Russia’s Neighbors

Table illustrates the position of Russia vis-?vis other nations in the world today. It remains an important player worldwide: It is still the biggest country by size, with plenty of natural resources, one of the largest military complexes on the planet, thousands of nuclear warheads, and brisk arms sales to other countries. It is far less significant in cultural and “soft” economic endeavors. For example, lots of Russian movies are being made, but they are little known outside the country; Russian computer software is generally of low quality and, with the exception of the Kaspersky Internet Security suite, is virtually absent from Western stores; Russian furniture cannot compete with Italian or Swedish furniture; and so on.

The Geopolitical Position of Russia in the World

Russia is located on the largest continent, Eurasia, with 15 direct neighbors (see below) and lots of other countries it does business with. Only China has as many neighbors. It is convenient to divide Russia's neighbors and other related countries into four tiers: immediate neighbors (Tier I); second-degree neighbors (Tier II); more distant countries with which Russia has strong past and/or present ties (Tier III); and the rest of the world (Tier IV).

Immediate Neighbors (Tier I)

Tier I includes Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, North Korea, Japan, and the United States (via Alaska). Of these, Finland and the three Baltic countries are European Union (EU) members. The Baltics are NATO members and staunch U.S. allies; they have an ambivalent relationship with their big eastern neighbor. On the one hand, they have deep suspicions about a possible resurgence of the Kremlin's imperial ambitions. On the other, pragmatically speaking, these countries greatly benefit from transshipment of Russia's oil, gas, metals, and timber, as well as from Russian tourism and investment opportunities. The stickiest points from Russia's perspective are the lack of full citizenship rights for Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia; the sometimes uncivil behavior of Baltic politicians with respect to the past (e.g., the rise of neo-Nazis in Latvia, with tacit approval or even encouragement from the nationalist politicians, as well as the desecration of Soviet war memorials there); and arguments over portions of the common border between Estonia and Russia near Lake Peipus/Chudskoe. Because of its autocratic president, Belarus is the most marginalized country in Europe right now. However, as described at the end of Chapter 8, it is a critical partner of Russia in two areas: shipping goods to and from Europe (Belarus ships more freight to and from Russia than any other country), and shared manufacturing ventures. Thus Belarus is one of Russia's strongest allies; it is even negotiating a formal union between the two nations, with shared borders, currency, armed forces, and tax system planned for some point in the future.

Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Georgia have all gone through a gradual process of dissociation from Russia, to a greater or lesser degree. Ukraine is perpetually torn between its nationalistic but economically underdeveloped western half on the one hand, and its heavily Russian speaking and industrially developed eastern side with strong economic and social ties to Russia on the other. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe by territory, bigger than even France. Its historical connections to Poland play a role in its current position as well. Many Ukrainians are slowly realizing that for better or for worse, they are already part of a greater Europe; however, they are also not exactly free from their mutual history with Russia. Ukraine and Russia formally delineated their land borders in 2007, but they dispute the exact location of the border in the Kerch Strait and the status of the Sevastopol naval base. Therefore, the present situation in Ukraine is ambiguous. In general, Russia and Ukraine could be compared to the United States and Canada: One is larger and monolingual; the other is smaller and bilingual. Future relations between the former two are not likely to be as friendly as those between the latter two, however.

Although the Georgian and Russian cultures have been greatly influenced by the Orthodox Church and have much in common, recent political relations between Georgia and Russia have been turbulent. After the fall of Communism, the brief rule of the ultranationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Georgia led to a disastrous war in Abkhazia and the rapid secession of Abkhazia from Georgia in 1992. After this loss, the Gamsakhurdia regime promptly collapsed. Russian peacekeepers were positioned in both Abkhazia and South Ossetiya as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force. Separatisms within Georgia are encouraged by Russia, and the escalation of conflict in South Ossetiya in August 2008 brought renewed international attention to the unresolved issue of maintaining peace in the self-proclaimed republics. Despite being tied to Russia by electricity transmission, gas shipments, and much foreign commerce as well, Georgia remains fiercely nationalistic at present. Its Western-educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is maneuvering between outright allegiance to the United States and the need to trade with its less accommodating but more immediate neighbor, Russia. While winning elections on an anticorruption ticket, he has done little to fix problems in his past few years in power. Apparently one major improvement has been in the traffic police force: The corrupt staff of the former Soviet police was sacked and replaced with young, better-paid, more mobile units with no ties to the past. Saakashvili is frequently accused by the opposition of not fulfilling his duties in defending the true national interests of the country, however. The United States supports Georgia's need for territorial integrity, but the precedent of Kosovo's recognition has now led to official recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetiya by Russia, and the situation is far from being permanently resolved.

Kazakhstan is the richest of all the Central Asian states and is craftily treading a middle ground among Russia, the West, and China at the moment—a tricky business indeed. It hopes to attract massive investment in its western Caspian oil fields from U.S., European, Chinese, and Russian companies. It is building oil and gas pipelines into China. It is dependent on Russia for many manufactured goods, as well as for engineering talent and transportation options. It also has a large minority of Russian speakers mainly in the north and east, where Russians constitute a majority of the population in many industrialized cities (e.g., Ust-Kamenogorsk, Petropavlovsk, and Pavlodar). Russia and Kazakhstan share the longest common border in the FSU (7,200 km). Kazakhstan is a buffer country between Russia and volatile Central Asia. A major negative impact of Kazakh independence from Russia's perspective is the dissection of the historically Russian-settled central Siberian corridor along the south branch of the Trans-Siberian Railroad by two international borders. This is not simply a political issue; it is a major economic inconvenience, because more than half of all freight and electric energy from Europe to Siberia used to flow through the Petropavlovsk corridor during Soviet times. Now passenger and freight trains must stop twice at each of the two international borders to be searched by the customs officers of both countries.

Azerbaijan is almost 100% dependent on petroleum exports for foreign revenue. The completion of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline in 2005 now allows direct shipments of its petroleum to Turkey through Georgia, bypassing Russia. A large number of Azerbaijanis live all over Russia and in other FSU republics; their economic specialty is flower and vegetable trade in farmers' markets. Many experience prejudice and outright harassment from the locals. By contrast, relations between Russia and Azerbaijan at the state level remain pragmatic and reasonably friendly. More Azerbaijanis live in Iran than in Azerbaijan, thus necessitating close relations with the southern neighbor as well. Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan supported the acceptance of Azerbaijan into the Middle East economic community. The country remains at a cease-fire in its war with Armenia over the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which Azerbaijan effectively lost in the early 1990s military conflict with Armenia.

Mongolia and China have extensive land borders with Russia (3,005 and 4,300 km, respectively). Mongolia was sometimes dubbed “the 16th Soviet republic” because of the extent of its integration into the Soviet economy. Recently Mongolia has become more interested in developing ties with other countries, including China and the United States. It receives about 95% of its petroleum from Russia, but China is a larger trade partner now than Russia. Mongolia remains a poorly developed, arid, landlocked country with very little political or economic capital. China has a very short common border with Russia in the Altay, and a much longer one along the Amur River. Some portions of this border were disputed in the 1960 and 1970s, but are now firmly fixed. On the grand scale, China thinks of itself as the next superpower, bound to unseat the United States by about 2015 as the world's largest economy (and perhaps by 2030 as the biggest military power as well). Russia is presently viewed by China as a convenient source of military technology (especially missile-, jet-, and space-related) and raw materials (oil, gas, iron ore, metal scrap, timber, etc.). Russia in turn is eager to provide all these products, hoping that any direct political confrontation with its big southern neighbor can be avoided. The demographics are not in Russia's favor; only about 5 million people live in Russia east of Lake Baikal. At the same time, two northeastern provinces of China have over 100 million people living within a day's journey of the Russian border.

As incredible as it may seem, Japan and Russia are still technically at war with each other. At the end of World War II, Russia reclaimed the southern portion of Sakhalin Island (which had been lost to Japan in 1904) and captured all of the Kuril Islands. Japan insists that the four southernmost Kuril Islands—Shikotan, Habomai, Kunashir, and Iturup—must be returned before it will sign a formal peace agreement. Russia does not want to give up either the military advantage that the islands afford (naval bases, early-warning air defense systems) or the fisheries of the northwestern Pacific, which are among the richest in the world. Economically, however, the two countries are on very friendly terms. A quick visit to Siberia reveals that about half of the cars driven on Siberian roads in Russia are used Japanese imports, with the steering wheel on the right side. The Japanese are also eager tourists, and many are attracted to Lake Baikal, Kamchatka, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and of course Moscow and St. Petersburg. Few Russian tourists go to Japan, because getting Japanese visas is notoriously difficult for outsiders; however, shuttle trading is common along the Pacific Coast.

It may amaze you that the United States is also a country in Tier I. Well, the two countries are merely 20 km apart at the Diomedes Islands in the Bering Strait. In fact, a charter flight on Bering Air from Nome, Alaska, to Uelen, Chukotka, is shorter than the commercial flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks. In contrast, an average commercial flight from New York to Moscow takes about 10 hours across the Atlantic and parts of Europe. The United States and Russia are really very distant on the globe—except where they almost touch in the Bering Strait. The potential for joint exploration of the oil and gas on the Arctic shelf, and even for the construction of a cross-hemisphere railroad tunnel under the strait, exists. Each country, however, is suspicious of the other's intentions. For example, recently the Russian government flatly refused to let foreign companies invest in the development of the massive Shtockmann gas field in the Barents Sea. The Americans have never been keen about letting Russian companies drill in Alaska, either.

Strategically, the United States sees Russia as a convenient counterbalance to China in global affairs and as a partner (among many others) in the war on terrorism. Russia admires many U.S.- made things (ranging from software to bubble gum to Boeing aircraft), but has no problem holding its own line when it comes to the true economic competition: Both countries fiercely compete now in selling military technologies to various regimes around the world. The post-Soviet policy of the United States toward Russia has been pragmatic, but at times too hostile. For example, the very unfair Jackson–Vanik trade amendment of 1974 puts Russia at a huge disadvantage when trading with the United States and has not been repealed by Congress, despite repeated promises from Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The trade amendment denies Russia most-favored-nation status, because at the time of its ratification, the Soviet Union did not allow free emigration of its Jewish nationals. In addition, the United States unilaterally pulled out of the Anti-Missile Defense Treaty with Russia in 2002 to deploy its missile shield in Alaska, ostensibly against a North Korean missile threat. Also, the recent row in Europe over positioning NATO radiolocation stations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and encouraging Ukraine and Georgia to seek full NATO membership, certainly irritated Moscow. All these things have been done despite the many benefits that the United States has reaped from close cooperation with Russian intelligence in the anti-Taliban war in Afghanistan, or from Russia's support in imposing sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Security Council.

The level of mutual travel and commerce between Russia and the United States is far below what is probably needed. The overall trade balance between the countries in 2008 was $12 billion in Russia's favor: Russia sold almost $27 billion worth of goods to the United States, while the United States sold only $9 billion worth to Russia. This made Russia the 28th most important trade partner of the United States with regard to exports, and 17th in terms of imports. In comparison, the United States bought about $28 billion worth of goods from China per month that year. The amount of physical travel is low, too: For every 30 passenger jets leaving U.S. shores for Europe, only 1 flies to Russia. This may change in the future, because Russia and the United States are more similar than many people realize, and the potential for doing business together is very great. At present, Russians and Americans seem happy to cooperate in space research, to visit each other on occasion, and to confer (and often to clash dramatically) at U.N. meetings.

Second-Degree Neighbors (Tier II)

Tier II includes Moldova, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Eastern European countries that were former socialist allies (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro). All of these countries retain various degrees of political and cultural ties to Russia, but are no longer as strongly connected as they used to be to the Soviet Union. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are the most closely connected: All use Russian military and economic support, and form part of the Eurasian Economic Community (Evrazes). Armenia is an observer in Evrazes and has friendly relations with Russia. Others are either pragmatic economic partners (Bulgaria) or obstinate political rivals (Poland) of Russia in the new European order. Many are increasingly distant from Russia in terms of politics, but maintain strong economic relations with Russia for pragmatic reasons. Cultural ties among some of these countries are nevertheless deep enough to present many opportunities: Many Poles are fascinated by Russian music and books, for example, while Russians admire Polish fashions and arts.

Distant Nations with Various Strong Ties (Tier III)

Tier III includes the rest of Europe, especially Germany and Cyprus; Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in Latin America; some African countries with former socialist leanings (Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique); a few Asian countries (India, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia); some new trade partners (Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan); and some Middle Eastern states (Israel, Syria, Iran, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya). Although this is a very diverse group, all are somehow connected to Russia by past or present political/educational ties, and/or by current economic ties. For example, many professionals in Cuba and Ethiopia were educated at Soviet universities and maintain some connections at their former universities. All of the countries in this category have business ties to Russia at present, which is reflected in favorable political relations. Some of these are underappreciated; for example, few outsiders know just how strong are the economic ties between Russia and Turkey based on tourism and trade, or between Cyprus and Russia based on investment banking. In fact, Russia was Turkey's largest partner in imports, and the sixth largest partner in exports in 2008. Other connections are much discussed—for instance, the Russian military and nuclear ties to Iran. Russia insists that it merely helps Iranians to develop peaceful nuclear power, while NATO suspects that military developments may not be absolutely excluded.

The relations between Israel and Russia are unique. On the one hand, the Soviet Union was one of the chief supporters of the Arab world, and Russia remains a strong supporter of Syria today. On the other hand, about 1 million former Soviet citizens now live in Israel, and these people connect the two countries by countless business and family ties. Israel also has a special significance for Orthodox Christians as the premier worldwide pilgrimage destination, because the holy sites associated with the earthly life of Jesus Christ are located there. In 2007 Russia and Israel mutually abolished visa requirements for their citizens, in a major diplomatic breakthrough aimed at facilitating travel between the two countries.

Other Countries (Tier IV)

Tier IV includes most of Latin America, Canada, most of Africa and the Middle East, the rest of Asia, Australia, and Oceania. Although they are not exactly irrelevant, these countries are only very loosely connected to Russia, as Russia is to them. There are no open conflicts, but also relatively little trade. The main connections are casual tourism and occasional sales of military equipment. There are relatively large Russian and Ukrainian diasporas in Canada, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil. Thailand and Indonesia have become popular tropical destinations for Russian tourists. Many foreign students in Russian universities today hail from the poorest countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, because of the still relatively low cost of Russian university education and its perceived high quality. In the post-September 11 world, Arab and African students usually have an easier time qualifying for Russian visas than for U.S. visas. Russian military sales to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and some Latin American countries are growing. On a recent flight from Moscow to Amsterdam, I met two Russian airplane mechanics on their way to Peru to repair a Russian-made fighter jet there.