March 28, 2014:
The recent Russian operation to take the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine had a bracing effect on the other countries that, until 1991, were part of the ancient Russian Empire. The Crimean operation was the second such land grab Russia has undertaken in the last five years. The first was against tiny Georgia in 2008. Many of these former Russian subjects feel that the Russians are trying to get their empire back. Ask many Russians that question and most agree that it would be a nice thing. Some Russians are more outspoken and bluntly call for the empire to be reassembled no matter what.
In reaction to this the forlorn fourteen nations that were part of the Soviet Union until 1991, as well as many East European states that were subject to Russian control from the end of World War II to 1989 have become very nervous. Poland is particularly agitated because large parts of Poland were part of the empire for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. Same deal with Finland, which broke away after World War I and had to fight off a Russian invasion in 1940 and many threats since then to stay independent. That makes the forlorn fourteen the scared sixteen. All of these nations have noted what happened to Georgia and Ukraine with great trepidation and are responding in expected, and unexpected ways.
The fourteen former Russian imperial possessions that regained their independence are the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the five “stans” of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Poland, the Baltic States and Finland escaped from the empire after World War I but only Finland managed to stay free through World War II. The Baltic States were retaken during World War II and Poland remained nominally independent but was occupied by Russian troops (and took orders from Russia) until 1989.
Poland and the Baltic States managed to join NATO after the Cold War ended and are hoping that the mutual defense terms of the NATO alliance will dissuade Russia. Nevertheless all four, plus Finland, have increased their military readiness this year and are seeking assurances from the West that they will have help against Russia. Many Finns have called for Finland to join NATO, but a large minority has opposed this because of the fear it would anger the Russians. There was a similar division in Ukraine but now more Finns are thinking that NATO membership is preferable to trusting Russia to always behave. Even Sweden, never part of the Russian empire and successfully neutral since the early 19th century is thinking about joining NATO for protection from an increasingly aggressive Russia.
The stans of Central Asia have another option; China. The stans have been very receptive to Chinese diplomatic and economic cooperation. This bothers Russia, but not to the extent that threats are being made, as was the case with the former imperial provinces to the west. The stans also have a problem with never having been democracies. When the Russians conquered them in the 19th century, the local governments were monarchies or tribes. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, former Soviet officials held elections and manipulated the vote to get themselves elected "president for life." But many people in the Stans want clean government and democracy, as well as continued independence from Russia. China is no help with that because the Chinese prefer dictators.
In the Caucasus Georgia still seeks closer ties with the West. Armenia, because of disputes with Azerbaijan and long-term fear of Turkey remains a close ally of Russia. Azerbaijan maintains good relations with Russia mainly because Iran claims Azerbaijan as a lost province (stolen by Russia in the 19th century).
Russia is quite open about wanting to rebuild the old Tsarist Empire that the communists managed to lose in 1991 when the Soviet Union came apart and half the population of that empire went off and formed 14 new countries (or reconstituted old ones the Russians had conquered). Russia is proposing things like customs unions, military cooperation and rebuilding the old Soviet air defense system that used to defend everyone in the empire. There’s been some progress, but many nations want nothing to do with Russia.
Meanwhile Russia has to face that fact that when the Soviet Union broke up half the population willingly went to the 14 new countries and most of those people were quite enthusiastic about ending the Soviet Union. Thus if you asked all citizens of the former Soviet Union what they thought of the breakup you would find about 70 percent with no regrets. That’s because the Soviet Union was basically the Russian Empire cobbled together by the old czarist monarchy over more than two centuries of conquest and expansion. Thus in the Soviet Union half the population felt like conquered people, not part of any union. The Soviet Union dissolved quickly in 1990-91 because over half the population really wanted it to happen and had wanted it for a long time. Moreover many ethnic Russians were tired of supporting a lot of the less affluent conquered people and were fed up with the economic failures of communism. The former Soviet Union citizens who regret the breakup tend to be older people who were disillusioned at how corruption and bad leadership made post-Soviet life less wonderful than was expected. The younger people are more realistic, never having lived as adults in the Soviet Union and intimately familiar with the fact that freedom isn’t free and democracy is hard. For younger Russians there are more economic opportunities than under communism. While Russia lost half its population when the Soviet Union broke up, it hung on to most of the valuable natural resources (like oil and natural gas). While the post-Soviet government was initially reluctant to increase state supplied pensions (which were low during the Soviet period because there was little to spend it on and the state supplied housing and some health care), the pensions did eventually go up. But not as much as the economy grew and the working Russians were obviously doing better than the pensioners who had grown up under communism. In Soviet times that meant there was little economic opportunity and most everyone was equally poor. The old-timers never got used to the changes and most would prefer the communists to come back. That won’t happen and as the generations that grew up under communism die off so will any desire to return to the bad (but familiar) old days. Nevertheless enough Russians favor rebuilding the empire to make the idea a popular talking point among major politicians and that may continue for decades.