Tags: Russia | Borderlands | Excerpt | Flashpoints | george friedman

Russia and Its Borderlands: An Excerpt from 'Flashpoints'

By    |   Monday, 23 Feb 2015 11:32 PM

Excerpt from the book: FLASHPOINTS by George Friedman

American and European policy toward the former Soviet Union consisted of trying to turn former Soviet Republics into constitutional democracies, under the prevailing theory that this would stabilize them and integrate them into the Western economic and political system. As a result, both these countries and the United States engaged in the funding of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) they regarded as pro-democracy. The Russians saw funding of these groups as pro-Western and thus hostile to Russian interests. The same thing happened in Ukraine. Americans were oblivious to how Russians saw this interference. The Russians, on the other hand, did not believe the Westerners were that naiive.

In the 1990s the Russians couldn’t respond. They were too weak and fragmented themselves. The American and European view was that the Russians had nothing to respond to as NATO was obviously not a threat, and they would profit from close relations with the European Union. America and Europe took advantage of business opportunities in Russia, assuming that all tensions had been abolished. Along with this came NGOs, filled with good wishes and self-righteousness; they regarded those who distrusted them as archaic or corrupt. Their mind-set was that they intended good, so everyone of goodwill would see them as good.

By 2001, the United States was completely focused on the Islamic world, the European militaries were hollowed out, and NATO was barely functional. The idea that the Russians could feel threatened by support for democratic NGOs was dismissed as so implausible that the Russians couldn’t possibly be serious. And to be frank, Europe and the Americans held Russia in contempt. It was weak and poor and the West would do what they wanted to do.

It was this attitude that helped create Vladimir Putin. His power originated in St. Petersburg, where his influence was enormous, but was forged in Kosovo, a province of Serbia. The Serbs had engaged in wars and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. When conflict broke out between predominantly Albanian regions and the Serbian government in 1999, the West intervened and carried out a two-month-long bombing campaign against Serbia.

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The Russians didn’t want this to happen, but it did regardless of their desires. The Russians helped arrange the cease-fire and expected to participate in peacekeeping in Kosovo, but this didn’t happen. The Russians felt that the West was treating them with contempt, though it was merely indifference. That indifference proved intolerable, and Vladimir Putin, who came to power intending to change the dynamic that had been in place since 1991, replaced Yeltsin.

Putin was a KGB man. He looked at the world in a certain way, with ruthless realism and little ideology. I doubt that the collapse of the Soviet Union surprised him. The KGB was the single institution in the Soviet Union that did not intentionally lie to itself. It had known, since the early 1980s under Yuri Andropov, the ultimate realist, that the Soviet Union was in deep trouble. It needed restructuring and openness to Western capital, and if geopolitical advantages had to be traded for that, then that was the price to be paid. Perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were part of Gorbachev’s plan to carry out Andropov’s strategy for saving the state. It failed.

Putin, the supreme realist, understood immediately what failure meant. Privatization in Russia meant converting public assets into private property. In a country without laws, the property went to the strongest, and in the Soviet Union the best, the brightest, and the strongest were in the security apparatus. To a great extent they organized the creation of the oligarchy that followed. The Russian oligarchs, the Russian Mafia, and the former KGB were sometimes the same people and always linked. Putin built his power base in St. Petersburg on this foundation.

But as a KGB man, he also had a deep loyalty to the state and a commitment to his country. Intelligence people are cynical by nature and training, and they distrust declarations of loyalty. They understand that talk is cheap. But they have not taken civil service jobs with mediocre pay and, for some, potential personal risk because they see this as a path to wealth or glory. Wealth doesn’t come with the job, and glory is rare in a life invisible to the world. Underneath everything is a patriotism coupled with a deep professional pride that makes losing unbearable.

Putin had been on the losing side and it hurt. Seeing his country impoverished and treated with indifference and contempt was unbearable. While he accumulated wealth and power, he also harbored a belief that he expressed publicly later in a political address: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He now had the power to do something about it. In all his actions, Putin’s personal pride at resurrecting a degree of Russian power can be seen. But so can love of his country, deeply buried beneath the requisite cynicism of an intelligence operative. The oath he took and the love of his own country burn in him.

Putin understood that the United States was far more powerful than Russia. He also understood that Washington could, in the long run, influence the European peninsula, particularly the countries in the borderland. But the United States was bogged down in the Middle East. Russia had a window of opportunity not only to reassert its military capability, but to reshape borderlands, particularly Ukraine, into something that would protect Russia. If he waited, the window would close. If he acted too early his military wouldn’t be ready. But with the dependence of the peninsula on Russian energy, the situation was locked into place, and this was his opportunity.

The war with Georgia was designed to undermine the American opposition in the borderlands, to undermine pro-U.S. and pro-European forces, and it succeeded. Clearly the United States would not intervene and Europe could not. The Russian-Georgian War changed the dynamic of the region.

Russia had struck in one direction, strengthening its position in the Caucasus and leveraging that to improve its position in Ukraine. Its approach in Georgia was direct military action; in Ukraine it was covert and overt political pressure in the face of internal Ukrainian unrest triggered by military action in the Balkans. For a time of peace, the tensions in the borderland were building. Economics mattered a great deal, but the old strategic realities were becoming as important.


Russia faces no military threat now, but it also knows that military threats emerge suddenly and unexpectedly from the peninsula. Given the uncertain future of Ukraine, that could come quickly. Russia doesn’t have to use sudden military force to secure its interests, nor does it have that kind of force. But Russia would be reckless if it wasn’t in the process of taking steps. This is the kind of thinking that seems archaic in today’s Europe, but Vladimir Putin is a man trained not only in the permanence of geopolitical realities, but also in planning for the worst-case scenario. His statement that the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster for the Soviet Union is playing itself out here.

Russia has two strategies. One is to move as far west on the European Plain as possible, to create both strategic depth and industrial and technological resources. The other is to reach the Carpathian Mountains and use them as a barrier. Neither is currently a possibility. Assuming that Belarus remains in the Russian orbit, the Baltic states and Poland make a difficult barrier to expansion. Should something happen in Belarus, the line would move east. As for securing a foothold in the Carpathians to the south, the problem is not only Romania but Ukraine. Thus, underneath it all, the Russians face a serious strategic problem, and on the whole they face economic and strategic problems that they can’t overcome.

But all such problems are relative to the capabilities of those you are facing. Russia is inherently more powerful than the countries that form the Baltic-Belarus-Ukraine line. Barring third-party intervention, they can force their way, or subvert their way, west. They also can assert tremendous and probably decisive power on the next tier of countries, the Poland-Romania line. What has thus far prevented this is the potential power of the EU and NATO if they choose to resist, and the fact that Russia benefits as much from a genuinely neutral buffer zone as from occupation. Russia is looking to secure itself, not expand.

When the former Soviet satellites joined NATO and the European Union they assumed three things. The first was that NATO would provide a military capability that would protect them from Russian power in the future. The second was that the European Union would provide them a degree of prosperity that would both satisfy political needs at home and integrate them into Europe’s general prosperity. Finally, the feeling was that integration with these organizations would guarantee the permanence of constitutional liberalism in their countries. In other words, that they would become Western Europeans, banishing both authoritarianism and corruption.

The third wish depended on the first two coming true. But NATO is a shadow of its former self. Aside from the United States, and to a much lesser extent Britain and France, NATO’s military capability is minimal. NATO really has capabilities only to the extent that the United States, a non-European power, participates. NATO also operates by consensus, so a single nation can block action. The European Union is in shambles, with no promise of regaining its prosperity. Therefore Eastern Europe has to recalculate its strategic position.

Life in Eastern Europe is not bad compared to what was there before, but it is nothing like what people expected when communism collapsed. Unemployment is high and the economies are flat. And they start at a lower level than the rest of Europe, so for them being flat is much more difficult than it is for others.

In Hungary hatred of the Russians runs deep. They still remember the 1956 revolution and Soviet tanks. Fear of the Russians is an anchor of Hungarian political culture. The other anchor was that membership in the EU would give them the good life of both constitutional democracy and prosperity. As in most things, life has proven more complex.

It’s critical to understand what the Hungarian government did in response to the European economic crisis. The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, heads the center-right Fidesz Party, which governs with a substantial majority. Unlike most other prime ministers in this region, he can make decisions. When communism fell, Austrian and Italian banks moved into Hungary and other countries in the region and began offering mortgages. The Hungarians weren’t part of the eurozone, the region that used the euro, and used their own currency, the forint. Mortgages denominated in forints carried a higher interest rate to compensate for the potential decline of the forint. So these banks lent money to Hungarians in euros, Swiss francs, and even yen. Because these currencies were assumed to carry a lower risk, the interest rates were lower.

Hungarians flocked to the lower interest rates just as Americans did. However, the forint did fall, and every month Hungarians had to pay more and more in forints in order to pay their mortgages. Eventually the Hungarians started defaulting. The banks were reluctant to foreclose and acknowledge the bad loans, but the borrowers were simply unable to pay them back. Orbán intervened, announcing that the loans would be repaid in forints, instead of the currency in which they were borrowed, and that only a certain percentage needed to be repaid.


While this decision protected Hungarians, it violated fundamental European Union understandings on how debts would be handled. A government claiming sovereign and unilateral authority over payments to the banks of other countries was not the way the game was to be played.

Nevertheless, and this is what matters, the banks and the EU swallowed it. The EU had threatened Orbán with sanctions, because Orbán had weakened Hungary’s Constitutional Court, which affected the media and increased the likelihood that Orbán would hold on to power. After mild shifts in Orbán’s position, the EU backed off on this threat. The EU was even less assertive over the loans. The banks basically capitulated, and the EU remained silent.

Two things were happening here. The first was that the European Union was struggling to hold Hungary and the rest of the Eastern European countries within its framework. The crisis in the eurozone forced policy makers in Brussels, Berlin, and Paris to focus on problems of the currency union, thus neglecting events in Eastern Europe. The benefits that Hungary had expected hadn’t materialized, and Orbán was pursuing a nationalist position. His concern was not the EU, but Hungary and his position in it. And his protection of Hungarian debtors was obviously popular in Hungary. Amazingly the European Union did not challenge this move.

The European Union as an institution had little weight. It had lost its economic charm; it had no single foreign policy that all members followed and no defense policy. The European defense policy still ran through NATO, which was more American than European in terms of military power. The eastern part of the peninsula in 1991 saw a weak Russia and a strong Europe. Now the reverse was true. From Poland to Romania, there was disappointment in NATO, and in the EU, but more than that, a deep uncertainty about what would come next. This situation also had opened the door for the Russians to pursue their strategic interests.

Russia does not want to overtly dominate the region. But it does want to limit the power of NATO in the east. It also wishes to limit European integration, which could evolve into a strategic threat, by offering Eastern Europe economic alternatives. At a time when the Americans were uninterested and the Europeans incapable of massive economic involvement, Russia, even with limited resources, had the opportunity to spread its influence. This was particularly true in the Carpathian countries— Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.

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The Russians had two tools at their disposal. One I would call commercial geopolitics. Without dominating these countries, how did Russia prevent them from moving in directions it didn’t want? As an incentive, the Russians offered investment in energy, minerals, and other enterprises. They did not try to take control of the economy or even of most of the businesses, but wanted just enough control so that business decisions could be influenced. They were interested in making money, and there was money to be made in this region.

More money might be made elsewhere, but the goal was geopolitical. The Russians created a network of dependency in various industries that exercised a degree of influence over political decisions. Alienating the Russians was not wise for countries that could not risk Russian hostility at a time when they were exposed, when European money was scarcer than it had been and American investment did not carry political protection with it. The investment in whatever industry was welcome, and the political price minimal. Increased integration into the EU was not happening, and cooperating with NATO was like cooperating with a ghost.

Second, and as important, the Russians had their intelligence service, and they had developed powerful relationships and sources in all these countries both during and after their occupation. They had files on everyone and knew all the things people might want to hide. The Russians did not have to be overt blackmailers. Things were much more subtle than that. The person knew what he had done and he knew Russian intelligence, and that it had a record of it. There was a kind of selfdiscipline imposed. This was not the case before 2008 and certainly not before 2001. There was a sense then that this was all in the past. But as Europe ceased to be a certainty, and as Russia played its hand very lightly, it was more prudent to cooperate. This did not affect the average person, but anyone who was involved in politics, labor, or business knew and it was enough to influence decisions.

The Russians had always looked at the Carpathians and the Hungarian plain with the Danube as an ideal buffer. But they did not need to occupy it. In fact the Russians had learned that occupation brought with it costly responsibilities that had played a role in hollowing out the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before it. Putin approached the matter in a radically new way—enough control to protect Russia’s most important interests, acquired as gently as possible.


What made Putin’s approach particularly practical, of course, is that it suited both the commercial interests of businesses and the political interests of Russia. The growing sense that these countries of the former Soviet Union were on their own and no one else was in control caused some of them, like Hungary, to try taking control of their own destiny. And this meant that they needed to keep Russia happy while holding open the option of the European Union should it regain its balance.

Given the weakness of Russia and the uncertainty of the EU, everything was tentative in the borderland region, and stances were constantly shifting. During the interwar period, when the wind might blow from France, then the Soviet Union, then Germany, these countries had played similar games. But in those days the demands were harsher and more burdensome. Then it wasn’t a casual affair but a shotgun marriage that was in the cards. Now there is no shotgun, only chocolates, and the wooing of a very reluctant bride—for the moment at least.

The situation north of the Carpathians is both simpler and more complex. The terrain is simpler: it’s flat. That has historically made the stakes in the north higher. Russia only controlled the Carpathian countries during the Cold War. It wasn’t the historical norm. In the north, Russian and German influence competed for over a century, with the border sliding back and forth along the plain, and Poland and the Baltic states usually disappearing under the tectonic plates.

It is the stakes that are higher. Germany is the world’s fourth-largest economy. West of it on the plain is France, the fifth-largest economy. Combined they are the third-largest economy in the world, larger than Japan and just behind China and the United States. If we add in Poland, Russia, and smaller countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the Baltic States), the economy of this region is larger than China’s. The northern European Plain, taken together, is one of the wealthiest places on earth.

Because of the importance of this region any political fragmentation becomes much more significant and complicated. Germany and France were once intimate, but now there is more distance between them. Germany and Poland are close but have terrible memories, as does Poland with Russia and similarly the Baltic countries. This is the place whose soul was torn out in the thirty-one years between the start of World

War I and the end of World War II. Therefore, when we consider flashpoints, this is the place that is always the most explosive.

Germany has returned to its prior position as the major European economy. It has not even tried to become a marginally significant military power. But that means little as such things change. It is Germany that is deciding the direction the EU will move in. It was German pressure that led to the austerity strategy. It was Germany that was decisive in negotiating terms for reducing debt. And it was Germany that had the greatest control over the value of the euro as managed by the Central Bank.

Once again Germany is greatly admired but also deeply resented. In southern and eastern Europe the view of Germany is that of an aggressive exporter insensitive to the needs of smaller countries. Regarded as the inevitable European power, it is once again feared. Germany’s reemergence after 1945 is extraordinary. France’s fear that Germany would become the dominant European country has materialized. As we have seen, the United States had a great deal to do with Germany’s initial recovery, and also its longer-term recovery, as it could export to the United States. But those days of dependency, economic and military, are long gone. Germany is on its own, leading an exceedingly fractured Europe.

When it looks at Europe, Germany is also frightened because a crucial market for its goods is contracting due to recession, and in danger of fragmenting. It is also afraid of the rising nationalism in the region. That nationalism is generating hostility toward Germany and poses the danger of generating nationalism within Germany. There was deep resentment in Germany at what was regarded as Greek irresponsibility, and at the idea that Germany would be called on to bail out Greece and other European countries. There was a sense of satisfaction at Germany’s economic vibrancy, and also a sense that Germany was being victimized by those who had run into trouble. The degree to which Germany had prospered at the expense of these nations was not factored in, but we are talking here about nationalism.

German leaders understand that there is a boundary that once crossed would return Germany to its past. The boundary consists of a sense of unjust victimization coupled with a military threat. While the sense of victimization is emerging, no foreign military threat is present. The only potential one, Russia, is no threat at the moment. And therefore Germany is not in danger of crossing that line.

The problem is that the Russians are inherently drawn west out of fear. It is difficult to defend Russia in the north, and Belarus is indispensable as a buffer. But the Russians have a significant fear of three small and weak countries: Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. It is not the countries themselves that are the problem. It is their geography. The Baltic states are a bayonet pointing at St. Petersburg. Another nation that is also a major power could use them as a base from which to attack Russia. In many ways these Baltic countries are more part of Scandinavia than of the European Plain. That they are on the plain is their historic tragedy.

The only conceivable threatening power is Germany, which has not the slightest intention of significantly rearming, let alone attacking Russia. But as I have said, intentions change with circumstances. In the long run the Russians cannot guarantee that the next generation of Germans will think as did the last. This is particularly the case with the uncertainty surrounding Europe’s future and therefore Germany’s position on the Continent. Russia needs buffers, and historically that is Poland. Poland was independent for about twenty years between World Wars I and II. It was then occupied and has been independent in a complete sense since 1989. Since then it has grown rapidly and has become a significant European power. But it is still between Russia and Germany, fears both, but must live with both.

The fundamental question is the relationship between Germany and Russia, and this is a question that will define Europe as a whole. It is the relationship between the mainland and the peninsula. Germany is the dominant peninsula economic power and Russia dominates the mainland. Between them they will shape, if not decide, the fate of the borderland.

Germany remains deeply committed to the European Union for all the reasons discussed before. Germany has a serious problem, however. If the European Union, for whatever reasons, fails and trade barriers reemerge, then Germany, with a massive dependency on exports, will face a profound economic problem. Germany certainly doesn’t want the EU to fail but it may not be able to control that. And if the EU does fail or run into long-term difficulties, it must develop alternative economic relations. There are few available in the European peninsula. China is a competitive exporter. The United States, an importer, is constantly involved in conflicts and wants Germany involved as well, and is not shy in using leverage like trade to force allies into cooperation in these adventures.

Russia is the only substantial potential partner and is already essential to Germany as a source for energy. The problem is that the Russian economy is not fully symmetrical with the German. It is not large enough or rich enough to absorb German exports. Germany doesn’t want to maintain its dependence on Russian energy but is searching for alternatives. And of course there are the historic bad memories on both sides.

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There is a compensating aspect. Germany’s population is declining rapidly, as is Russia’s. But Russia still has surplus labor and substantial underemployment and poverty. Declining population might actually address some economic problems. Not so for Germany. Declines in German population mean economic decline, unless miraculous productivity devices emerge. Germany does not want any more immigrants. Muslim migration into Germany has been massive and, in the view of many Germans, already destabilized the country. Any way you look at it, increased immigration to compensate for population decline would have an overwhelming impact.

Germany has a classic quandary—it needs more workers for its economy, but it can’t manage more immigrants. One solution is to ship factories to another country with a surplus workforce, like Russia, and get the benefits of more workers without the social costs. To some extent this is already under way. The issue for both is how dependent each wants to become on the other. Recall my argument that interdependence breeds friction. Neither the Germans nor the Russians want friction, but in the event of failure (or a feeling of failure) in the EU as a whole, Germany would need to realign, and that realignment would by default be with Russia.

If Germany and Russia aligned, it would determine the fate of Poland, the Baltics, and Belarus. This is not to say they would be occupied militarily. It would mean, however, that with the two major continental powers cooperating with each other, these countries would be compelled to cooperate. Economically and politically they would have limited options. If the military factor were added, then the question would simply be where the line would be drawn.

Belarus would likely be content, or sufficiently nonresistant, to accept absorption by Russia. In fact some would welcome it. But this outcome would leave the Baltic states and Poland in their nightmare situation. Having achieved sovereignty after many years, they might retain it only to see their room for maneuver evaporate. For Poland, the country with weight, it could tolerate hostility between Russia and Germany far better than friendship and cooperation. For Poland, always balancing on the edge, this would be a return to a nightmare.

Indeed, Poland has just awakened over the past two decades from a long nightmare, of German occupation followed by Soviet occupation. It is amazing how well it has recovered.

The clearest place to see Poland’s failure to recover is the roads between Warsaw and Brest, on the Belorussian border. About twenty miles outside the city you feel as though you’ve left the European peninsula. The buildings are reminders of the Soviet era, and some are damaged as if they had not been rebuilt since World War II. The roads and drivers are amazingly bad, and it is said that there are more highway deaths here than anywhere else in Europe. I don’t know if that is true, as it is said with a kind of suicidal pride, but perhaps it is. The roundabouts that eastern Poland is full of are not raised platforms but merely notions, and drivers blithely drive through them while others circle around. The potential mayhem is of course immeasurable.

The land is flat, with old factories intermingled with farms. This is the area that Sholem Aleichem, the bard of Poland’s Jews (from whose works the musical Fiddler on the Roof was taken), came from. The town of Chelm is just south of here. There are no Jews left; the land is poor and the people dress shabbily. If the Russians ever become sufficiently frightened, this is where they will cross the border, and how they will drive to Warsaw.

But as I said earlier, the Russians don’t want to invade Poland, and neither do the Germans. They don’t even necessarily want a deal with each other, although the more the EU languishes and the more demanding the Americans become, the more enticing is the possibility. And even if economic relations between Russia and Germany deepen, Poland will take part and may even profit. The danger doesn’t come from cooperation but from fear, and for the Russians, fear comes from dependence on and from underestimating the peninsula and misreading its intentions.

This was Stalin’s mistake. It was not so much dependence on Germany as German dependence on Russia for its wheat and raw materials. Stalin underestimated how much Hitler needed these and how much he hated being dependent on Stalin’s goodwill. Stalin, who should have fully understood Hitler’s mind, so close was it to his own, should have seen that Hitler needed Russia too much to leave it alone. He engaged in wishful thinking, and that cost the Soviet Union 20 million dead and nearly cost it its independent existence.

The United States never recovered psychologically from Pearl Harbor, the attack that came at the last place it was expected and at a time when the country was amazingly unprepared. It has spent the decades since then making sure it is never again taken by surprise. When 9/11 came, and the United States was again surprised, it threw the country into a frenzy. In the same way, the Russian mind is fixated on June 22, 1941, the day Germany invaded the Soviet Union. For them, all safety is illusory. So they must control Belarus. And they must be strong in Kaliningrad, the small enclave they hold on the Polish border, and in the Baltic states. And they must not take the Baltics as anything but a potential threat.

I’ve pointed out the geographic and potential military significance of the Baltics. These three countries, occupied by the Soviets for years, have two realities. One is that these are not really Slavic countries; they have much in common with Scandinavia and particularly Finland and owe much of their history to the Teutonic Knights. Soviet architecture impacts their cities, but the people are Nordic.

But each country contains a time bomb that the Russians could set off at any time. They all have significant minority Russian populations, and the Russians have made clear that no matter where they live, Russians are under their protection. It means little elsewhere, but it means a great deal here. The Russians are deeply concerned about the Baltic countries’ membership in NATO and what it means for the future, and the Russian population of the Baltic states is disliked and feels discriminated against.

A simple scenario presents itself. Due to some incident, real or manufactured, Russians in a Baltic capital begin demonstrating, police use tear gas, and somewhere violence breaks out and Russians are killed. The Russian government demands the right to protect its citizens, the Baltic country rejects the demand. Violence mounts, and the Russians demand

that NATO stop the fighting. The Baltic state insists it is an internal matter, claims that Russian intelligence caused the violence, and demands that Russian intelligence stop its intervention. A series of explosions kill a large number of Russians, and Russia occupies the country.

For now the Russians have other issues, but if anything goes wrong, the Baltic states will pose a significant threat to Russia. And in Russian thinking there is always something that will go wrong. Because of this fear, the Baltics are one place where the Russians can’t relax. There are long-term flashpoints throughout the borderland, but this is the immediate flashpoint in the borderland between the peninsula and mainland.

From the book:
FLASHPOINTS by George Friedman
Copyright © 2015 by George Friedman
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC

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American and European policy toward the former Soviet Union consisted of trying to turn former Soviet Republics into constitutional democracies, under the prevailing theory that this would stabilize them and integrate them into the Western economic and political system.
Russia, Borderlands, Excerpt, Flashpoints, george friedman
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