Monday, October 27, 2008

The mayor of Moscow's foreign policy

The NYT today has a great profile of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and his penchant for conducting foreign policy. Luzhkov's nationalistic style is similar to that of the Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin, but unlike Dugin, Luzhkov actually has a budget to back himself up. Anonymous sources within the administrated cited "hundreds of millions of dollars" as the total spending of Moscow on regions outside of Russia. These regions included South Ossetia (pre-war), which he plied with food, medical aid, "dump trucks, tents and cranes," and where he repaired a highway that was ultimately used by South Ossetian separatists during the war. And there's also Abkhazia, the old Soviet apparatchiks' favorite beach spot, where the City of Moscow has become a major investor. And though the Russian government (as opposed to the Moscow government) also contributed a lot of aid to these regions before their invasions this summer, the Times notes that "Mr. Luzhkov often seems to take the lead."

More ominously, Luzhkov has also been pouring resources into Crimea, an majority Russian port city deep within Ukraine's territory, and also home of Russia's formidable Black Sea Naval Fleet. In Crimea, Luzhkov has built housing for Russia's military, "a branch of Moscow State University" (??), as well as many other non-military infrastructure projects. He has very open revanchist views about Crimea, "[calling] for Russia to reclaim Crimea from Ukraine."

But ultimately, the article's author notes, Luzhkov "is not a member of Mr. Putin's inner circle." While Putin might find his foreign policy adventures helpful, Luzhkov himself cannot initiate a Russian military invasion simply by building roads and schools. There are a lot of differences between Georgia and Ukraine. Most importantly, Ukraine is not an alternative to Russian energy for Europe. Whereas Georgia is a competitor with Russia when it comes to bringing Caspian Sea natural gas into Europe, Ukraine is not. Secondly, Georgia is ruled by an increasingly authoritarian Mikheil Saakashvili, who has shown himself to not be receptive to Russian subjugation, whereas Ukraine's political establishment is much more vulnerable to Russian meddling.

Like Georgia, Ukraine has value for Russia: namely, its access to the Black Sea. But in the end, I do not think Russia will move to reclaim eastern Ukraine or the Crimean peninsula. It would be much less controversial to simply work to influence Ukraine's leaders (as Russia has done in Belarus), rather than launch an invasion against Ukraine. Whereas Russia could invade Georgia with minimal repercussions, an invasion of Ukraine – so close to Europe – would have a lot more consequences.

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