The month of May and the fireworks are now behind us. The country and the world celebrated Victory Day, which is a holiday of war veterans, home front workers, and all the people of Russia and other victorious nations. There was a grand parade on Red Square and a wreath laying ceremony at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The march of the Immortal Regiment – a civil initiative that has acquired a truly global dimension – took place again not only in Russia, but in many other countries as well, with the participation of hundreds of thousands of Russians, our compatriots abroad and citizens of other countries – all people who cherish the memory of Victory and the memory of those who worked to bring it closer.
There’s another date ahead – June 22, the day of memory and grief for those who died during the Great Patriotic War. We will be remembering those who fell in battles, were tortured to death in captivity and concentration camps, or died of hunger and the toils of war. Preparations are beginning for celebrating the 75th anniversary of Victory in 2020, which, of course, will be held at a level appropriate to the scale of the feat and the greatness of the spirit of the heroes of that war. One can’t help thinking about it: what does May 9 mean for the peoples who were on the verge of annihilation, and why do some people loathe this holiday today?
As someone who is part of the first post-war generation, who grew up on the stories told by war veterans and family tales about the war, I believe the answers to these questions are obvious. The peoples of the Soviet Union and other countries became the object of the inhuman ideology of Nazism, and then the victim of aggression on behalf of the most powerful, organised and motivated war machine of that time. At the cost of terrible sacrifices, the Soviet Union made a decisive contribution to defeating Nazi Germany and, jointly with the Allies, liberated Europe from the fascist plague. The victory laid the foundation for the post-war world order based on collective security and state-to-state cooperation, and paved the way to creating the UN. These are the facts.
Unfortunately, however, the memory of Victory is not sacred to all around the world. It is regrettable that there are individuals in Russia who picked up the myths spread by those who want to bury this memory, and who believe that time has come to stop solemn celebrations of Victory Day. The greater the anniversary numbers become, the more we come face to face with the desire to forget.
Bitter as it is to witness, we see the attempts to discredit the heroes, to artificially generate doubts about the correctness of the path our ancestors followed. Both abroad and in our country we hear that public consciousness in Russia is being militarised, and Victory Day parades and processions are nothing other than imposing bellicose and militaristic sentiment at the state level. By doing so, Russia is allegedly rejecting humanism and the values of the “civilised” world. Whereas European nations, they claim, have chosen to forget about the “past grievances,” came to terms with each other and are “tolerantly” building “forward-looking relations.”
Our detractors seek to diminish the role of the Soviet Union in World War II and portray it if not as the main culprit of the war, then at least as an aggressor, along with Nazi Germany, and spread the theses about “equal responsibility.” They cynically equate Nazi occupation, which claimed tens of millions of lives, and the crimes committed by collaborationists with the Red Army’s liberating mission. Monuments are erected in honour of Nazi henchmen. At the same time, monuments to liberator soldiers and the graves of fallen soldiers are desecrated and destroyed in some countries. As you may recall, the Nuremberg Tribunal, whose rulings became an integral part of international law, clearly identified who was on the side of good and who was on the side of evil. In the first case, it was the Soviet Union, which sacrificed millions of lives of its sons and daughters to the altar of Victory, as well as other Allied nations. In the second case, it was the Third Reich, the Axis countries and their minions, including in the occupied territories.
However, false interpretations of history are being introduced into the Western education system with mystifications and pseudo-historical theories designed to belittle the feat of our ancestors. Young people are being told that the main credit in victory over Nazism and liberation of Europe goes not to the Soviet troops, but to the West due to the landing in Normandy, which took place less than a year before Nazism was defeated.
We hold sacred the contribution of all the Allies to the common Victory in that war, and we believe any attempts to drive a wedge between us are disgraceful. But no matter how hard the falsifiers of history try, the fire of truth cannot be put out. It was the peoples of the Soviet Union who broke the backbone of the Third Reich. That is a fact.
The attacks on Victory Day and the celebration of the great feat of those who won the terrible war are appalling.
Notorious for its political correctness, Europe is trying to smooth out “sharp historical edges” and to substitute military honours for winners with “neutral” reconciliation events. No doubt, we must look forward, but we must not forget the lessons of history either.
Few people were concerned that in Ukraine, which gravitates towards “European values,” the former Poroshenko regime declared a state holiday the day of founding the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – a criminal organisation responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilian Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, Poles and Jews (although in Israel, whose people survived the Holocaust, May 9 is an official holiday, Victory Day). Other glaring examples from neighbouring countries include Nazi Germany-like torchlight processions of neo-Banderites along the main streets of the Hero City of Kiev, and the marches of veterans and supporters of Waffen-SS in Riga and Tallinn. I would like to ask those who do not like the tears of our veterans during parades and who criticise the “militarised” events in honour of Victory: how do you like this kind of “demilitarisation” of consciousness in a European way?
No one will admit this, of course, but here are the facts: the United States, NATO and the EU let their junior partners, who are using blatant Russophobia to build their careers, get away with quite a lot. These guys get away with everything, including glorification of Nazi henchmen and hardcore chauvinism towards ethnic Russians and other minorities for the sole purpose of using them to keep Western alliances on anti-Russian positions and to reject a pragmatic dialogue with Moscow on an equal footing.
Occasionally it appears that the purpose of such connivance on behalf of the West is to relieve of responsibility those who, by colluding with Hitler in Munich in 1938, tried to channel Nazi aggression to the east. The desire of many in Europe to rewrite that shameful chapter of history can probably be understood. After all, as a result, the economies of a number of countries in continental Europe started working for the Third Reich, and the state machines in many of them were involved in the Nazi-initiated genocide of Russians, Jews and other nations. Apparently, it is no accident that the EU and NATO members regularly refuse to support the UN General Assembly resolution on the inadmissibility of glorifying Nazism, which was advanced by Russia. The “alternative vision” of World War II among Western diplomats clearly does not stem from the lack of historical knowledge (although there are problems in this department as well). As you may recall, even during the Cold War such blasphemy did not exist, although it would seem that an ideological face-off was a perfect setting for it. Few dared to challenge the decisive role of the Soviet Union in our common Victory back then and the standing our country enjoyed during the post-war period, which our Western allies recognised without reservations. Incidentally, it was they who initiated the division of Europe into “areas of responsibility” back in 1944, when Churchill raised this issue with Stalin during the Soviet-British talks.
Today, distorting the past, Western politicians and propagandists want to make the public doubt the fair nature of the world order that was approved in the UN Charter following World War II. They adopted a policy seeking to undermine the existing international legal system and to replace it with a certain “rule-based order.” They want to create this order based on the principle of “he who is stronger is right” and according to the “law of the jungle.”
This primarily concerns the United States and its peculiar perception of 20th century history. The idea of “two good wars” is still widespread there, as a result of which the United States secured military dominance in Western Europe and a number of other regions of the world, raised confidence in its strength, experienced an economic boom and became the world leader.
Just as enthusiastically as the Europeans, the Americans are creating an image of “militaristic Russia.” However, most of their own history is a sequence of endless wars of conquest. Over 243 years of “American exceptionalism,” interventionism has become an integral part of Washington’s foreign policy. Moreover, the US political elite think of the use of force as a natural element of “coercive diplomacy” designed to resolve a wide range of issues, including domestically.
Not a single election campaign in the United States is complete without the candidates trying on a toga of a commander-in-chief in action. The ability to resort to the use of force for any reason is proof of an American politician’s prowess. There are many examples of such stereotypes being implemented under various “plausible” pretexts: Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Yugoslavia in 1999 and Iraq in 2003. At the same time, America honours its fallen soldiers regardless of what cause they fought for. Memorial Day is celebrated in May, and no one has any suspicions of “militarism” when naval parades and air shows with the participation of military equipment take place in various US cities.
We are essentially accused of preserving the memory of our fathers and grandfathers, who laid down their lives in a sacred liberation war, giving them military honours, and celebrating Victory Day widely and with pride. Was it Russia or the Soviet Union that unleashed two world wars? Is it us who today operate an extensive network of military bases that were created to control the entire world?
For diplomats and politicians, May 9 is also a good occasion to recall that the Allies referred to themselves as the United Nations in 1945. They stood shoulder to shoulder during the war, conducted Arctic convoys and fraternised on the Elbe. French pilots in the Normandie-Neman fighter regiment fought the enemy on the Soviet-German front. Awareness of the common threat in the face of the inhuman ideology of National Socialism had helped the states with different political and socioeconomic models to overcome differences. The belief that the defeat of Nazi Germany will mark the triumph of justice and the victory of light over darkness was the unifying factor.
After the war, the Allies built a new architecture of international relations based on the ideal of equal cooperation between sovereign states. The creation of the UN was supposed to warrant that the sad fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations, will not be repeated. The founding fathers learned the lessons of history well and knew that without the “concert of the great powers” – that is, the unanimous consent of the leading countries of the world which hold permanent seats at the Security Council – the world cannot enjoy stability. We must be guided by this commandment today as well.
This year, as we took part in Victory Day celebrations, we once again told everyone willing to listen: “Yes, just like our ancestors we are ready to decisively repel any aggressor. But Russians do not want war, and do not want to go through horror and suffering again.” The historical mission of our nation is to guard peace. The peace we are trying to preserve. Therefore, we are offering a hand to anyone who wants to be good partners to us. Our Western colleagues have long had our proposals which open realistic ways to overcoming confrontation and putting up a reliable barrier to all those who allow for the possibility of a nuclear war. These proposals were further reinforced by an appeal made by the CSTO member states to the North Atlantic Alliance in May to begin a professional depoliticised dialogue on strategic stability issues.
I am confident that the citizens of Russia and other countries will be watching parades in honour of the 75th anniversary of the Great Victory on May 9, 2020 and joining the ranks of the Immortal Regiment with St George ribbons attached to their lapels with thoughts of peace in their minds. The memory of those who fell in battle fighting the enemies of the homeland, the enemies of civilisation, will remain alive as long as we mark the great holiday of victorious nations, the holiday of salvation and the holiday of liberation. And there is no need to be embarrassed about the grandiose scale of this celebration.
From our partner International Affairs
Navalny, Nord Stream 2 and Moscow’s Response
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.
Forgiving Old Debts: Russia’s Diplomatic Maneuver
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.
The Case of Belarus: Russia’s Fear of Popular Revolutions
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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