11.03 Ryhor Nizhnikau

Tuesday, 11th of March PhD student Ryhor Nizhnikau gave a lecture on the topic of „Wolf and eleven young kids? Russia’s policies toward post-soviet states: goals, means, outcomes".

Ryhor Nizhnikau is a PhD student at the Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu and doctoral fellow at the Centre for EU-Russia Studies (CEURUS). He has a Master’s degree in Politics and International Studies with a specialization in Eurasian Studies, from Uppsala University (2011) and a degree in International Relations from Belarusian State University (2009). Prior to joining CEURUS, Ryhor worked as an intern at Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Sweden as well as at the Institute for Security and Development, Sweden. His research interests include EU policies in the post-Soviet area, European Neighborhood Policy, Russia’s foreign policy. His doctoral thesis focuses on the EU’s institutional change and policies in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine.

Russian ideology

We are used to looking at Russia as an imperialistic country that wants to restore the Soviet Union but Ryhor Nizhnikau argues against that perspective, because it does not explain why Kremlin has not taken action in some situations to spread its’ influence while it has in others.

After the fall of the Soviet Union Russia wanted to be part of the wide democratic community in the world, but in the 2000s things changed. Russia was understood as part of the West, but Russia had to form its’ own special identity. The country had its’ own special history that it had to protect. The idea of Russia as special civilization formed, that had to develop further to become the spiritual bond behind Russian society.

What is this special spiritual bond? Boris Yeltsin formed a taskforce in 1993 to look for a Russian national identity and help decide what ideology Russian government should promote. In reality it did not achieve much. The main thing it accomplished was that Russia had to be a true capitalist and anti-communist country.

Nowadays, literature on Eurasianism is widely distributed in Russia. Idea of Russian civilization that is distinct from the West is fully formed. It is largely influenced by the works of Russian intellectuals like Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev on one hand. On the other international system after the Second World War is idealized and Russia is looked upon as a special sovereign country where Western democracy does not work.

What threat does Ukraine pose to this ideology? The West thinks that, Russian position is in the lines of wanting to expand on the expense of weaknesses of its’ neighbors, but Russian reasons have probably more to do with domestic politics. Namely, that what happened in Ukraine (coup d’état of Viktor Yanukovych) is looked upon as ultimate danger, because it was a revolution of society, not organized by the parties but by people. Ukraine is looked upon as a country like Russia, but without oil. Russia felt as if it had to do something about the situation to send a clear message.

Russia as a great power and its’ foreign policy

Russia wants to be considered a great power. It does not want to just feel like one, but be recognized as such globally and it feels like it has to gain that position by action. Russian actions on international arena are largely explained by that notion.

To achieve the status of a great power Russia mimics the West. Largely the policies it implements are nothing new and revolutionary, but it promotes his policies by the same means as the West has been doing. The logic behind that is: “great powers do this, so do we”. By that Russia acknowledges that it is part of the same system and previous actions of others in the system legitimize its’ actions. A clear example of this behavior is soon to be formed Eurasian Union that copies European Union, only with the center in Moscow. It is reaction to economic protectionism of EU. Same could be observed in military actions: they do what others have already done: „you blame us for Georgia, but look what you did in places ABC”.

Russia has monopolized the discourse of fascism and neo-Nazism that was also used against Ukraine. These ideas have been defined as ultimate evil and eagerly promoted by Russians in different organizations’. Russia uses them in their foreign policy. The Second World War is a source for different discourses: war is considered glory for military and leadership, because they brought down the fascists force and liberated Europe, paved the way for the future of Europe. Everybody who is against Russians in modern context is also labelled as fascist, which helps Russia legitimize its actions.

From one side Kremlin idealizes the Second World War and the following Soviet era, but contradictionally it also glorifies the tsarist era. Nikita Khrushchev is blamed for the downfall of the Soviet union and left policies like healthcare are valued on the one hand, but on the other hand most of Putin’s policies are neo-fascist and far right. In conclusion the Russian foreign policy is mix of contradicting ideas and uses parts of policies that are convenient for the time.

During the anti-communist Boris Yeltsin years the Soviet Union was considered evil, because it was main political opponent for him. When Putin came to power, it was more liberal at first, but has turned to more nationalist and Eurasianist ideas by now.

Different means Russia uses to promote his ideas

The package that Russia uses to promote his ideas is simple; it is tailor-made to the needs and weaknesses of the post-soviet countries. Most of these states are weak and with weak governments, that are run by families. Their military is also weak and disorganized. They have no clear ideology. So, Russia has made a point to get those countries economically dependent on her and on and influence her agenda through economic means.

Russia uses its’ economic powers to make neighbors with smaller economies dependent on its’ market and financial assistance. Best example for that is Belarus: domestic political system is provided by Russians, who give 30-40% of Belarussian GDP as economic assistance and are therefore able to make Belarus follow its’ policy.

If the country is not dependent on Russia economically, and cannot be made dependent on its’ assistance (like Ukraine), Russia tries to use other means. They can be political, like trying to create pro-Russian forces and help them, so they would promote Russian agenda. Russia can use different political issues like minority rights and language on the one hand. On the other hand Russia can sell its’ political support: if a country has a foreign policy issue, Russia might support it (like Armenia, who at first wanted to sign association agreement with the EU but had to drop that idea, because Russia threatened to withdraw its’ military support).

Another way to make a country dependent is by military means. Armenia has opponent that she is afraid of and therefore she relies on Russia for military support. The same applies in Central Asian countries with the energy distribution system and the pipelines. China just built new pipelines to the region; before Kazakhstan and the others were solely dependent on Soviet pipe systems to sell their oil and gas to Western markets. In conclusion, with each country Russia has used different tactics.

Also in its’ soft power, Russia has imitated the West. Russia has never promoted its’ soft power efficiently. They have tried to change it, with for example the recent Olympic games, but the latest events have nullified its’ effort.


In light of Ukrainian events we have to ask: why did Russia by its policies in Crimea ruin what it had been building for the last 15 years? Our understanding of that is not complete.

If we look into the past, then Russia opposed the idea of independent Kosovo and threatened to recognize South-Ossetia’s independence if Kosovo were to become independent. The main reason is that Russia is scared that some of the regions of Russia itself might break away.

Same applies to the soft power: there was so much effort in improving Russian image. Why was Mikhail Khodorkovsky let free if Russia didn’t care about the opinion of the West? Therefore, what happened in Ukraine must not have been the way Russia intended it to go. Russia must have had other plans, but had to deploy a last minute solution for Ukraine.

Financial support for neighbors

Offering financial support to neighbors is not very sustainable in the long run, because it depends largely on how well shaped Russian economy is. The amount of money they spend on supporting the regimes is large and the appetite of leaders rises. It is dangerous when Russian economy is not doing well, like now. Russian economy was slowing down already before the advances in Ukraine, but it has become worse, because Ukraine was one of the key markets for Russia. In addition, Russian economy depends a lot on oil price.

A way out?

Is there a way for Russia to save his image before the West? Russia has his ways to save the face. If referendum about Crimea is held, there are two possible outcomes. The first option of becoming part of Russia would be a loss for the image of Russia. The second option would be the restitution of constitution of 1992 which would be the beneficial option for Russia, because it would make Crimea an entity independent of Kiev which would be a huge leverage for Moscow against Kiev.

As of now, Russia has lost Ukraine, because of its’ advances and also in doing so Russia has united Ukraine against a common enemy. An option for Russia would be to use Crimea to somehow anchor Ukraine and prevent it drifting towards the EU. But for that Russian parliament has to show independence and say that they cannot take Crimea.

Russian leadership

Russia is not a dictatorship but authoritarian state, autocracy. Putin in an arbitrary force between different decision making groups; he has the last word but he has to listen to them.


What are the latest emotions towards Russia in Belarus? Before the Crimea-crisis there were negotiations for building a Russian military base on Belarusian grounds and it was dependent on the loan from Russia. Now Belarusians are more afraid of letting in the Russian military base.

Central Asia

Those countries are a mess. What do they expect from dealing with China? They don’t care which government takes the gas, but when it comes to inner politics, they need military help from Russia. There is a frozen conflict between those countries. China is there for economic reasons, to do trade with everybody, not to help them solve the conflicts. So they need Russia to help them politically.

Ethnic minorities

Russia uses ethnic minorities to blackmail the governments. Russian government claims that it has to protect the Russian speaking minority. It’s a political issue, because Russia uses it as political weapon.


Konspekteeris Maarja Mets

On 28th November, the guest lecturer in RSR was Marina Kaljurand who gave lecture on “Cyber Security – challenges and potential responses”. She has served as the Ambassador of Estonia to USA, Mexico, Russia, Kazahstan and Israel. She has also been the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia. Currently, she is a Chair of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace.

First time when Marina Kaljurand learned about cyber security was in 2007 when Estonia was under politically motivated cyberattacks. Back then she was an Estonian ambassador to Russia and she had to explain what is happening in Estonia – DDoS-attacks. It was important to talk about this because cyber does not have borders and in this field, cooperation is necessary. She said that states are not allowed to take any illegal actions and according to international law they must stop every illegal action that is transiting their country. It was known back then that cyberattacks came from Russian territory – Estonia had all the legal instruments in place, but the will was missing (there was a cooperation between allies but not with Russia).

In year of Snowden’s disclosure, Kaljurand was posted to the US. She said that the US changed a lot during these times and question of trust was the most important. Estonia was the first country to have a bilateral agreement in cyber security with the US and it was used as a hook to bring Obama to Tallinn (he came later, though). For Estonian diplomats, it is very important to represent our country because usually nobody cares about us and many even do not know (still think that we are part of the USSR). That was the reason we had to find our niche – which is cyber (e-lifestyle, cyber security) – and now it opens the doors and starts the conversations.

Currently there are 84 global bodies dealing with cyber security. Marina Kaljurand is the Chair of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace. At first, they were hesitating to include Russian and Chinese experts but as it is a global commission, they need people from different countries. They also have Jeff Moss and Joseph Nye, also human rights activists, and civil society experts. Commission is a multistakeholder. Governments need to cooperate in order to be successful because there are a lot of actors in cyber area. There is an ideological division in between of how the ICT is seen – one side (especially the West) sees it beneficial (lets do it!) and another (i.e. Russia and China) side sees the use of the ICT as interfering (colour revolutions, influencing internal politics). It is difficult to cooperate between two divisions.

Cyber is not only for IT geeks, there are so many fields – diplomacy, international affairs, law, etc. For Kaljurand, cyber security is about stability, it is an open, secure, stable, and accessible Internet. 65% of people are not online yet, they are to join us and we need to have stable and secure Internet. She said that we have to raise the awareness to countries who have no idea what is happening in cyber field. Thus, although she had no idea what all the 84 bodies are doing, she was happy that there are so many of them who are raising the awareness.

In 2013, it was decided by the UN GGE that international law applies to cyber space. The question is about how (jurisdiction and sovereignty). When is the sovereignty of a state violated (for example, in case of malware or when somebody really dies because of a cyber-attack?) UN is the only global organization, but it is from the 1940s. UN will never agree on everything, thus we need a division of like-minded states who have the same understanding and norms on how to behave in cyber space. For example, norm is that it is not okay to attack financial institutions during the peace time. Every country should be interested in having common norms, but it is not possible to agree because of the ideological divisions. If UN cannot work on that, then a group of likeminded countries can. Other bodies are the EU and NATO and both have its roles, for example, cyber is the 5th domain of operations (in addition to air, space, land, maritime). There is a NATO Centre of Excellence in Tallinn. The aim of cyber stability is to avoid misunderstandings (confidence building is getting people together, OECD is doing an excellent work there).

Kaljurand also spoke about Estonia’s e-voting. She used Hack the Pentagon – hackers were asked to hack a system to find vulnerabilities – example and she wants to do the same in Estonia with e-voting. She believes that we have a good system but there is so much criticism from abroad and we need a PR-event - Hack Estonian e-voting. We need international hackers for that. Government is not ready yet but she is still convincing it. We need to face challenges but not to step back. It may happen that people perceive it as negative PR (hackers are hacking Estonia) but we need to explain a lot what are we doing and why. We were lucky to have an ID-crisis in 2017 because we started to feel ourselves too comfortable.

What is the future of UN GGE? Has it failed because in the last meeting the participating countries did not reach a consensus?

Internet of Things, terrorism, international law, norms, confidence building measures, capacity building – GGE is looking these five fields. GGE was supposed to write a report (goal was not to go back from what was agreed two years earlier). Kaljurand does not think that coming years show a will of agreeing on something, she said that coming years will be for educating.

She also said that we need to start asking something for return. For example, if some country wants assistance in e-taxation, then it must make a political statement (international law applies to cyber space or a statement about human rights). If a country is not willing to make a statement, then it should ask for an assistance from some other country.

How to deal with Russia and China?

She has no answer to that. Balkanization of Internet (different countries have different Internets). She does not see that we could find common ground with China or Russia because of the big ideological differences. It may happen that states reach the point where they agree that cyberattacks are not okay. 2007 nobody died, it was just humiliating. All the cyberattacks have been kind of mild but if cyber 9/11 happens then the world would come together, and states would have more will and intentions to agree on some rules. It is a grey zone if you do not have rules. People get to together usually when something bad happens, it has not happened with cyber yet.

Tech-people can do attribution, but it has a political dimension as well, as it depends on the politicians (do they have the courage to say it out or not). She referred to former Minister of Defence Jaak Aaviksoo who said that we did reasonable attribution and our conclusion is that when somebody does everything like a dog then most probably it is a dog. Attribution is a political question and increasingly states should say that they were attacked by this or that country.

You can buy cyber weapons from the black market but it’s too primitive. It will change with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and internet of things, it will be cheaper for terrorists. So far it has not been used. KRATT – Estonian law on AI (obligations, responsibilities). Finland, company who has AI in its board, EE-FIN are competing on who will have the law first.

Why are there so many diplomatic efforts (84)?

She does not know what all of them are doing. On the one side, it is good that so many institutions are discussing cyber security. 2004 or 2007 nobody was discussing cyber but today everybody is discussing it. Her commission tries to look at what others are doing. It is good to have so many even if they duplicate. It is important to discuss and educate people.

Cyber security is connected to open internet. Are the EU and US values the same if something goes south?

US is very vocal about open internet, freedom of the Internet. They are strong supporters of human rights online and open internet. There are differences how countries see intelligence etc but basically, we are on the same side. We may disagree on small things, but we share the same principles and understanding.

Could you elaborate more on EU’s role (EU diplomacy toolbox) concerning cyber security?

Cyber diplomacy toolbox – if something happens how do we react. International law allows retaliation. We have regulations. What are the measures in case of cyberattack against a member state? All the rules apply to cyber security (political statements, sanctions etc). The same as the EU has done in the case of Crimea. In the EU it is easier than in NATO. In NATO, there is no mechanism of what to do in case of an attack.

However, there is a problem with the EU and overregulation - EU is very happy when it can regulate something. EU is not a single market, with cyber it is more complicated, there are more regulations. Some regulations are needed because you need to have some frames. You have to know what is allowed and what is not. It is difficult to find a balance.

How Is the cooperation with industries?

Estonia is cooperating pretty well with the industries. All industries (Microsoft, Facebook) complained that governments were not cooperating enough. Industries have ideas. States will not give away authority on retaliation, attribution etc. It is about attitudes (I know how to do my job!). Governments are starting to understand that they can’t do anything without industries. In the end, they have IT-nerds, governments cannot afford them. Hackers are going to school and teach cyber hygiene to students. Teachers were negative until they started to cooperate with the policemen. She said that hackers despite their image are not bad guys.

How much is Estonia an ideal case? How to implement it to other countries?

Estonia is doing well. Other countries need to find what is suitable to them. They don’t need to copy; every country (state) can find something what is interesting to them. Estonia needs to introduce what we are doing and urge others to find what is interesting to them. You can always do the same thing but with going around the corner.

Konspekteeris Kert Ajamaa