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Interview with Gerard Toal: Why Does Russia Invade Its Neighbors?

3 19 26

Three years ago this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent ripples of concern through Kazakhstan. Amidst the fallout of Russia’s invasion of southern and eastern Ukraine, a Russian student queried Putin about whether there would be a “Ukrainian scenario” upon Nursultan Nazarbayev’s departure from the presidency. Rather than push back at the girl’s line of questioning, Putin intoned that Kazakhs “had never had statehood” prior to the Soviet Union’s demise — a less-than-subtle nod to the Russian nationalists who continue to view northern Kazakhstan, from Petropavl to Oskemen, as part of Russia proper.

Needless to say, Nazarbayev remains firmly ensconced in Astana, but concerns about Russian meddling, or worse, in northern Kazakhstan have only accelerated since 2014. Thankfully, for those watching the space, a new book from Virginia Tech Professor Gerard Toal provides one of the foremost examinations of Russia’s history within the post-Soviet “contested spaces” threading the region, found most especially in Ukraine and Georgia. (The title of the first chapter: “Why does Russia invade its neighbors?”) While Near Abroad focuses largely on Russia’s relations with Kyiv and Tbilisi — as well as its role in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbas — the concept of a flexible, revanchist Russian statehood traces the book, and includes multiple nods to the role northern Kazakhstan plays within the post-Soviet space.

The Diplomat spoke with Toal about Russia’s conceptions of post-Soviet statehood, Russia’s “Monroe Doctrine,” and how northern Kazakhstan fits within Moscow’s broader views on the contested spaces lining its borders:

From your vantage, which aspect of Russia’s relationship with the post-Soviet space — especially as it pertains to the contested spaces your book describes — remains the least understood, or least appreciated, among Western audiences?

Gerard Toal: Russia’s relationship with its neighbors has long been presented within the conventions of melodrama to, as you say, “Western audiences.” In melodrama, one has an innocent party that has been unjustly victimized by an evil figure or force. Thus, the Cold War was presented as a drama featuring an “evil empire” and “captive nations.” This narrative form carried over into the post-Cold War period. The Soviet Union was “dead” and the “nations” it had captured were “free at last.” But then along came a new leader saying the empire’s collapse was a “geopolitical catastrophe.”

This storyline is easy to grasp but it does not serve us well. The Soviet Union was the largest country in the world with over 100 distinct nationalities. Many former Soviet territories have profound legacies of violence and are contested by groups claiming to speak for one nation or the other. In the book I discuss........

© The Diplomat