The recent conflict in Ukraine has brought to light the very real and increasing presence of Russia in its previous satellite states. Since the fall of the USSR in 1991, Russia has kept political and economic connections with many of these states to varying degrees. These continually deeper connections have been overlooked in the past.
The closest relationship that Russia has is with Belarus, which it is a member of the same Customs Union. These close ties show that without Russia, Belarus would not be able to stand on its own as it is. Belarus is also very politically connected to Russia. However, in the last several years, this relationship has faltered, and recently, Belarus has not approved of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine recently, and this has caused some barriers in the states’ relationship.
Other former USSR satellite states to pay attention to are Bulgaria and Romania. Bulgaria and Romania are part of the European Union but have been criticized for their lack of democracy since they joined. In order for both of these states to join the European Union, they had to meet the long list of criteria, which included having stable institutions guaranteeing democracy. Even while these two states were in the accession process, there was concern that they were not democratic enough to join the European Union. However, due to the volatile nature of the area and to try and combat massive corruption and promote democracy, Romania and Bulgaria flew through the accession process. In recent year, with political shifts, the governments of these two states have become even more unstable.
A recent study called Romania and Bulgaria one of the most prolific “backsliders” in the EU, meaning that they were backsliding on their democratic principles and the progress they had made since going the European Union. The study also showed that, at least in Romania, these citizens believed corruption was a major problem in their state and that it has become more prevalent. The study also noted that some other previous USSR satellite states (Estonia and the Czech Republic) have built even strong democracies in the last ten years. The treaties of the European Union have no control in making a member state re-direct its efforts into being more democratic. These challenges have created a lot of concern and scholarly debate within the European Union and abroad.
This all brings us to the current situation in Ukraine where the Ukrainian President has abandoned the state, and there is a new interim government after over a month of protests. These protests were related to the Ukrainian government’s decision to forego closer ties with the EU in favor of Russia. With Russia’s presence in Crimea, tensions are at an all time high. Even with the reprimand from the UN, the United States, and Belarus, Russia seems in no hurry to back down. Russia is breaking international law (as deemed by the United Nations) by “invading” land controlled/owned by Ukraine. The motives of this incursion are not wholly known at this point.
Even if there were legitimate concerns over an area populated by a majority of Russians (similar to South Ossetia), Russia has no legal justification for taking unilateral action. However, the fact that there has been no armed conflict means that Ukraine is not yet allowed, under UN law, to use self-defense. Because the situation is changing rapidly, however, Ukraine may use self-defense at some point along with allowing other states to militarily intervene.
Russia’s actions could be to show its strength and hopefully encourage previous satellite states to join his economic bloc. However, this is most likely to fail. If Belarus is Russia’s biggest ally, and even it scorns Russia’s actions, then there will likely be little hope of attracting others. You cannot force a state to join the Customs Union. You also cannot prevent two states from willingly joining together due to the principle of sovereignty. With Crimea’s parliament voting to join Russia, there has been a backlash against Russia. According to the EU and the US governments, Crimea’s unilateral accession of Ukraine and admittance to Russia would be against international law. U.S. President, Barak Obama, has ordered sanctions on those responsible for Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine. This, however, has its own legal dilemma since it was most likely Russia. The US needs to go through the United Nations for these kinds of sensitive political sanctions.
Russia not only has the economic Customs Union in its control, it also has a military cooperation treaty with several other states including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. This Treaty called the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO), has evolved from a 1992 Treaty into a full fledged organization with goals of being a rival of (and partnering with) NATO. This partnership with other states may be seen as a show of strength and also as concrete evidence that Russia is building a new bloc. Russia used many of its USSR connections to satellite states in order to create the CTSO. This is something that should be more widely realized when Russia uses its military. It may mean that all of the CTSO member states will have to act in accordance with Russia.
At the moment it seems as though the situation is in a precarious position. The old President of Ukraine is out and there is an interim government. But how legitimate is that government? Without knowing the full details and further progress in democratizing Ukraine, Russia should either withdraw from Crimea, or at the least, make no more movement into the other regions of Ukraine. To do so would be to taunt the international system and provoke retaliation. Russia has not taken this kind of step in recent history.
The United States is in a perilous position, much like it was during the Cold War. Since the United States has a more limited jurisdiction in International matters, it would be prudent to allow the international system (the United Nations) to take the lead in sanctioning Russia or other actions used to de-escalate the situation. The best use of the powers of the United States would be to rely on and strengthen our partnerships abroad (with the European Union and others) and shoring up defenses in places like Poland. Going forward, we need to be looking at the big picture and into the near and distant future to ensure that all legal and political options are open.