Russia and Turkey maintain an interesting and volatile geopolitical relationship. The two states share many common interests and have significant economic ties to one another, and the leaders of both states have a good personal relationship. Despite the many areas of cooperation, there are still many areas of competition that fuel conflict from North Africa to Central Asia. Many experts assert that the Russia-Turkey relationship is one of cooperation based on “compartmentalization” of differences that allows the two to pursue shared goals while clashing on many fronts.
Turkey is a country primed to advance many Russian goals; it pursues a distinctively different foreign policy than the European Union and has provoked conflict with NATO allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and Syria. Turkey does, however, clash with Russia over the annexation of Crimea, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, its position in Libya and its political initiatives, such as the Turkic Council and continued membership in NATO. There are also instances of direct confrontation between the two states in Syria, including the downing of a Russian Sukhoi fighter jet in 2015, which severely impacted diplomatic relations.
That incident in particular, and the subsequent repair of diplomatic relations, shed light on this complicated relationship. What holds the relationship together? What keeps the two sides from open confrontation? And how does the unique relationship between Turkey and Russia fuel conflict in various theatres?
Turkey and Russia share similar outlooks on the current Western-led world order. In Russia, the West is seen as an adversary which actively works to stifle Russia’s return to great power status and interferes within Russia’s sphere of influence. Turkey also views the West in a similar light. Despite being a member of NATO and previously harboring ambitions to join the EU, Turkey believes the West interferes in internal affairs and seeks to establish itself as an independent player in global affairs beholden to no one. President Putin and President Erdoğan both resent commentary by Western powers regarding their respective human rights records, both have scapegoated the West during times of internal strife, such as the 2011 Bolotnaya Square protests in Russia and the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Both states also share a common illiberal approach to governance as well as frequently refer to imperial greatness and harbor irredentist sentiments—Russia over some parts of the former Soviet Union and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also important to note the personal relationship between Putin and Erdoğan. The two have met frequently, and the personal rapport between the two strongmen leaders has been essential to navigating troublesome periods in the Russian-Turkish diplomatic relations. The relations between the two countries were salvaged when President Erdoğan personally apologized to President Putin in a 2016 letter following months of fallout from the fighter jet incident.
Economic cooperation between Russia and Turkey is a key factor that sustains the relationship between the two states despite many areas of confrontation. Turkey is Russia’s 5th largest trading partner, and Russia is Turkey’s 2nd largest behind only the EU. The two states have prominent joint-investment projects and Turkish investment in Russia is around 10 billion USD with Russian investment in Turkey totaling similarly significant sums. Russian tourists are the largest contingent of foreigners in Turkey representing 16% of all tourist arrivals in 2019. Turkey and Russia are key partners in the energy trade. Russia is Turkey’s main supplier of oil and gas products—41% of all Turkish gas imports in August 2020 were from Russia. Turkey’s geographic location as a chokehold between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean makes it an essential transit route for Russian hydrocarbon resources. There are several pipelines including Turkstream and Blue Stream natural gas pipelines that allow Russia to bypass Ukraine transit routes. Although Russian oil and gas exports to Turkey are falling as Turkey seeks to transition towards LNG and renewable resources, Russia will remain a key player in the Turkish energy market. Turkey is currently constructing the Akkuyu nuclear power plant and has contracted the Russian nuclear company Rosatom to own, operate and supply the facility further strengthening cooperation between the two states on energy projects.
The true influence of economic ties between the two states on diplomatic affairs is best evidenced by the fallout of the 2015 fighter jet incident on Turkey’s economy. Due to the diplomatic freeze between Russia and Turkey, Russia imposed economic sanctions on Turkey and discouraged Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey. Turkish exports to Russia fell by 48%, tourism dropped by 75%, and the economic impact on Turkey was severe; it is estimated that Turkey lost 1% of GDP between 2015-2016 due to punitive measures imposed by Russia.
Militarily, the two sides have worked closely on several occasions. Despite its NATO membership, Turkey recently made a highly controversial purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. This high-profile acquisition was decried unanimously by NATO members who believed Turkey’s use of the S-400 would jeopardize the integrity of NATO weapons systems. This purchase caused Turkey to be ejected from the NATO F-35 and patriot missile programs and prompted some to question the future viability of the alliance.
Russia and Turkey are also both essential power brokers in active conflicts in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Although the two often find themselves supporting opposing factions in these conflicts, their cooperation has been a catalyst for uneasy ceasefires in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Both Russia and Turkey are likely to play a larger role in Afghanistan following the departure of U.S. and NATO forces in the country. Turkey’s closeness to Russia also stems from its diplomatic isolation within the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey’s relations with the neighboring states, such as Egypt and Israel, are quite poor, while its relationship with the fellow NATO member Greece is openly hostile with Turkey’s search for natural gas deposits in disputed waters remaining a major bone of contention between the two in addition to the long-standing historical grievances. Russia benefits from cooperation with Turkey in this respect as it supports Turkey in driving a wedge within the NATO alliance and between Turkey and the EU.
Although there are many instances of cooperation between Turkey and Russia, the two states are in active competition. Competition between Russia and Turkey is unique as most of the competition occurs close to home in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Both Russia and Turkey seem to have made military intervention, or the possibility to intervene militarily, hallmarks of their foreign policy. They see the military as key to furthering geopolitical aims and both maintain large, modernized, and powerful militaries.
Turkey and Russia are both involved in the Libyan civil war and are interested in the oil and gas reserves within Libya and off the Libyan coast. They have supported opposing sides in hopes of increasing their influence over the next government to control the Libyan territory. Russia supports the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its leader Khalifa Haftar who is also backed by France, the UAE and Egypt. Turkey opposes Haftar and has put its weight behind the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. The Libyan conflict has raged on for years as a proxy war between foreign powers with all sides seeking to stake their claim on the oil-rich territory. Russia, who maintained close ties with deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, is seeking to return to energy cooperation seen during his rule. Russian oil giant Rosneft has signed a 2017 oil exploration deal; although this deal has not materialized due to the ongoing conflict, it does signal Russia’s ambitions in the conflict. Turkey also has designs on Libya’s oil and gas but its most important goal is access to the energy resources beneath the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has become increasingly aggressive in its push to lay claim to the natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean angering neighbors and the European Union. Turkey has signed an agreement with the GNA in 2019 demarcating exclusive economic zones (EEZ) off Libya’s coast. In addition to this agreement, Turkey is also negotiating with the GNA on establishing two naval bases within the Libyan territory.
Turkey and Russia have repeatedly clashed in Syria, and it remains a particularly volatile conflict that has the potential to damage the Turkish-Russian cooperation as evidenced by the fallout following the 2015 fighter jet incident. Turkey is a staunch opponent of the Assad regime. Erdogan has called Assad a “butcher” in the past and supported Syrian rebels attempting to overthrow the regime. Russian involvement in the country has been aimed at propping up the Assad government in Damascus and establishing itself as a power broker in the Middle East where its presence had been limited. Russia has also supported some Kurdish forces in Syria to eradicate extremist groups such as ISIS. Russia has previously called for Kurdish officials to be involved in UN peace talks drawing the ire of Ankara. Russian military actions in Syria have also prompted a strong response from the Turkish citizenry. Russia’s support of the Kurds, whom the Turkish believe are linked to domestic terrorists and separatists, and carpet bombing of Sunni civilians has led 55% of Turkish citizens to view Russia as a threat. Russian and Syrian forces have also targeted Turkish soldiers in Idlib, and private military contractors (PMCs) from both sides have clashed throughout the Syrian conflict. The use of PMCs in both Libya and Syria have the potential to escalate conflict between Turkey and Russia; these groups maintain that they are not beholden to any particular state but the actions of Turkish or Russian PMCs on the ground may in reality lead to conflict at the governmental level. At this point, Turkey and Russia cooperate in Syria to a certain degree. Both are security guarantors and maintain significant influence over cease-fire/peace negotiations. Russia has also acquiesced to Turkey’s advance into Northern Syria to create a “buffer zone” between its borders and Syrian Kurds.
The latest flare-up in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has also proved to be an area of competition between Turkey and Russia. Russia was in a difficult position diplomatically due to its collective security agreement with Armenia and typically good relations with Azerbaijan. Although Russian officials clarified that the collective security agreement did not apply to the disputed territory, it attempted to support Armenia while also balancing its relationship with Azerbaijan. Turkey’s role was much more straightforward. Turkey and Azerbaijan are close allies and trading partners, they share a common culture and heritage and are often described as “one nation, two states”. In addition to its close relationship with Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia are openly hostile to one another. The Armenian genocide in Turkey during the First World War and the subsequent treatment of Armenians in Turkey have led to the borders between the two states being closed since 1993. Armenia initially made gains in Nagorno-Karabakh until the Turkish intervention tipped the scales in favor of Azerbaijan. Russia became increasingly concerned about the impact of Turkish drones on the conflict and the potential for Turkey to maintain greater influence over the peace process in its sphere of influence. Although the conflict did not escalate beyond Armenia and Azerbaijan’s borders, it had the potential to drag Russia and Turkey into direct military confrontation. In the peace process, Turkey was able to negotiate a peace-keeping monitoring post for its soldiers and to help establish a transport corridor between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan on Turkey’s border. Despite Turkey’s efforts to gain greater influence in the region through its involvement in the conflict, Russia reaffirmed its role as the primary security guarantor through its peacekeeping force and as the most powerful regional influence. However, the continued presence of Turkish troops in Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh and the potential for greater conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has the potential to escalate confrontation between Russia and Turkey.
Central Asia and Ukraine
Central Asia is another theatre of Russian-Turkish competition and has been so since the fall of the Soviet Union. Turkey was the first nation to recognize the independence of Central Asian states that broke away from the USSR, aiding in their development and promoting Turkic identity in states such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Turkey has also sought to strengthen ties with Central Asian states through the Turkic Council, an institution that includes five founding members (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey) and Uzbekistan since 2019. Turkey’s presence and leadership within the Turkic Council allows the country to have an institutional foothold in Central Asia to counter Russian initiatives, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Turkey is not a member. The wariness of Turkish influence in Central Asia from the Russian side is evident in Russian efforts to marginalize Turkish accession to institutions, such as the Minsk Group which mediates the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
Turkey and Russia have also clashed over Ukraine in recent years. Turkey has been a vocal opponent of Crimea’s 2014 accession into Russia and has voiced consistent support for Crimean Tatars at the United Nations. Turkey has supported Ukraine diplomatically and militarily including through the sale of drones to the Ukrainian military—drones that proved highly effective in combat in Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite his friendly personal relationship with President Putin, President Erdoğan has been an advocate for an enhanced forward presence in the Black Sea which he described as being in danger of “becoming a Russian lake”. Erdoğan has also supported calls by Ukraine and Georgia for NATO enlargement, something Russia has previously described as a red line. Russia, for its part, has been increasingly active and aggressive in the Black Sea waters that surround Ukraine and Turkey, including an incident earlier this year where Russian planes fired warning shots at a British destroyer.
Why “Compartmentalization” and not open Conflict?
Turkey and Russia evidently maintain active competition with one another in several areas. Why have these instances of competition not led to open conflict between the two powers? Economic interdependence is a large factor in smoothing over many troublesome periods in bilateral relations. Turkey’s economy relies heavily on Russian tourism, oil and gas products and transit fees, and the Russian market for produce and other goods. The impact of economic dependence on Russia was made incredibly evident following the 2015 fighter jet incident and subsequent damage to Turkey’s economy. Russia, too, relies on Turkey as a vital transit route for oil and gas products and as a means to surpass traditional transit routes in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
Turkey, in seeking to establish itself as a more important and independent actor in global affairs, benefits greatly from cooperation with Russia in certain fields. With its economy in tatters, the prospect of EU membership increasingly unlikely and diplomatic isolation in the Mediterranean, Russia is a vital economic and diplomatic lifeline. Turkey also benefits from its relationship with Russia in the context of NATO. Seen as a constant threat to purchase Russian arms or enhance cooperation with Russia that will complicate the alliance’s efficacy, Turkey can put pressure on NATO allies for a greater role. Russia also benefits from Turkey’s role as a disruptor within the Eastern Mediterranean and NATO. Russia sees Turkey as its best prospect of fomenting division within the alliance and promoting its brand of illiberal democracy and authoritarianism. Russia also plays Turkey off of its Eastern Mediterranean competitors such as Greece to enhance its influence and economic prospects in the region.
Another factor that allows for the compartmentalization of Russian-Turkish conflict is the use of mercenaries and proxy forces in
areas of conflict. The two sides rarely engage in combat between traditional military forces with a few exceptions in Syria. Instead, the two support opposing sides and use PMCs to avoid the diplomatic fallout that accompanies direct conflict. It is important to note, however, that the use of PMCs and proxy forces does not necessarily prevent retaliation. For example, Ezgi Yazici notes that Russia conducted airstrikes against Turkish-backed forces in Syria following reports of Turkey recruiting Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Turkey and Russia have been able to “compartmentalize” instances of conflict and continue to cooperate on many fronts. However, with Turkey seeking to play a greater role in Central Asia and the prospect of escalating conflicts in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh it is difficult to discern whether the two will be able to maintain the status quo.
From our partner RIAC
Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms
Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.
Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive
approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.
Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.
Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.
Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.
As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.
Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.
Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.
Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.
While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.
For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.
Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.
To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.
The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.
For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”
The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.
It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.
If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.
“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.
Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia
Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.
Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.
The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.
In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.
The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.
The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.
The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.
Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.
This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.
The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.
Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.
This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.
from our partner RIAC
Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood
The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.
Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.
But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.
CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.
In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.
Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.
Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.
More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.
The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.
A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.
Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.
Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
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