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Churchill was Right about Russia and Still Is

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The world buzzes with headlines of Vladimir Putin and Russian action and reaction to world events. On the surface it seems virtually all Russian foreign policy responsibility is vested in Mr. Putin alone.

Certainly the Russian governmental decision­ making process is not bestowed solely upon one man, but it seems that little happens in Russia’s name that Putin does not endorse. Russia’s, and by extension Putin’s, actions and reactions tend to confuse and mystify us despite the rhetoric of various politicians indicating that they clearly understand Russian intentions. Actually understanding how Russia will act or react is as difficult as it has always been. In the West we tend to default to Winston Churchill’s famous epigram on forecasting Russian actions: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…”

This frank admission by Mr. Churchill about forecasting Russian actions and reactions holds today. If a politician of Churchill’s grasp and intellect placed prognostication of Russian proclivity within virtually impenetrable concentric circles, why should we assume to be blessed with better equipped political actors on today’s stage? The answer is simple: we should not because we are not.

Churchill’s observation of Russian predictability is quoted so often we sometimes fail to remember that he did not stop with merely his observation of Russian inscrutability, and we can be thankful for it. He left Britain and the West with an insight into deciphering Russian will with his additional surmise that “perhaps there is a key” to Russian reaction to political stimuli. Wisely Churchill posited, “That key is Russian national interest.”

Churchill’s prescient observations were aired in an October 1939 broadcast and concerned his speculation on how Russia would act throughout the course of WWII. Offering insight into solving the Russian riddle Churchill shrewdly noted that Russia would not put aside anything that “would be contrary to the historic life­-interests of Russia.” It is very important to note that Churchill was not simply referring to what the Soviet leadership of Russia would do in a specific instance; he was looking instead to how Russia had historically acted, and he was predicting that Russia’s future actions would be in keeping with the major Russian interests exhibited in the past.

In 1939 Russia was faced with a Nazi threat to establish a physical presence on the shores of the Black Sea, occupy the Balkans, and subjugate the Slavonic population in Southeastern Europe. Churchill knew then what we should know now: Russia will act and react in traditional ways as it evaluates its national interests. Correctly interpreting Russia’s “historic life­-interests” allowed Churchill to predict Russia’s future actions only a month into WWII. Nazi Germany and the USSR had signed a mutual non-aggression pact less than two months before Churchill stated his conviction that “Hitler, and all that Hitler stands for, have been and are being warned off the east and the southeast of Europe” by Russia.

Churchill knew that Russia would not allow its traditional geopolitical aspirations to be threatened without mounting a serious response. A precursor to the coming Nazi Germany-­Soviet Russia death struggle came with the 1940 invasion of Romania by the USSR. This invasion underscored the conflict between the Russian “historic life­-interests” and the strategically critical Nazi requirement for oil and other war material. Hitler had to see from Stalin’s actions that the USSR would be a competitor for the Balkans, and this knowledge, correlated with his view of “Slavic races”as Untermenschen and his ambition, propelled Germany’s massive preemptive strike against the USSR in June of 1941.

Hitler sowed the wind with his invasion of Russia, and Germany reaped the whirlwind of defeat and occupation. German defeat in effect gave Russia the Black Sea, the Balkans, and rule over the Slavonic people of Eastern Europe. With Germany’s defeat Russia’s traditional geopolitical interests gained a large measure of satisfaction.

Russia may be the most traditional actor of all the major and secondary powers of the earth. But the assertion that Russia acts according to traditionalist tendencies runs the risk of venturing into an academic definitional fog because of the strand of religious belief known as Traditionalism. The difference between “traditional” and “Traditional” is largely a spiritual demarcation.

Traditionalism, either lowercase or uppercase, implies a handing down or generational passing on of beliefs and/or practices and may be applied across a range of practices from cuisine to courting to fashion. Uppercase Traditionalists believe that spiritual and religious truths have existed from time ­out­ of mind and that only certain groups of selected and initiated candidates have been chosen to gain and maintain the pure revelations of Truth that Traditionalism possesses. Traditionalists do not confine their belief system to any specific religious expression, rather they claim that kernels of original (therefore pure) Truth still exist and can be discovered within the major religions. Hence, Traditionalists often embrace selected elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism within the exclusive claims of Traditionalism.

Although traditional religious belief and practice cannot be equated exclusively with Orthodox Christianity, Russia does have a strong and pervasive embrace of Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity is certainly traditional.

Russian culture is a very traditional culture, and Russian geopolitical interests run along recurring traditional strands. It is understandable that Orthodox Christianity and other religious expressions are considered traditional, but it would be a mistake to confuse the correlation of religious tradition between Orthodox Christianity and other Russian traditions. Although Russian religious and geopolitical traditions may be related, correlation of religious traditional traits should not be considered the cause of the traditional geopolitical interests of Russia a priori.

In addition to the recognizing the definitional fog surrounding “traditional” and “Traditional” (as if the common spelling is not enough) affecting those attempting to predict Putin’s future actions, it is important to recognize that distinctly anti­-Modern, therefore anti­-Western, sentiments are distinguishing elements in some contemporary adaptations of Traditionalism. Some influential members of the Russian political right, especially those identified as the “Russian New Right,” assert a connection with the Traditional strand of religious belief and practice.

Alexander Dugin, for example, is a Russian political philosopher who has been very closely associated with the ideas and teachings of the controversial Italian self-­proclaimed Traditionalist, Julius Evola. Documentation of Evola’s association with Fascism is extremely alarming to some students of Traditionalism. Mark Sedgwick’s provocative history and commentary, Against the Modern World, devotes considerable attention to Evola, hence to the reasoning of Dugin and the anti­-Modern bend of Evola’s disciples.

To an adherent, Traditionalism is right belief, and right belief guides right actions. If right belief and right actions include a distinctly anti­-Western characteristic, then Russian actions under Putin should be of serious concern based upon Putin’s reception of Dugin and others of the Russian New Right. Leaders and diplomats of the West would be well advised to study the works of Dugin and other seriously right-­leaning writers and thinkers and their influence on Putin and his political actions.

The West should not be so naive as to believe that the Traditionalist factions evident in Russia today are not significant forces. Evola and his interpretation of Traditionalism influences Dugin and the Russian New Right; thus Putin is influenced in turn. Important manifestations of the contemporary Russian New Right thought include beliefs that the West is dangerously materialist, morally corrupt, and godless. The Western tendency toward more direct democracy is viewed as promoting these damnable traits. Does this characterization of the West sound familiar? There is a certain resonance between these views and accusations in many Islamic criticisms of the West. It is hubris of the worst sort to treat these accusations of Russia or the Islamic world in any flippant way; perhaps a too light consideration even borders on the suicidal.

Russian traditionalist perspectives (its “historic life-­interests”) are certainly geopolitical. The Russian Empire long coveted the Balkans and the warm water ports of the Black Sea and other access points to the Mediterranean and other seas. Imperial Russia aspired to become the single great Eurasian power — an empire stretching from Western Europe to India and perhaps farther. Does contemporary Russia under Putin aspire to less? One needs only to look to the plans and purposes of the Eurasian Economic Union to realize that there is an elephant (more appropriately a bear) in the room and that the bear is attempting to rearm in the grand style of the USSR.

It is a cultural and historical fallacy to project Western inculcated responses onto Putin’s Russia. A Coca­-Cola sign displayed at a market in Moscow does not necessarily mean Russia is eager to be “just like us;” perhaps it means nothing more than there one may purchase a Coke. Russia (under Putin) will act and react purposefully, not as a Western actor, but as the Eurasian imperial power it aspires to be. Putin may, or may not, be genuinely influenced by Traditionalist beliefs of the Russian right, but he will act traditionally (that is, within Churchill’s “historic life­-interest” understanding) as a Russian imperialist.

Some experts on Russian political behavior credit Putin’s actions to his being a practitioner of realpolitik, others to Putin’s having pronounced megalomaniac tendencies, still others to Putin’s being a product of KGB culture. While expert opinion should be considered, no opinion affords the traction provided by viewing Putin as a Russian leader steeped in Russian geopolitical tradition who is open to the aspirations of Dugin and the Russian New Right. Putin does not, as some pundits proclaim, desire a 21st Century return of the USSR; his imperial desire is a return of the Czarist Empire constructed to his specificiations — a Czarist Empire wielding the might of the USSR in its glory days and fulfilling the “historic life­-interests of Russia” in a very real and recognizable way.

Mr. Churchill was right. Where geopolitics are concerned, Russia will act in historically traditional ways. To predict how contemporary Russia will behave, forget reading of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution; instead read Alexander Dugin.

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Navalny, Nord Stream 2 and Moscow’s Response

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As expected, Alexei Navalny’s case is seriously tearing apart relationship between European Union and Russian Federation. The alleged “poisoning” of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on August 20 in Tomsk (Siberia), has similarities to the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, and that of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the city of Salisbury, England. Russia’s political history is dotted with that well-colored inerasable image.

Navalny is a Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for political office, to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia. As a citizen, he has the fundamental right to freedom of expression and to associate with social and political groups. But his activities has angered the officialdom and becomes most hated politician. He has been detained several times by Russian authorities.

Now Navalny, who was “allegedly poisoned” in August, stands a determining factor shaping the relationship between Western world and European Union and Russia. Sanctions are the punitive measures against Russia. When he was first treated in a Russian hospital in Omsk, the doctors claimed that there were no traces of poison in his body, a claim that Russian authorities continue to endorse.

Specialist labs in France and Sweden have confirmed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the German government Spokesman Steffen Seibert said mid-Sept, and confirmed that the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had also received samples and was taking steps to have those tested at its reference laboratories.

According to Seibert, the European Union’s summit, set to take place on September 24-25. The world would be looking for what measures be collectively adopted with regard to Navalny and against Russia.

On Sept 17, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told the local media that there were another series of anti-Russian sanctions being initiated by the West amid the situation involving Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, all these designed to deliver a blow to relations between Russia and the European Union.

“The main goal today, at least it appears to be this way, is to deliver a blow to the relations between our countries and the European Union, and countries that are part of the union. Everything is going in this framework,” Zakharova said in the 60 Minutes show on the Rossiya 1 (VGTRK) television channel.

On Sept 15, during its session the European Union planned to create a global regime sanctioning human rights violations around the world and the intention to name it after Alexey Navalny. The Russian Foreign Ministry believes that will erode the basic principles of international law and undermines the prerogatives of the UN Security Council through endless illegitimate unilateral sanctions imposed by Brussels and Washington.

As for whether it would be advisable to name this sanctions regime after Alexei Navalny, it viewed  “this exclusively as an undisguised attempt to give a manifestly anti-Russia tonality to the new EU restrictions. At the same time, Berlin persists in brushing off proposals to work together in order to get to the bottom of what happened, using clearly far-fetched pretexts. We hope that common sense will prevail in the European Union and our partners will renounce the arbitrary practice of assigning blame and in the future will draw conclusions based on real and confirmed facts.”

That however Moscow readies to hit back on EU sanctions. Local daily newspaper Izvestia also wrote that Russia vows to retaliate against potential European Union sanctions. Even though the European Union is trying to elbow Russia out of the gas market, it is unlikely that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project will be abandoned over the incident with Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, quoting sources in the Russian Federation Council (Upper House of Parliament).

The resolution approved by the European Parliament (EP) stresses the need for an international investigation into the alleged poisoning of Navalny with a Novichok-type toxic agent. European MPs called for suspending Nord Stream 2 and slapping sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow is urging Berlin to cooperate in the investigation of what happened to Navalny. If the EU levies sanctions on Russia, Moscow can provide a tit-for-tat response, Russian MPs told the paper.

“I don’t think this option will come to life, because it is difficult to connect the situation with Navalny to the construction of Nord Stream 2. This is just an excuse to push Russia out of the gas market. We need to react calmly and not be dragged into those discussions,” Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs Vladimir Dzhabarov told Izvestia, commenting on the resolution.

Similarly, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Alexei Chepa explained to Izvestia that in the event of any real anti-Russian sanctions, Russia could provide a tit-for-tat response. For example, if the European Union approves personal restrictions and a sanctions list, Moscow will do the same.

“Of course, we will respond. However, this will impact both our economy and the economy of Germany and the European Union. No one wins here. However, there may be a tit-for-tat blacklist that would include, for example, the MPs that called for anti-Russian sanctions or for the suspension of Nord Stream 2,” the MP said, stressing that Moscow will only retaliate if the European Union introduces real sanctions against Russia.

Russian newspaper Kommersant wrote that European Union to loosen legal mechanism for new sanctions against Russia. It said that the European Commission is working on broadening its legal instruments that would enable the introduction of personal sanctions against human rights violators in different countries, counting Russia among them. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has announced plans to adopt Europe’s version of the Magnitsky Act and suggested adjusting the mechanism for approving sanctions in such a way that does not require the support of all European Union member states.

According to Kommersant, this amendment, if adopted, will no longer allow Moscow to count on friendly European countries that have called on European Union allies not to impose tough sanctions on Russia. According to von der Leyen, the proposals for a European ‘Magnitsky Act’ will be ready soon. She explained the European Union should be able to respond clearly and quickly to what is happening anywhere, whether in Hong Kong, Moscow or Minsk.

The German Council on Foreign Relations, does not believe that the European Union will be able to agree on an extensive package of sanctions against Russia soon. Rather, an agreement on a blacklist similar to the ‘Magnitsky list’ could be expected. According to experts, regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Germany and the European Union would rather allow the project be implemented in full, and then introduce some measures to restrict or prohibit transportation of gas through the pipeline.

“With the crises around Navalny and Lukashenko unfolding, the freezing of Nord Stream 2 seems to be in the cards. Nevertheless, we are not talking about a complete breakdown of relations. Even during the Cold War, economic ties between the USSR and the West were not completely severed,” Head of the European Political Studies Department at the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO),Nadezhda Arbatova, told Kommersant newspaper. “Today’s confrontation between Russia and the West is a struggle of ideology and real politics. Minimal interaction will be maintained, but this will not change the quality of relations between Russia and the EU,” she predicted.

European Union and Russia have strategic partnership agreement signed in 2011 but that was later challenged following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. Russia has five member states: Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland share its border. The relations are determined by European Union member on bilateral basis, but all the members adopt common or collective policies toward the Russian Federation.

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Forgiving Old Debts: Russia’s Diplomatic Maneuver

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With economies experiencing contractions across the globe and with governments in the third world most vulnerable, discussions of debt relief have been revived. Yet, forgiving old debts is nothing new to the Kremlin. For the Russian government, it has been just one part of a wider diplomatic toolkit to rekindle ties that have faltered since the end of the Cold War.

Once the primary backer of numerous states over large swathes of the globe, Moscow largely retreated from the non-Soviet space during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and it continued to not be a primary concern during Vladimir Putin’s first two terms as head of state. However, Russia’s resurgence on the international arena over the past few years has not only made the country more willing to re-engage with the region but also more capable.

International media has primarily viewed this through the lens of military strength. Whether it is sending trainers and advisors to the Central African Republic, allegedly supporting rebels in Libya, or deploying Wagner Group forces to fight an Islamic State-offshoot in Mozambique, the focus has primarily been conflict-oriented. However, less explored is the quieter and more economic measures that the Russian government has taken in order to win hearts and minds outside of the West.

As part of a debt-for-development programme, Russia has forgiven approximately $20 billion worth of debt to various African governments that was accrued during the Soviet period. Beneficiaries include the Commonwealth nation of Tanzania and Francophonie member Madagascar, along with others. In forgiving these loans, the Kremlin has acknowledged a reality that many countries continue to deny: such debts are unpayable. At the first ever Russia-Africa Summit, Putin stated explicitly that “It was not only an act of generosity, but also a manifestation of pragmatism, because many of the African states were not able to pay interest on these loans.”

These measures have yielded concrete benefits for the previously indebted countries. For example, the decision to forgive Mozambique’s $40 million debt was done in conjunction with the United Nations World Food Programme, with the money that was intended for debt repayment instead being used to provide free school meals for 150,000 children over the course of five years.

While Russia will potentially be losing some money in the short term, debt forgiveness is likely to open new doors moving forward. Many of the countries that have seen their debts written off have significant economic and geopolitical potential. With improved political relations as a consequence, it is hoped that Russian companies will get preferential treatment should contracts be offered to international firms. This could help explain the Kremlin’s decision to forgive 90% of North Korea’s $11 billion debt despite the latter’s weak position. Russia has been eager to develop a trans-Korean gas pipeline that would transport fuel to South Korea. While the likelihood of this being realised remains slim, in the context of Pyongyang’s inability to repay the debt in any case, it is a reasonable gamble to make on the part of the Russian government.

This is somewhat similar to China’s efforts over the past few years, albeit in an inverse form. With Beijing less cash-strapped than Moscow, it is able to invest directly whereas Russia is using debt forgiveness to redirect cash payments away from servicing old debts and instead towards domestic reinvestments. Free projects, such as the Chinese-funded and constructed headquarters of the African Union, have been followed by ever-growing economic and political relations.

Russia’s debt policy has been used to strengthen existing alliances and partnerships. While not all Soviet-era allies have retained close ties to Moscow, many have done so continuously since the Cold War. One of the biggest beneficiaries of Russian debt forgiveness has been Cuba. In July 2014, ahead of a visit to the island nation by Putin, the Russian government wrote off 90% of Cuban debt. Though Russia was not only the country that showed willingness to restructure Cuba’s debt obligations at the time, it was by far the most generous. China restructured approximately $6 billion while Japan and Mexico forgave $1.4 billion and $478 million, respectively; Russia forgave $32 billion.

The decision did reaffirm the close relations between Moscow and Havana. Cuba has repeatedly voted in support of the Russian Federation at the United Nations on sensitive topics, such as Crimea, and Russian firms have received multiple drilling and mining contracts from the Caribbean country.

However, this strategy has its limitations. The overwhelming majority of these debts date back to the Soviet era and are therefore limited in scope. Some countries, such as Angola and Ethiopia (which saw most of their debts forgiven in the 1990’s), were primarily recipients of military support during civil wars so their debts were not as vast as other heavily indebted countries with other creditors. Since then, despite respite from Moscow, such countries have continued to become increasingly burdened by growing debts. While Ethiopia is often heralded as an example of rapid economic growth, its debt, both in total but also has a percentage of GDP, has grown considerably during the post-Soviet era.

While debt relief is undeniably beneficial to the third world, the fact that Russian-owned debts constitute a mere fraction of all foreign-owned debts in most cases means that the act of writing debts off cannot achieve much in of themselves. Consequently, in several countries, the gesture is mostly a PR move. In the case of Afghanistan, where Russia was the largest creditor due to loans handed out during the 1980’s, Kabul had for decades refused to recognise the debt. The decision to forgive the debt was therefore more of a signal of a desire to improve relations than any hope to achieve instantaneously tangible rewards.

The largest stumbling block for the Kremlin’s efforts remain structural issues afflicting the indebted nations, the nature of which vary considerably from country to country. For example, while Russia has forgiven a majority of Iraq’s debt to the country, which in turn helped revive talks over potential oil contracts, the continued instability in the Middle Eastern nation makes it difficult to reap many benefits. Though it is true that Baghdad has continued to purchase Russian T-90 tanks and attack helicopters, this is more of a sign that Russia has partially managed to pivot Iraq away from the United States’ sphere of influence as opposed to gaining economically.

With the onset of coronavirus, however, Russia might not be the leading debt forgiver for very long. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where economies are expected to continue shrinking while deficits are set to grow, other creditors could potentially step in and likewise forgive debts. In April of this year, G20 leaders agreed to extend debt relief in the form of a moratorium on debt repayment yet this can only serve as a short term solution. With many governments already increasing their borrowing, creditor nations are well positioned to leverage their position in order to improve geopolitical relationships as well as set the stage for favourable contracts for their firms. If more countries follow Moscow’s path, then the significance of what the Kremlin has done will only recede and lose much of its relevance.

Debt forgiveness can win friends but can only go so far. For Russia’s diplomatic maneuvers to stick, they will need to continue complementing it with other efforts, such as improving trade and boosting security partnerships, in order to truly make the most of its financial generosity.

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The Case of Belarus: Russia’s Fear of Popular Revolutions

Emil Avdaliani

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For Russia, the crisis in Belarus caused by the August presidential election result is of a geopolitical nature. Moscow might not be openly stating its geopolitical calculus, but in its eyes, the Belarus problem resembles the uprisings in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and represents a similar problem in the long run.

Whatever the arguments propounded by world analysts that protests in Belarus are not about geopolitics and more about popular grievances against President Alexander Lukashenko, the issue will ultimately transform into serious geopolitical game.

For Moscow, the Belarus problem has been about geopolitics from the very beginning, though it was only on August 27 of this year that Vladimir Putin announced the creation of a special “law enforcement reserve” for use in Belarus should the situation get “out of control.”

The Russians understand that an “Armenia-style” revolution in Belarus could theoretically take place, but it would open the country more to Europe and thereby create geopolitical dilemmas similar to those created in Ukraine before 2014. The Russians further grasp that in Ukraine, the situation was out of control even before the Maidan Revolution. Moscow’s influence was not sufficient to stop Ukraine’s gradual shift toward closer ties with the collective West.

For the Russian leadership, events in Belarus are a continuation of the “revolutionary” fervor that has been spreading across the former Soviet space since the early 2000s. What is troubling is whether or not the Russians see this process as an expression of the popular will that is largely independent of the West. Several indicators point to an ingrained belief within the Russian political elite that in fact the West has orchestrated the popular upheaval in Belarus.

Russian history might be of help here. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire fought the spread of European revolutionary thought along and inside its borders. It built alliances to confront it and fought wars to forestall its progress. But in the end, the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent policies of the Communist Party were largely based on European thought, though many western ideas were changed or entirely refashioned.

Similar developments took place during the late Soviet period. By the 1980s, popular disapproval of the Soviet system had grown exponentially. A revolutionary fervor for independence ran amok in the Baltic states, Ukraine, and elsewhere. True reforms would have served as a cure, but half-hearted economic and social measures only deepened the crisis. Military power was used in a number of capitals of Soviet republics, but again only half-heartedly. Thus was the entire Soviet edifice brought down.

Modern Russian leadership should see that there is essentially no cure for popular grievances and mass movements along its borders. Russian history gives multiple examples of how military intervention against revolutionary fervor can bring immediate results but leave long-term prospects bleak. The defeat of revolutionary passions can only take place by minimizing those economic, social, and state-system problems that usually generate popular upheaval. This is the dilemma now facing modern Russia. The revolutions that occurred over the past 20 years, and the situation today in Belarus, all fit into this pattern.

For the moment, Lukashenko has won this round of strife with the protesters, and his rule is highly likely to continue. But what is equally certain is that the protests gave birth to a massive popular movement in a country that was once famous for the quiescence of its population.

Russia fears that eventually, this revolutionary tide will close in on Russian society. Lukashenko has stressed this idea, saying in an interview that mass disturbances will one day reach Moscow. Many rightly believed this was a ploy by Lukashenko to scare the Russians into supporting him—after all, Belarus is far smaller than Russia and much less important than Ukraine. Still, Lukashenko was right insofar as he pinpointed possible long-term problems Russia could face as it moves closer to 2036.

Much depends on the West as well. It faces a dilemma in which it ought to pursue a policy of vocal condemnation and perhaps even impose heavy sanctions—but from a balance of power perspective, moves like those would distance Minsk and push it closer to the Russian orbit. This dilemma of morality versus geopolitical calculus will haunt the West in the years to come.

Belarus exports 10.5 million tons of oil products per year, including about six million tons through the ports of the Baltic states to world markets and another 3–3.5 million tons to Ukraine. Redirecting flows from the Baltic ports to Russian ones has been discussed, but this option is less attractive to Minsk because of the longer distances involved. This comes at a time when the Baltic states imposed sanctions on high-ranking Belarussian officials and the EU is pondering serious measures.

With each such move from the West, Russia gets another opportunity. Russia has professed interest in encouraging Belarus to redirect its oil exports to Russian ports and has agreed to refinance a $1 billion debt to Russia.

A broader picture might help put the events in Belarus in context. In the South Caucasus, the Russians appear to have reached the limit of their influence. They more or less firmly control the overall geopolitical picture, but have nevertheless failed to derail Western resolve to compete in this region. In Central Asia, Russia has more secure positions, but the region in general is less important to the Kremlin than the western borderlands.

It is thus the western front—Belarus and Ukraine—that is a major theater for Moscow. Since 2015, many have believed that Syria is Russia’s top geopolitical theater, but this assumption is based simply on the intensity of the immediate processes that are transpiring in the Middle East. With or without Syria, Moscow’s global standing will not be fundamentally damaged. Belarus is a different matter entirely. Changes there, and by extension a potentially anti-Russian state, would constitute a direct threat to Moscow.

For Russia, Belarus is the last safe buffer zone on its western border. Ukraine is lost, as is Moldova, and the Baltic states have long been under NATO protection. Only Belarus serves as a bridge for Russia to move militarily into the heart of Europe. To lose it would be tantamount to a complete “encirclement” of Russia by the West, as argued by Russian politicians.

This geopolitical reality also means that Belarus is the country that will remain most susceptible to Russian geopolitical influence. No wonder Russia is pushing to station its air base on Belarussian soil, reinvigorate the Union state, and intensify Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow. As was the case with Ukraine, the upheaval in Belarus is about regional geopolitics.

Author’s note: first published in besacenter.org

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