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Russia and China: Union or Strategic Uncertainty?

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Russia–China military cooperation is gaining momentum. Since the start of the year, the sides have conducted naval exercises, the first joint patrol of bomber aircraft and a series of joint military competitions. Theatre of war missile defense exercises in the form of computer simulation has also been announced. And the Chinese side will once again take part in the Tsentr strategic command post exercise this year.     

A new agreement on military cooperation that will supersede the long-obsolete 1993 document is currently being drawn up. The agreement will turn many of the events that already take place, including the joint patrol of bomber aircraft, into formalized and ongoing areas of cooperation.

This cooperation is not limited to the Asia-Pacific. In 2017, joint fleet exercises were held on the Baltic Sea. And nothing is preventing Chinese and Russian bomber aircraft from conducting flights over the Atlantic.  

The new military agreement may well include more sensitive elements, even helping China develop its own Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) and integrating Russian and Chinese BMEWS, with mutual automatic data exchange.

There are quite clear and long-term factors behind the accelerated rapprochement of two states in the military sphere. U.S.–China relations are rolling down to the same “destination” where U.S.–Russia relations have been since 2012–2014. Since the causes of the conflict between the United States and China go deeper than the US-Russia discord (Russia is in no position to challenge the United States as a global leader, no matter how much it might want to), there is no hope for a resolution in the near future.

Under these conditions, we cannot but pose an inevitable question about the nature of relations between Russia and China. In other words: Is a military and political union between the two countries possible? The sides have repeatedly denied any intention to create such a union.

What is more, in their official rhetoric both China and Russia pointedly condemn the very idea of military and political alliances, which have long been referred to as “relics of the past.” By rejecting the idea of military and political alliances in principle, both Moscow and Beijing justify their opposition to the expansion of the U.S. system of unions in strategically important regions.   

The parties have repeatedly confirmed that they have no intention of creating a military union. This was reiterated once again during the visit of President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping to Moscow in June 2019. The Joint Statement on Developing Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Interaction Entering a New Era states that the sides “refuse to establish allied relations, confrontation or non-directedness against third-countries.”

Thus, against the background of the continuing rapprochement of Russia and China, their leaders not only avoid talking about a union but also prefer to enshrine the lack of intention to build such relations in the foreseeable future in official documents.

What is this? How does it accord with the steps that Russia and China are taking in practice?

First of all, it makes sense to consider what an alliance between Russia and China could represent in the current conditions.

This problem is largely viewed through the lens of the experience of the world’s most powerful alliance, namely, NATO. NATO is perceived as an example of a military alliance with the most strictly prescribed conditions. The first part of Article 5 of the NATO Charter is often quoted in this respect: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”

However, the mechanism for exercising the right to collective defense is extremely vague. Assistance to the attacked party or parties is to be provided “by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”  

The terms of the 1955 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (the Warsaw Pact) drawn up by the Warsaw Treaty Organization were worded in a similar spirit.

From a legal point of view, neither the NATO Charter nor the documents that made up the Warsaw Pact contain any firm guarantees that the respective alliance will use force in response to an attack against one of its members. This notwithstanding, both the USSR and the NATO member countries counted on this and it was a basic fact of the Cold War. It was through the understanding on both sides that even a limited confrontation on the periphery would be fraught with extreme danger that stability was maintained.

Such assuredness could not come from language of the agreements and was based only partly on these documents. The real political and military steps taken by the parties to the agreements were far more important, as they indicated their intentions to fulfill their obligations under the coalition agreements as closely as possible if one of the coalition partners were to come under attack. The agreement outlined the form of the partnership but did not imbue it with any real content.   

There were, and still are, numerous “sleeping” military alliances around the world that contain mutual obligations but which have never been activated in practice. For instance, the 1961 Sino–North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which has very rigid obligations in terms of mutual military assistance, are still in effect. However, China regularly calls the military obligations of the treaty into question and does not take the document seriously at all (until recently, that is).

The United Kingdom and Portugal have enjoyed allied relations for centuries (the first such agreement was signed in the XIV century) that survived countless wars and were used in the interests of the United Kingdom during the XX century. However, in 1961, India forcefully annexed the Portuguese colonies of Goa, Daman, and Diu. At the time, the United Kingdom declared that entering into a war with India over this was “out of the question.”     

Real actions prevail over the letter of contracts. Sweden is not a member of NATO, but, from the point of view of practical military planning, it should be treated as such. And it has been since the days of the Cold War. As proof of this, we can point to the nature of joint exercises and exchanges of military delegations; intelligence cooperation; military-technical policies; and Sweden’s participation in NATO missions abroad.     

Russia and China already have a document in place that, in extremely vague terms, describes possible military cooperation in the event of a threat to the security of one of the parties.

We are talking about the 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Article 9 of the treaty reads as follows:  

“When a situation arises in which one of the contracting parties deems that peace is being threatened and undermined or its security interests are involved or when it is confronted with the threat of aggression, the contracting parties shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to eliminate such threats.”

Thus, even now, in the event of a military threat to one of the parties, Russia and China must, under the treaty, initiate contact with each other in order to discuss possible joint actions to eliminate the threat. The use of military force is not specifically mentioned, but it is not excluded either. In essence, such obligations do not look any weaker in principle that the norms of the NATO Charter — if we consider the two documents out of context, that is.

The context of the 2001 treaty was fundamentally different. At the time, Russia was in deep crisis as a military power, and it was unclear whether or not the country would be able to maintain any significant aspects of the military potential it had inherited from the Soviet Union. China was taking the first steps towards restoring its own military power. Both countries were relatively weak economically and pursued a policy of integration into the U.S.-led liberal world order. Military cooperation was in its infancy and was primarily intended as a means of insurance against any obvious military aggression on the part of the United States – a scenario that seemed almost impossible back then.  

Given these circumstances, it stands to reason that the terms of the treaty should not be taken too seriously.

Fast forward to today, and the two countries have become stronger both economically and militarily. Both Russia and China are locked in a systemic conflict with the United States, one that penetrates all aspects of bilateral relations and is unlikely to be speedily resolved any time soon. Russia and China have been conducting joint military exercises for almost 15 years now, systematically increasing the interoperability of their troops.

These exercises gradually cover new areas of military activity. The general staffs and security councils of the two countries have established permanent contacts. Contacts at the highest levels between Russia and China are extremely close, and cooperation in all respects is generally consistent with what is to be expected between military allies.       

In combination with the existing 2001 agreement, one can conclude that the union certainly has its place. The soon-to-be-concluded new agreement on military cooperation, as well as a number of other steps, will all contribute to the formation and consolidation of this union.  

What would happen if the United States attacks China? For example, if the United States attacks Chinese forces that are attempting to resolve the issue reuniting Taiwan with the mainland? We cannot predict what would happen. A situation of strategic uncertainty arises, which at the planning stages of a possible U.S. operation against China would force the enemy (i.e. the United States) to prepare for a negative scenario (Russia’s entry into the war).

This raises the threshold of possible U.S. aggression significantly and requires additional forces and equipment to be allocated in order to carry out operations in the Pacific. This would lead to additional costs, which is a sensitive issue for a country living in debt with absolutely no prospects for easing that debt burden. At the same time, moving relations with China to a qualitatively new level in this manner would not require additional large expenses from Russia, as the country’s military planning is already based on the threat of a military conflict with the United States.     

Maintaining relations as a kind of “not fully formed union” has its benefits for both Russia and China. The partnership between the two countries is based on their attitude towards the United States and the world order it dominates. The issues with Russia’s attempts to integrate into this world order started to become apparent in 2007 (with Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech), and its failure became complete and obvious in 2014. For China, this moment came in June 2018, when the economic war with the United States began.   

Outside the framework of the confrontation with the United States and the Western world order, the positions of Russia and China may differ on a number of issues. Russia pursues an independent policy of simultaneously developing relations with all the countries in Asia, including India, Japan and Vietnam, regardless of these countries’ relations with China. Beijing similarly pursues a policy of active development with European countries, regardless of their relations with Russia. One example of this is the 16+1 format, where China is developing relations with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

The sides value their independence, while Russia, as a smaller economy, avoids taking out large loans from China and giving the latter control over strategically important Russian assets wherever possible.

Does this mean that the two sides cannot act together? Of course not. Neither NATO nor the defunct Warsaw Pact are or were full-fledged alliances of great powers. They were hierarchically built groupings of superpowers and their vassals and half-vassals united only by a common ideology of varying degrees of rigidity.

Old alliances were, in fact, built around common goals (a common enemy) for a specific period of time. And they did not rule out the possibility that the members may have differing positions on secondary policy areas. Take the 1898 Fashoda Incident between Britain and France (who were allies in the First World War) during the Scramble for Africa, for example, which almost led to war. Immediately after the end of the First World War, Great Britain and France entered into a fierce political struggle over the redivision of the Middle East that culminated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

This is a typical model of relations between major powers, one that has always existed. The relations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries were a deviation from this, due to the ideological nature of the conflict between the two sides. Such minor contradictions do not rule out the possibility of an unremitting joint struggle in the name of a common goal. As such, a qualitative shift has taken place in Russia–China military and political relations in 2018–2019. The final format of these allied relations may be formalized in the future, or it may never happen at all. Either way, little will change.

From our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, Senior Research Fellow at the Center of Strategic Problems of Northeast Asia, SCO and BRICS, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, RAS, RIAC expert

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Escalating to De-Escalate: From Balakot to Ain al-Asad

M Waqas Jan

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With tensions between the United States and Iran dramatically escalating just days into the new year, the risks of a new and even more damaging war erupting in the Middle East have once again reached worrying levels. This was sparked by the brazen US drone strike which targeted General Qassem Soliemani – the commanding General of Iran’s Elite Quds forces- just outside Baghdad airport earlier this month. As a result, US-Iran tensions had seemingly skyrocketed overnight in what senior Iranian officials termed as an act of war against their country by the US. These fears were further realized by the Iranian response, which comprised of a late-night fusillade of ballistic missiles launched at two US military bases in Iraq just three days later.

However, with no casualties reported as a result of the Iranian missile strikes and President Trump’s de-escalatory statement following the Iranian response, those same tensions seem to have subsided over the last two weeks at least for the time being. This de-escalation has largely been ascribed to the fact that Iran had deliberately chosen to avoid US casualties by choosing to balance an overt display of its intent and resolve, against its unwillingness to engage further in a protracted and costly conflict with the US.  The argument follows that hence, while on the one hand widespread public sentiment and anger in Iran had demanded a punitive response in the form of clear retaliation against the US, the proportionality of such a response had required careful calibration with regards to its potential for further escalation.Thus, representing one of the most recent examples of how the importance of optics and crafting a domestic narrative remain key within the battle for escalation dominance in this century’s limited wars.

This emphasis on optics and narrative was also evident last year in the South Asian context, where following the Pulwama incident, both India and Pakistan had engaged in a dangerous yet limited exchange to gain escalation dominance over one another. For instance, the Indian cross-border air strikes at Balakot had also been domestically framed as being a punitive response to an attack which – like the strike against General Suleimani – had resulted in an unacceptable loss of military personnel. Hence, the retaliatory airstrikes which targeted a suspected militant haven inside Pakistan were also accompanied by growing national outrage and calls for revenge from India that was further amplified by its domestic media. 

However, just like Iran’s retaliatory strikes against US bases in Iraq, the Indian strikes at Balakot did not result in any casualties despite official claims to the contrary. This was evident in the considerable extent to which the Indian media then and Iranian media earlier this month, had bragged of scores of enemy causalities including damage to key infrastructure. Hence, constructing palatable narratives that remained acceptable enough for domestic consumption while also helping quell the same national outrage these governments had themselves helped amplify. Consequently, questions following the Balakot strikes that were then raised by Pakistan over whether the absence of casualties was intentional or purely accidental stand as similar to the ones being debated currently within the US with regards to Iran. These further boil down to questions over whether it was a lack of capability or instead a deliberate display of precision and intent by these strikes’ perpetrators.

In order to assess this, it is important to note that while both the Indian and Irani strikes bear some similarities in terms of the preceding context within which they were conducted, their differing scopes and execution plans led to two very different outcomes. For one Iran launched over a dozen ballistic missiles targeting key locations and structures at US military bases, which drawing on the recent damage assessment reports appear to have been deliberately chosen as targets.  While there were a couple of missiles that seemed to have fallen off target and remained unexploded, the vast majority seemed to have hit specific structures according to satellite photographs. In comparison, the air strikes launched by the Indian Air force while representing a clear show of intent, instead failed to offer a credible display of their strike capabilities. Specifically, if the objective was to display the reach and precision of their strike abilities in the form of a forced near miss, the ambiguity surrounding their choice of targets seems to have spectacularly back-fired, if that in fact was the objective. Even worse, if it was simply an accidental miss, then instead of communicating military prowess, the strike simply presented a display of sheer ineptitude in which the battle for escalation dominance was already lost, no matter the media spin.

This for instance is further evident in the different responses generated by both the Indian and Iranian strikes. Whereas the US has chosen quite visibly and publicly to not escalate the situation any further; Pakistan last year felt compelled to not only respond in kind, but to reassert its ability to conventionally deter any provocative incursions into its air-space. Following Pakistan’s own display of a forced near miss via air launched stand-off weapons, the highly publicized downing of an Indian fighter jet, and the unconditional release of its captured pilot; eventually presented a very real and irrefutable advantage in terms of escalation dominance

It is important to understand here that while the above incidents may offer a tantalizing vindication of the very concept of escalation dominance, expected outcomes only appear as clear cut in hindsight. Especially considering the inherent temptation of favoring escalation itself as a means of de-escalation, there exist a whole of host of uncertain variables that not only amplify the inherent risks, but may dramatically alter the situation for the worse. In the recent standoff between the US and Iran, the US drawing on its already established military supremacy did not have todisplay any capability to Iran or anyone else, hence making to de-escalate a lot easier. Especially after already having achieved its objective of taking out General Soleimani. In contrast and as evident in the events following Balakot, Pakistan being on the receiving end of a much larger and better funded adversary would be in any similar situation hard-pressed not to escalate and restore deterrence. This holds a highly dangerous truth considering that the escalation ladder in South Asia is essentially built around the threat of nuclear war. Even more so with competing and vague indications of where the nuclear option lies on said ladder, this alone should technically deter any misplaced sense of adventurism if simple common sense is to prevail in the region. Yet as both incidents have shown, nothing with regard to limited war remains predictable in today’s day age.

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Trump is sending NATO east – the Middle East

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The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliatory strike against US bases in Iraq brought the situation in the region to a head with President Donald Trump initially urging NATO to participate more actively in Mideast affairs and later proposing to expand NATO’s membership to include Middle Eastern nations, albeit without specifying any concrete candidates.

“I think that NATO should be expanded, and we should include the Middle East. Absolutely,” Trump told reporters, adding that “contending that North Atlantic military alliance should take over for the US in the region “because this is an international problem.”

The White House owner even proposed a new name: NATO-ME (from Middle East).

All this is taking place amid Washington’s rising tensions with Iraq, which “allowed itself” to be outraged by the US drone attack on the Baghdad airport. As to Washington, it has long stopped looking at Iraq as an independent actor, ever since it ousted Saddam Hussein destroying the fragile balance of power in the region and effectively making Iran a regional superpower. And all this time, Iraq has been desperately trying to maintain its territorial integrity. Whether it will eventually succeed in doing this is a big question though.

So, the US drone attack on the Baghdad airport and Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes against bases in Iraq housing US troops, “sparing” as they were, resulted in the Iraqi parliament’s demand to withdraw all foreign troops currently stationed in the country. Donald Trump saw this as a sign of “disrespect” for the United States (as if ordering a missile strike on a foreign country’s airport is a show of respect) and is poised to slap Baghdad with tough sanctions. In addition, due to his predilection for measuring everything with money, Trump added that the US forces would not leave Iraq until Baghdad fully repaid the cost of the air base built there by the United States.

As for Trump’s idea (NATO-ME), we have already seen something similar happening before. In 2008, there was much talk going on about creating, under US auspices of course, a new bloc of eight regional states, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan – the so-called Middle East Strategic Alliance, MESA, or “Arab NATO.” Conceived by Washington, the alliance was to create a common front against terrorism, including Iran, which the US views as the main sponsor of terrorism. The idea fell through though, as Qatar has business, almost allied, relations with Iran; Oman actively cooperates with Tehran; Kuwait, mindful of its Gulf neighbors’ onetime failure to help it against the Iraqi aggression, chose to stay out of it. Egypt likewise refused to join in.

Almost two years on, these eight countries’ position remains pretty much the same. Moreover, NATO itself is going through hard times: some of its members continue to honor the provisions of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran; in Syria, Americans, British, French, and other allies act as part of a coalition that exists outside NATO’s fold; Emmanuel Macron talks about the “brain death of NATO,” and that’s not to mention Turkey. As for the European Union, it is now suffering from a kind of foreign policy impotence and is showing little interest in NATO affairs.

Even though Donald Trump said that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was “delighted” with the prospect of the bloc’s expansion to the Middle East, NATO’s leading European members do not seem too eager to “get into” this region. First, because “getting out” of there won’t be easy, and secondly, because they are eager to keep doing business with Iran. It looks like NATO neophytes from Eastern Europe will be the only ones to once again respond to Washington’s call to show how true they are to the values of the “free world,” and, of course, to Washington. This leaves Britain the only NATO “oldie” the US can count on.

At the January 6 meeting of the NATO Council, the participants urged the US and Iran to show maximum “restraint” and reduce bilateral tensions. Jens Stoltenberg said that nobody needs a new conflict, apparently because he knows that no effective military assistance from the Arab countries will be forthcoming. Indeed, the Saudi-led Peninsular Shield Force, created in 1984 as a military arm of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), proved unable to repel the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In Yemen, the Sunni coalition is equally unable to defeat the Shiite rebels. The results of the Arab-Israeli wars also speak for themselves. All this meaning that if necessary, it is the Europeans who will have to fight. But the Arab sheikhs have the money.

In a nutshell, Trump’s idea is to have European soldiers do all the fighting in the Middle East, and finance the military operations with Arab money (Trump never tires of complaining about NATO allies not contributing enough to the Alliance’s funding, and apparently doesn’t expect them to pay more).

“And we can come home, or largely come home and use NATO … now the burden is on us, and that has not been fair,” Trump said.

Just like that – simple and clear. Besides, this is exactly what the “average” American, who will go to the polls this fall to choose the country’s next president, wants to hear.

From our partner International Affairs

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Challenges to Eurasian Security in the Coming Decade

Alexander Yermakov

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Confrontation between Russia and the USA/NATO

There is no reason to believe that the worsening relations between Russia and the West, a process that began six years ago following the Ukrainian crisis, will be rectified in the near future. The current conflict is largely due to the fact that, since Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, Russia has become the bogeyman of the US domestic political agenda and is believed by the president’s opponents to be a partial factor in his election. Irrespective of who wins the 2020 US presidential election, the new president will continue to feel the inertial anti-Russian pressure from the establishment and the media. The most we can hope for is a cessation of further confrontation and any actual improvement in bilateral relations should not be expected until the mid-2020s.

The US position influences that of European countries, which have been so far mainly following in the footsteps of Washington’s policy, despite individual initiatives to improve relations with Russia (for example, by French President Emanuel Macron). In terms of security, this trend is manifested in European remilitarization, for the first time since the end of the Cold War. What is particularly inconvenient for Russia is that this process involves a return to Europe by US troops, which had all but left the continent by the mid-2010s. This time, US forces are being deployed not in Western Europe but right on the border with Russia, in the Baltics and Poland, the new NATO members that need protection from Moscow’s “revanchist aspirations”. These developments naturally find strong support among local politicians that have been exploiting anti-Russian rhetoric for decades.

It would be fair to say that Moscow’s worst fears about the consequences of NATO’s eastward expansion have materialized and that the previous agreements, including the promise enshrined in the NATO-Russia Founding Act that the Alliance would not deploy significant forces on the territories of new member states, are turning into a farce. Even though US troops are rotated seamlessly, without any intervals, Washington explains this away as temporary deployment of individual units, implying no violation of the standing agreements. This effective long-term deployment allows the US military to explore the hypothetical war theatre and conduct joint exercises with allies; long-term depots are being set up for weaponry and military equipment that would only require personnel for combat deployment.

Fortunately, despite all the belligerent rhetoric, it is difficult to imagine, even in the distant future, an intentional military confrontation that would be consciously approved by the two countries’ leaders: the price of the conflict escalating would be too high. Yet, in a crisis, the high level of militarization in the contact zones between the two blocs, especially involving a large number of actors representing other countries, could result in accidental skirmishes fraught with severe consequences.

Regular meetings between Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (who doubles as the commander of the US European Command) serve as very positive signals. These events are rarely covered by the general media and the topics discussed are not publicized, but both sides regularly emphasize the importance of this dialogue. It would be no exaggeration to say that the two officers are perhaps the most senior representatives of the Russian and US military-political leadership who meet in person and on a regular basis. It appears extremely important not only to preserve this channel of communication (in fact, it would probably be best for such contacts to be as low-profile as possible, pointedly professional and distanced from politics) but also to develop its potential to include a dialogue between military experts at the regional level or a permanent hotline for resolving potential conflict situations in the Baltic region. Similarly, conducive to resolving crises would be the preservation of the Treaty on Open Skies and other transparency measures (observer missions during exercises and mutual notifications about planned drills and missile launches).

Belarus as an island of stability

Belarus has long remained an island of stability and security on the post-Soviet territory. It happily avoided the numerous nationalist and separatist conflicts that erupted following the USSR’s collapse. In fact, Belarus strives to pose as an honest broker in regional conflicts: the Minsk format and the Minsk agreements have become world-class brands (Minsk is not to blame for the hiccoughs in implementing them). It would be highly desirable for this state of affairs to continue into the next decade.

Yet one cannot be entirely certain that this will, indeed, happen. The Russian-US confrontation is stimulating Washington’s interest in the situation in Belarus and reducing Moscow’s tolerance for Minsk’s multi-vector foreign policy. The upcoming changes in the country are also a factor adding unpredictability: the political reforms currently being discussed imply a greater role for parliament and political parties.

With these processes afoot, it is not surprising that the US Congress holds conferences on how best to educate Belarusian youth, who are supposed, in the future, to choose Western values, and how to indoctrinate them with detailed talks about the threat Russia poses to their country’s sovereignty. Equally unsurprisingly, authoritative analytical centres, such as the RAND Corporation, publish reports on the possibility of providing international security guarantees to Belarus, which, following a hypothetical regime change, is expected to leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and thus face the threat of Russian intervention.

The only hope that Belarus will not become the next battlefield for internal and external actors stems from the fact that, at least in this sense, the country has successfully survived the previous several decades. It is, however, evident that Russia will perceive the potential threats associated with Belarus very painfully and certain forces might attempt to take advantage of this.

Moldova and Transnistria: continuing freeze

Transnistria can be described as a textbook post-Soviet example of a frozen, unresolved conflict. The territory is entering the new decade with its status still unrecognized, which complicates economic and social development; it is in a diplomatic dispute with Moldova over the presence of a small Russian peacekeeping force on its soil and its relations with Ukraine have worsened owing to the latter’s contradictions with Russia.

Unlike the other long-standing conflicts, however, the probability of the Transnistria situation escalating into an open confrontation remains extremely small. On the contrary, Moldovan President Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party, which concentrated power in its hands after the grey cardinal Vladimir Plahotniuc was overthrown, intends to resolve the Transnistrian problem by reintegrating the territory as an autonomous region within the federal state.

This scenario is supported by Russia and might be of interest to the EU, on which Moldova depends economically. On the other hand, it has many opponents, including unionists, who support unification with Romania. Given that Romania is actively developing its military might and gradually becoming a key NATO member in the south of the Alliance’s “eastern flank”, the prospects of that country integrating Moldova are worrying Moscow.

So far, the unionists’ chances of making Moldova part of Romania appear even less realistic than the prospects of the Transnistrian conflict being resolved through federalization of Moldova. Yet the confrontation might aggravate the situation, if not to the level of the tragic 1992 events.

Ukraine: a tangle of contradictions

Ukraine is likely to remain the key area of conflict in the post-Soviet space in the coming decade owing to the huge associated tangle of contradictions, including the political confrontation between Russia and the USA, the economic standoff between the EU and the EAEU, unresolved Soviet-era issues and even more ancient ideological constructs.

The key security challenges for Russia concerning Ukraine will be posed by the need to secure freezing the conflict in the east of that country, provide for Crimea’s security, facilitate reliable navigation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, maintain control over the Kerch Strait, and prevent deployment of NATO troops in Ukraine. Even in the best-case scenario (which we may be observing at the moment, because the situation could certainly be much worse), these issues cannot be entirely resolved in the foreseeable future; they will continue to demand Russia’s attention and resources.

Georgia on the periphery of focus

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, partially recognized Transcaucasian territories, are somewhat in between Donbass and Transnistria in terms of the situation there. On the one hand, the likelihood of direct military conflict over those territories is extremely small thanks to the presence of Russian troops. On the other hand, their status still poses a problem. Considering the way the status issue was exploited during the Russian-Georgian political confrontation in the summer of 2019, one would have thought that the August 2008 war had taken place merely a few months previously, and the information that Russia had “occupied 20% of Georgian territory” was being presented as fresh and shocking news.

It is possible that, in the coming decade, as internal problems in Georgia intensify or if the international situation takes a favourable turn, the Georgian authorities and media (not necessarily those currently in power: Georgia is known for its frequent changes of power with subsequent reprisals of predecessors) will once again exploit the “Russian aggression” narrative.

The USA will continue to view Georgia as part of the notional defensive perimeter, and joint military exercises will be held there regularly. In reality, however, Georgia, which is separated from the closest NATO member nations by the Black Sea, will remain on the periphery of the focus. One good example here is Exercise DEFENDER Europe 20, planned for the spring of 2020, which will practice new, more Cold War-like scenarios involving the defence of NATO’s eastern flank. Georgia, although formally a participant in the drill of nearly 40,000 NATO troops mainly deployed in Poland and the Baltic states, will only be involved in airdropping a small multinational force.

Armenia and Azerbaijan: a powder keg

Another hotspot in Transcaucasia is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Unlike other territorial disputes that sprouted up as the Soviet Union was collapsing, this one cannot possibly be frozen: clashes between special forces and exchanges of fire between border guards on the frontier between the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and Azerbaijan take place several times a year. The April 2016 major aggravation, known as the four-day war, resulted in heavy losses (without delving into the parties’ diametrically opposed accounts of the losses incurred by themselves and the adversary, it can be stated with certainty that there were more than 100 fatalities) and the border getting reshaped to the benefit of Azerbaijan.

The parties to this conflict continue to militarize actively. Moreover, owing to the serious differences in economic potentials, Azerbaijan’s capabilities are much greater: the country is procuring significant quantities of advanced UAVs, armoured vehicles, multiple-launch rocket systems and even theatre missiles. Azerbaijan mainly buys its weaponry and military equipment from Israel, Turkey, Belarus and Russia. Armenia often criticizes Russia and Belarus for their active military cooperation with Azerbaijan, presenting it as nothing short of betrayal on the part of fellow CSTO members. There is, however, no doubt that Azerbaijan would find alternative ways to acquire such weapons and friendly relations with Russia are among the key factors in containing the conflict.

The same applies to the presence of a Russian military base in Armenia and deliveries of Russia-made weapons to that country at internal Russian prices and with use of preferential loans. In particular, Armenia has taken delivery of Russian Iskander missile systems (obviously to balance the procurement by Azerbaijan of Israeli site defence missile systems, which could prove effective against the Armenian Scuds) and will soon receive a small batch of Su-30SM fighters, which, given the specifics of the local theatre of operations, cannot be described as anything but a status purchase.

The domestic political agenda in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, their irreconcilable positions, regular clashes and the militarization of the parties to the conflict leave no hope of any speedy settlement. An optimistic scenario, and Russia’s objective, would be to maintain a balance and good relations with both parties and make sure that no significant conflicts break out in the coming decade.

Central Asia: Region X

Central Asia does not attract as much media attention as Ukraine or the Baltic states, which is a fundamental mistake. Russia’s “soft underbelly” may well become a source of bad news in the coming decade.

The future of Afghanistan presents the greatest challenge in the region. US troops will leave the country sooner or later, whether commanded out by President Trump or his successor. The USA is already too tired of this war, which will inevitably end with the Taliban staying and Washington leaving. The conflict continues exclusively for the sake of bargaining over withdrawal terms that would help the Americans save face. The process will not necessarily have catastrophic consequences: the Taliban may yet integrate successfully into the existing Afghan state and, as the Americans would like it to, join the fight against groups loyal to the Islamic State (which is banned in Russia). Most likely, however, the civil war will continue between different groups.

This creates additional risks for the post-Soviet states. The Taliban may have so far stayed mostly within the borders of Afghanistan. Still, the same cannot be said of other radical Islamist groups, which might either step up their activity against the background of the chaos in the country or seek new areas of operation, should they be squeezed out of Afghanistan. Central Asian countries, which cannot boast consistent stability, might become their new targets.

This instability, which stems from internal economic and religious problems, the difficult transition of power and generational change within the local elites, could, in and of itself, foster civil and even inter-state wars. For this reason, Central Asia, where outbreaks of violence are virtually inevitable, will become the main field of activity, perhaps even a battlefield, for the CSTO.

From our partner RIAC

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