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Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Art of Balancing

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Strictly speaking, Russia is not an Eastern Mediterranean country. It does not have direct access to the Mediterranean Sea; its most important strategic and economic interests belong to other parts of the world, such as the North Atlantic or East Asia. However, for a long time Russia has been trying to make its presence in the region visible; this continuous interest goes back to at least the 18th century and it results from a variety of geopolitical, economic, strategic, religious and cultural reasons. Today Moscow arguably enjoys more visibility here than even the Soviet Union did at the peak of its global outreach. Moreover, Vladimir Putin can present the Kremlin’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean as one of the most spectacular and unquestionable personal foreign policy accomplishments.

Still, can one argue that Russia has a consistent and comprehensive strategic approach to the region? To forge and to sustain such an approach would be a challenging task for a number of reasons. First, the Eastern Mediterranean is simply too large and too diverse to have a ‘one size fits all’ pattern to multiple crises and conflicts here. Second, Russia’s capabilities in the region—especially in the economic domain and in soft power tools—are quite limited and do not allow Moscow to pursue a long-term strategy guided by a compelling comprehensive vision of the region’s future. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has no social and economic model that it could offer nations of the region to follow and imitate. Third, Russia’s approaches to specific countries in the Eastern Mediterranean reflect a complex interaction of various political, economic and other group interests in Moscow; the exact balance of these interests may fluctuate from one country to another and from one stage of the Russian engagement to another.

Keeping all these factors in mind, one could conclude that instead of trying to articulate an all-inclusive ‘Putin doctrine’ for the region, it would be appropriate to look at the Russian policy as an attempt to balance a number of diverging principles, goals, priorities and modes of engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean. In some cases, this balance turns out to be quite successful; in other cases, it leads to unforeseen complications and rising political risks. Let us outline some of the most important balancing dilemmas that contemporary Russian policies implicitly or explicitly contain.

Global vs Regional Priorities

The Kremlin’s approach to the region has always depended to a certain degree on Russia’s overall relations with the West; any significant ups or downs in these relations have produced direct and visible implications for the Russian posture in the Eastern Mediterranean. For example, it would not be an over-exaggeration to argue that the initial Russian military engagement in Syria in the autumn of 2015 had a significant ‘pedagogical’ dimension—after a spectacular Western failure in Libya and a less than impressive US performance in Iraq, Vladimir Putin clearly intended to teach the West how to ‘fix’ a MENA country. Particularly in the aftermath of the acute crisis in and around Ukraine, it was very important for the Kremlin to demonstrate that in the Eastern Mediterranean Russia could become not a part of the problem, but rather a part of the solution.

As it turned out, this initial plan did not work—neither in Syria, nor in Libya later on. The Russian political and especially military presence in the region very soon became yet another complicating factor in uneasy relations between Moscow and Western capitals. Therefore, the Kremlin’s balance of priorities gradually shifted from trying to forge a deal with global players to engaging regional actors—such as Damascus, Ankara, Tehran, Riyadh, Cairo, and so on. This shift of Russia’s priorities took place in parallel with a gradual decline of the US interest in the region and with mostly unsuccessful attempts by the EU to come up with a consolidated European approach to the Eastern Mediterranean. Apparently, today Moscow is not ready to jeopardise its numerous regional partnerships for the sake of better relations with the United States or the European Union. So far, such an approach turned out to be generally productive, but it might lose its efficiency if the West gets more focused on the region and invests more resources and political capital in eroding Russian partnerships (e.g. by incentivising Turkey to become a more disciplined member of the NATO Alliance).

Standing by Legitimacy vs Promoting Change

Russian leadership has traditionally taken a consistently legalistic approach to political developments in the world at large and in the Eastern Mediterranean region in particular. It has explicitly opposed any attempts at regime change, even if in the Kremlin they had many reservations about the regime in question. Russia did not welcome the Arab Spring in 2011, it denounced the violent overthrows of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Many Russian scholars believe that the events of the Arab Spring had a profound impact on Vladimir Putin’s thinking and triggered his decision to return to the Kremlin in 2012. Moscow later supported Bashar Assad in Syria arguing that he represented the only legitimate power in the country. Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the 15 July 2016 coup d’état attempt in his country.

However, this insistence on the principle of legitimacy has demonstrated its limitations. For instance, in Libya the Kremlin supported Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar though his legitimacy was clearly inferior to that of the Fayez al-Sarraj led Government of National Accord recognised by the United Nations. Neither did Moscow voice its concerns about the Taliban replacing the legitimate government in Kabul. It seems that the Kremlin applies its legalistic approach to primarily political leaders in the region capable of retaining not only a de jure, but also a de facto control over territories of their respective countries. In other words, Russia stands not so much for legitimacy per se, but rather for ‘order and stability’, which are perceived as the most important values and indispensable sources of regime legitimacy.

Supporting Secularism vs Islamism

In most cases, in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in other parts of the world, Russia prefers secular regimes to Islamists, even if the latter come to power through open and democratic elections. This preference might be rooted in the Kremlin’s own experience with Islamists in the Northern Caucasus and in other predominantly Muslim regions of the Russian Federation. There seems to be an instinctive fear of even moderate Islamism, not to mention its more fundamentalist and radical incarnations. Moscow was reluctant to take the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood off its list of terrorist organisations even after this movement had come to power in Cairo and its candidate Mohamed Morsi had become Egypt’s president. This is the same reluctance we now see regarding the possible formal delisting of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Still, there are important deviations from this general rule and even explicit exceptions from it. Sometimes, the Kremlin seems to care more about the declaratory statements of its partners in the region rather than their actual practice. For instance, in Libya Russia supported Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar partially because he positioned himself as a committed opponent of Islamism though he had Salafi units in his army and explicitly associated himself with various fundamentalist clergymen. Moreover, the Kremlin maintains open communication lines to Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon though both are Islamic fundamentalists. The Islamic Republic of Iran can hardly be qualified a secular state, etc. At the end of the day, the future of Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean will depend largely on the ability or inability of Moscow to reach out to moderate Islamic groups in the region.

Striving for Presence vs Control

The Russian leadership is fully aware of the fact that Russia’s economic, military and political resources that it can allocate to the Eastern Mediterranean are quite limited in comparison to what some other international actors, especially the United States and the European Union (but also China and even Gulf states), can bring to the region. Therefore, in most cases the Kremlin seeks a seat at the table, but it has no ambitions to chair the meeting unilaterally. This is the case with the Middle East Peace Process, where Russia remains one of the consistent champions of the Quartet format; this is also the case in Libya and in Afghanistan too. Participation rather than control gives Russia a say in many regional matters without imposing on Moscow the full responsibility for everything that happens in this or that corner of the region.

Syria stands out as a remarkable exception from the rule. Though Moscow must coordinate its military activities in this country with Tehran and Ankara within the multilateral Astana Process, in Syria the Kremlin is apparently looking for control rather than for mere presence. This mode of Russia’s operations is unique for its policies in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its efficiency is questionable: many experts in Russia argue that in practical terms Bashar Assad often manipulates the Kremlin, not the other way round. It is hard to imagine that Russia would try to impose its ‘control’ on any other Eastern Mediterranean state in the near future.

Favouring Geoeconomics vs Geopolitics

Though Russian leaders like to talk about their country as a global ‘security provider’, in most cases, Russia would like to see its engagement with the Eastern Mediterranean as economically profitable. Moscow has strong economic ties to Turkey, which at least partially explains a remarkable resilience of Russian-Turkish political relations despite a lot of important issues on which Moscow consistently disagrees with Ankara. Among Arab nations of the region, Russia focuses mostly on relatively wealthy countries like Iraq, Egypt and Algeria, that can become valuable consumers of Russia’s military hardware and agricultural exports or can offer lucrative opportunities to Russian energy and infrastructure companies. One can argue that the Russian engagement in Libya had geoeconomic considerations—Libya is a rich country capable of paying for its imports and development projects in hard cash.

Here Syria again stands out as a noticeable exception. Though Moscow tries very hard to get some economic returns on its political and military investments in this country, it seems that this goal is not easy to reach—particularly now with Damascus exposed to multiple US and EU economic sanctions. Experts assess the overall Russian annual spending in Syria at the level of $ 1-2 billion, which is not a prohibitively high cost for the Kremlin. Still, it would be difficult to imagine Russian involvement in Syria turning into an economically profitable project any time soon. Given the mounting social and economic problems at home and the Russian public focusing more and more on the domestic agenda, it seems logical that in the nearest future Russia will continue to prioritise its economic interests over geopolitical ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. This approach might make Moscow more receptive to potential partnerships with external players willing to shoulder Russia’s political and military engagement with economic and financial resources that the Kremlin does not have at its disposal.

Emphasising State vs “Private” Engagement

Russia is well-known for its highly statist approach to international relations. The Kremlin heavily relies on summit diplomacy, state- to-state agreements, intense interactions between bureaucrats representing various ministers and other governmental agencies. Non-state actors—both in the private and civil society sectors—are usually expected to follow state agreements and stay in line with state policies. This approach can be particularly efficient in dealing with authoritarian regimes trying to fully control both private business and civil society institutions. The downside of this approach is that quite often the state-to-state dimension remains much more advanced than any social and humanitarian interaction conducted at the level of non-state actors. Intense and multifaceted interactions between societies do not always compliment interactions at the top political levels.

However, recently Moscow has tried to diversify its kit of foreign policy instruments in the region, allowing private and semi-private groups and organisations to play a more visible and more autonomous role. Allegedly, in Libya the Russian leadership made a strategic decision to outsource a significant part of its activities in this country to private military companies (the so-called “Wagner Group”). Moscow allegedly applied a similar pattern, though on a smaller scale, in the North of Syria (Deir ez-Zor). This shift allows the Kremlin to distance itself from certain high-risk operations on the ground without losing the overall control over private groups’ operations. Prominent Islamic figures from Russia—the most visible is Ramzan Kadyrov from Chechnya—are now making strong statements about developments in the region and might even pursue their own policies in places like Syria or even Afghanistan. It is not clear to what extent these statements and politics are coordinated with the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Working with Everybody vs Taking Sides

One of the comparative advantages that Russia enjoys in the Eastern Mediterranean is its ability to maintain constructive relations with the opposite sides of regional conflicts: with Sunni and Shia, Iranians and Saudis, Israelis and Palestinians, Turks and Kurds, UAE and Qatar, and so on. Doing that, Moscow keeps its political investment portfolio diversified and hopes to benefit from any plausible outcome of the conflict in question. On top of that, this unique position allows Moscow to claim the role of an honest broker—at least, in some situations. It should also be noted that the Kremlin can always dig into a significant pool of highly qualified Russian experts on the region with a deep knowledge of various countries, ethnic and religious groups. This helps Moscow to avoid some of the blunders often committed by other overseas powers operating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, the position of a mediator might be difficult to sustain when the conflict escalates, the fighting sides raise stakes and push Moscow for more assistance. For instance, the close partnership with Bashar Assad in Syria arguably jeopardised Russia’s long-term friendly relations with Syrian Kurds, and the Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria has become a major complicating factor in Russian-Israeli relations. Continued attempts to take an equidistant position might erode trust for Russia on both sides and might generate complaints and grievances about an alleged Russian inconsistency and even cynicism. However, the alternative—a firm and unconditional support of one side in the conflict (e.g. standing by Bashar Assad in Syria)—has a number of its own shortcomings and liabilities.

In summary, the art of balancing its foreign policy objectives, foreign policy tools and multiple regional partners in the Eastern Mediterranean requires a very calibrated and fine-tuned approach to every engagement in the region. So far, the Kremlin has managed to keep associated risks under control. Still, it faces quite a bumpy road ahead. A lot will depend on factors beyond Russia’s control—most importantly, on the regional security dynamics, on successes and failures of state building efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean and on the level and mode of engagement by the main non-regional actors like the US, the EU and China.

From our partner RIAC

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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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.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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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

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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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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