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Rome, Byzantium and NATO: Grand Strategy of the West and Georgia

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Authors: Prof. Dr.Tedo Dundua and Dr. Emil Avdaliani

There are two ways to prove Georgia’s place within the NATO Alliance. First is the current argument urging for total Euro-Atlantic unity, next – historical one. Previous pan-European (Roman and Early Byzantine) military presence in Georgia can be applied to the present discussion. The article covers this issue.

Roman Period. Frankish Limitanei in Lazica

Before being totally destroyed, the Roman Imperial security system actually had shown three gradual phases of development.

A large number of the Italian colonists with the best technologies, swift and comfortable communications, the most prominent industrial output, Roman citizenship, municipal freedom – that was the Roman gift for the Western provinces in the 1st-2nd cc. A.D. Sincere intimacy with the metropolis had been founded as a direct result of complete satisfaction. It paved the way to the Romanization. As for the Greeks, the Romans reserved a quite life and economic stability. Still beyond the Roman Rhine, Danube and Pontus there were others favouring this concept of pan-European integration. The happy client kings used to be awarded with the Roman citizenship. And for the Julio-Claudians these client kingdoms formed the first defense-line of the Imperial territories. A little behind, the whole perimeter was dotted by solid legionary concentrations, proving the system to be impregnable. No cardinal changes took place in the era of the Antonines, except for annexation of the client kingdoms and breaking the big army concentrations in favour of scattering the legions along the whole frontier. In both cases, after defeating comparatively weak enemy at the border, the Romans usually attacked their territory. This system of security is called forward defense.

Greeks and the Romans were sending more and more working hands towards industry, but not to manufacture the means of production. As a result, population was growing, but not amount of industrial goods per capita. Prices rushed high for the Italian produce, demanding damping for provincial food and raw materials, thus weakening the sympathies between the European subjects of the Roman Empire. Some even started to search for a relief beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers. Many things happened that completely changed the defensive strategy, namely: 1. economic crisis; 2. weakening of the integratory links; 3. socio-economic animation of “Barbaricum”; 4. financial chaos and some professional regiments converted into limitanei. From now on they are to stand the first strike and evacuate the whole frontier folk into citadels, thus wearing down the enemy. And there were large and mobile field armies deployed far behind those self-contained strongholds to cut down any invasion into the depth. This system shaped in the times of Diocletian is called defense-in-depth.

But before this new system was finally established, the Romans had been fighting those already easily passing the border wherever they could manage to concentrate large army-units. In the early days of the Empire praetorians formed the only Imperial reserve. And now Gallienus recruited special mobile reserve-regiments. Name for this defensive system is elastic defense.

Security system had to be changed at least because of emergence of the Germanic seaborne attacks from the 3rd c. everywhere at the seas that prolonged the line of the frontier (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. From the First Century A.D. to the Third. Baltimore. 1981, pp. 192-193; T. Dundua, N. Silagadze. European Industrial Complexes of I Cycle of Capitalism and the Georgian Western Affiliations. Historical and Numismatic Tale. Tbilisi. 2005, pp. 5-7; T. Dundua. North and South. Tbilisi. 2001, pp. 8-15).

Full-time units, legions, alae of cavalry, cohortes of infantry and mixed cohortes equitatae served the forward defense-system. Part-time border force of limitanei had appeared and auxiliary alae and cohorts had disappeared; and regular mobile reserve – comitatenses – substituted legions, fixed at the border. All they served new security system – defense-in-depth. The whole 3rd c. saw these changes, finally shaped in the times of Constantine I. Septimius Severus was the first to form a certain kind of reserve. He stationed II Parthica in Albanum, increased praetorian and urban cohorts in number. And Gallienus created special cavalry units to serve as a reserve (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy, pp. 173, 184).

In the 3rd c. large federations of Franki and Alemanni began to threaten the Rhine-frontier. And the Goths had already reached Dniester by 238 (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy, pp. 128, 146). Franks attacked Gaul, Alemanns – Italy. From the great deeds of Emperor M. Aurelius Probus (276-282) the most important is the deliverance of seventy Gaulic cities. He drove back Franks and Alemanns, four hundred thousand of them being killed. Probus passed the Rhine, and returned back with considerable tribute of corn, cattle, and horses. Sixteen thousand Germanic recruits were dispersed among the Roman units. Other captive or fugitive barbarians gained a new status, that of part-time peasant-soldiers (limitanei). Emperor transported a considerable body of Vandals into Cambridgeshire, great number of Franks and Gepidae were settled on the banks of the Danube and the Rhine, Bastarnae – in Thrace. Pontic (The Black Sea) coast was reserved for some more Franks (Ed. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. London. 1993 (first published in 1776), pp. 362-368). But which one exactly? This is to be discussed.

According to Ed. Gibbon, Franks settled at the sea-coast of Pontus had to check the Alani inroads. A fleet stationed in one of the harbors of the Euxine fell into their hands, and they resolved, through unknown seas, to explore their way from the mouth of Phasis (river Rioni in West Georgia) to that of the Rhine. They easily escaped through the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, and cruising along the Mediterranean, indulged their appetite for revenge and plunder by frequent descents on the shores of Asia, Greece and Africa. City of Syracuse was sacked by the barbarians. Franks proceeded to the columns of Hercules, coasted round Spain and Gaul, and steering their course through the British channel, at length finished their voyage by landing in safety on the Batavian or Frisian shores (Ed. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall . . ., pp. 367-368).       

What is this whole story based on? Zosimus and one panegyric to Constantius Chlorus contributed to it.

Narrating about the events in the past, in the times of divine Probus, author of this panegyric mentions undeserved success of the small Frankish band, who, sailing from Pontus on the captured fleet, ravished Greece and Asia, damaged Africa, stormed Syracuse, and passing through the columns of the Hercules, reached the ocean (Recursabat quippe in animos illa sub diuo Probo paucorum ex Francis captiuorum incredibilis audacia et indigna felicitas, qui a Ponto usque correptis nauibus Graeciam Asiamque populati nec impune plerisque Libyae litoribus appulsi ipsas postremo naualibus quondam uictoriis nobiles ceperant Syracusas et immenso itinere peruecti oceanum, qua terras irrumpit, intrauerant atque ita euentu temeritatis ostenderant nihil esse clausum piraticae desperationi, quo nauigiis pateret accessus.) (Panegyricus Constantio Dictus, IV, XVIII. Panégyriques Latins. T. I (I-V). Texte Établi et Traduit par Édourd Galletier. Paris. 1949, pp. 96-97).

Zosimus tells us about the Franks having appealed to the Emperor, and having a country given to them. A part of them afterwards revolted, and having collected a great number of ships, disturbed all Greece; from whence they proceeded into Sicily, to Syracuse, which they attacked, and killed many people there. At length they arrived in Africa, whence though they were repulsed by a body of men from Carthage, yet they returned home without any great loss (Zosimus. New History. Book 1. London. 1814).

There is no mention of mouth of the river of Phasis as a spring-board for the expedition in the sources. Then, what was in Gibbon’s mind? Perhaps, logic, excluding the possibilities.

Indeed, the Northern Black Sea coast is beyond the Roman rule. The Western shores, and the Balkans are already packed with the barbarians. Southern littoral was less used for receptio, while Lazica (West Georgia) and Pontic Limes cannot be argued.And something strange had happened to this limes in the 3rd c.  Now threat comes not from the front, the Romans have Lazi client king dwelling there, but – from behind, because of the Goths living at the Northern shores.

We can only guess that the Franks were in Lazica as limitanei. But we really know nothing about how they were coordinating with the full-time units, their number before and after the revolt, what was the life like for those who stayed loyal.

Still, it seems quite reasonable that the bargain of receptio-system should have been distributed among all Roman provinces to keep the centre undisturbed from the barbaric influx. In the 3rd c. theEmpire is able to do this, not after.

Byzantines in Georgia

With the death of Theodosius, last Emperor of the united Roman world, in 395 A.D. the Empire was divided into two almost same-sized halves. The Western part, while defending itself throughout the 5th c. from various barbarian hordes (at the time, the Western part was defended by regiments consisting mainly of barbarians) coming from beyond the Rhine river, had an almost destroyed tax-paying system. This very factor did not allow the Imperial administration based in Ravenna to muster enough economic and military resources for effective defense of the Northern borders. Last Western Roman Emperors were mere puppets in the hands of barbarian warlords – the process which culminated in deposing the last Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476.

The Eastern part (Byzantium) with the capital in Constantinople, on the other hand, showed greater resilience in managing internal problems and external threats. Byzantium managed simultaneously to hold off the barbarians coming from the North and the Sassanians from the East. This was made possible by an efficient tax-paying system the Byzantines inherited from the Romans, which, in turn, made it possible to field large armies to defend the Imperial borders on several fronts and at the same time wage offensive wars (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Harvard. 2009, pp. 1-16. The most apparent case is the reign of Justinian when, while waging war on Vandals in North Africa and the Ostrogoths in Italy, Constantinople still had to defend its Eastern border from the Sassanians and the Danube river from the Slavs).

The Byzantines did not have such abundant resources as the Romans had during the first three centuries A.D. Moreover, the Eastern half was spread on three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – making the Imperial borders highly vulnerable to foreign powers. In other words, the geography put the Byzantine Empire at a huge disadvantage as the Danube river was a barrier easy to cross for the Goths, or in later centuries Huns, Slavs and Avars. In Africa, the desert frontier stretching for more than a thousand kilometers had no geographic barrier to rely on making rich Tripolitania and Byzacena and the South of Egypt exposed to attacks from the Berbers and other nomadic groups. The Eastern frontier too was highly vulnerable as the Arab groupings could easily reach Palestine and Syrian cities from the Syro-Mesopotamian desert. In the North Mesopotamia Byzantium faced its greatest rival, Sassanian Iran, and this portion too needed to be defended with the assemblage of large military power, whether through the field armies or military fortifications. Moreover, the Byzantines had little geographic depth along its entire Eastern frontier to fully employ the defense-in-depth strategy (e.g., in the Balkans Constantinople did enjoy large geographic depth necessaryfor the defense. This was apparent when the Huns under Attila and then the Avars in early 7th c. broke through the Danubian defenses and reached Constantinople. However, military regiments placed in various fortresses and the distance of several hundreds of kilometers (from the Danube to the capital) enabled the Emperor, whether it was Theodosius II or Heraclius, to thwart the barbarian onslaughts). The similar situation was in Africa. Since Asia Minor, Balkans, Egypt and Syria were the most prosperous lands in terms of population number and the level of urbanization, the functioning of the Empire was contingent upon the defense of these provinces. Overall, the Byzantines were at much worse geographic situation than their Western counterparts.

Thus, in order to survive in this difficult geopolitical situation and preserve the Empire from early 5th c. to the 7th c., the Byzantines had to develop a whole set of military strategies. In other words, the Byzantines were no less successful than the Flavians, Antonines and late 3rd c. Emperors. However, the Byzantines made numerous changes by adapting to new circumstances. Since Constantinople had less economic and human resources than the united Roman Empire, the Byzantines always tried to use less military power and employ more diplomacy and the propagation of the Christian religion (G. Fowden. Consequences of the Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Princeton. 1993, pp. 80-100) to safeguard Imperial borders.

The Byzantines inherited from the Romans military presence in Lazica and alliance with Kartli/Iberia (East and South Georgia). This military tradition goes back to the first two centuries A.D. and represents a forward-defense strategy. Byzantine garrisons, which existed in Lazica from the 5th c. till the Arab invasion of the Middle East in the 30s of the 7th c. (T. Dundua. Influx of Roman Coins in Georgia. Roman Coins Outside the Empire. Ways and Phases, Contexts and Functions. Proceedings of ESF/SCH Exploratory Workshop. Nieborow (Poland). 2005. Moneta. Wetteren. 2008, p. 313), did not change their location. However, the role of Lazica considerably increased as in late 4th c. the so-called  Völkerwanderung” or Migration period began. Since the new peoples such as Huns, Avars etc. lived in the Eurasian steppes, which bordered the Caucasian range and the Danube river, Constantinople had to face a two-front war from the North (from the Eastern and Western parts of the Black Sea). Therefore, the Byzantine garrisons in Lazica were transformed into forward posts for collecting information about new peoples coming from the steppes and, in case of need, establishing first diplomatic contacts too.

For example, when approximately in 557 the Avars reached the Volga river, in modern-day Southern Russia, in a year or two through the Alans they sent an embassy to Constantinople. But, before the letter was received in the capital, first it had been passed through the hands of Byzantine generals stationed in Lazica (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, p. 59). The role of Lazica increased also because of the mountain passes through which the newly-coming nomads from the North could potentially penetrate into the South and cause havoc even in the Eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire as it happened in 395 when the Huns reached as far as Antioch (P. Heather. The Fall of the Roman Empire. A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford. 2007, pp. 145-154). The Byzantine officials also used the passes to distract nomad leaders by making them to take much longer roads to reach the Imperial capital. Menander Protector preserves the bitter complaint of a Turkic chief from the steppes, North to the Caucasian range, dated by 577: “As for you Romans, why do you take my envoys through the Caucasus to Byzantium, alleging that there is no other route for them to travel? You do this so that I might be deterred from attacking the Roman Empire by the difficult terrain (i.e. high mountains which for horses are very hard to cross). But I know very well where the river Danapris (Dniepr) flows, and the Istros (Danube) and the Hebrus (Maritsa, Meric)” (Excerpta de Legationibus Romanorum ad Gentes, 14, in The History of Menander the Guardsman. Translated by R. C. Blockley. London. 1985, p. 175).

Lazica’s military importance increased even more following the stand-off between Justinian and the Sassanian Shahanshah Khusro I Anushirvan in mid-6th c. By the time Iran had already been increasing its political and military pressure towards North and West, which culminated in the abolition of the Albanian and Armenian kingdoms during the 5th-early-6th cc. As was said, mid-6th c. saw renewed warfare between the empires and the focus of the conflict, traditionally along with the North Mesopotamia, also fell on Lazica. Iran was interested in occupying the Eastern Black Sea coast to pressure Constantinople (which by the time was already embroiled in a war with the Ostrogoths in Italy) into signing a more winning peace treaty for Ctesiphon. The Byzantines knew well that if the Sassanians managed to occupy the Lazica shore, Iranian military vessels in the near future would make their way through the Bosphorus directly to Constantinople. This is well reflected in one of the passages from Procopius – Lazi sent an embassy to Khusro to explain the geopolitical advantages which the Iranians would gain through controlling Lazica and the Byzantine fortresses there: “To the realm of Persia you will add a most ancient kingdom, and as a result of this you will have the power of your sway extended, and it will come about that you will have a part in the sea of the Romans through our land, and after thou hast built ships in this sea (i.e. Black Sea), O King, it be possible for thee with no trouble to set foot in the palace in Byzantium. For there is no obstacle between. And one might add that the plundering of the land of the Romans every year by the barbarians along the boundary will be under your control. For surely you also are acquainted with the fact that up till now the land of the Lazi has been a bulwark against the Caucasus Mountains” (De Bello Persico. II. 15; Procopius of Caesarea. History of the Wars. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge. Massachusetts. 1914, pp. 225-226).

The above analysis of the Roman and Early Byzantine military strategies towards their neighbors quite clearly shows that Georgia always had its own place within the pan-European military alliances. Why not bring it back?

NATO and Georgia

NATO alliance’s strategy could be likened to the best military traditions of Roma and Byzantium discussed above. As was the case with these two Empires, NATO too regards the Black Sea and its Eastern shore – Georgia – as fundamental for the alliance’s strategy in the Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region overall.

As for the Romans and Byzantines before, for NATO too Georgia’s Black Sea shore would allow the alliance to expand militarily in the region and control crucial land and maritime military routes from the North to the Black Sea basin. There is also an economic dimension since Georgia serves as a vital transit route for oil/gas pipelines, important railroads connecting the Caspian and Black Seas. Indeed, as Roman and Byznaitne army units before, NATO’s presence in Georgia would serve as a defensive shield for trade in the region which in Antiquity was often referred to as a part of the famous Silk Road and nowadays is called as the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor because of oil/gas transport infrastructure.

This strategic vision is well reflected in one of the recent NATO-Georgia Commission statement: “Georgia is one of the Alliance’s closest operational partners, and an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Allies highly appreciate Georgia’s steadfast support for NATO’s operations and missions…” (NATO-Georgia Commission Statement. Oct. 2019. Direct allusion to the alliance’s Black Sea strategy is also seen in another passage from the same Commission statement: “NATO values Georgia’s engagement in, and contributions to, strategic discussion and mutual awareness, on security in the Black Sea region” (NATO-Georgia Commission Statement. Oct. 2019.

Thus NATO alliance’s strategic vision for Georgia and the wider Black Sea region is similar to how the Romans and Byzantines saw this part of the world.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua is the Director of the Institute of Georgian History, Faculty of Humanities, at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania: pensioners get ready for death

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Main attention of the Lithuanian media has been focused on migrant crises and security issues for several weeks. This problem has become also a good reason to once again draw the attention of the population to the need of increasing defense capabilities. This problem has become a good excuse for further increasing of the armed forces funding, new purchases in the defense sector. Talks, meetings, visits as usually ended with the promises to support the country on condition of increasing military spending by Lithuania itself. And Lithuanian agree without hesitation. Although it would be worth thinking.

Finance Minister Gintarė Skaistė told a press conference the day before that this would raise defence spending from 2.03% in 2021 to 2.05% in 2022, Lithuanian Radio and Television (LRT) reported on its website on 11 October. She added that Lithuanian political parties support the gradual increase of defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030.

These numbers are not only in the files. These are million of euros! Only this year the national defence spending is about EUR 1.017 billion or 2.02% of GDP. Next year the planned amount is EUR1.176 billion.

It should be noted that the recipients of this money will be the Ministry of Defenсe, and not the The State Border Guard Service at the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Lithuania, which would be logical in this situation.

The more so, not only the State Border Guard Service urgently needs more funding.

The situation for pensioners in Lithuania is more difficult than ever. The pension they receive is not enough, ”says Grasilda Makarevičienė, President of the Lithuanian Association of Elderly Persons.

According to Grasilda Makarevičienė, there are different retirees. There are pensioners who worked in the government, they receive good pensions, but it is very difficult for an ordinary pensioner to survive. Moreover, now, during this period of the pandemia, medicines are very expensive. And prices went up significantly. Even potato, which is the main product of pensioners, have risen in price, ”G. Makarevičienė told LNK. She mentioned the absence of sufficient number of clinics in small towns and villages.

G. Makarevičienė noted that pensioners are already angry and they are on the brink of despair. She bitterly noted that when elderly people paid taxes and bought medicines, only from 70 to 100 euros remain for food. It should be said that every third person gets pension in Lithuania. It is awful, but about 30% of the elderly in the country live in poverty.

Do the authorities wait for Covid-19 to kill a large number of elderly people and thus, there would be no need to take measures and pay more pensioners?

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Eastern Europe

Shifting Geography of the South Caucasus

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One year since the end of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war allows us to wrap up major changes in and around the South Caucasus. Most of the changes discussed in the scholarly works so far focused on the role of Turkey and Russia. The shifting geography of the South Caucasus, however, has been disregarded.

In many ways, the war accelerated the pre-existing trends, but also initiated new developments. The first and foremost change concerns geography. The South Caucasus has been historically dominated by neighboring states. Whether it is the Sasanian and Byzantine empires in late antiquity or later Ottoman and Persian states, the region was exclusively subject to one or two powers. The idea is that the region was mostly closed to the outside, non-regional influence. The trend continued in 19th-20th centuries when the South Caucasus was exclusively dominated by Russian power. The end of the Soviet Union changed this geopolitical reality when several powers were able to penetrate the region. Yet the pace of the change was relatively slow – Russia was still able to minimize the extent to which the neighboring or non-regional countries were able to act in the South Caucasus: Turkey, Iran, US, EU, and to a certain extent, China have been influencing the region to a limited degree.

But the second Nagorno-Karabakh war accelerated this process. The South Caucasus’ borders are increasingly shifting. No single power or even a duo of countries can dominate the region. It reflects geopolitical changes in the world where the emerging multi-polar world ushers in a different set of rules. Exclusive geopolitical control is no longer viable and the 2020 war showed exactly this.

There is also yet another dimension of the unfolding geographic change. The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East. Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the powers around it. In a way, this re-emergence of close contacts between the South Caucasus and the Middle East is a return to normalcy which was disrupted in the early 19th century by Russian annexation of the South Caucasus. Indeed, in pure geographic terms the region is better connected to Turkey and Iran than to Russia, with which it shares the impassable Caucasus Mountain range.

This also means that the role of the South Caucasus in the thinking of Iran and Turkey, and by extension Russia, has grown. Considered if not as a complete backwater region in the calculus of large powers, the South Caucasus has nevertheless experienced a lack of attention. This was especially true for Iran, which now struggles to retain its weakening position in the region.

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Tehran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Ankara or Moscow. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence for Iran, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts various Persian empires had with the South Caucasus.

The 2020 war changed Iran’s calculus in the region as the Islamic Republic’s interests were largely unheeded. Iran has now to adjust to the changed geopolitical landscape and it can be even argued that the recent escalation it had with Azerbaijan over the detained trucks, drills, and alleged Israeli influence, was an effort to wedge itself back into the geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

Yet there is little Iran can realistically do to boost its position in the region. The South Caucasus will certainly feature higher in Tehran’s foreign policy agenda than before. But Tehran does not have an ally in the region, nor does it have financial means to strengthen its soft power. Iran can support Armenia in its efforts to balance the triumphant Azerbaijan.

The lifting of US-imposed sanctions could augment Iran’s projection of financial and diplomatic power in the South Caucasus. Still, a more realistic approach for Tehran would be to build closer cooperation with Russia. Both loath growing Turkish influence and the Islamic Republic does not object to growing Russian influence as much as it does resent the West’s and Turkey’s presence. Surely, interests with Russia do not align always, but for Tehran, Moscow is a traditional power in the South Caucasus which is about maintaining a status quo. Turkey, on the other hand, disrupts it seeking greater influence.

There has been a certain retrenchment of the Western influence in the South Caucasus. While it does not signify a definitive decline in West’s fortunes, it is nevertheless important for Washington and Brussels to formulate a more robust approach toward the region. Decreasing the tensions with the Turkey could be one of the steps. Increasing economic engagement with the region would be another. Delay could be damaging. Georgia, which serves as a door for the West to the Caspian basin and on to Central Asia, could be the biggest loser if Washington shifts its foreign policy away from the region. An alternative could be a Russian model of peacebuilding and regional order where Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan will face a lack of foreign policy options if the West’s unwillingness to commit to the region continues to grow. Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

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Eastern Europe

Russia: The Neighbor From Hell

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Photo: Kuźnica Białostocka, Poland. Migrants' encampment area. Army, Border Guard and Police on the border. Credit: Polish Territorial Defence Force

From Belarus to Ukraine to Georgia, an arc of instability has emerged, offering opportunities for malign activities by foreign powers. This has proved too tempting for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which openly pursues an activist foreign policy seeking gains for the Kremlin at whatever cost to its neighbors. For the West, it is time to consider the wider Black Sea region as a whole and to develop a strategy. 

The migrant crisis unfolding on the Belarusian-Polish border is the most pressing and serious emergency. For some months, the Belarus dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his security services have been funneling thousands of Middle Eastern migrants toward the EU border. Officially, Russia has distanced itself from the crisis, with President Vladimir Putin on November 13 denying claims he had helped to orchestrate a crisis.  

Russia is often disbelieved by neighbors with unhappy experiences of its statecraft. In this case, too, there are reasons to doubt Putin’s words. Firstly, the Belarus migrant drama bears an uncanny resemblance to the events of 2016, when the Kremlin unleashed a sudden wave of developing world migrants across Finland’s and Norway’s Arctic borders. Secondly, few believe Lukashenka’s regime on its own is sufficiently organized to orchestrate events of complexity spanning two continents.  

Russia’s rapid dispatch of advanced combat aircraft and paratroopers (two of whom died in the exercise) to the Belarus-Poland border and Putin’s contemptuous dismissal of Germany’s Chancellor and the EU’s senior head of government Angela Merkel (she was told to call Lukashenka herself) were open signals of approval for the Belarusian position. Only when Lukashenka mused that he might cut off gas supplies to Europe was he publicly slapped down by Russia. It was also notable that Russia and Belarus recently agreed on further steps in their on-again-off-again Union state. 

To the south, in eastern Ukraine, the clouds are also gathering. Fighting is worsening with Russia’s separatists in Donbas, and ceasefire violations are spiking. US briefings now suggest around 100,000 military personnel and large amounts of armored equipment are located within reach of the border; military movements are being organized at night. Not only does this follow the deployment of large Russian formations for exercises in the Spring, but it also matches a threatening drumbeat of anti-Ukrainian rhetoric from Russian leaders including Putin, who have questioned the country’s right to an independent existence. The Kremlin has increased funding for the Donbas and pledged humanitarian support to the rebel-controlled regions thus facilitating trade between Russia and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

The bottom line is that Russia is putting Ukraine back on the agenda and — as some predicted — forcing the Biden administration to take notice, despite its desire to park Russia and focus on China. Putin and his aides remain determined to build a near-exclusive sphere of influence in its neighborhood and Ukraine is the crown jewel in its geopolitical thinking. If Russia is finally seeking a settlement to its seven-year-long forever war, that would require agreement from Ukraine to effectively hand control of eastern regions to Russia and its local agents, plus a commitment to stop the country from joining Western military and economic institutions. There is no sign that Ukraine will agree to such constraints on its sovereignty. 

Further south in the South Caucasus, Georgia, the West’s only partner in the region, is suffering a continuing crisis following the municipal elections in October and the former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s stealthy return to the country. He is now in prison on a hunger strike. Russia lurks here too. It might not be orchestrating the crisis, as in Belarus, but it does benefit. Russian media has been actively addressing the events in Georgia and playing on recurrent tensions between the country and its Western partners, especially the European Union (EU). As always, chaos — sometimes resulting from direct Russian interference, and sometimes not — makes it harder for candidate countries to meet the membership terms of Western clubs while emboldening those European countries sympathetic to Russia and skeptical of expansion. This makes it harder for organizations like the EU to engage Georgia.

Russia’s grand strategic aim is to maintain its power in neighboring states. That means keeping the West at bay, and political instability serves that purpose. Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia are distant, but the Kremlin is always present. In some cases, it resorts to military pressure to gain momentum, in other cases it sits and waits, but the pattern signals a clever use of opportunities as they arise, exploiting the space given by a West signaling decreasing willingness to engage in the wider Black Sea region. 

Seen from the long-term perspective, the 1990s and 2000s were a period of a slow but steady decline of Russian influence in what then constituted the former Soviet Union. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the present period is much more productive, with concrete gains and the reversal of the West’s military and economic expansion. For Putin and his ministers, it seems likely that the US considers defending Ukraine, Georgia, and even involvement in the Belarus-Poland border crisis costlier than the potential benefits of having these countries within America’s geopolitical perimeter.

The ground is now prepared to seek a reversal of the West’s geopolitical gains and cast aside the wishes of the people of Ukraine and Georgia. The push against aspiring liberal democracies is now gathering pace, timed to coincide with a wider geopolitical shift, namely the recalibration of US foreign policy to east Asia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Main attention of the Lithuanian media has been focused on migrant crises and security issues for several weeks. This problem...

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