarily have not changed significantly. Its willingness to use those capabilities has risen, because it has few other means to project its influence, having support from many of its former and current clients and allies for its renewed assertiveness.