Russia’s Illiberal “Liberal Empire”

Across the West, many people are questioning whether Russia will continue using natural gas as a means of putting economic and political pressure on Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries in what the Kremlin regards as its “near abroad.” Using the “energy weapon,” however, is not just a tactic: it is at the heart of the prevailing doctrine guiding Russian foreign policy.

Russia’s policy toward the post-Soviet countries is based on the doctrine of a “liberal empire,” according to which Russia’s major government-owned and private companies should assume control of key economic entities across the territories of the former Soviet republics by acquiring their assets. In this context, the word “liberal” should be understood to suggest that the empire of the “new Russian dream” should be built by purely economic means, excluding all forcible action against other nations.

Naturally, the key role in this model is given to the supply of energy to the post-Soviet countries. In particular, the Russian utility giant Gazprom uses increases in gas prices as a means to punish “disobedient” neighbors. Ukraine was punished in this way for its eagerness to integrate with the West following the Orange Revolution. However, after the return of the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych to the position of Ukrainian prime minister, the country’s pro-Western orientation has been significantly weakened. So it should be no surprise that Ukraine under Yanukovych has faced no further problems with the supply of Russian gas.

But Georgia remains a major Kremlin-Gazprom target. Russia’s attempt to drag Georgia into its imperial net started in the summer of 2003, when the Russian power monopoly United Energy System took control of 75% of Georgia’s electricity network. After the Rose Revolution of November 2003, Russian companies turned out to be the most avid purchasers of Georgian enterprises and their assets.