In the event that Russia’s neighbours, as a result of interaction with each other, do not lose their sovereignty in a way that benefits the United States or China, any changes in the balance of power between them have no fundamental significance for Moscow, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
A year ago, on November 9, 2020, thanks to the peacekeeping intervention of Russia, the Second Karabakh War ended. The victims included thousands of military personnel and civilians of Azerbaijan, Armenia and residents of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Throughout all the hostilities, Moscow maintained a restrained position based on the idea outlined by the President of Russia in his speech to the participants of the Valdai Club meeting on October 22, 2020, about the destructiveness of the conflict between two peoples equally close to Russia. It was this position, despite numerous appeals to Russia to take one side or the other, that ultimately made it possible not only to achieve a cessation of hostilities, but also to significantly strengthen Russia’s posture in the South Caucasus region.
Due to the fact that Russia is a dominant power in terms of its aggregate capabilities throughout the surrounding region, an assessment of the impact of this conflict on international politics cannot be given without also assessing how Moscow considers the processes taking place on its periphery, given its own security considerations. Moreover, it’s precisely this aspect of the whole story that seems to be fundamental when we try to go beyond a purely descriptive analysis of the situation. In other words, the most important thing is how and why Russia itself behaved that way it did a year ago and, accordingly, what decisions it can make in the future in relation to this or another region close to its borders.
In this context, it seems reasonable to select three major features that characterise the Russian approach to the development of its “near abroad”. First, for Russia, only one issue regarding the strategic position of its neighbours is of fundamental importance — whether they are independent powers, or represent a territorial base for other countries, whose intentions may contravene those of Moscow. Second, for Russia, the state of affairs among nations that share its common geopolitical neighbourhood, and remain associated with it for historical reasons, cannot just be viewed in the context of interests; there are also ethical considerations. And, finally, like any other nuclear superpower, Russia looks rather calmly at the processes of the changing balance of power between all other states. This last point seems to be the most important for the interpretation of Russian politics, especially regarding other former Soviet republics.
The armed conflict in the South Caucasus did not lead to significant changes in Russia’s foreign policy considerations regarding the countries that took part in it. Unlike the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and the preceding coup in Kiev, when the Ukrainian state actually lost its sovereignty, both Transcaucasian powers retained the ability to make foreign policy decisions relatively independently. Of course, there has been some strengthening of cooperation between Baku and Ankara, and now the Azerbaijani authorities are forced to listen more closely to the interests of their Turkish partners.
However, in the aftermath of the conflict, Azerbaijan did not become a base for the potential deployment of forces hostile to Russia in the event of possible war. As for Armenia, the strengthening of Russian influence there also did not lead, as one could have feared, to a disproportionate increase in Russia’s obligations towards this country or the loss of its sovereignty. The arrival of Russian peacekeeping forces in the South Caucasus has created conditions for a more active diplomatic involvement of Moscow in regional affairs, which also reduces the likelihood that Azerbaijan or Armenia will be significantly influenced by foreign powers with potentially hostile intentions regarding Russia’s basic interests and values.
When it comes to the states which border Azerbaijan and Armenia, Iran and Turkey, as a result of the last war, have become even more involved in the affairs of states in the post-Soviet space. Over the past year, we could observe several examples of how Turkish and Iranian interests manifested in the South Caucasus, as well as the involvement of these states in a diplomatic dialogue with Russia on these issues. In fact, we are witnessing a process of Ankara and Tehran gradually being pulled into what we still call post-Soviet space, where Russia is militarily dominant.
We know that a part of the Russian establishment and the expert community is concerned about this process and even worries about it. However, if we take into account the general balance of power between Russia and the two powers of interest, then the last word in any dispute will always be from Moscow. Moreover, Iran is now the enemy of the West and will remain so in any foreseeable future, and Turkey under President Erdogan has not demonstrated the ability to reconcile with its formal NATO allies. As a result, the development of relations with these states, to a great extent, depends not on the dynamics of the global balance of power, but on the ability of Russia itself to build diplomatic and power interaction with them.
We saw that Russia’s role intervening in the conflict and providing for its resolution were not only the result of calculated interests, but also a certain moral choice. Despite the fact that Armenia is a formal ally of Moscow within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Azerbaijan shares a common geopolitical space with Russia, characterised by a significant number of human and cultural ties. This complex nature of relations with both powers essentially compelled Russia to retain a strong ethical component in its decision-making.
While in this particular case adherence to a moral choice became one of the reasons for Russia’s political success, in the future we cannot exclude the possibility that it will be more difficult for Moscow to remain impartial and maintain equal distance from both conflicting parties. This, in fact, concerns practically any potential hotbeds of tension in the space surrounding Russia, except Ukraine or Georgia, where it deals not with the interests of these countries themselves, but with the will and pressure of external powers.
However, even such unique features of interaction with its neighbours can only have a corrective effect on the most significant factor determining the nature of relations between Russia and its neighbours — its unique military capabilities. In this case, it is not even of fundamental importance that Russia is far superior in its power capabilities to all neighbouring countries except China. Of fundamental importance is the general position of Russia as one of the three nuclear powers, and that its security depends not on the regional, but on the global balance of power.
In the event that Russia’s neighbours, as a result of interaction with each other, do not lose their sovereignty in a way that benefits the United States or China, any changes in the balance of power between them have no fundamental significance for Moscow. Therefore, whether we like it or not, Russia’s participation in the affairs of states located on its periphery will always be dictated to the greater extent by the aforementioned ethical considerations. The fact that, as a result, its positions will become more convincing is connected exclusively with the geopolitical position of Russia and the place it occupies in the power composition of Eurasia.