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Why Russia Didn't Act

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
June 23, 2010

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Understanding events that don't happen can sometimes be as important as understanding the ones that do. Russia's non-intervention in Kyrgyzstan earlier this month is a good example that should be on the minds of U.S. policymakers when Presidents Obama and Medvedev meet on June 24. Some of Russia's reasons for not acting were reassuring, others less so. Ethnic cleansing and mass disorder ought to be a reminder that Russia and the United States can have common interests. But these events also make clear why real cooperation is so hard.

Let's start with the good news. It turned out that Moscow wasn't just looking for an opportunity to nail down its sphere of influence or revive the nationalist excitement created by the war against Georgia in 2008. Despite the Kyrgyz government's request for help, Russian policymakers made the legal point that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)--a mutual defense pact joining Russia and six other post-Soviet states--was created to deal with aggression, not internal conflict.  Russia was willing to provide equipment and advice, not troops. Getting in might look easy, it was said, but solving the problem was likely to be too long a slog.

Modest goals, narrow legalism, respect for sovereignty, sober practicality--these are traits that Russian policy has not always displayed, and we should be glad to see them when they appear. They reflect lessons learned in Afghanistan a generation ago, and in more recent conflicts as well. A Russian leader who has been through the Chechen meat-grinder (or remembers how poorly many Russian units performed in Georgia two years ago) knows that turning the army loose means relying on hot-headed generals and half-trained conscripts. That may be a risk worth taking when you want to bloody an adversary or teach him who's boss. When the task at hand is to keep drunken gangs off the street and protect international relief workers--in another country, no less--it's a lot harder to justify.

For better and worse, inaction in Kyrgyzstan also reflects the state of Russian public opinion. In the United States, the spectacle of ethnic cleansing in a nearby country will produce endless calls from human rights advocacy groups demanding that something be done. The media, the polls, and Congress follow suit--and government officials try to keep up.

Inaction in Kyrgyzstan reflects the state of Russian public opinion. ... In Russia, the humanitarian-intervention urge is not deeply woven into public discourse. Policymakers don't feel the pressure of NGO moralism or parliamentary outrage.

Not so in Russia. The humanitarian-intervention urge is not deeply woven into public discourse. Policymakers don't feel the pressure of NGO moralism or parliamentary outrage. The elite doesn't think that a country has to be able or willing to stop mass killing close to its borders if it wants to feel good about itself. Yes, a few feeble liberal voices in Russia have complained that many more people were killed in South Kyrgyzstan than in South Ossetia, which Russia insisted that it had to invade to stop "genocide" by the Georgian government. Moscow politicians have no trouble ignoring such appeals.

As the killing in Kyrgyzstan escalated,  some American analysts feared that Moscow saw disorder there as a chance to throw its weight around in its own neighborhood. There can be little doubt that Russia wants to create a sphere of influence, but in this case that goal was better advanced by passivity than by activism. Intervening in Kyrgyzstan would, as a practical matter, have required a great deal of international coordination and approval. And that--above all, when the states of the former Soviet Union are involved--is something Russian policymakers still have trouble with.

It's for this reason--limiting the role of outsiders, whatever the human cost--that Russia has long blocked efforts to expand the peacekeeping role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). For years it has professed support for the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, but without ever supporting its obvious prerequisite, U.S. access to Central Asian airbases. (Just last week, Medvedev repeated that use of the airfield in Manas must not continue indefinitely.) Given this record, it was no surprise that Russian diplomats also dragged their feet in letting the UN Security Council even issue statements on events in Kyrgyzstan.

It's for this reason--limiting the role of outsiders, whatever the human cost--that Russia has long blocked efforts to expand the peacekeeping role of the OSCE.

What made last week's outbreak of ethnic violence unique, of course, is that the Russians seemed to have a chance to act purely within the framework of the CSTO, without having to seek a mandate from busy-bodies like the United States and Europe. But the CSTO is no rubber-stamp organization, least of all when asked to endorse a Russian action that goes beyond the group's original purposes. Even in this forum, Moscow has to take account of the preferences and suspicions of other members. Not surprisingly, Russian commentators describe the CSTO's paralysis as proof that Russia has failed to win the trust--or even the deference--of its own neighbors.

The chaos in Kyrgyzstan may well return. As policymakers try to create the tools for coping with it the next time around, they need to understand why--for good reasons and bad--Russia resists a larger role.

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