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Is Putinism Here to Stay?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin raised more than a few eyebrows when –in the context of the early January 2020 edition of his state of the nation address– he announced his intention to implement constitutional reforms that would reshuffle the Russian political system. This move was even more intriguing considering the resignation of the entire Cabinet, including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (a figure that, until not long ago, was seen by many as Putin’s potential successor). Consequently, even traditional ‘Kremlinologists’ are somewhat baffled and there has been a lot of speculation concerning the ultimate interests that motivate such agenda, but a careful analysis reveals that –in the grand scheme of things– Putin’s fateful announcement makes sense when seen from a strategic perspective of political realism.

Understanding the Importance of Putin’s Singular Profile

As an analytical methodology, geopolitics usually prioritises the behaviour of impersonal forces when it comes to grasping the realities of both international relations and domestic politics. In other words, it assumes that the margin of action for human agency is limited. However, skilful statesmen –a historical occurrence that is rather rare– can be able to turn the tables and challenge conventional paradigms in order to advance their respective countries’ national interests. Based on his record, it can be argued that Vladimir Putin is one of those figures whose leadership has managed to make a meaningful difference.

It is pertinent to underline that Putin’s worldview was undoubtedly shaped by his professional background as a KGB officer. Despite its legendary ruthlessness both at home and abroad, as the main intelligence agency of one of the two superpowers during the Cold War, the KGB –i.e. the Committee for State Security– was arguably one of the most knowledgeable and pragmatic branches of the Soviet government concerning worldly affairs and how to handle them. Regardless of the pervasive influence of communist propaganda in most sectors of Soviet society, the Committee developed a dispassionate and sharp mind-set, one that was not strongly contaminated by heavy ideological indoctrination. Thus, a clever KGB foreign intelligence officer could have a better sense of situational awareness and strategic clarity than the average Politburo apparatchiks. 

Furthermore, Putin spent some time as a foreign intelligence officer in East Germany, an experience that allowed him to fathom the multidimensional complexity of the Cold War, Moscow’s top national security imperatives in Central Europe, the far-reaching might of the United States, the essential rationale of nuclear deterrence and the heterogeneous nature of the Western alliance, as well as the substantial degree of economic and technological development reached by several capitalist societies. Likewise, the fact that he hails from Saint Petersburg –Russia’s most westernised metropolis–  is also telling. 

Such circumstances strengthened Putin’s strategic thinking abilities, an asset whose practical value is more than useful in countless fields which require formidable analytical skills, including running a country. That is precisely what Putin was taking about when he famously stated that ‘there is no such thing as a former KGB man’. One must bear in mind that, above all else, the point of intelligence activities is to provide valuable input for the decision-making process. Interestingly, with the notable exceptions of characters like Henry Kissinger (once US National Security Advisor) and George H. W. Bush (once CIA Director), few Western leaders have shared a similar background.

When then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was about to become President of the Russian Federation 20 years ago, he half-jokingly told some colleagues that ‘a group of FSB operatives, dispatched undercover to work in the government of the Russian Federation, is successfully fulfilling its task’. In hindsight, it looks like perhaps that was a statement of fact rather than a joke.

Putin’s Legacy

Based on his idea that ‘the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20thcentury’, Putin’s opponents claim that he is some sort of neo-Soviet dictator. However, such criticism is flawed. Although Putin’s actions speak volumes about his rejection of Western-style liberal democracy as the model that Russia needs to follow, he does not intend to revive communism or to recreate the Soviet Union. As a pragmatic nationalist, what he laments is the steep degradation of Russian national power derived from the loss of its position as a super-power.

In the minds of average Russians, the 90s –the period were Russia tried to follow the political principles of liberal democracy and the axioms of free market economics– are not seen as times of prosperity, pride or hopefulness. Instead, those years are regarded as a tragic reflection of rampant corruption, increasing crime, acute economic stagnation, erratic political leadership, widespread poverty, social decay, unassertive foreign policies and constant national humiliation. As a result of this, Russia almost became a failed state. The rise of Vladimir Putin cannot be understood without the pressing need to solve such a crisis. After all, it is relevant to highlight that Caesarism flourishes precisely in times of trouble.

Hence, Putin intended to address such problems, identifying them as threats whose harmful impacts were jeopardising the very survival of Russia as a functional national state.  The most important achievement of Putin and his clan is that they successfully managed to alter the internal balance of power in order to reassert the uncontested control of the Russian state over actors like local oligarchs, regional strongmen, organised crime networks, the Russian Orthodox Church and foreign companies. The new rule was that their often questionable activities would now be tolerated only as long as they did not undermine vital Russian national interests.

Accordingly, centrifugal forces would no longer be tolerated. The implementation of this authoritarian approach entailed the concentration of a great deal of power. In this process, the instrumental role played by Putin’s clan (the so called ‘Siloviki’) was vital. Not surprisingly, such group includes veterans from Soviet intelligence agencies, security services and armed forces, many of whom have literally occupied the most critical nerve-centres of the Russian state. That means that many of the top cadres of the Russian ruling elite are individuals more or less similar to Vladimir Putin. 

To a certain degree and also thanks to the involvement of relatively young and highly educated technocrats, Putin’s administration managed to reactivate the most promising sectors of the Russian economy (aerospace, the manufacture of state-of-the-art weaponry and military hardware and the extraction of natural resources, mainly energy). The accumulation of gold as a geostrategic asset has also been pursued as a monetary policy priority. However, Russia is still over reliant on foreign investment and its economy is still not diversified enough to participate as a leading player in the innovative developments related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Also, the idea of turning Moscow into a world-class financial hub proved to be an illusion out of touch with reality. National power represents a multidimensional aggregate but, in order to achieve a sustainable position, a contemporary great power cannot rely on oil and gas exports as the cornerstone of its economic performance.

In contrast, Putin has demonstrated his acumen as a superb geopolitical player. His accomplishments in terms of foreign policy include the following:

-The development of comprehensive preparedness for enhancing Russia’s geopolitical presence in the Arctic, an interest that has implications for the control of raw materials, increased international business opportunities, the potential to revitalise Siberia and the chance to upgrade Russia’s military and maritime capabilities.

-The active participation of Moscow in multilateral frameworks like the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

-The projection of power through unconventional conduits like paramilitary private companies, psychological operations, memetic warfare, covert action, the manipulation of diplomatic intrigue, cyber espionage, amongst others.

-The profitable exploitation of foreign markets eager to purchase the items manufactured by the Russian military-industrial complex.

-The participation of Russian regular and irregular forces in complex battlefields like Eastern Ukraine, Syria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

-The restoration of Russia a great power whose interests cannot be overlooked and also as a powerbroker whose influence is felt in the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia and the Far East.

-The modernisation of Russian strategic weapons as a factor that reinforces the credibility of Russian foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the restoration of undisputed Russian hegemony in the former Soviet Union –the so called ‘near abroad’– still remains elusive. For instance, even the project to undertake Anschluss with Belarus is not advancing as expected. Furthermore, it is unclear if Moscow’s efforts to return Ukraine to Russia’s geopolitical orbit will be successful in the near future. Even though the Kremlin annexed the Crimean Peninsula a few years ago, direct or indirect control of Ukraine is crucial in terms of infrastructure, defence, demographic weight, agricultural productiveness and industrial output.

Another structural problem waiting to be solved is the country’s dramatic demographic decline. Despite a continuous modest improvement, the downward trend still needs to be reversed. Russia’s current fertility rate is still below replacement levels. This is a major challenge for a country whose population is mostly concentrated in a relatively small area (European Russia) of its huge territory. Without a substantial demographic volume, Russia’s critical mass will diminish in the long run in the economic, geopolitical, military and cultural realms. Thus, the eventual prospect of depopulation could compromise Russian national security.

In short, Putin started his first presidential term as a visionary reformer so, in order to carry out his ambitious plans, he accumulated a great deal of power. In this respect, his enlightened despotism is similar to that of other Russian rulers who wanted to transform and modernise the country, like Peter the Great. Hence, Putin’s levels of authoritarianism and hawkishness are relatively mild for Russian standards (the contrast is evident when comparisons with Ivan the Terrible or Stalin are made). Some progress has been made and the flame of national morale has been rekindled during the reign of President Putin and his clan, but there are problematic issues that will have to be dealt with if Russia truly wants to reassert itself as a relevant player on the global geopolitical chessboard. 

What to Expect

Putin’s recent announcement was rather vague and, consistently with the Kremlin’s traditional hermeticism, not many details have emerged yet. It is remarkable that the New Prime Minister, Mikhail Mishustin is (former head of the Federal Tax Service) a skilful technocrat but he does not belong to the Siloviki clan. Given his profile and background, it is not clear is he is being groomed as Putin’s handpicked successor or he is simply acting as a temporary manager.

Kremlinologists are discussing if Putin intends to retire by 2024 (when his current term ends) or if he somehow intends to retain power or at the very least a great deal of de facto control. Perhaps it is a false dilemma. Someone like Putin does not have to be President for life in order to operate as the ultimate mastermind behind the throne. Regardless of official titles, Putin can pull the strings from other positions.  After all, strategic thinking emphasises the importance of flexibility when it comes to securing a continuous advantage.

In this context, it is noteworthy that the role of both the State Council (a deliberative and executive decision-making body) and the Russian Parliament will be strengthened, particularly when it comes to matters related to defence, national security and foreign policies, fields Putin is more than familiar with. That means Putin is likely widening his political margin of action.

Furthermore, Putin is already 67 years old. If he remains indefinitely in power as President of the Russian Federation with no clear and legitimate succession process, then it is merely a matter of time before a succession crisis unleashes an ensuing power struggle that can undermine the continuity of his national project, undoing what has been achieved during the last two decades. In other words, Putinism–with or without Putin– needs to find an institutional way to survive if its vision is to prevail well into the 21st century. Otherwise, its prospects could be compromised in a foreseeable future. Therefore, the model –albeit still authoritarian– will have to de depersonalised.

Another consideration that deserves to be taken into account is that the implementation of a political reform buys more time to address complicated issues –which directly affect the lives of millions of ordinary Russian citizens– that might hypothetically galvanise popular discontent and maybe even unrest.

This measure will provide room to groom several potential successors but also to make the adjustments that will be necessary in order to guarantee the stability and functionality of the Russian regime as it navigates through unchartered waters. It is still too early to forecast what role Putin intends to play after 2024 but it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility that all options are on the table. The die has been cast and that is likely by design.

Concluding Thoughts

Like most political phenomena, Putinism is a product of its circumstances. Furthermore, its patterns are consistent with the Russian long-term geopolitical cycle. It arose in times of intense turmoil and it has managed to strengthen a national state whose vitality was declining as a result of multiple difficulties. Thus, the national power of the Russian state has been restored to a certain extent, but there are dire challenges waiting to be overcome and that fuels both uncertainty and anxiety. Hence, Putinism is preparing to face what is to come in the next few decades but, as usual, only time will tell if the project it advocates turns out to be successful. 

Russia

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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