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Russia Abroad: Driving Regional Fracture in Post-Communist Eurasia and Beyond

Russia Abroad: Driving Regional Fracture in Post-Communist Eurasia and Beyond edited by Anna Ohanyan. Georgetown University Press, 2018, 200 pp.

When I was in high school, during the long-ago 1990s, my geography teacher had the class color a map of Europe using different hues to delineate regions. He specifically instructed us to color a portion of Eastern Europe dark red and label it the “shatter belt region,” a geographic area defined by the cultural and political clash of Western Europe, Russia, and the Arabic/Ottoman Middle East. A decade later, numerous reports and articles announced the dangers of “failed states,” ungoverned or lightly governed spaces that lacked the ability to police themselves, often harbored terrorists, and spread chaos throughout the regions in which they festered. Then, just a couple of years ago, we heard the warning of “frozen conflicts,” internal warfare or proxy combat that delegitimized any attempts a given state takes toward maintaining a central government, typically in the context of Russian actions in former Soviet states. The generational irony undergirding each of these labels is the seeming inevitability of globalization and increased regional interconnectedness that defined the era. These failures of governance, no matter the label, seemed an anachronistic outlier. After a generation in which the reality of state and regional fracture has not lessened, however, one has to wonder, Will the global community always be bedeviled by the specter of failed governance projects?

Anna Ohanyan, editor of this collection of essays titled Russia Abroad, argues yes. Failed or fractured states have existed for as long as we have sought to define the nation-state, a type of photo negative of those qualities we assess “successful” states in the international order to possess. Ohanyan, a distinguished professor of political science at Stonehill College, believes that we should concern ourselves less with how fractured states buck global trends toward interconnectedness and more with understanding the factors that drive fracture within the state. At their core, fractured states lack the intergovernmental reach, resiliency, and respect to execute full governance within their borders, thus preventing the establishment of a future foundation for regional connections that reach beyond, and through, borders. While Ohanyan advances a holistic theory that, she believes, one can apply globally to understand troubled regions, the focus of her current work, as the title suggests, is on the “new” concept of regional fracture or frozen conflicts in Russia’s near-abroad. The actions taken by Putin’s Russia to destabilize its neighbors, while significant in the moment, are indicative of a set of centuries-long Russian/Soviet imperial policies that look to incorporate these borderlands into a greater Russian empire, contributor Robert Nalbandov states. Although these policies intended to capture these regions in Russia’s imperial sphere, they also weakened local governance to preclude any revolutionary or separatist movements. This internal weakness persisted in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and also set the conditions for Russia’s reentry, desired or otherwise, into the region during the 2000s and 2010s.

While the majority of contributors outline the role that recent Russian actions have played in destabilizing Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, they also highlight other trends that contribute to state and regional fracture. They point to the outsized role played by nongovernmental organizations, moneyed and cultural elites, refashioned or recast histories, and persistent cultural norms in maintaining or exacerbating state weakness and regional fracture. Contributors all extended this model beyond Russia’s near-abroad, examining how Russia’s continued neo-imperial reach emphasizes long-simmering feuds and political instability. Dimitar Bechev (Western Balkans) and Mark Katz (Syria and the Levant) overlay Ohanyan’s theory of regional fracture with the other contributors’ Russo-focused theory of the legacy of Russian overreach, giving legitimacy to Ohanyan’s framework in areas beyond the post-Soviet hinterlands.

At times, the authors unwittingly also illuminate areas where the reality of state fragility and regional fracture draw similarities across seemingly unlike groups. In one of the most striking examples, David Lewis charts how the rise of illiberal regionalism provides a means for the states of Central Asia to create an identity in the chaos of post-Soviet fracture and neoliberalism (p. 119). “Illiberal regionalism” is defined as how the “focus on the role of shared ideas, norms, and beliefs provides a framework for some limited regional cooperation with a common discourse that is sharply at odds with the liberal norms that underpin most of Western theories of regionalism.” As Lewis notes, this regionalism often comes with the ascension of authoritarian “strongmen” who rely on a masculine, ethnographic sense of cultural unity in the face of uneven economic and social change. The perceptual rise of authoritarianism and illiberal democracy across the globe would seem an extension of what Lewis describes, and plumbing the depth of this thinking would add to a growing research field.

Ohanyan’s current work, beyond a thoughtful collection of intellectually rich essays, also provides a striking (and needed) counterpoint to a narrative of globalization that, while tested in the past, still holds sway today. Russia Abroad provides an interesting context to assess state fragility and regional fracture relative to Russia’s current machinations in its near-abroad. However, the ability to take the book’s theory of regional fracture and “mean-test” it globally is critical to understanding how states are, and are not, incorporated into an assumed global order. Further, it is critical to diagnose the seams and fractures in internal governance and identify those trends or vulnerabilities that may force them to widen. Finally, knowing how powerful interlocutors can pluck these fissures like harp strings, playing chaotic tunes of state collapse, will become a central part of building state and international resiliency toward illiberal agents—something likely to define the twenty-first century.

LTC Andrew Forney, USA

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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