With ongoing debates on Russian-made S-400 deliveries to Turkey, fate of continuing cooperation of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Syria and future of Ankara’s relations with the European Union and NATO, it is high time to make an honest review of Russian-Turkish relations, define weaknesses of bilateral cooperation and try to sketch a framework for a better future. Inspection of historical legacy and nature of current ties may be of big value for those who want to grasp contours of common future. Analysis of existing political constellations in both countries, study of actors who shape or strive to shape bilateral relations and investigation of today’s cases of regional cooperation between Turkey and Russia may further contribute to explaining trajectory of bilateral relations.
During the first years of the Russia–Turkey relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union were defined by views of leaderships that were formed during the Cold war era. In the aftermath of the Independence War, Kemalist regime viewed its ties with the Soviet Union as a political alternative for Ankara’s relations with the European countries. The balanced approach in cooperation with the Soviets was gradually complicated by Moscow’s insistence upon Ataturk to redesign Turkey’s political regime according to the socialist principles. Left-leaning members of the Kemalist establishment came to support this idea.
Relations with Moscow were further marred after 1945 with the USSR threatening to reconsider the Straits regime and change Turkey’s eastern borders. Later, Soviet officials in later did confirm that Stalin’s insistence was a primary reason for Turkey’s decision to ally itself with Western powers. The Soviet Union interpreted Turkish participation in the Marshall plan, membership in the NATO under the Eisenhower Doctrine were as a further step to get security guarantees in face of the Soviet threats. On the other hand, it also prompted Moscow to consider Turkey’s foreign policy as being to a large extent defined by the NATO strategic plans rather than national interests.
The crisis in Turkey’s relations with its traditional allies over the Cyprus issue in 1964 and later in 1974 showed the Soviets that Turkey was increasingly diverging from the western line. The Soviets saw this situation as an opportunity to relaunch contacts with Ankara. From the mid 1970-s, the relations between the USSR and Turkey started gaining their own logic and that was largely expressed in trade, gas, and technology exchange cooperation. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Moscow’s support for the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, on the other hand, didn’t allow these improvements to gain larger potency.
Gradual transformation from competition to cooperation
It is against this background that bilateral relations were developing in the 1990s. Political elites in both countries were still thinking in terms of bipolar confrontation and felt a lot of distrust towards each other. On the other hand, both countries were experiencing profound difficulty in finding their places in a new world defined by instability around their borders and lack of acceptable set of rules of global political engagement.
Areas that Russian elites viewed as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence were witnessing increased involvement of Western and global players. Growing instability in the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Balkans did not allow both countries to reshape their perception of each other and find a common ground. Relations were further complicated by the fact that Russia perceived Turkey as a tool in the hands of Western powers to minimize Russian presence.
With regard to the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkey had very good potential to become a driver of positive political and economic changes. With the fall of the Soviet Union and collapse of bipolar competition Turkey lost its strategic importance in the Western eyes and this fact made Turkish elites look for areas where Turkey could be again an important ally.
By the 1990s it was evident that the countries’ elites were gradually moving from confrontation and competition, concentrating on areas that were mutually benefiting. Two points should be stressed here: this decision was a result of political will and had non-partisan character meaning that this approach enjoyed legitimacy among broader groups of political elites. Secondly, problematic areas in bilateral relations were not resolved or given increased attention but rather mitigated and pushed from the agenda.
Since the later years of the Cold war, certain areas have been pushing both countries to more cooperation and trust. These areas became relevant in the Russia–Turkey relations as well. Trade agreements on gas were a primary area where both countries had a chance to prove themselves as reliable partners. For Turkey, it was important to get stable contracts on gas deliveries for its growing economy during 1990s. For Russia, it was important to have Turkey as a reliable transit partner for its gas supplies to the European markets.
Economic cooperation and increasing mutual interdependence stimulated contacts in other areas, including construction. Turkish companies became especially famous in Russia for their road building technologies, and Russian companies were welcomed in Turkey due to their know-hows in building of large infrastructure objects like factories, dams, channels, or nuclear plants. Further areas included production and manufacture facilities in Russia, especially in culturally affiliated republics like Tatarstan.
It is important to note that since 2000s cooperation in these areas didn’t lead to increasing influence or effectiveness of lobbying among economic groups. Many experts point to the considerable control of formal politics over the business in both countries: with exemption big economic projects like Akkuyu NPP or TurkStream gas pipeline, economic and business ties don’t define political agenda between Turkey and Russia, commercial activity heavily dependent on political decisions and rapport. Although, this is less relevant for Turkish case since in Turkish export to Russia dominate goods and products produced by a large number of smaller local producers.
Predominance of political leadership in channelling of the bilateral relations is another dimension. Heads of state in Turkey and Russia are viewed as key actors who define bilateral relations. This also suggests that relations lack deeper institutionalization despite rich scope of agreements signed in the last 15 years: Moscow and Ankara are struggling to bring bilateral relations onto more stable and rigid foundation, which makes relations susceptible to situational politics. The establishment of the High-Level Cooperation Council in 2010, i.e. 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, shows how slow the progress in this direction really is.
The lack of stable institutional base is coupled with the lack of unity in ideological views on a series of issues dealing with global and regional agendas. Turkey’s foreign policy is defined by personal interests of the country’s leadership, who has been trying to consolidate power within close circle of people loyal to Erdogan. Foreign policy decision-making process in both countries is very personalized: even though bilateral relations are not driven by common values and norms, as in the Turkey–NATO relations in their best years, both Moscow and Ankara may pursue personal political gains.
Nevertheless, it is important to underline that principle shift towards more cooperation may have deeper roots than solely the will of political leadership: rapprochement between Turkey and Russia started in 1997–1998, i.e. before Putin and Erdogan came to power. This observation is further confirmed by the fact that during these years both Ankara and Moscow decided to give up on using Chechen and Kurdish issues to pressure each other in other political questions.
Eurasianism and other groups of influence in Russia–Turkey ties
One of the ideological premises that many observers attribute to bilateral cooperation is the idea of Eurasianism. The concept is widely used in discussions on current state and the future of bilateral relations. The analysis of how elites understand Eurasianism in both countries reveals that there are both commonalities and differences. Russian and Turkish elites tend to view Eurasianism as a suitable ideological semantic tool to express their common desire to put their relations on ideational base. Further commonality includes the idea that Eurasian powers are destined to unite in order to challenge the West or at least to resist the pressure from the Western liberal democracies.
At the same time, there are considerable differences in what the elites understand under Eurasianism. In Russian case, Eurasianism was an ideological tool to protect Russian traditional sphere of influence by bringing local societies together under Russia’s guidance. For Turkish elites, primarily among left-leaning anti-imperialist politicians, Eurasianism is a way to challenge Turkey’s overly serious dependence from the West and to seek support from non-Western powers in resolving existing problems. Eurasianism is also popular among some of pan-Turanists and pan-Turkists, who channel their attention to the geographical regions covered by Eurasian ideology.
It can be said that Eurasianism is supported by small part of political elites in Turkey: after the 1990s, Turkey realized that it has a very limited scope of influence in the core of Eurasia, Central Asia and Russia, meaning that Turkey can be a part of Eurasia, but not its leading power.
Another aspect that defines bilateral relations is the attitudes to power and ability to influence regional politics is also. Both Turkey and Russia can be considered as rising powers who want to redefine rules of game of global and regional politics, established after the Cold war largely without much involvement and contribution of the latter two. These rising power demand recognition as rightful players in global politics. With consolidation of political regimes in Turkey and Russia, elites in both countries are becoming increasingly allergic to Western pressure and criticism and, therefore, tend to counter-balance these challenges by improving their own international stance and by developing closer ties with other rising powers.
Still, it is important to emphasize several crucial points. Eurasianists include very different political groups with different understanding of this ideology itself. In Turkey, the label Eurasianist may unite anti-Western and pro-Russian groups. However, this does not imply that being anti-Western automatically refers to being pro-Russian. On the other hand, the group is attractive for left-leaning activists, even though there are aspects of right ideology of pan-Turanism and pan-Turkism in it.
Another important point is a scope of real influence of the Eurasianists. For decades, the group around Perinçek has managed to consolidate around its political platform many influential former military officers and wage successful media campaigns, their influence and, most importantly, access to the decision-making process remains, however, very limited. The fact that this group failed to prevent escalation between Turkey and Russian right after the jet crisis in November 2015 despite all its mediation efforts and alleged contacts with Russian side may indicate their limited influence on politics in Turkey. The influence of this political group may depend on current reforms of the Armed Forces where Turkish government is trying to establish new rules of the game making it harder for the officers to exert their political influence.
Thirdly, it is important to understand why Perinçek group in Turkey is popular today and enjoys benevolence of the ruling party despite its criticism of the current Turkish foreign policy and domestic policies of the AKP. One way to answer this question is to consider assumption that AKP doesn’t attach to ties with Russia strategic importance, using it merely as an instrument, implying that today’s rapprochement is driven by current international conditions where Turkey is experiencing lack of dialogue with its Western partners and, thus, feels increasingly isolated. On the other hand, it is fair to say as well, that Erdogan may be allowing the Perinçek group as much freedom mainly to communicate to the Russians red lines of cooperation that Turkey may have in many areas of mutual interests like Kurdish issue in Syria.
It is important to mention the role that other groups are playing in formation of bilateral official dialogue, be it negative or positive. Business circles represent the most potent forces that can in theory exert a level of influence. A number of Turkish construction companies like Ant Yapi, Renaissance Construstion, Enka, Limak, Costa Group are working and successfully expand its presence in the Russian market: in 1972–2016 Turkish companies participated in 8755 projects around the world with total value of USD 325 billion among them 1939 projects worth $64.8 billion in the Russian Federation. Naturally, Turkish companies operating in Russia have gained experience in handling with local political establishment and bureaucracy, sometimes engaging in non-transparent business schemes. This laid a foundation for further ties and connections with politicians on federal level.
But still, even if Turkish companies have limited influence in Russia, they are unlikely to have a say in strategic decision-making process, especially on security related issues. This could be seen from their participation in construction of very profitable objects. Russian business circles, with exception of energy and automobile giants like Gazprom, Rosatom, Gaz, is very poorly represented in Turkey and has very limited experience in dealing with Turkish clients with their own cultural specifics.
Another group that can influence bilateral relations are ethnic minorities. Historically, Turkey hosted refugees and emigrants from Russian Empire, Soviet Union and later Russian Federation. Today, groups like Crimean Tatars, Circassians, North Caucasian diasporas influence public opinion on Russia in Turkey, though their activity is limited due do strict Turkish nationalism and firm grip of current ruling party on media and public demonstrations. These groups may find themselves in the center of new frictions between Russia and Turkey, especially considering the ongoing migration of foreign fighters from Syria back to Turkey and Western Ukraine. Religious groups like South Caucasian Salafist networks still can pose a danger to Russian national security from Turkey thought its presence in Georgia and western Ukraine. Existence of sympathizers to the groups’ cause among Turkish bureaucracy may further complicate Russian-Turkish rapprochement and attempts to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation.
The role of the West and third countries in dynamics of bilateral relations
Russia and Turkey perceive bilateral cooperation over gas supplies and Akkuyu nuclear plant as almost an ideal platform to improve their negotiating positions vis-à-vis the European Union. For Turkey, better terms for gas deliveries from Russia and Russian assistance in building of the nuclear facilities have direct implications for the long-term economic development plans, as Turkish government is expecting a rise in energy demands. On the other hand, Russia gets stable revenues from its exports to Turkey, a good asset for its budget stability in times of Western sanctions and pressures on domestic economic plans. All of this indicates that economic cooperation contributes to advancement of their negotiating positions via-a-vis Europe and the US.
By the same token, Russia has been using Turkey’s support on multiple issues as a very effective asset in its own competition against the NATO. For Russian elites, Turkey’s independence from the Western alliance is very important. A number of Turkish experts emphasized the fact that Turkey didn’t join Western sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014.
While both leading actors want to gain more influence in the global politics, this transformation, however, will not come without problems for bilateral relations. Turkish elites seem to have accepted the fact that without considerable Western backing Turkey has very limited room for action in the Central Asia. This approach is further nuanced by claims that Turkey is aware that its relations with Russia are uneven, especially in military and diplomatic terms, therefore, when and where possible, Ankara would like to counteract Russian dominance through soft-balancing, expanding discussions of NATO–Turkey cooperation, for example, in Georgia or Azerbaijan. Russian military build-up in the Black Sea is also causing concerns in Turkey. This claim can be related to the ongoing efforts of the Turkish government to increase navy capacities in territorial waters.
Another interesting point in terms of influence of the third parties in the bilateral relations is the role of the Central Asian leaders in this process. These leaders are forced to mediate between the two because of their political reliance on Russia and cultural affinity to Turkey. There are, however, tendencies in Russian policies to minimize Turkic solidarity with Turkey among Russian Turkic communities.
Informal dimension of bilateral relations
Despite political elites’ vocal support for and visible official efforts to strengthen non-official bilateral ties, connections between private parties, NGOs, and academia exert limited influence on official relations between Russia and Turkey. Primary reason behind this lies in systemic position of civil society in decision-making process in each country. According to experts, scholars, who make research on bilateral relations, often lack necessary linguistic skills. There is still ideological bias in many academic circles, both in Russia and Turkey as well. For example, sometimes, scholars, who write on bilateral relations, do it in a form to confirm their personal, professional, political loyalty to institutions or movements, meaning that the scope and tone of analysis may eventually change according to the agenda. That is why many Turkish or Russian speaking scholar prefer engaging in history and culture studies rather than doing research on current political affairs. There are problems of insufficient funding and institutionalization between academia in Turkey and Russia as well.
Civil war in Syria
Nowadays, Russia seems to be rediscovering itself as a global power again. Russian elites are eagerly engaged in the Middle East, and state-supported energy and military companies increase their impact in the regional political landscape. On the other hand, Middle East became by the matter of choice an area of foreign policy activism of Turkish elites.The AKP government has been increasing gaining self-confidence in dealing with regional issues, possibly, hoping that cultural and geographical proximity to local population may be translated into real life political and economic gains for Turkey.
Syria was possibly the prime example of recent regional activism of Turkey, but civil war changed this approach with rising instability threatening Turkish security and coming of many new global and regional players in the conflict. The problem for the Russian-Turkish relations is that Syria turned out to be an area where Russian and Turkish interests clashed. But eventually increasing number of challenges transformed foreign policy dynamics in Turkey, and securitization of the process led to re-evalutation of priorities, where closer contacts with Russia became to be seen as one of the channels to enhance security situation on Turkish borders. Moscow positively reacted to Turkish concerns over the PKK/Kurdish issues, seeing them as a legitimate topic of discussions with Turkey.
As far as we can see today, Turkish elites are trying to adapt to new realities by getting used to Russian presence. Watching NATO allies increasingly abandon Ankara, Turkish elites are trying to become more active in broadening areas of cooperation with Russia and Iran. Judging by the lessons from the past, Turkey and Russia are able to find a common solution and acknowledge their corresponding legitimate interests and concerns. Turkey’s cooperation with Russia is a tactical phenomenon that was caused by Western partners’ inability to show solidarity on many occasions and to act against Russia.
Differences over political issues like the fate of Assad’s regime or scope of rights for Kurds may be pushed from the agenda in the mid-term, allowing bilateral cooperation on Syria to be focused on economic matters like reconstruction, trade, energy projects. These are the areas that are important for Russian plans to rebuild Syria and that Turkey can be interested in as well. Still, Turkey would like to keep supporting opposition, because, otherwise it would have to deal with Assad through Russian mediation therefore falling into more dependence on Moscow.
Even though one may witness rapid development of political ties between Turkey and Russia in recent years, relations are not immune to unforeseeable shocks. Heavy accent on political dialogue, political connections and consultations between the governments may be of great importance in general, but at times reveal that it is insufficient for development of full-fledged relations. Today’s cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in Syria serves as a good platform for both to test their political trust and to learn to listen to each other’s concerns, which so far have been largely ignored or pushed out of the agenda. Despite current existing moods in Europe and the United States on Turkey planning to leave the NATO, analysis of historical legacy and present situation in the world suggest that Turkey neither would prefer nor would afford to leave the Western security and political structures. On the other hand, Turkey’s rapprochement with the West would not be necessarily against interests of Russia. Interconnectedness of Turkey with Europe and USA may be of good utility for Russian global foreign policy. Current positive dialogue, however, should be used to include non-state non-official players and give them space to direct and shape bilateral relations. Their presence and contribution would be a best guarantee against political fluctuations which we will definitely witness in the future.
First published in our partner RIAC
Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia
Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.
Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.
The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.
In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.
The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.
The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.
The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.
Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.
This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.
The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.
Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.
This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.
from our partner RIAC
Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood
The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.
Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.
But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.
CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.
In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.
Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.
Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.
More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.
The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.
A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.
Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.
Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
Russia’s Potential Invasion of Ukraine: Bringing In Past Evidence
Since mid-November 2021, the U.S. intelligence community and media have been warning of a Russian military buildup along the country’s western border. As the military activities are widely interpreted as a sign of Russia’s upcoming invasion of Ukraine, NATO needs to carefully analyze Russia’s motivations and previous behaviors, as well as hammer out policy options in case the existing fears prove to be correct.
Although Russia’s record of deception and recent statements about red lines make current tensions particularly worrisome, there is no hard evidence that an invasion is indeed being planned. The present situation is one of ambiguity (which is probably deliberate), and the West should treat it as such. Washington and its allies should be prepared for the worst without assuming that the negative scenario will inevitably come true. In particular, NATO should consider continuing its policy of tailored deterrence while refraining from steps that can lead to escalation themselves.
What Makes the Invasion Possible
Putin’s modern Ukraine policy originates from two basic assumptions about Russia’s relations with the West after the end of the Cold War. The first assumption is based on the broken promise narrative. According to Mary Sarotte, the Soviet Union did expect that NATO would not move eastward, whereas German Foreign Minister Genscher did promise that NATO “would not expand itself to the East.” The assurances have never been codified. However, NATO’s close military cooperation with Ukraine is viewed by Russia as violating the spirit of the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany of 1990. The historical fear of an attack from the West makes this perception even more vivid. The second assumption is that protests, revolutions, and major political shifts in the post-Soviet space can usually be attributed to Western malicious intentions. The 2014 pro-European revolution in Ukraine is therefore referred to by Moscow as a coup d’état. As unpleasant as they are, the two preconceived notions have a substantial impact on Russian foreign policy, leading the Kremlin to take radical military and diplomatic steps.
Further, Russia’s previous behaviors indicate that Moscow can actually use force against its neighbors, which means that military scenarios should be given serious consideration. It is known that Russia used military force to take control of Crimea in 2014, as President Putin admitted Russia’s involvement and disclosed secrets of the “takeover plot” quite a while ago. It is also known that Russia occupied large swaths of Georgia in 2008, even though Russia’s sovereignty was not directly threatened by skirmishes in South Ossetia. It is presumed, yet denied by Russia, that Moscow has been directly engaged in the Donbas War, which began in mid-2014.
More importantly, Russia has a record of denying its role in crises where Russia’s involvement was suspected by others from the outset. It is only in April 2014 that Putin admitted responsibility for the takeover of Crimea that had taken place between late February and early March. A more recent example of deception is Russia’s anti-satellite test in November 2021. Initially, the Vice-Chair of the Defense Committee in Russia’s Parliament said that “[t]here is no limit to the fantasies of the State Department. Russia is not engaged in the militarization of space.” Foreign Minister Lavrov speculated that “there is no evidence.” Later that day, Russia’s Defense Ministry admitted that the test had been conducted. There are even more cases of Moscow’s presumed malicious activities where Russia has never admitted its role. Those include the Donbas War, the downing of MH17 in July 2014, and the poisoning of Skripal and Navalny.
Given this record, Russia’s assurances that no invasion is being planned cannot be taken at face value. Moreover, Russian officials have made a number of worrisome statements recently. Since late November, President Putin has been calling for “security guarantees” from the West to prevent further NATO enlargement. On November 22, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service released a statement on the tensions over Ukraine, saying that “[w]e observed a similar situation in Georgia on the eve of the events of 2008.”
Rationality, Restraint, and History Lessons
Yet, it may seem that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be contrary to Russia’s interests, which is in fact true. A fait accompli along the lines of the 2014 takeover of Crimea is no longer possible, as Ukraine’s Army has been forged in the combats of Donbas. The covert war scenario for an entire country does not seem feasible either. Not only would an invasion result in numerous casualties for both sides, but it would also constitute a drain on Russia’s budget for years to come. A brutal war against Ukraine would literally destroy Moscow’s “fraternal peoples” narrative underlying much of Russian foreign policy.
The irrationality of attacking Ukraine is not the only reason why risks for NATO in the current situation may be exaggerated. Although Russia has used military force in a few notable cases, there have been even more examples of Russia’s restraint. In 2018, Russia refrained from attempting to keep in power Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan in a revolution that was framed by many as inherently pro-Western. Russia did not take sides in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, even though Azerbaijan was explicitly supported by NATO member Turkey. Russia was sticking to a “wait and see” approach during much of the attempted revolution in Belarus in 2020. Finally, Russia has tolerated coups and revolutions in Central Asia, including most recently the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2020. In other words, understanding what Russia could have done but chose not to do is no less important than the awareness of what has indeed occurred. Russia is not inherently expansionist, and the domino logic does not apply.
However, this in no way means that an invasion of Ukraine is impossible. Irrational, previously unknown, and even “impossible” events tend to occur from time to time, as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated 80 years ago. Even crazier twists and turns have probably been averted thanks to diplomacy and deterrence. This is why contingency planning is an integral part of any foreign and defense policy. NATO’s goal is to preempt, prevent, and be prepared for an invasion rather than predict whether it will happen or not.
While a full-scale invasion of Ukraine has not been launched, Western policy can rely on traditional deterrence instruments tailored to the crisis in question. In doing so, the United States and its allies should not act as though an invasion were inevitable, which it is not. NATO’s response to the current tensions should be very limited and focused, yet commensurate with the Western interest in countering Russian adventurism and short of upending the status quo for no apparent reason. First, the U.S. and its allies may continue providing military aid to Ukraine and even increase it, which is in line with previous policies. That said, troop deployments in Ukraine and enhanced military presence in the Black Sea would not be helpful, as such measures could alienate Russia without providing any benefits to the West. Second, NATO should dissuade Ukraine from attacking first, as Georgia did in 2008. Russia should be put in a position where any attack it might undertake would be unprovoked and very explicit. However, NATO should find it in its interest to refrain from providing any specific guarantees to Ukraine. The nature of Ukraine-Russia tensions makes provocations on both sides highly likely; assurances and alliances would only heighten risks, boosting Ukraine’s and Russia’s self-confidence.
A full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine is possible. Still, it is neither inevitable nor likely. When everyone takes war for granted, the question arises whether the United States still has a foreign policy capable of fostering a positive environment for the prosperity of the American people.
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