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The Intellectual Vector: Where Russian Interventionism Is Imperative

Dayan Jayatilleka

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In an interesting contribution to a valuable volume, Prof T.V. Bordachev of the HSE Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies makes a superbly insightful point: “Russia in Asia should play the role that France played in Europe at the dawn of European integration— the main intellectual engine of the new format of relations between the states [1] .”

In a period characterized by hysteria over alleged Russian intervention in everything from conflicts to elections, I would like to point out a deficit or indeed absence of such intervention in a vector it should, could and indeed must intervene: the intellectual vector. Just as the USA and France, Russia has been a seedbed of ideas and concepts during the period of Modernity, and still is, but with a difference. Unlike France and the USA, it has seemingly abandoned the vocation of the globalization of its ideas and concepts; of its very perspective.

In this brief note, I wish to spotlight a few thematic areas in which a Russian intellectual intervention is imperative and feasible. These are the Cold war and the clash of contending world orders in the 21st century, the phenomenon and problems of globalization and the Greater Eurasia concept/project.

The Battle of (Big) Ideas

While a vast number of books on the end and the history of the Cold War have been published in the West, with widely diverse perspectives; of the Cold War seen teleologically, from the standpoint of how it ended, there isn’t a single major, recognized Russian work, even an anthology, in English—which for better or worse, is a quasi-universal language—on the same theme and topic. Thus, teleological western perspectives of contemporary history dominate if not monopolize, by default.

The same is true of perspectives of the post-Cold war world. The ‘big ideas’ framing the future of the post-Cold war world came from the West, from Fukuyama and Huntington (and others with less impact, like Robert Kaplan). There is a dearth of ‘big ideas’ from Russia for and of the world, in the English language. Were there counters in Russia to Fukuyama and Huntington? Were there the counter-perspectives from Russia to neoliberalism and neoconservatism as paradigms or even as conceptual frameworks? Was there an ideology or doctrine from Russia that is a counter to both neoliberalism and neoconservatism? Did the Third Rome venture a Third Ideology, a Third Doctrine, not just for itself, but for and of the world—not only Russian versions/variants of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, of either Fukuyama or Huntington? There cannot be a third space in ideas globally without such a Russian intervention in ideology and political thought.

 (If I may strike a personal note, I have ventured an alternative narrative and explanatory framework from the global South. The Fall of Global Socialism—A Counter-Narrative from the South | D. Jayatilleka | Palgrave Macmillan).

Eurasia, Greater Eurasia

In the aftermath of the important recent conference “5 years of the ‘Greater Eurasia’ concept : issues and accomplishments” held at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, and the question that was posed at the conference “What is to be done?”, I suggest that one of the intellectual tasks is to create a Eurasian/Greater Eurasian intelligentsia and a Greater Eurasian Idea, which I might add is not coterminous with the ‘The idea of Greater Eurasia’.

In developing a Greater Eurasian Idea, the future work requires both institutional and intellectual thrusts. The institutional work simply means that in a situation in which there seem to be no academic institutions, be they universities, think tanks, or centers of Advanced Studies, dedicated explicitly and specifically to Greater Eurasia or at least Eurasia itself, these should be created. A network of such institutions will be the material basis or substructure of the creation of a greater Eurasian intelligentsia.

But still more important is the Greater Eurasia Idea, which goes beyond the idea of Greater Eurasia, and develops an idea of a greater Eurasian perspective and world outlook. One of the most important means of a Greater Eurasian idea is that of excavation. By this I mean an exploration and auditing of the ideas of thinkers (including political leaders) past and present, of and from Greater Eurasia, about the existing world order and a more desirable world order. I refer not only to the ancient wisdom from this area, but much more importantly, the thinking from the period of Modernity, encompassing personalities such as Sun Yat-sen (China), Rabindranath Tagore, MN Roy (India), Renato Constantino (Philippines) and Soedjatmoko (Indonesia).

Such an audit can take the form of a multivolume anthology of writings and speeches, but would need to be extended to tracing the alternative models of a world order that was suggested by thinkers from Greater Eurasia, resulting in a conceptual reconstitution or ‘holographic projection’ of such an alternative world order.

The crucial questions concerning Eurasia and Greater Eurasia are those of architecture and organization. At the heart of such questions is that of the all-important ‘Primakovian’ triangle the RIC, i.e. Russia, India, China, which Lenin in his last published writing of March 1923, said would determine the direction of the world’s destiny. What are the structural relations that are possible in the ensemble R-I-C? Should or should not other powers be included in it? Should the architecture of Eurasia and Greater Eurasia be one of concentric circles and what criteria would determine which circle which power is in—or would that change situationally?

The history of the Russian Revolution of 1917 demonstrated the crucial strategic importance of organization exemplified by the two models or types: Menshevik and Bolshevik. The organizational or architectural question—though the two terms may not be identical—can also be used in the international arena. Decades after the Bolshevik-Menshevik split, the pith and substance of the Bolshevik organizational philosophy was summed up by Lenin in his later writings, with the phrase “Better Fewer, but Better”—meaning quality over quantity.

In today’s global context it will mean grappling with the problem that the Chinese Communists raised in the early 1960s, namely “friendly and fraternal”, which they posed as a choice “do you support the friendly or the fraternal states?” Thankfully in today’s context, such a zero-sum game is not necessary, but the question remains of priority and hierarchy. Should the relations ship between those states which face a military strategic, and in some cases, existential, threat from a common source, have a relationship of a qualitatively higher level than those who do not, however powerful and friendly the latter may be? Should a new global architecture or a new global policy privilege such relationships, especially in a context of real or attempted global encirclement of Eurasia?

The complex problem is made slightly easier when one recalls that the tighter and looser, qualitative and quantitative, Bolshevik and Menshevik organizational models were in fact merged in the 1930s formula of the Anti-Fascist Popular Front, which had a national and broader international version. Does the thinking of Stalin, Dimitrov, Gramsci and Togliatti have an international relevance and applicability today in the face of a project of global encirclement, grand strategic offensive to preserve unipolarity and wage globalized hybrid war? What would a global united front or bloc against unipolarity, war and intervention look like in the current context?

State, the Nationalities Question and Terrorism

The theoretical, strategic and policy questions that await a perspective by Russian and Eurasian thinkers are at least three:

How to reconcile the contradiction between state sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity on the one hand and the right of self-determination of nations and nationalities on the other. What are the limits of state sovereignty and of the right of nations to self-determination, respectively? Where does one stop and the other start?

How to reconcile the contradiction between the need for strong sovereign states, and forms of autonomy or regions and peoples? What are the non-federal forms of autonomy that can be designed for states in which federalization is strongly felt, for historical reasons, to be fissiparous?

What are the universal criteria by which legitimate struggles of resistance and for liberation can be distinguished from terrorism? Is it not possible for a global consensus reflected in a universal charter to be signed which unconditionally rejects the intentional targeting of unarmed civilians as a legitimate tactic of struggle, and registers this as the defining criteria of terrorism , irrespective of the causes involved, however legitimate, and while remaining agnostic of the issue of armed resistance/armed liberation struggles as such?

Globalization

As Marx made clear in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism was a globalized and globalizing system (which Immanuel Wallerstein was to call a ‘world system’). What then is new about ‘globalization’? “Globalization” refers to the collapse of an alternative and parallel socialist system, and the incorporation of Russia and China in the world economy, which is essentially capitalist in character; a capitalist world economy. The problem, indeed the root of the crisis today is not globalization per se, it is the specific form of globalization which can be summed up as neoliberal globalization at the economic level and unipolar globalization at the geopolitical and geostrategic level. That is what I call asymmetric globalization.

The contradictions arising from these two specific forms of globalization has resulted in a hydra-headed reaction which threatens globalization itself. Therefore, globalization has to change if it is to survive and resume its pace. The dangerously false choice of “globalization or no globalization”, “globalization or de-globalization”, should be reframed. Thus, the question should be, what kind of globalization and who benefits from it? The search must be to define a model that is not an alternative TO globalization but an alternative model OF globalization. My own view is that the real choice must be framed as ‘neoliberal and unipolar globalization or Alt-globalization?’ as I call it, or ‘Asymmetric Globalization, Anti-Globalization or Alt-Globalization?’

Multipolarity

There are two conceptual problems which have to be cleared up regarding multipolarity. The first is the increasing tendency to either conflate multipolarity and multilateralism and or to surrender the project of multipolarity and settle for multilateralism. The second problem is the question of how to arrive in a multipolar world. As for the first problem, it should be clear that a multipolar and multilateral world order is the desirable goal, but that these two aspects are separable and the multipolar aspect is more important than the multilateral one. In the post-Cold War period, the western liberals used multilateralism in service of the unipolar project, while the neoconservatives did so only exceptionally or hardly at all, but the essence was the same: a unipolar hegemonistic policy. Multilateralism is an institutional pathway which is preferable to unilateralism, but the central issue is not the institutional aspect of the world order, but the politico-military aspect of the world order; the aspect of power. The (Leninist) question is “which will prevail?” The unipolar project or the multipolar project will prevail?

The second problem area concerning multipolarity is that of the transition. How will we get from here to there? From the unipolar project to a multipolar world order? As in the old question of the transition from capitalism to socialism, there are the mechanistic and evolutionary interpretations; the ones that say that the transition will take place inevitably and inexorably, as a result of the working out of the process of historical change; indeed, as an evolution. A Realist interpretation would hold however, that the transition will involve a protracted struggle along all vectors, taking place over an entire historical period, and which will involve a tipping of the scales in favour of Greater Eurasia with Eurasia as its core.

The West

The conventional attitude to the West in the world as a whole is either that it remains the fount of all enlightened norms and values or that it is in irretrievable decline and decay, incapable of yielding anything of value. There is, however, a third possibility, namely that the West is in deep crisis and from within that crisis a surprising new development may arise which Eurasia and Greater Eurasia may do well to regard with objectivity and open-mindedness. The great surprise arising from the West is that in the USA, recent polls show that 50% of millennials regard ‘socialism’ as positive, and that the mainstream US Democratic party has shifted to the Left. Similarly, in the UK, the mainstream opposition Labour Party is led by a leftwing anti-interventionist personality. Is this potential or latent transformation in and of the West, an essential component in the transition to a truly multipolar world?

Russia’s intellectual intervention in these and other areas of contemporary concern is imperative and needs to be globalized, in order for Russia to fulfil the role of the ‘intellectual engine of the new format of relations between the states’ (Bordachev, 2019).

These are the purely personal views of the author.

From our partner RIAC

[1] ‘What Russia can give to Asia?’, Russia in the Forming Greater Eurasia, Problems of Geography, Volume 148, eds. VM Kotlyakov, VA Shuper, Moscow Kodeks Publishing House 2019, p. 71

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Navalny, Nord Stream 2 and Moscow’s Response

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forgiving Old Debts: Russia’s Diplomatic Maneuver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emil Avdaliani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published in besacenter.org

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