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The Russian Orthodox Church, the situation in Syria and the crisis in the Greater Middle East

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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In a speech delivered on May 6 last, Patriarch Kirill – the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church – defined the Russian war in Syria as a conflict “against global terrorism” and hence suggested a “holy war” to free not only the Middle East, but also the entire Christian civilization, from this  “fierce and deceitful enemy”.Russia as a “third Rome”, after the first falling and the second failing because it surrendered to the profane world.

Patriarch Kirill believes that Christians are in terrible danger in many countries – and this is the reason why the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church cherishes good memories of the meeting he had in Cuba with Pope Francis.

A meeting that, as Patriarch Kirill said, “took place in the right place and at the right time”. After one thousand years.

The Church of Rome has realized that modern society is failing and that an alliance of religions is needed to save the world.  This is an idea that the Patriarch of Moscow has always had and, after the USSR collapse, Russia can finally work freely with the West.

And Patriarch Kirill has certainly been the least pro-Soviet of the Orthodox Fathers.

In other words, the Russian Church – closely linked to the new regime of Vladimir Putin, who never forgets his role as believer – is thinking of an   agreement – not necessarily hegemonic – with the Roman Church.

An agreement to overcome the “two worlds”, the East and the West, and unite and federate the Middle East, the cradle of the Faith (and of the Faiths) and strategic axis between the East and the West.

By explicit admission and also by tacit activity of the Pope, the Catholic Church has now become not only the “field hospital” of the world crisis, but the only geopolitical point of reference of the poor and miserable people of the old “Third World”, which is experiencing one financial crisis after the other.

However, we are still in a pro-Western area.

Conversely, the Russian Church intends to maintain its traditional role in the East so as to become the only “voice of the poor” against the old and new imperialism, but in a new multipolar context beyond the old US and Western hegemony.

Hence Patriarch Kirill proposal for a single anti-terrorist coalition operating in the world.

On February 19 last, in Moscow, when the Orthodox Patriarch received the Patriarch of Antioch, John Yazigi X – born in Latakia and supporter of Bashar al-Assad – he recalled that “ISIS was discrediting the image of Islam with the whole world”.

Patriarch Kirill wants to separate the jihad from mass Islam and unite the latter to make it support his interreligious dialogue project, which should manage the future distribution of power in the Middle East.

Said distribution will not be State-based, but religious and community-based – hence beyond the spheres of influence madly designed in the desert by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

A communication strategy that, in this case, associates Patriarch Kirill with Pope Francis.

As we have seen, they both want to separate the jihad from current Islam, although it seems that they do not perceive the profound practical and theoretical transformation modern jihadism has brought about in the symbols and practice of any forms of contemporary Islamism – from the Afghan “resistance” against the Russian troops until Bin Laden.

After the current sword jihad, nothing – even in the Quietist Islam – will be the same as before.

In this case, however, separating the wheat from the chaff can allow something new: the emergence of an Islam not only peaceful, but with two other characteristics: the fact of being national, and not vaguely and violently universalist, and with a new and strong, relationship with the local and regional political authorities.

An Islam typical of the old Caliphate, but capable of having a wide echo, instead of the Islam damned and cursed by everybody and now at the end of its war with its new Caliphate.

In fact, Patriarch Kirill thinks that ISIS is “anti-Arab” and it is also “destroying the Middle East”.

In other words, the Russian Orthodox leaders – who certainly do not speak without Vladimir Putin’s permission – think that the Caliphate’s jihadism wants to weaken the current Middle East States, with a view to delivering them to non-State entities, behind which the Patriarch sees above all the New West, dissolving the old national and religious identities into a postmodern and harshly materialistic and capitalist medium.

Patriarch Kirill’s apparently “backward” ideas have a clear relationship with Orthodox Russia’s foreign policy: abortion, easy divorce, drugs, propaganda for homosexuality are all psychological warfare operations designed to destroying States, religious communities and, above all, social solidarity, with a view to paving the way for atheism but, in particular, for the post-capitalist social fragmentation and atomization.

It would be the end of the Middle East, which would be turned into a cultural desert, much more than the jihad has done so far.

As Pope Francis said at the meeting held last February with the representatives of “Economia e Unione”, overcoming capitalism is now a well-acquired fact, thus going well beyond the traditional social doctrine of the Church.

As the Pope said, capitalism “knows philanthropy, but not communion.”

According to Patriarch Kirill, whose Church is much more integrated into the Russian financial and political system than Catholicism in the West, capitalism is an asset as it produces the goods for the poor.

According to the Russian Patriarch, it is the Orthodox Church which  distributes the superfluous and corrects society and its economy.

Traditionally, Orthodoxy is a Church that is not only Sponsa Christi, but bodily and practical presence of Jesus Christ among the people and in history.

The Roman Church is a different case, because it operates above all with Catholic laity and personal persuasion – in a much more anti-religious world than the one typical of the current Slavic world.

Furthermore, in the encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, the decisive mechanism for society and the economy is that of a liturgical and sacred culture that generates a gift economy.

According to Patriarch Kirill, however, peace in the Middle East can be certainly achieved with the new relationship established with the Church of Rome, but above all by reactivating the old “Orthodox Imperial Society of Palestine”, which shall reacquire all the huge and ancient Russian properties in the Middle East.

The Society also wants to reacquire the Israeli side of the Monastery of Saints Cyril and Methodius and put back in order the Monastery of Alexandrovsky in Jerusalem, as well as the other eleven churches and the three Orthodox sites still owned by the Russian Orthodox Church outside the motherland.

One of the largest and symbolically most important properties of the Churches in all the Sacred Places, which Patriarch Kirill (and Putin) will use with extreme subtlety to conquer Middle East peoples’ minds and hearts.

The cross of the Slavic Church has two inscriptions in Russian, which are very important, especially today: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet” (Isaiah, 62).

Hence Patriarch Kirill’s underlying idea is to return to the pre-revolutionary situation when there were over 100 Orthodox schools and education institutes in 50 different cities throughout Syria.

An immense cultural and political presence that no media propaganda can supplant and replace.

Currently 500 Palestinian children are already attending the Russian school in Bethlehem, opened under the aegis of the Imperial Society.

For the Slavic Orthodox Church, the destabilization strategy in Ukraine and the one in the current Middle East with the jihad is one and one only and mainly concerns the persecution of Christian peoples throughout the area, as well as in the Maghreb region.

It is related to the geopolitics of the atheistic and consumerist destabilization carried out by the Western countries that have fomented at first the Caucasus insurgency and later the “Arab Springs”.

Patriarch Kirill believes that the Westernization outside the EU and United States has already failed.

It is easy to understand how the Russian Patriarch rightly believes that the “Arab Springs” are at the origin of the current destabilization in the Middle East and of its de-Christianization.

The Western countries do nothing – or, indeed, very little – to rescue and then host the Middle East Christian migrants. Only the Russian Church and the Vatican have taken actions in this regard, in spite of the difficult conditions also caused by the presence of many migrants from Ukraine.

Patriarch Kirill supports a theology of the new community and religious regionalization in the Middle East, against the globalization that has favoured a satanic “modernization”, namely that of the jihad.

Hence another asset of the Russian Church, which is preparing Russia’s expansion throughout the region, between Syria, Iraq, the Lebanon and Palestine, by taking credit for the protection of Christians, including those faithful to Rome.

As the Melchite (hence Catholic) Archbishop of Syria – Joseph Absi -– says, this leads to the additional Orthodox asset of deciding to put an end to all the rivalries between the Middle East Christian Churches, which weaken the Faith faced with a fierce and unscrupulous enemy.

Ferocious as a fanatic, modernizer as a post-modern.

Either sword jihad or pro-Western mass atheism – destroying the differences in the Middle East is not Patriarch Kirill’s nor Putin’s goal.

There are 22 local Churches in communion with the Church of Rome throughout the Middle East and many argue that – considering the needs for local autonomy in the new Middle East – the union between the Orthodoxy and the Roman Church should be based on a pluralistic project “to separate the communion from the authority”.

Patriarch Kirill’s goals also include support for the small, but growing Catholic community speaking Hebrew and operating in Israel, as well as defining fixed dates for pilgrimages to the Holy Land so as to maintain a continuous flow of faithful from abroad.

According to Patriarch Kirill, all Christian communities are protected in Israel.

And the Jewish State can develop – without losing its identity – into a political entity protecting religious minorities throughout the Middle East.

The great presence of Russian migrants in the Jewish State makes many Orthodox pilgrims “feel at home” and the current agreement between Russia and Israel on passports makes everything easier.

Also at religious level, the Russian Orthodoxy is essentially a geopolitical project to protect all Christian minorities throughout the Middle East – as “major shareholder” of Christianity – as well as to collaborate with the Vatican, which still has a pro-Western geopolitics, and finally create a cultural and religious climate to support Russia’s operations.

In short, Patriarch Kirill wants Israel to collaborate to his interreligious project. He particularly appreciates the significant presence of the Jewish State in Russia and proposes a relationship between Orthodox people and Judaism, foreshadowing – at religious level – the future bilateral and preferential relationship between Russia and Israel.

As to Saudi Arabia, the Russian Church has supported President Putin’s policy of opening, by maintaining that all the Islamic countries, often hit by ISIS, such as Saudi Arabia, must enter an interreligious alliance against extremism and terrorism in a multilateral context.

Moreover, within the framework of the complex Lebanese issue, as early as the visit paid by Patriarch Kirill in the Lebanon in 2011, the Slavic Orthodox Church has been referring to the support for Syria to defend peace and religious pluralism also in the Lebanon.

The 2001 visit had been planned with the Vatican support and the establishment of a specific relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Maronites,  in particular, who have always been faithful to Rome.

Hence, while in the Greater Middle East, the Westerners ally with vast Islamic communities known as “moderates”, the Russian Orthodox Church becomes the united pole of all the Christians in the region. Furthermore, while the Vatican reduces its presence in the core of the Islamic world, to avoid retaliation or to promote dialogue with the Mohammedans in Europe, the Russian Church establishes a stable relationship with all religious faiths in the region. Finally, while Islam has its own statehood, the Orthodox Russia treats us amicably; while Judaism discusses in theological terms, the Russian Church extends the interreligious debate also to Israel.

Hence, for Russia, the construction of religious hegemony, which seems to be the necessary shadow of Putin’s project for multipolar control over the Middle East after the United States being forced to leave the region, due to the many mistakes made, thus leaving it in the hands of unreliable “friends”.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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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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