Global Governance
Imperial Restraint of Russia

The dramatic events in Belarus and likely changes in the South Caucasus as a result of the military defeat of Armenia provide a compelling reason for one to consider the possibilities and limitations of Russian influence on its Post-Soviet periphery. Minsk and Yerevan are Moscow's formal allies within the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) - institutions that many see as Russia's attempt to rebuild relations with states that emerged after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Throughout the entire period following the collapse of the USSR, both states have remained military allies of Russia and had never given it serious trouble. Now their internal stability and international position are questionable - the permanent status that arose in the first half of the 1990s and, in general, suited Russian foreign policy, is changing.

Therefore, any changes in the capabilities and status of Armenia and Belarus are inevitably evaluated by observers in terms of the impact of these changes on Russia's position, and in general, its ability to ensure control over the territories closest to its borders. Ultimately, we are talking about Moscow's ability to implement classical imperial behaviour, expressed in the need to play a decisive role in the affairs of its neighbours in order to ensure its own security, which could be threatened either by the penetration of hostile powers or simply uncontrolled chaos. If in the case of Belarus the Russian authorities have expressed their support for the legitimate government quite unequivocally, in the South Caucasus their position has turned out to be more nuanced.
This has led many observers to assume that Moscow is not ready to get involved in a serious conflict and, in general, may give in to pressure from an external player.

The problem is that in both cases, the opponents actively interfering in the affairs of the Russian periphery are not first-class world powers, but rather second-class players - Poland and Turkey. The fact that both countries are far behind Russia in terms of their combined capabilities makes the discussion even more emotional. International politics on the Russian periphery seems to be finally be returning to the geopolitical realities of the 17th and 18th centuries, when Ukraine was split, and still-insufficiently-strong Russia opposed Poland and the Ottoman Empire. But already by the end of the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, both powers were liquidated by Russia in one case and reduced to insignificance in the other. The ability of these two neighbours to demonstrate predatory behaviour is now inevitably seen as a manifestation of Russian weakness. This contrasts especially with the confidence of its leadership in Moscow, given its significant role in the global arena and decisive presence in its Eurasian environment.

We should not now strive for a primitive justification of Russian behaviour, and Moscow, in any case, does not need justifications. Another thing is more important - to try, starting from recent events, to comprehend those features of Russia's reaction to the emerging challenges. Starting from this understanding and correlating its results with the broader international context, one can see new signs of how Russia in 2020 formulates and defends its basic interests and values.
The aforementioned difference in Russia's reaction to the events in Belarus and the Nagorno-Karabakh showdown, first of all, reflects the value of each of the regions in the context of Russian national security.

In the first case, it is obvious that Moscow cannot allow the emergence of another NATO outpost on Russia’s Western border and is ready to take decisive actions against this. Through his statements and actions, President Lukashenko has repeatedly given reasons for Moscow to doubt his own loyalty. Although Belarus under his leadership never challenged Russian interests, numerous flirtations with the West could not go unnoticed.

This, however, was not a reason to leave him alone with the pressure of his European neighbours and his own opposition.  Regardless of questions concerning Lukashenko’s loyalty to Russia, there are few doubts regarding the foreign policy orientation of those who want to overthrow him. Poland, which has acted together with a very small Lithuania as the main sponsor of the opposition, is a NATO country and an important US ally in the region. Warsaw's foreign policy activism is not its own autonomous invention, but reflects the long-term efforts of the West to squeeze Russia out of the entire territory of the former USSR.
The protests of the Belarusian opposition are a continuation of the expansion to the East of the two most important institutions of the West - NATO and the European Union.

Both institutions are now the main adversaries of Russia, introducing coercive economic measures against it and conducting military exercises near Russia’s borders. An armed conflict on the territory of Belarus will mean for Russia and Europe an almost inevitable slide towards the escalation of a real major war. The prevention of such a development of events remains of fundamental importance for Moscow.

Regarding the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the situation is not so obvious. Even if we leave out the circumstances that both warring peoples are friendly to Russia, and that there are large diaspora communities of the respective countries living in Russia, a number of decisions made by the Armenian leadership over the past two years were enough to cause bewilderment in Moscow. The international context looks qualitatively different. Azerbaijan's military offensive was supported at the diplomatic level by Turkey. Although this power remains a NATO member state, its size, ambitions and concerns clearly do not fit to the circle of "normal" US allies in Europe. Ankara's relations with most European states are rather tense, and with France, the main nuclear power of the West after the United States, these relations are particularly bad. The military conflict with Turkey does not threaten Russia with the prospect of serious escalation - periodic clashes between the parties happened in Syria and always led to diplomatic agreements.
In many ways, therefore, the events around Nagorno-Karabakh for Russia are not a matter of survival, but a subject for diplomatic interaction.

Moreover, they may result in the end of the Minsk Group. This international format emerged in 1992 within the OSCE with the participation of the United States, France and several other countries, all of which, except for Russia, Belarus and direct participants in the confrontation, are now members of NATO or the European Union. It is unlikely that Moscow has reason to truly regret the fact that in 2020, one of the diplomatic artefacts of the 90s era, when Russia was at its weakest, is sinking into oblivion. Even if it is in the interests of Turkey. Ankara, we repeat, is a more convenient partner for Moscow in this case, than the EU.

Thus, we see that Russia's actions in these two situations directly depend on how the development of events would affect the balance of power in its relations with the West. The reduced capabilities of Russia determine the policy of ranking the external challenges. This suggests that some of them must be looked at as truly fundamental for survival, and at others as an opportunity to engage in the diplomatic game. Russia was not at all interested in the mediation of one of the leading European powers in the settlement of the Belarusian crisis, since it would still seek an unfavourable change in the overall balance. Interaction with Turkey has turned out to be acceptable, since it does not entail such changes, but, on the contrary, allows for the closing of one of the channels of US and European influence in the affairs of the former USSR.
By relinquishing the obligation to bear full responsibility for the affairs of its periphery, the Russian state is adapting to the growing chaos around it, but at the same time retains its imperial ability to control the periphery in one way or another.

Moreover, amid modern conditions we cannot assert with the same certainty as before that imperial power is necessarily supported by direct control over dependent states. Although the anarchic and competitive nature of international politics remains unchanged, the specific requirements for decisions may change. They are increasingly linked to increasing technical capabilities, which were lacking in an era when the time required for military mobilisation was determined by the distance from the capital to the border.

Leading European states within the EU and the US are also seeking to maintain imperial control over certain countries and entire regions. However, with rare exceptions, they do this through various forms of economic manipulation. The global influence of the United States, of course, is different - its military presence remains in most regions of the world, but it does not always imply a willingness to act as a protector of its dependents. Discussions about the degree of war risks the United States can take are constantly on-going. Among the countries of the European Union, only France maintains military contingents in several former African colonies. As we saw in the events in Mali, these forces can be successfully used to suppress threats at the local level. In both cases, both powers fully control only their immediate environment: the United States in Canada and Mexico, and France - within the framework of European integration. In more remote areas of influence, the ability to exert it is associated either with advanced technical capabilities and military overstrain (USA), or with a limited range of goals and objectives (France and Great Britain).

The growing mobility of the international environment is forcing the great powers to pursue a more prudent and restrained policy in terms of their own obligations, and Russia is no exception. We can hardly expect that in modern conditions it is the only one to retain the features of imperial behaviour inherent in already very distant historical eras. Moreover, unlike Austria, Great Britain, Turkey or France, it has retained its main acquisition from the period of active territorial expansion - the space between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean. These territories are the only imperial achievement that brought profits to the Russian state, not losses, as was the case with all other possessions, from the Baltic to the Pamir. Other nations can only count on Russia to be truly interested in participation if they occupy a geographic position that is critical for Russia's security. In the case of the space of the former USSR, these nations are Belarus and Kazakhstan.

The refusal of the great powers to meet their obligations beyond the minimum necessary limits is, at the same time, a new challenge for the very concept of international order. The hegemony of one power in terms of the science of international relations is a way to overcome the consequences of the  anarchy of the international system. It does not matter at all that in the case of the United States after the Cold War, the whole world, with rare exceptions, acted as such a zone. However, now the question is whether it is possible amid conditions when powers that are theoretically capable of claiming hegemony do not need order to ensure their own security and development? This issue is extremely topical now, when international institutions are in a state of deep crisis. And the more the great powers save their energy in accordance with clearly defined priorities, as Russia is doing now, the less hope we have that the growing anarchy will be replaced by some form of "concert".

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.