Russia, which seeks to limit the scale of its responsibility, intervenes only when its policy is guaranteed to yield a positive result for Russian interests, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
The new features of international politics will inevitably lead to the destruction of almost all permanent statuses that emerged after the Cold War. In this respect, the space that historically has a special significance for Russia — the new sovereign states that arose from the republics of the former USSR — is no exception. At the same time, the movement towards a new Russian policy regarding its periphery is becoming more and more noticeable. This policy is based on a combination of the unconditional importance of special areas, and the ability to build new formats for interaction with most of the neighbours. Russia, perhaps for the first time in its history, is departing from the principle of direct force — the control of, and responsibility for, nations along its borders. Even if Moscow’s military-political influence remains decisive in Central Asia or the South Caucasus, it does not mean Russia is ready to sacrifice its interests and limited resources for the sake of these weak partners.
This evolution, of course, has been facilitated by the weakening of the capabilities of Russia’s traditional opponents in the West to actively intervene in the affairs of the so-called post-Soviet space. The United States and Europe are in the process of re-evaluating and concentrating their power resources and are relegating former Soviet republics to secondary roles in almost all cases, except Ukraine. At the same time, China, which has very friendly relations with Russia, is not yet ready to assume great responsibility, even if Moscow, as in the case of Central Asia, would like it. As a result, individual weak states of the former USSR, such as Armenia or Kyrgyzstan, are left on their own. The result is the activation of the military opponents in these states or internal destabilising factors.
Based on the results of the events of 2020, it is clear that Belarus and Kazakhstan, among the former Soviet countries, remain key partners for Russia. This is due to their geo-strategic importance for the security of the Russian state and its most important regions — Moscow and Western Siberia. Russia views all the other countries of its periphery as a region of diplomatic manoeuvre of varying degrees of efforts. At the same time, the Russian leadership, apparently, understands that the loyalty of certain partners on its borders, even formally the closest ones, depends only on the internal stability of the Russian state. In this respect, Azerbaijan, which is not part of any conventional Russian associations, is no different from Armenia, which is a member of the CSTO and the EAEU.
At the same time, Moscow does not view direct control over its neighbours as the only reliable means of protecting its interests. In this respect, the fate of Eurasian economic integration is of great interest. It was originally based on the European experience and could be seen as an attempt to apply the “European protocol” for the treatment of such a terrible disease as nationalism in the Eurasian space. So far, the results haven’t been very impressive, and we owe most of the existing ties to traditional links, rather than new institutions.
The Eurasian Union itself is not yet considered by the elites of the member states as a reliable and working tool for ensuring their interests. Associated with this is the sufficiently weak reputation of the EAEU in the eyes of the media and opinion leaders of the participating countries. At the same time, ordinary citizens support integration and openness, as can be seen from surveys. Therefore, for now, the EAEU remains a project of leaders and people, but not elites. Any difficulties that leaders face for non-integration reasons lead to the fact that this project remains on the periphery of attention, without the support of the mass of interested entrepreneurs, representatives of the non-profit sector or journalists. For example, with such support, the European Union still exists and is kept afloat despite the dramatic decline in the quality of the leaders of the EU countries. Apparently, starting from 2021, these problems will increasingly put the EAEU in front of difficult dilemmas and there is no full confidence that they can be overcome yet.
Russia’s behaviour with respect to developments in Belarus and the South Caucasus has shown a difference in approaches to problems that are of greater or lesser importance for national security. In the case of Alexander Lukashenko, Russia almost immediately outlined its position of support for the legitimate government. Any power change under pressure from the street in Belarus can only lead to the emergence of an even more dangerous conflict than in Ukraine. It was in Russia’s interests to prevent this from happening, even if Lukashenko irritates not only many of his own citizens, but also the nation’s main strategic ally. In the long term, there is a complex process of Belarus’ movement to ensure that internal political changes do not affect Russian strategic priorities. 2021 will be a time of serious internal restructuring for Belarus and the acquisition of a new international identity.
In the case of the armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Moscow’s policy assumed equal importance of both states, as they both have numerous diaspora communities within Russia. Any result of this military clash did not play a significant role for the security of Russia, but ultimately led to the emergence of a new balance of power in the region. Russian peacekeepers were deployed in Karabakh and a number of other regions for a period of five years. In fact, this brought to an end the activities of the OSCE Minsk Group, where the United States and France were leaders along with Russia, and which was one of the consequences of 1990s, when Moscow’s foreign policy capabilities were very weak. Now Russia is the main guarantor of peace in the region, enjoying the confidence not only of the defeated Armenia, but also of the winners in Baku. Armenia itself, like Belarus, will face a transitional period to a new quality.
Unexpectedly, as a result of the developments of 2020 in the South Caucasus, Turkey was involved in the orbit of Russian interests. This country has been striving for several decades to join the European Union and has often encountered rather humiliating demands from Brussels. The conflict with Europe under President Erdogan has generally activated Turkey’s policy of greater independence vis-à-vis the political institutions of the West. One of the most striking examples of such independence was the purchase by Ankara of modern Russian air defence systems.
Turkey and Russia clash in several regions — Syria, Libya and now the South Caucasus. And despite the disagreements that arise, this country remains, as President Putin said, “a pleasant and reliable partner”. Moving away from the institutions of the West, Turkey is increasingly involved in power relations with its current main antagonist — Russia. This is perhaps the most fundamental change in all of regional politics, and it creates great strategic advantages for Moscow. Not to mention the fact that after the successful military operation of Azerbaijan and the Russian peacekeeping intervention, the geopolitical situation in this part of the so-called post-Soviet space has become much more simple and manageable. At least, Russia has capabilities with regards to one of the key factors of its strength in international affairs — military influence.
At the same time, Turkey’s example shows how blurred the geopolitical boundaries and categories of relations are now. Just as in 2020 we are summing up the results of a long period of relations between Russia and Europe, the new year 2021 opens the next era of international politics on the perimeter of Russian borders. Despite the fact that the United States and its allies strive for the sake of their own interests to draw clear dividing lines between “friends” and “foes”, this is possible only in those cases when the states are firmly integrated into the Western military-political community and depend on the scale of such integration. Russia, with the exception of two cases, does not see control over its neighbours as the most important thing for itself. But at the same time, it is more and more free in choosing a model of relations and its own presence outside its own periphery. As one eminent Russian historian of philosophy said, “the interests of a great power are where it is interested now.” It is not only Russia’s neighbours, but also all of its partners in international affairs who will have to get accustomed to this new quality of Russian foreign policy.