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Russia’s 2021 strategy in its European neighbourhood: The Kremlin’s vision and ‘the game of games’

In these uneasy times of global uncertainty, Russia’s European neighbourhood has become an arena for tense competition between the West and its adversary.

February 1, 2021 - Yegor Vasylyev - Analysis

State Duma, Hotel Moskva, Moscow Kremlin and Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge. Photo: Government of Moscow Press Centre wikimedia.org

Recent apocalyptic discourse surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is now being made worse by a growing conflict between liberal globalisation and an alternative vision of the world championed by Russia and China. This is happening during yet another crisis of capitalism and social and economic change across the world.

The dream of the Roaring Twenties

Members of an increasingly ambitious and provocative Kremlin recently announced the coming of “The Roaring Twenties”. This is a narrative driven only partly by Moscow’s traditional notion of a ‘Russian World’. Instead, it is based upon an upgraded ‘Eurasian’ version of this outlook, which has promoted visions of a ‘global Russia’. The country is arguing and vying for the reform of a supposedly ‘selfish’ international system that does not currently fit its needs. It dreams of repurposing the various organisations that at least appear to lead global decision-making.

In its confrontation or ‘competition’ with NATO and the US, Russia has pursued a strategy of weakening the European Union. Meanwhile, two of the organisation’s neighbours, the UK and Turkey, have emerged as new ambitious players. Both states’ assertiveness, however, has often been viewed by critics as overstated. Whilst London continues on its quest to find a new identity, Ankara has been outplayed by Russia, Iran and the West.

As a result, Russia is now reorienting its traditional Western outlook of the last 300 years in order to secure the country’s global position in what Putin and his confidants see as an increasingly ‘Asian world’. By doing this, Russian political pundits have become preoccupied with creating a new ‘big idea’ to justify Moscow’s global ambitions. There is great deal of pessimism though expressed by the pundits themselves, as it lacks the civilisational outlook of the Orthodox Tsarist Empire or the communist Soviet Union.

This bold approach is effectively a gamble. Traditional Russian understandings of power remain vital for it. This means that hard power, with an emphasis on a new hypersonic triad, continues to be an important part of Moscow’s outlook. At the same time, the country is pursuing a pivot to post-Soviet space and the Arctic, which, as highlighted by the Danish Defence Intelligence Service in its 2020 Risk Assessment, will likely experience long-term destabilisation. Moscow believes that the US is currently neglecting its capacity to act as a military power. Tensions have risen also as the New START Treaty expires on February 5th. Putin claims that hypersonic weapons are a response to a new arms race started by the US. Whilst the Biden administration is set to extend the treaty, this will not discourage Russia’s interest in rearmament.

The EU is not seen by Russia as an independent and coherent player. Moscow’s statement about suspending dialogue with the EU in October was reiterated by Sergey Lavrov in December. According to the foreign minister, the EU is not ready to pursue good relations with Russia. The Kremlin sees any EU acceptance of the US position regarding external affairs, such as during its over-cautious dialogue with Beijing, as only perpetuating its position in the shadow of its hegemon. Indeed, as the experts in the UK have pointed out, Europe cannot continue to look to Washington for answers during any awkward situation. In relation to Russia there is now a great deal of irritation within the bloc, with unfavourable governments in all EU capitals except Budapest and Rome.

Due to this, post-Soviet space has become pivotal for Russia’s new ‘Game of Games’. The region will now decide whether Moscow and its ‘Global Russia’ project as a whole will succeed or fail.

Of course, there will be no warming of relations with the Baltic states. The Baltic Sea has effectively become a NATO lake, with vague discussions of ‘neighbourliness’ topical for all the wrong reasons.

Despite speculation, there is no chance that Russia’s Central Asian backdoor, Kazakhstan, could potentially promote anti-Russian sentiment along pan-Turkic lines. Simultaneously, Kyrgyz nationalist Sadyr Japarov recently acknowledged Russia’s status as a key ally. In recent times there have been gains for Russia in the region. For example, Uzbekistan has now opted for observer status in the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia expects the country to become a full member soon.

But for the twenties to truly ‘roar’, Moscow needs gains in the European part of post-Soviet space. So what it is the state of play? Is it what Kremlin views as tightening its Eurasian orbit? Or as its critics believe – tightening its boa constrictor grip? Or neither?

Imposing interests through rationality

Experienced in the uncertainties of geopolitics, Russia assumes that gains or losses are never final. There is less complacency than during its ‘Krym nash’ campaign of 2014-15. However, the Kremlin hopes that its neighbours will ‘learn’ from what happened in Ukraine. This means that its neighbours would have to accept that the Kremlin’s interests are unignorable. Russia does not accept the West’s values-driven expansion, which it sees as a threat to its interests. Modern Russia only values itself and its interests and cares little for sentiments such as the rule of law or democratic change. The Kremlin views these as the West’s ‘Trojan horses’.

Moscow understands how rivals are expanding their leverage abroad and has subsequently labelled different powers’ presence in the neighbourhood as either legitimate or illegitimate. It considers Western activities in Belarus and Ukraine to be illegitimate as these countries are viewed as the Kremlin’s ‘exclusive domain’. It is ready for a complex ‘New Great Game’ in the South Caucasus, but not in the area of historically exquisite attention, that is, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

China is another global power present in the region. However, the region’s countries remain comparatively low on the radar for Chinese interests. Russia does not view China’s increasing economic involvement in the region as a threat to its own interests. Following the example set by the Belt and Road Initiative, Russia supports a new Eurasian partnership with China.

Therefore, Russia looks to refocus its approach. The Kremlin’s view is that it will dominate in the long term. However, now it assumes that it will only be able to achieve this through a rational path not based on ‘brotherhood’. Russia is trying to capitalise on the post-Soviet states’ split identities, obvious economic needs and growing understanding of these countries’ special geopolitical role. At the same time, the Kremlin is ready to move quickly if required by events in the region.

A diverse but similar neighbourhood

In particular, Russia is interested in Ukraine’s regional divisions and their potential consequences for the unity of the state. In essence, neo-feudalism appears to be the main political tendency in the country. Local elections in autumn 2020 showed that local elites and their political projects are more popular than those based in Kyiv. Sociological data indicates that pro-Russia attitudes are once again on the rise in Ukraine’s eastern and and southern regions. This is especially true in Kharkiv.

This development has been acknowledged in Moscow, which is now contemplating whether to revive ideas of ‘Novorossiya’. It expects that part of the pro-Russian electorate that recently embraced Zelenskyy will once again vote for pro-Russian parties, in particular, ‘For Life Opposition Platform’. The Ukrainian president will likely remain a showman and not a statesman in the minds of the majority of Ukrainians.

Russia is allegedly building bridges with local elites due to its limited options at the national level. It would like to see blurred geopolitical lines, like in the south and east of Ukraine, appear all over post-Soviet space. There is no way Russia can ‘save’ central and Western Ukraine but it will certainly not allow the east and south to drift from its orbit.

Russia’s new outlook will inevitably involve the issue of language. This is despite the fact that Russian is in retreat in all post-Soviet states. Ukraine’s aim to reduce the use of Russian remains incomplete. This can be seen in how books produced in Ukrainian remain vastly outnumbered by those in Russian. Despite this, Kyiv continues to pursue its goals. Even pro-Russian media in the country has been forced to admit that the country’s Russophones are gradually turning into Ukrainian speakers.

In Belarus, Russia still refuses to fund the ‘welfare land’ of Lukashenka’s dreams. The Kremlin’s support, however, has proven decisive in helping the leader retain power. The large-scale protests that the country have recently experienced and that affected various parts of its civil society, have been long overdue. Lukashenka has maintained control through oppression during most of his terms in power. This has been especially true ever since 2010, when almost half of the electorate opposed him and supposedly denied the leader victory in the first round. Following a prolonged economic crisis and a disputed election, the country recently saw opposition rallies that involved as many as 150,000 people.

Apart from Putin, Lukashenka is the last of the outgoing cohort of post-Soviet leaders. Russia’s aim is not necessarily to keep Lukashenka in office but to create a pool of pro-Russia politicians in the country. This is increasingly difficult in an atmosphere of overarching Western soft power and alternative historical discourse that has become rather popular among young Belarusians. ‘Colour revolutions’ are still viewed as a Western invention by the Kremlin. However, recent events in Armenia and Belarus have been approached in a more cautious manner. This is because Moscow realises that it would be counterproductive to oppose the mood of the majority.

Issues common to post-Soviet space, such as corruption and poor quality of life, remain problems that the most active and informed part of the population hopes to escape. This has become clear in the case of Moldova, where Maia Sandu beat pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon with the help of the country’s diaspora.

Moderate pro-Russian governments under Dodon and Chicu simply did not deliver and remained unpopular in the country. Overall, Russia has gained little from these governments except declarations and a new law on languages. Knowing full well that the competition does not end with one election, Moscow is hoping that the explicitly pro-European and pro-Romanian president will be weak and squander her popularity. The Kremlin regards Sandu’s claims over Transnistria as simple rhetoric and many officials in Moscow do not believe that she will cross any ‘red lines’.

In the recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish and Israeli drones proved decisive in helping Azerbaijan claim victory. Russia has achieved its main aim in the area by installing itself as an indispensable force through its peacekeeping mission. Due to this, it can maintain its influence over both sides.

Most Armenians doubt Russia’s reliability as an ally but they do not have any other options. The Kremlin knows this fact all too well. In the opinion of Russian strategists, support for Pashinyan’s Armenia in a region not even recognised by Armenia itself would have been impossible. For many Armenian volunteers in the autumn war, the whole affair was regarded as a Christian crusade. For Russia, though, Christian narrative sidelined, it would make Armenia, the disturbed country already having the lost chieftain, outplayed military, traitors and belligerent oligarchs, a dud asset.

Not much has changed in Georgia, which remains openly anti-Kremlin. Pro-Russian politician Nino Burdzhanadze recently stated that any sentiment supporting the country would instantly end the career of any young political hopeful.

However, there is a lack of strategic vision in Georgia-US and NATO relations at this time. There is a good reason for this, as new opportunities do not simply appear out of nowhere. It is naturally difficult to help a relatively poor and plutocratic Georgia become part of the West in a geographical, political, economic and social sense. Here the crucial issue for the Russians remains Tbilisi’s desire for Western security integration. This would cross a red line and NATO has subsequently stopped short of accelerating this process.

Overall, Russia would like its new pragmatic approach to lead to more influence specifically in its European neighbourhood. It also hopes to control the fate of its neighbours through all conflicts in the region.

In dealing with Russia’s seemingly ‘neurotic’ view of world affairs, it is important to avoid neurosis yourself. While it has work to do in various countries, Russia is close to achieving its new aim in a number of its neighbouring states. However, is there any chance for a balance of interests and peaceful coexistence? The ‘Finlandisation’ of the neighbourhood is not an option. As a result, decision-makers would have to find a unique solution for the region. Balancing the interests of world powers in post-Soviet space would prove to be a dream scenario.

At the moment there is no sign of such an understanding. Russia would simply not accept a solution that disregarded its Eurasian ambition. It is hard to see this changing any time soon and certainly not before next Russian presidential election in 2024.

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst and political consultant specialising in politics and governance of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics, where he was a British Chevening Scholar, following five years with the Ukrainian civil service.

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