Last weekend my travels took me to a very interesting part of the world — Georgia — for an International Conference on the Future of Work in the Digital Era. Georgia is a small country nestled on the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Together with Azerbaijan and Armenia it lies in a region called the Caucasus located between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. All these three countries were erstwhile republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. After the break-up of the Soviet Union they became independent nations. Collectively they and the other breakaway regions of the Soviet Union are called Post Soviet Republics.
In this broader region lie most of the frozen territorial conflicts of the end of the Soviet era. Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldavia, Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea in Ukraine and Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh in the border areas of Azerbaijan and Armenia to name but a few.
While Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine have predominantly Christian populations, Azerbaijan is largely Shia Muslim. However, all these nations have a strong secular ethos imaginably due to their Soviet past. Most of these countries have a strong pro-European and pro-American inclination. They aspire to be a part of the European Union and other multilateral European institutions. All of them have a special relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
Herein lie all these countries and many more in the Baltic, Central Asia and even Eastern Europe that are within what Russia terms as its near-abroad. It characterises these geographies as its “sphere of influence” in which it has legitimate interests.
Russia is not an exception in this regard. The United States have long regarded the Americas as a sphere of exclusive interest. As far back as 1823 President James Monroe laid it out in explicit terms that the United States would not tolerate any European interference into the affairs of the newly independent states in the Americas. His formulation is now referred to it as the Monroe Doctrine and has been the lodestar of American foreign policy for almost the last two centuries. Despite the collapse of colonialism the former colonial powers — Great Britain, France, Spain and to a lesser extent even Germany — still consider some of their erstwhile colonies in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin and South America as manifestations of their spheres of influence. Even India considers South Asia to be its near-abroad and is sensitive if any foreign power tries to fish in its backyard.
Going back to the Caucasus nations, most of them were a part of the imperial Russian Empire. However, they enjoyed a brief period of independence in 1918-1921 at the end of the First World War when Tsarist Russia collapsed before they were amalgamated into the Soviet Union. For example, Georgia was expropriated by the Russian Empire in 1801. After a brief bid for independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1918-1921, it became part of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic from 1922 to 1936, and then became the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic until it declared independence from the Soviet Union on April 9, 1991.
From December 26, 1991 that marked the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union till Russia’s rather “bold” move in Crimea formalised on March 18, 2014 the Post Soviet Republics enjoyed a relatively autonomous run for over two decades as Russia reordered and reconsolidated itself regaining both its political heft and economic muscle.
However, as early as 2008 it all began to change. With the onset of the Obama presidency inaugurated amidst the greatest economic meltdown that the world faced since the Great Depression of the late 1920s, American appetite for international geo-political interventions was on the wane. Fatigued, exhausted and bled by two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US started looking inwards. With the onset of the Trump presidency this trend has exacerbated to an extent that President Donald Trump seems bent upon dismantling the world order created post-Second World War.
As the US made that ideological transition from pro-active engagement to splendid exceptionalism over the past decade it created a vacuum in global affairs.
Mr Trump’s hectoring of the Nato countries to augment their defence spending to two per cent of their respective GDPs, and his repeated public spats with the United States’ most trusted allies in the G-7 coupled with the servility during the Helsinki summit has had the collateral impact of increasing nervousness in the Post Soviet Republics that have endeavoured to map their future differently from their past.
A flux is an unnatural state in international relations and soon a rising China and a rejuvenated Russia filled the vacuum. The new paradigm is best illustrated by the aggressive position that China has taken with regard to the South China Sea and Russia’s support to the Assad regime in the continuing fratricide in Syria. The European nations who were vociferously supportive of the revolutions that swept the greater Maghreb region in the first five years of the current decade have now all withdrawn after being overwhelmed by the flood of refugees that various ill-conceived attempts to reorder that part of the world have unleashed.
All this is throwing up interesting new alignments. For example, in the latest summit in Tehran between Iran, Turkey and Russia. Though focused on the Syrian situation and the ongoing offensive in Idlib this axis has the potential to blossom into an alliance in the future. Similarly there are many other different global permutations and combinations in play.
A new Cold War looms on the horizon. This time it will not be between two superpowers, but a multi-polar contest for spheres of influence between rejuvenated and rising players. The first in the crosshairs of this conquest would be those nations of “new Europe” that have endeavoured to chart an independent path since the end of the Cold War but are perceived as a sphere of influence. Do they have reasons to be worried?