The Eastern Neighbourhood at the dawn of The Great Hybrid War: The Six Nations’ Quest
While the West and Russia are occupied outlining the framework of an upcoming hybrid war, the fate of several post-Soviet states is largely dependent on their own capacity to change.
The glossy international forums of Davos and Munich centered on the increasingly challenging process of globalization and shifts in the international security environment of the changing world. The decline of liberalism, a worldwide trend from India to Poland, the rise of a new kind of nationalism and revamped ambitions of non-Western actors shape a new agenda. The Eastern Neighbours of the European Union – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine risk being sidelined in the on-going global perturbations. It is time to look at the challenges they face and the directions they may head towards.
The Russian threat – a topic that was taboo in Brussels not so long ago, is now on the agenda of high-level discussions in the West. At the dawn of the Putin era in 2002, George W. Bush embraced ‘the friendship of a new democratic Russia in his Berlin speech claiming ‘the shadow of alarm’ had been lifted. In the beginning of what is supposed to be Putin’s last term in office, Russia’s belligerence targets the existing world order itself. In particular, it is countering American, and broader, Euro-Atlantic dominance in various parts of the world. Alarmed at these developments, EU officials are tempting the Western Balkans with enlargement prospects planned for the year 2025, this is however not the case with the Eastern Neighbourhood.
The Brussels Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2017 ended with the European Union recognising the aim to secure a stable and resilient Neighbourhood, but fell short of mentioning membership prospects for the countries. Therefore, this aim is to be achieved through a policy of 20 deliverables for 2020. They do not differentiate between countries per se, but an analysis of the paper and the rhetoric of European officials indicate the EU does indeed acknowledge a difference between them.
Differentiation is likely to become more salient at a later stage, as strongmen-and-their-families in Azerbaijan (Partnership and Cooperation Agreement goes back to 1999), Belarus (the 1995 Agreement has never been ratified by the EU) and clan-controlled Armenia (who has signed Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement in 2017, with no free trade component) chose to balance between the EU and Russia and refrain from voicing any ambition to join the former. The Association Agreement countries – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – covet membership, but EU top guns France and Germany are steadfast in denying it.
Eastern Partnership challenged
The Association Agreements do have an impact, and the countries involved have increased their trade with EU, but it is big businesses who feels it most, and the wider society struggles to take part. In addressing the hybrid threat, the plan including the deliverables is to launch its assessment in just one of the partner countries by 2020. Strengthening institutions, good governance, civil society and media freedom all need to be accompanied by political will, which is scarce. The serpent of vested interests and informal political patterns in governance is strangling the post-Soviet states, being only partly tamed in Georgia. With weak statehood and without a potent anti-hybrid panoply, there will be little stability and low resilience even in the Wider Economic Area.
The design of the Eastern Partnership is borrowed to a great extent from the big-bang enlargement. In this very different environment there is a widening gap in its rationale. Three non-associated states prefer to cherry-pick, rendering the cooperation technical, in essence, not an European integration. Moldova and Ukraine are in a vicious circle, with its elites also de-facto cherry-picking or imitating, using the Eastern Partnership agenda as a fig leaf for their governance. As long as it is not part of the accession process and EU has no authority over them; the EU rules out membership. Georgia then stands out again, but there is another problem lying in occupied territories. This is where Russia enters the stage.
Russia is determined to prove that the Eastern Partnership is a futile endeavour and not being worthwhile waiting for the presumed long-term effects. It regards the results of the policy as inconclusive, as they do not lead to any joint institutions, funds and responsibilities. It seeks for itself not only soft power, but additional concrete leverage, which might be described as hidden control. The main Russian asset in the region is potential tension, which it can steer through having an upper hand in all unrecognised conflict-regions: Nagorno-Karabakh for Azerbaijan and Armenia, Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia for Georgia, Transnistria for Moldova and Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine. It lacks one in Belarus, but compensates through keeping the Belarusian economy crisis-prone on a drip of subsidies and credits, the political loyalty of President Lukashenko and a deeply entrenched pro-Russian mood in its three eastern voblasts, which it can stir in case of emergency.
To secure firmer control, it needs allies at the very top of these states.
Armenia, where dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and quality of life led to a rising disenchantment with the Eurasian Economic Union, has a new President, a former Prime-Minister and ambassador to the United Kingdom, Armen Sarkissian. He was supposed to take the backseat to Serzh Sargsyan, a long-term Russian ally, who has run the country for the last ten years, broke his promise and moved to extend his power following a constitutional reform in the office of the Prime Minister. However, such a blatant extension of his mafia style state proved to be too much for Armenians, and the subsequent protests brought an end to his reign. Sargsyan’s Republican party still retain the majority in the parliament. Even likely snap elections will not lead to a radical geopolitical U-turn, but the country will take further steps to rebalance its position. Therefore, Moscow is following the situation vigilantly.
Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev confidently secured his fourth presidential term in April 2018. Nevertheless, recent economic problems have caused the most uncomfortable situation in years for the regime and the election date was moved from October 2018 to avoid any possible destabilization, including Russian meddling. Azerbaijan is economically independent and its President is preoccupied with unabridged control over the country, his family’s domain. Hence Russia’s main influence is exercised through management of a 30-years conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and arms-sale. It is arming both Azerbaijan and Armenia, i.e. with Iskander rockets, and offering Armenia loans for their munitions’ purchase. Therefore, it aims to be indispensable for a future peace process and ready to let the conflict flare up, if need be, funneling the tension and positioning itself as the only force able to stop it.
There is a never-ending dispute whether Aleksandr Lukashenko guarantees or surrenders Belarusian sovereignty. The truth is, of course, in the middle as his aim is to maintain the country as a personal domain, but it remains severely dependent on Russia. Lukashenko’s grip on power is quite firm and the regime’s prying eyes are permanently on high alert looking out for possible challenges. Given the popular mood in Belarus, any significant liberalisation or nation-state building is highly unlikely. The country has long turned its back to the only potential non-corrupt statesman Zianon Paznyak, who has been in exile since 1996. Russia is not looking for a better option than Lukashenko, but occasionally responds to his flirt with the West to highlight the country’s vulnerability by launching media campaigns on TV or trade-wars, like a recent ban on Belarusian milk.
In Georgia, the current government is the best Russia could possibly get at this point in time. It is Western-oriented, as is the vast majority of the country’s voters, but it has normalised relations with Russia. Trade and the tourist flow are growing rapidly and the bilateral informal dialogue is ongoing. Georgia is the only country of the six, where real reforms have been pushed through without later reversing them. There are voices that caution against complacency. This is where Russia again relies on the conflict-regions. After a so-called ‘borderisation’, it is forming ‘a common defense space’ with Southern Ossetia and opening customs checks in both of the unrecognised regions. More provocations are possible in case it chooses the path of destabilisation.
Moldova is especially prone to Russian activity. The corrupt ‘pro-European’ elites have for years employed EU integration as a veil for their kleptocracy and are on the brink of political bankruptcy. The incumbent pro-Russian President Igor Dodon is not all what Russia was hoping for. Apart from voting with their feet, the distraught population is convinced that the youth has no future in the country and might hand the full authority to the Socialists, which will have an impact on the direction of the country’s foreign policy. Under such circumstances, Russia might even allow real progress in solving the Transnistrian conflict, as it will keep on having a decisive say in the region anyway. Incorporating it into Moldova would tie the country up to Russia.
Ukraine’s President does not get tired announcing how close the country is to EU membership, but few in the country take his words seriously. Following the Russian aggression, popular mood has leaned towards the West, though the polls show that 45 per cent still have a good attitude towards Russia. Despite widespread grievances over the situation in the country, the next President is likely to continue the declared Euro-Atlantic course. Russia’s ideal scenario is to reincorporate the breakaway Donbas regions back into Ukraine with an autonomous status. This would change the odds in their favour and make the election of a pro-Russian candidate possible. For now it is interested in any kind of destabilisation – from hysterical election-campaigns to neo-feudalism currently spreading in the regions – in order to prove the erratic character of what it calls Ukrainian nationalism. What is making it worse for Ukraine, is that there is no real breakthrough on the path of reforms. The country, like its neighbour Belarus, has turned its back on its only potent non-corrupt statesman Vyacheslav Chornovil, who was betrayed by his own party and then killed a month later in 1999. Despite two popular revolts, the country has been struggling in the oligarchic internecine tussle ever since.
Hybrid war in the making
Altogether, these six nations are far from a steady path to the EU, unlike Central and Eastern European countries following the fall of the communism and the Eastern Partnership is not a road map. In most of them, the elites are not interested in reforms that disrupt their informal spider-web, and view stability and resilience mainly through the lens of their personal regimes. Their inertia echoes within the EU, where the policy itself is vaguely understood even in some Visegrad countries, let alone France, Italy or Spain.
Russia, to the contrary, is looking for ways to draw them back into its own orbit. Ukraine’s situation was a shot across the bow for others, signaling how hard its power in the region might be. Direct military confrontation is the last option Russia would utilise, possible only under an emergency, it would deem to be a a blatant violation of red lines, i.e. another NATO decision to enlarge.
To withstand Russian expansion, the countries would need to kill the dragon inside their own states – that is find the political will to strengthen statehood, fight corruption and improve governance, find a nationwide consensus, create an anti-hybrid strategy and ideally form a coalition of like-minded states. However, the GUAAM group (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova) has vanished without a trace. The hopes of reaching an envisioned standard needs pressure from civil society and involvement of a new generation and rotation of the elites. It is a hard path indeed, and so far only Georgia has shown determination to walk it.
The Cold War is a term of the past, but the current confrontation between Russia and the West is gradually turning into a Great Hybrid War. Vladimir Putin’s last term is likely to be about consolidating his grand idea and grand project. The West must show resilience, robustness and capacity to withstand the upcoming challenges. Russia is poorer than most of the EU, lagging behind Malaysia in 71th place in the world’s GDP per capita PPP rating. If the West counters its aggressive activities adequately and sufficiently, and if the Russian system is as deficient as thought, it ought to become dysfunctional and exhaust itself by confrontation.
This in turn might cause a cataclysm and launch several processes, by now in a nascent stage, but that would be a different story. Notwithstanding, Putin pledges a breakthrough. In the Eastern Neighourhood, Russia anticipates that the West, after witnessing inertia in reform and progress combined with a lack of resources to influence the situation, will, like some EU countries already, lose its interest and disengage. Russia eagerly awaits for this fatigue, aiming for a pact with the West, which would recognise its sphere of dominance. In particular, it hopes to leave Ukraine with no more than one ally in the EU – Lithuania.
The most difficult years for the independence and sovereignty of these six post-Soviet of states are yet to come. The responsibility for the outcome lays, first and foremost, with their will and capacity to change.
Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a British Chevening Scholar in 2009-2010, following five years in the Ukrainian civil service.