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Respect Thy Neighbor: Russia and the Baltic Region

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Twenty-five years ago, soon after I joined Carnegie, I launched my first project at the Carnegie Moscow Center. It was focused on the Baltic Sea area. As a result, I even wrote a short book for CMC called The Baltic Chance: The Baltic States, Russia, and the West in the New Europe. The idea behind both the project and the book was to conceptualize the role of the Baltic Sea region as a laboratory for ever closer collaboration between Russia and the rest of Europe. 

Fast forward to today. The Baltic Sea area has become the part of Europe where Russia and NATO, as a result of its enlargement to the east, sit physically side by side along a broad front. To all intents and purposes, it is a de facto front line. Following the 2014 Ukraine crisis, relations between Russia and NATO have turned as hostile as they were during the Cold War. Small Western military contingents are now deployed in each of the Baltic states. Poland is emerging as a new hub for the U.S. military presence in Europe.

Russia’s relations with non-NATO countries in the Baltic Sea region—Sweden and Finland—have also become markedly strained. Stockholm has just decided on a major increase in its defense spending, citing the Russian threat. Moscow, of course, has always considered Sweden an informal member of NATO. What is new is that Finland, Russia’s direct neighbor and a neutral–friendly partner during the Cold War, is now cooperating very closely with the United States and NATO. The Baltic Sea has largely become a NATO lake. 

In response, Moscow reversed the post-Cold War policy that had long seen its western flank as its safest. New military formations have been established. The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, rather than becoming a laboratory for close Russian-European cooperation, has been rebuilt as a military fortress, a behind-the-lines West Berlin on steroids. While Russians worry about defending Kaliningrad, Poland and the Baltic countries fear a Russian strike to cut off the Baltics by seizing the Suwalki gap.    

What we are witnessing here is not a new Cold War, but a new kind of confrontation, which is also fraught with high risks. The most likely danger is no longer a massive cross-border invasion or a large-scale nuclear attack, but an inadvertent direct collision between Russian and Western forces where they operate close to each other, or a miscalculation by one side linked to misperception about the other. 

After 2014, this is no longer too far-fetched. As NATO pilots are ordered to fly closer to Russia’s borders, Russian pilots fly close—very close—to NATO planes. Mid-air collisions have not yet occurred, mercifully, but incidents involving Russian aircraft and NATO missiles have. Russia’s 2017 Zapad exercises were widely seen in the West as preparation for invasion of NATO territory or, at the very least, for the permanent occupation of Belarus.  

While the Russia-NATO confrontation itself has deep roots and will not be resolved in the foreseeable future, something can and must be done about bolstering military security in the Baltic Sea region. A number of reasonably noncontroversial steps have been recommended by various experts from Russia and the West. These include:  

— Reliable 24/7 communications between Russian and NATO military headquarters, from the Chief of the General Staff/Supreme Allied Commander Europe level down to the operational headquarters; 
— Regular personal contacts between the Chief of the Russian General Staff and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, as well as national military headquarters;
— Incident prevention mechanisms; 
— Confidence-building measures;
— Exercising unilateral/bilateral restraint, such as—arguably, the most important issue at this point—non-deployment of nuclear- and non-nuclear-armed intermediate-range systems (INF) in Europe.

While these measures would not qualitatively change the adversarial relationships that exist today or even start rebuilding trust between the parties, they would reduce the likelihood of an inadvertent collision between Russia and NATO.  

Economic cooperation, which looked promising twenty-five years ago, has not lived up to expectations. Recently, economic sanctions have become a salient feature of the international landscape and a weapon of choice for those who feel economically superior to their adversaries. It is unlikely that the EU sanctions imposed on Russia will be eased, let alone lifted in the foreseeable future. 

The issue of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is an illustration of the complexities of and challenges to economic relations in the energy field. Whatever the ultimate fate of the project, one cannot help but conclude that energy is losing its former role as a principal strategic backbone in the relationship between Russia and Western Europe. That fifty-year era is drawing to a close, and there will be no substitute for the decades-old energy relationship as the material foundation of Russo-EU ties.  

Not much can be done about this in the present circumstances. Geoeconomics, alas, now follows geopolitics, not the other way around. However, a post-pandemic revitalization of the economies might open new opportunities, and any sustained growth in Russia—supported by structural improvements, whenever that happens—would doubtless make the country more attractive to European businesses. Europe, of course, will remain attractive to Russia as a source of advanced technology—albeit, within the constraints of sanctions. 

One new thing that might be attempted with some hope of a breakthrough is Russia-EU collaboration on the issue of climate. This is now seen as a priority not only in the European Union, but increasingly in Russia as well. What is particularly interesting here is exploring the nexus between climate and energy.  

The humanitarian dimension demonstrates a host of problems that are of a fundamental nature and are unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. Little can be hoped for there, except for salvaging some cultural ties, academic and scientific exchanges, and, the pandemic permitting, cross-border travel and tourism. Even where active engagement is not possible, staying in touch or restoring contacts is a down payment for hopefully better times.

Certainly, the present situation in the Baltic Sea area is unsatisfactory. Looking ahead, it is important to set our sights on something more secure, more productive, and more positive. While doing that, it is also important to be realistic. Of course, we don’t know what will happen in the next decade—and a lot will. 

Given these precepts, one could consciously start repairing the badly broken relationship on a common basis of neighborliness. This would fall far short of partnership, but it would end unchecked hostility. Russia and its Baltic Sea neighbors will continue to disagree bitterly about many things, but they would seek to:

— manage these conflicts and disagreements in order to prevent a war that neither side wants or needs;
— desist from provoking their neighbors; 
— give those neighbors a modicum of respect, no matter how grudging; 
— find niches, however small, for productive dialogue and even cooperation, including on environmental protection, climate change, the Arctic, and the like.     

A special mention needs to be made about Russia’s relations with the three Baltic states. The fundamental issues that breed distrust and resentment on both sides will not have gone away in a decade’s time. Historical reconciliation between Russia and each of its three Baltic neighbors is way beyond the horizon. The issue of ethnic Russian non-citizens in the Baltics will be eventually resolved by demographics rather than politics. 

Russians would be advised that they will be able to deal with their Baltic neighbors more productively if they manage to put history to one side and learn to control their emotions, particularly when reacting to critical or unfriendly statements. Russian residents of the Baltic states can be part of the Russian world culturally, but should not be regarded as a pro-Russian lobby in their countries. The Russian world itself can only exist as a cultural phenomenon. Any attempt to use it for geopolitical purposes compromises and kills it. 

Contacts between Russia and the Baltic states are best maintained and developed between actual neighbors. On the Russian side, these are the residents of St. Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad region, Kaliningrad, and Pskov. The issues on which cooperation is possible and desirable are all mundane and nonpolitical. Political contacts may be possible and reasonably productive in multilateral fora where politics takes a back seat, such as the Baltic Sea Cooperation Council (but are extremely unlikely within the Council of Europe).   

Finally, Russians should take the trouble to study their neighbors more closely. Expertise in the Baltic countries in Russia is light: a situation that is hardly surprising, but far from ideal. Setting up or expanding centers of Baltic studies at the federal and regional universities in Russia’s northwestern regions makes sense. Writing this piece from my dacha in the snow-covered Moscow countryside, I can only say that neighbors may be big or small, but they are all neighbors, and are ignored at one’s own peril.

From our partner RIAC

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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No borders to struggle against COVİD-19: Solidarity of humanity can help the situation

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Just as COVID-19 does not recognize borders, it is necessary to build the struggle against it on the basis of organization, solidarity, mutual assistance, the use of positive experience, and it should not recognize borders.

2021 was a year of continued struggle against the pandemic and of the emergence of new variants of the virus. The South Caucasus also was not away from COVID-19 and its variants. Azerbaijan continued its effective fight against COVID-19, making the most of the lessons of previous years and the opportunities for rapid response. The vaccination campaign, which was conducted as well as in highly developed countries, is a real sign of performance in this sector. During the year Azerbaijan gave humanitarian and financial aid to more than 30 countries in order to fight the pandemic, made a voluntary financial contribution of 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization and freely donated 150,000 doses of vaccine to four countries.

The newly appointed head of the EU delegation to Azerbaijan, Petr Michako, also stressed the high level of vaccination in Azerbaijan. The capital – Baku is working closely with The European Union in this direction. The European Union and the World Health Organization have supported the fight against COVID-19 in Azerbaijan with the necessary medical equipment. Medical personnel in Azerbaijan have been repeatedly provided with respirators, goggles, transparent masks and overalls for this purpose. All equipment sent for the safety of medical personnel fighting the virus on the front lines was tested for compliance with quality and safety standards. Kestutis Jankauskas, Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, said that his organization, as a “Team Europe”, is helping to prevent, detect and combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Healthcare workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which increases their risk of contracting the virus,” he said. -They are our heroes and they need protection. “As part of the Team Europe initiative, the EU has launched an individual COVID-19 package with a budget of around € 32 million to support urgent needs and socio-economic recovery.

In 2021, Azerbaijan achieved major progress in combating the pandemic and the global economic crisis and in mutual cooperation. As a chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Azerbaijan put forward an initiative to establish a UN High-Level Panel on global restoration after COVID-19. The member states of the Non-Aligned Movement took a unanimous decision to extend Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the movement for another year, until the end of 2023.

Azerbaijan proposed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement on equal and universal access to vaccines for all countries and the resolution was passed unanimously in March 2021. This resolution showed Azerbaijan’s stance on the increasing vaccine nationalism in the world and became an international success.

As a result of all measurements now the number of people receiving the second,third and further doses of the vaccine in Azerbaijan has exceeded 40 percent. Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the continent where the number of virus infections is rapidly declining. Azerbaijan is doing its best to observe this trend around the world. Solidarity can help the situation.

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