Russian Aggression Against Ukraine: Why Now?

Since late October, Russia’s armed forces have been conducting movements and hardware transfers close to the border of Ukraine. At the beginning of November, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced that some 90,000 Russian troops equipped with thousands of tanks and armored vehicles had been deployed 160 miles (260km) away from the country’s northern border, which increased the ‘high probability’ of military escalation. By January, Russia had reportedly amassed more than 120,000 troops and significant amounts of military equipment within striking distance from the Ukrainian border. This has triggered transatlantic society to believe that Russia has been looking for a pretext for another incursion, which could put European security as well as the future of NATO at stake. Although officials in Moscow have denied allegations about the possible invasion of Ukraine, the systematic military mobilization on the Ukrainian border in various places counters these claims. While a large-scale war may be brewing in Eastern Europe, it is unclear what is behind the Kremlin’s decision to undertake this campaign now.

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine may stem from the shifts that have taken place in Ukrainian domestic politics beginning in 2019 when a newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky started taking a hard turn away from pursuing compromises with Moscow. Since Zelensky took office, the Ukrainian government not only continued its push toward integration in the EU and NATO, but it started to systematically counter  Russian influence in the country. Since 2019, the US and NATO military cooperation with Ukraine grew substantially through arms provisions and aid packages under the framework of the Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine. At the same time, Kyiv declared Ukrainian as the only official language in the country, which diminished the status of Russian. Additionally, public attitudes in Ukraine toward the West have shown an upward trend, despite Russia’s active anti-West disinformation campaigns. In 2021 IRI polls, only 20 percent of Ukrainians supported Ukraine’s membership in the Russia-led Customs Union, while around 60 percent of respondents positively assessed Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the EU.

In 2021, Zelensky launched a campaign against alleged pro-Russian individuals. As a result, pro-Kremlin Ukrainian individuals, such as opposition MP Viktor Medvedchuk were sanctioned. Kyiv also banned several media companies that were suspected of spreading ‘pro-Russian propaganda.’ The tough anti-Kremlin measures shattered the Kremlin’s hopes of ‘turning’ the country back into the Kremlin orbit. Russian President Putin penned an article – On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians – where he acknowledges his concerns about the presence of “malign, West-linked, anti-Russian forces” in Ukraine that have “exploited the image of the victim of external aggression and Russophobia.”

The Kremlin’s interest to control Ukraine always has been an important piece in its bigger interests, which was formed in the 1990s. After the end of the Cold War, the US and its allies designed a new Euro-Atlantic order in which Russia was somewhat absent. On the contrary, former Soviet republics along with former members of the Warsaw Pact in Russia’s neighborhood soon became part of this structure by gradually joining the EU and NATO. The Kremlin interpreted these developments as Western encroachment into its sphere of “special interests” aimed at undermining Russia’s sovereignty. This was combined with a wave of the so-called “color revolutions” in several former Soviet republics, which now threatened Putin’s authoritarian regime as well. Putin’s major goal soon became changing the existing European security order and restoring Russia’s control over the former-Soviet space, which would at the same time safeguard Russia from democratizing upheaval.

Moscow’s major objective has been accruing the status of great power that is superior over its neighbors’ strategic aspirations and following the logic of Realpolitik, meaning that any decision concerning Russia’s neighboring countries should be approved by the Kremlin. Nonetheless, Moscow’s attempts to maintain control over post-Soviet states has ended in failure. Russia already ‘lost’ Baltic states to the EU and NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union, while Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia started to seek membership in Western institutions. In order to reverse the process of ‘losing’ the countries from its sphere of influence, Moscow needed to coerce Ukraine and Belarus, whose membership in NATO would mean the loss of buffer zones that still “secure” Russia from the “Western encroachment.” Thus, conceding Ukraine to the West would be a grave strategic error for the Kremlin. While Moscow manages to keep Belarus in the Kremlin’s political orbit through securing its regime, its attempt to keep Ukraine close has been failing for almost a decade. Moreover, the more Kremlin tried to coerce Ukraine, the further Kyiv positioned itself from Russia. Moscow’s ambitions to shift European order has long been on the Kremlin’s agenda. Yet Kyiv’s unprecedented drift from Russia could have played a decisive role in Putin’s sudden campaign against Ukraine. By further invading the country or changing its government – the British Defense Ministry has made a statement which suggests that Moscow is “looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv” – the Kremlin will not only put back the missing pieces of the former Soviet Union together but will manage to leave European security exposed, allowing it to impose its own security order at least in its neighborhood. The timing is perfect. Western allies remain divided largely due to Germany’s reluctance to take a harsh stance against Moscow and support Kyiv. In the meantime, some EU countries remain highly dependent on Russian energy sources, which gives the Kremlin another advantage. As a leader of a declining economy whose influence is destined to diminish in the near future, Putin might have become enticed to take this opportunity and act now.

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EU Tries to Secure Role in Russia-Ukraine Conflict, Absent from Major Diplomatic Talks

On January 4, the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell started his trip to Ukraine amidst elevated tensions prompted by a Russian military build-up near Ukraine’s eastern border. The next day, Borrell flew to the frontline of the conflict in the east of the Luhansk, becoming the first E.U. high representative for foreign policy to have visited the Donbas region since the war broke out in 2014. The European Union’s top diplomat promised “massive consequences and severe costs” for Russia if it launched a new military offensive against its neighbor. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, who accompanied Borrell on a helicopter trip to the Luhansk region, hailed it as a “sign of Ukraine-E.U. unity in the face of elevated Russian threats.”

An Attempt to Catch Up

Over a month ago, Kyiv and its allies sounded the alarm about the build-up of military equipment and an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s eastern border, raising fears that Moscow was establishing a pretext for an invasion. The Kremlin denied this and instead put forward a list of conditions, demanding NATO to rule out Ukraine’s possibility of obtaining membership of the alliance, limiting troop and arms deployments on its eastern flank, and returning its forces to the position of 1997, prior to any efforts for eastward enlargement. While the Kremlin’s proposals were handed to the U.S. and NATO, the E.U. has been regarded as part of the west’s coordinated response to Russia’s military maneuvers on the border with Ukraine.

During his visit, Josep Borrell reiterated that the security of Ukraine largely affects the security of Europe as a whole and highlighted that Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its actions in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria, as well as its support for the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, had led to a “severe deterioration of the security situation in Europe.” The E.U.’s top diplomat for foreign and security policy also highlighted that the E.U. should be included in discussions on the security of Europe and Ukraine. He claimed that the European Union has been “the most reliable partner of Ukraine” and could not be regarded merely as “a spectator.”

Borrell’s visit and statements largely suggest that the E.U. has been searching for a bigger role in conflict resolution. His trip to Ukraine also preceded the Geneva talks held on January 10 between Russian and U.S. officials as well as the NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels on January 12. Even though US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has vowed repeatedly that no decisions will be made about Ukraine without the Europeans, E.U. representatives have not been present in any meetings. Hence, the E.U.’s role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict seems to have somewhat diminished. 

Divided E.U. Foreign Policy

Although Borrell’s visit signaled the E.U.’s desire to be a significant player in the region’s security, E.U. member states have long been divided over the issue of neighboring Russia, one of the region’s of the major gas and oil suppliers. There has always been too much inter-state division in the E.U. regarding its common foreign policy toward Russia. The unclear stance has been largely driven by the largest member states, such as Germany and France, for which the lowest common denominator in relations with Moscow has mainly been driven by the engagement for the sake of economic benefits. This has constantly led to the lack of a consensus within the E.U. Despite the ambitions of E.U. leadership to boost the “E.U.’s geopolitical role on the world stage,” the organization’s foreign policy still largely remains dependent on intergovernmental bargaining that is more like a “melting pot” of different opinions on Russia rather than a united stance.

Individual E.U. member states prioritize their own foreign and security policies, and they have been reluctant to hand over much responsibility to Brussels. These states, such as Germany and France, have even favored the so-called selectively engagement policy with the Kremlin, whereas Central and Eastern European members have regarded it as unacceptable. That is why the latter trust Washington and NATO more rather than Brussels to ensure their security and deter Russia.

The West needs to introduce potentially harsh sanctions targeting the North Stream 2 Pipeline, financial sanctions against Russian state-owned banks, and the exclusion of Russia from the international financial communication systems should Russian troops be inserted farther into Ukraine. If Washington decides to impose harsh sanctions on Russia, it will need the support of the E.U., which up to now remains divided on how to best deal with Moscow.

Image Source: Kyiv Post

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Armenia and Azerbaijan to Take Tangible Steps Toward Reconciliation Following EU-Moderated Summit

On December 14, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met at a summit in Brussels hosted by European Council President Charles Michel. The trilateral meeting was arranged following the escalation of tensions on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, which arose between December 8-10. In a statement following the meeting, Michel confirmed that the President of Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia reaffirmed their commitments to the Moscow-brokered ceasefire deal agreed to in November 2020. While both leaders highlighted the progress in establishing communication between the defense departments, the European Council proposed to create a platform for the development of economic cooperation and strengthening of confidence between Yerevan and Baku.

Michel called for the “full and speedy resolution of all humanitarian issues”, including the “release of further detainees and addressing the fate of missing persons.” He pledged that the EU would “support humanitarian demining efforts” and would assist “conflict-affected populations, [and] rehabilitation and reconstruction [of Karabakh].” The European Council President also welcomed the release of Armenian detainees and the handover of “all remaining” mine-maps by Armenia and called for the release of the remaining captives being held by Azerbaijan. Although Baku has confirmed the continued detention of 45 Armenian prisoners, Armenian authorities have claimed that more than a hundred soldiers remain in Azerbaijani captivity.

During the summit, Pashinyan and Aliyev agreed to take “further tangible steps” to “reduce tensions on the ground to ensure a conducive environment” for talks on delimitation and demarcation of the state border. The EU committed to providing an expert consultative group to provide technical assistance in the delimitation and demarcation process. One of the highlights of the summit was the agreement between Pashinyan and Aliyev to “proceed with the restoration of railway lines, with appropriate arrangements for border customs and controls, based on the principle of reciprocity.” Strikingly, the two leaders also had a tête-à-tête conversation for the first time after the last year’s war.

Following the meeting, both Pashinyan and Aliyev reiterated their commitments to the Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement and agreed to unblock regional transportation and communication links. The issue of reopening the transport link between Azerbaijan proper and the exclave of Nakhchivan via Armenia; the so-called “Zangezur corridor” has long been a point of contention following the signing of the peace agreement between Yerevan and Baku. While the agreement does not specify any status given to such transport links, Baku has repeatedly demanded a “corridor” that would be under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction. On the day of the meeting in Brussels, Aliyev said that the Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan transport link should operate similarly to the Lachin corridor connecting Armenia and Karabakh. Russian peacekeepers have been deployed along the Lachin corridor since the signing of the November ceasefire agreement to guarantee secure passage between Armenia and Karabakh. 

While agreement from both leaders seems to be yet another positive sign in the reconciliation process between Yerevan and Baku, the disagreements between them showed that the issue of the status of the Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan transport link via Armenia is not yet solved. For instance, during a press conference following a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, Aliyev stated that there should be no border control or customs along the corridor and Azerbaijan “should be provided unrestricted access” to its exclave. In his response on Facebook, Pashinyan stated that the attempts by the president of Azerbaijan to “draw parallels between the opening of regional communications and the Lachin corridor have nothing to do with discussions held and statements signed on that topic to date.” He stated that Aliyev tried to “to come to a dead-end in the issue of opening regional communications.”

The Brussels Summit can be considered as a small but successful step towards reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, the meeting has once again shown that several issues remain unresolved. While both leaders verbally confirm their commitment to the ceasefire agreement, they need to take tangible steps with regard to border demarcation and delimitation, the status of the “Zangezur corridor” and the issue of Armenians detained in Azerbaijan. The role of Turkey, a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan is crucial in this regard. The talks held in Brussels coincided with moves to normalize relations between Armenia and Turkey as Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday that Turkey and Armenia would name special envoys to discuss normalization. The foreign minister also stated that charter flights between Istanbul and Yerevan would be resumed. In response to Cavusoglu’s statement, the Armenian Foreign Ministry stated that “Armenia has always been and remains ready for the process of normalization of relations with Turkey without preconditions” and that they “assess positively” Turkish minister’s statements. 

Image Source: The Armenian Weekly

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Why is Russia Building Up Its Military Presence Near Ukraine?

Since late October, Russia’s armed forces have been conducting movements and hardware transfers close to the border of Ukraine. At the beginning of November, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced that some 90,000 Russian troops equipped with thousands of tanks and armored vehicles had been deployed 160 miles (260km) away from the country’s northern border, which increased the “high probability” of military escalation. 

As Russian military movements have been taking place in different points, deep concerns have been raised in the West over a possible escalation of Russian aggression against Kyiv. While U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly warned Russia not to make a “serious mistake” by escalating its war against Ukraine, the United Kingdom announced that it would send its military forces to Ukraine. The Biden administration ramped up its efforts to de-escalate growing tensions between Moscow and Kyiv and sent CIA Director Bill Burns to Moscow, where he warned Kremlin security officials over Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine. 

Unusual movements

Moscow has been steadily expanding its military groupings in its western and southern regions following its initial invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent deterioration of relations with the West in 2014. The ‘Western encroachment’ – namely the gradual expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the east and Ukraine’s strife towards membership in the alliance – has long irritated the Kremlin. Moscow’s has ‘unfinished business’ in Ukraine as, despite the invasion of Crimea and occupation of Donbas, the country has maintained its pro-Western aspirations and has developed its economic and military capabilities.

While the previous large-scale deployment of the Russian armed forces near the Ukrainian border took place in spring 2021, the buildup involved the active use of Russian military training grounds near the Ukrainian border and in occupied Crimea. The activities were accompanied by a constant movement of troops between bases and training grounds. Nevertheless, Russia’s recent military movements have not been part of ‘normal’ military drills observed at Ukraine’s border since the start of the war in Donbas in 2014. 

Russia has increased its number of military assets in Crimea, and parts of the 1st Guards Tank Army have been deployed to Maslovka close to the border with the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in the country’s northeast. Additionally, Moscow has concentrated its military vehicles around Rostov, to the east of Ukraine. The most widely discussed movement has been the relocation of the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA) troops to the city of Yelnya, near the borders of Ukraine and Belarus. The 41st CAA, with its headquarters in Siberia, was previously based in Russia’s Central Military District. However, in the spring, the army moved to Russia’s Western Military District, which encompasses regions from Finland down to the border with Ukraine.

The CAA had been initially deployed to the Pogonovo training grounds in the Voronezh region of Russia, next to Ukraine. But in October most of its assets were relocated to Yelnia, 250 kilometers away from the Ukrainian border. From these ‘unusual’ movements, it seems that Russia has been preparing, although for exactly what remains unclear, and widely open to interpretation. What is obvious is that Moscow has positioned itself to be able to target its military movements against Kyiv.

Moscow’s hybrid strategy

Over the past several years, Russia has established new military bases in the Russian regions adjacent to Ukraine in line with its ‘hybrid’ strategy. The Kremlin has been trying to pressure Kyiv, as well as the West, through its military leverage. The continuous military movements and conflict in Donbas have served nothing but the Kremlin’s interests. While Russia’s military presence undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it has been a reminder that renewed military aggression against Ukraine might be on the Kremlin’s agenda.

In the meantime, Moscow has been ramping up its aggressive rhetoric against Ukraine. On November 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Kyiv of trying to “drag Moscow into the conflict in eastern Ukraine” following an escalation in fighting between government forces and rebels in the breakaway region. Lavrov’s statement could have been a reference to Ukraine’s recent use of strike drones in Donbas. Ukraine’s actions in Donbas angered Kremlin officials, amid an increasing U.S. naval presence in the Black Sea.

Ukraine is ‘unfinished business’ for Russia, as it is the place where Moscow has witnessed many defeats since the Orange Revolution where Moscow’s influence was undermined by pro-Western movements. Since the 2013 Euromaidan protests, the Ukrainian government has further outcasted Russia by implementing pro-democratic measures and anti-corruption reforms and voicing their aspirations for membership in NATO. Russian coercive actions against Ukraine have ‘struck back’ and further solidified Ukraine’s pro-Western aspirations. Even though Ukraine’s NATO and EU membership prospects might be unrealistic for the time being, Ukraine’s growing military cooperation and dense economic and political ties with the West largely undermine Moscow’s interests. Kyiv has been actively involved in NATO exercises and in 2020 was even named as NATO’s Enhanced Opportunities Partner. In April, Ukraine also became the first non-alliance nation to take part in the NATO Response Force.

The Kremlin’s primary goal is to undermine Ukraine’s prospects of joining NATO by maintaining conflict as candidates interested in joining the alliance are obliged to resolve all international and territorial disputes prior to membership. As Ukraine’s internationally recognized territories – the Crimean Peninsula, Luhansk and Donetsk – have been under Russian control since 2014, Ukraine’s prospects of membership remain minimal.

At the same time, Ukraine is an important part of Russia’s great power game. Russian President Vladimir Putin has long sought to restore Russia’s great power status, and he has tried to start this process by regaining dominance over key parts of Russia’s historic empire. For Putin, the restoration of the Russian-dominated neighborhood is not only geopolitical, but personal.  In 2005, the Russian president sincerely admitted that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He has continuously returned to this theme in one form or another. In July, Putin published an article where he argues that a sovereign Ukraine has no right to exist as “it invented its borders” and that the West has “established an anti-Russian project to instil fear in Ukrainians.” Similarly, many Russian television channels have supported Putin’s statements. For instance, in February, Kremlin TV chief Margarita Simonyan was a headline-grabbing highlight of the recent Russian Donbas Forum, where she joined calls to annex occupied eastern Ukraine, saying “Mother Russia, take Donbas home.”

Ukraine serves as a buffer zone between Russia and the West and could play one of the decisive factors for Europe’s future as well. Ukraine’s success in integrating with Western institutions would lead to a more democratic and freer Europe, which would have a spillover effect on other post-Soviet states and even Russia per se. Such a wave of democratization would pose a threat to Putin’s authoritarian regime, and that is why it has remained the Kremlin’s major fear since the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in the early 2000s. Although Russia might not be willing and able to invade entire Ukraine, it will continue undermining its sovereignty and stability in the short term, pushing this scenario further away from reality.

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The Sochi Summit: A Small but Successful Step Toward Reconciliation Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

On November 26, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin gathered for a summit in the city of Sochi, Russia. The summit was the second meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders since the end of the 44-day Karabakh War in November 2020. Initially, the gathering, as announced by the Russian President’s Press-Secretary Dmitri Peskov, was planned to be held on November 9 to mark the first anniversary of the signing of the November trilateral agreement, which fixed the devastating defeat of Armenia in the war, but the summit’s date was later changed. 

The summit started with a bilateral meeting between Putin and Aliyev, even though Pashinyan had arrived in Sochi earlier than his Azerbaijani counterpart. Putin then hosted a trilateral meeting that lasted more than three hours, concluding with the leaders signing a special statement. The summit concluded with a bilateral meeting between Putin and Pashinyan and a meeting between President Putin and the permanent members of the Russian Security Council. 

The Sochi summit was preceded by rising tensions and heavy fighting between Baku and Yerevan, and as expected, its focus included major issues of the post-war agenda, notably the unblocking of regional transportation and communication channels and the delimitation and demarcation of the Armenia-Azerbaijan state borders.

Praising Russia’s role in regulating the conflict and the reconciliation process, both leaders expressed their interests in establishing sustainable peace. Aliyev said that Azerbaijan had offered a ‘peace agreement’ to Armenia, including the mutual recognition of territorial integrity, which it had refused to accept. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, on the other hand, stated that the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan was not “as good as they would like it to be” and expressed his dissatisfaction with Azerbaijan still holding Armenian prisoners of war and allegedly having troops stationed on Armenian territory. 

Despite that, the two sides did not sign any official agreements regarding the delimitation and demarcation of the borders or on new transportation corridors connecting Azerbaijan’s with its exclave of Nakhchivan via Armenia. Even though both issues are reflected in the Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreement, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been interpreting them in different ways. The “interpretation problem” has not deterred but instead has contributed to occasionally rising tensions between the two sides.

Instead of an additional agreement, Aliyev and Pashinyan merely signed a one-page document in which they pledged to commit to “taking steps to increase the level of stability and security on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border.” In the document, the three sides expressed their intention “to work towards the creation of a bilateral commission on the delimitation of the state border” between Armenia and Azerbaijan “with its subsequent demarcation with the consultative assistance of the Russian Federation at the request of the parties.” They also pledged “to intensify joint efforts aimed at the earliest possible resolution” to establish economic and transport connections in the region. According to Putin, the commission would be established before the end of the year.

The document signed in Sochi is an important step forward in the relations between Yerevan and Baku as they have recognized interstate borders and agreed to peacefully resolve the ongoing disputes, a factor that has largely undermined post-war peace and reconciliation processes. Hence, the agreement between Pashinyan and Aliyev has the potential to eventually help settle the border disputes between the two countries and prevent armed escalations that have plagued both sides since the ceasefire agreement.

Some agreements reached between the two sides have not been stated in the joint statement and will be summarized by the deputy prime ministers under the Armenian-Azerbaijani-Russian trilateral working group. The group, which was formed at the beginning of this year and gathered the deputy prime ministers from each country, has been actively meeting since its establishment and has been working on action plans for regional transportation links, including the Zangezur corridor.

Additionally, during the summit, the Armenian side did not raise the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status as it previously insisted on. On November 23, the Armenian Prime Minister even stated that ‘Karabakh’ had nothing to do “with the territory” and was “a matter of law” underlining that Armenia had recognized Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity “under the documents of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 1991.”

While Pashinyan’s statement somewhat contrasted Armenia’s previous rhetoric for “remedial secession” of “Artsakh” (Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh), the outcome of the Sochi summit seems to have been a constructive step in the post-war peace process between the Baku and Yerevan. Pashinyan’s apparently divergent stance and the adopted statement demonstrate the potential for peace and reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a concept that has often come under question in light of disputes that have emerged since the signing of the trilateral agreement ending the 2020 war.

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Russia’s Militarization of Belarus Poses New Threats to Ukraine

It has been almost a year since the European Union and the United States enacted sanctions against Belarus due to the government’s crackdown on the protests following the country’s presidential elections. However, Western measures have not had any efficient impact as they have fallen short in ending the authoritarian regime.

Lukashenko has long played Russia and the West against each other in a manner that provided him with a degree of international respect. However, the Western ostracization of Belarus has pushed Lukashenko unprecedentedly closer to Moscow. Russia has been steadily expanding its leverage over Minsk since the 2020 protests, most notably when the Kremlin sent Belarus a 1.5 billion USD loan and agreed to deepen trade linkages. However, Moscow’s support has come with strings attached, and the patron-client relationship which the two countries have entered has become a new opportunity for the Kremlin to garner political and economic control over Minsk and to turn Belarus into its military place d’armes.

Belarus in the Russian orbit

Russia has always been a powerful economic and political partner for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, supporting the current authoritarian regime for 27 years. However, the relationship between the two countries has always been unstable. Belarus was never interested in being part of ‘Ruskiy Mir’ (the Russian World) and even “flirted” with the West to antagonize Moscow. The Belarusian government has even removed pro-Russian figures from the country’s security apparatus.

In 2014, when Russia started its military campaign against Ukraine, Lukashenko remained neutral and refused to recognize Russian claims on the Crimean Peninsula. The Belarusian president emphasized that he would not permit any attacks against Ukraine from Belarus proper. Lukashenko also showed readiness to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine and to host peace negotiations in Minsk aimed at diffusing the conflict. The position of neutrality in the conflict paid off, as it boosted Lukashenko’s international image, with Minsk becoming a hub for Ukraine-Russia air traffic following the 2015 ban of all direct flights between Moscow and Kyiv.

August 2020, however, marked the dawn of a new period, in which Lukashenko violently cracked down on nationwide protests over a rigged presidential election. The Kremlin directly assisted Lukashenko to effectively overcome months of street rallies and weather sanctions. Putin also promised the Belarusian leader military assistance if things went “out of control.” Despite such guarantees, Russian aid to Lukashenko has not come without a price. Having been isolated by the West, the Belarusian dictator has no choice but to remain within the Russian orbit and play the game according to the Kremlin’s rules.

While Lukashenko has sided with Russia, Ukraine has broadly aligned itself with the West. Over the past year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become increasingly critical of Lukashenko. In July, Kyiv joined the West in restricting flights from entering the Belarusian airspace following the forced-landing of a Ryanair plane in May, an incident that has been branded as an act of “state-sponsored piracy”. In the meantime, Lukashenko stated that Belarusian national airline Belavia would launch flights to Crimea, a statement that indicated Minsk’s readiness to recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian territory. Lukashenko has also accused Kyiv of being involved in “foreign plots” aimed at destabilizing Belarus through the use of militants that had been trained in Ukraine.

Russia’s new military district

An invasion via Belarus has always been part of Ukraine’s fears. Nevertheless, the threat has become more real as isolated Minsk’s dependence on Moscow has skyrocketed. Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin have conducted five rounds of negotiations on the so-called Union State, a project aimed to deepen political and economic integration between Russia and Belarus. On September 9, after meeting with Putin for the fifth time in 2021, a 28-point road map was introduced with the goal to bind the two countries closer together. Lukashenko expressed his interest in closer integration with Russia, even though it is apparent that the integration project will limit Minsk’s independence.

Belarus has emerged as a new security threat to Ukraine as Russia has been effectively cementing a permanent military presence in the country. So far, Moscow and Minsk have conducted a record number of joint military drills in 2021. Additionally, in August, a new joint training base was established in the town of Grodno near the border with Poland and Lithuania.

On September 12, Lukashenka has announced plans to deploy Russian S-400 air defense systems near northern districts of Ukraine “to protect his country’s border with Ukraine.” The statement came after Moscow held one of its largest joint exercises with Belarus on Ukraine’s northern flank in September, involving around 200,000 troops. The Belarusian dictator also highlighted that the defense system was part of a $1 billion arms package agreed upon during the September summit in Moscow.

The announcement on the relocation of the defense system raised fears in Ukraine, as it can be interpreted as an indicator of the Kremlin’s pre-war preparations. The defense systems would be needed for protecting Russian troops in the case of a sudden invasion from Belarus. Russia has already annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in the south and occupied the Donetsk and Luhansk districts in the east. With little progress towards conflict resolution, the prospect of a possible hybrid war from the north represents a major challenge to the Ukrainian government.

Lukashenko’s recent statement on the deployment of Russian defense systems to the Ukrainian border suggests progress has been made in Russia’s stealth takeover of Minsk, but the fact that Belarus might be turning into a new front in Putin’s ongoing hybrid warfare against Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

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Moldovan Gas Crisis Reveals Vulnerability to Russia’s Weaponization of Energy Supplies

October 30 marked the beginning of a gas crisis in Moldova, shortly after the government declared a state of emergency. Moldova failed to secure a new deal with Gazprom, a Russian state-owned gas company, which has long been the main energy supplier for a small post-Soviet country of 2.6 million people. The energy crisis Moldova started after the Russian company raised its rate from 250 USD to 800 USD per thousand cubic meters, a rate Moldova would not be able to afford to pay. Even though Moldova tried to extend the energy contract under the previous terms, Russia showed reluctance to prolong the contract due to Chisinau’s ‘historical debt’ to Gazprom, which, as Gazprom claims, is nearly 710 million USD. With the previous contract having expired and Chisinau having to pay back the debt, the country found itself stranded ahead of a cold winter.

Leveraging energy

Moldova’s gas crisis followed the Kremlin’s generous energy deals with countries it considers its ‘friends.’ On November 4, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko succeed in securing prices 7-10 times lower than any country across Europe. Similarly, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has been expecting ‘advantageous rates’ from Moscow. In this situation, Moscow’s attempt to increase pressure on Moldova through its gas supply, for the most part, is politically motivated.

Moldova has been led by Maia Sandu since November 2020, after she won the presidential race against the pro-Russian candidate, Igor Dodon. Since then, the country’s first-ever female president has been eager to deepen Moldova’s integration with the European Union (EU). Moreover, Chisinau further irritated the Kremlin, after Sandu’s reformist Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) won a healthy majority in Moldova’s general election, defeating Igor Dodon’s Socialist Party. Russia had never hesitated to issue cheap energy deals with Chisinau during Dodon’s incumbency between 2016 and 2020, but Moscow has recently shown greater hesitance to do so.

Russia’s political motivations are clear as Moldova’s new government has made European integration the country’s main foreign policy goal. Moscow has emphasized that a new gas contract deal was not issued to Moldova merely due to ‘exclusively commercial’ reasons; it denied the involvement of any political pressure. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that Moscow has been taking advantage of its energy exports for the sake of extracting political concessions. There are myriad instances when Moscow used its energy as a tool for ‘political blackmailing.’ In 2014, Moscow decided to drop pro-Western Ukraine’s energy deal agreed upon in the previous year due to the country’s debt to Gazprom.

No alternatives but Russia

Moldova is overdependent on Russian energy, which gives the advantage to the latter in price negotiations. Moldova’s national gas company Moldovagaz is controlled by Gazprom, and the country lacks alternatives for its energy supply. At the same time, approximately 80 per cent of the country’s electricity comes from a Russian-owned power plant in the breakaway region of Transnistria, over which the government in Chisinau has no control. These factors significantly boost Russian leverage over Moldova’s energy security.

At the same time, the Kremlin might have attempted to undermine Moldova’s energy sector reforms through the framework of the Third Energy Package and challenge the country’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union. It has been confirmed by members of the Moldovan legislature that Chisinau was asked to “put the free-trade agreement on the table” in order to secure a cheaper gas price. Moldova undertook the Third Energy Package in 2011 to unbundle MoldovaGaz, whose main shareholder is Gazprom, into three separate companies dealing with the purchase, transmission and distribution of gas in the country. Russia, not wishing to lose its influence in the Moldovan energy sector, has consistently opposed these measures. 

Similarly, the DCFTA, which was signed by the EU and Moldova in 2014, has played an essential role in Moldova’s close linkages with the Union, and as a result, Moldova’s 70 per cent of export products, including electrical machinery and wine, have been sold to the European market. Apart from that, Moscow may have aimed to prompt disappointment in Moldovans towards the pro-EU incumbent party, which “failed to secure a cheap gas deal.” This would create momentum for the weakened pro-Russian Socialist Party to undermine the image of the government’s management of the energy crisis in the eyes of Moldovans and once again emerge as considerable political forces.

The Moldovan government tried to look for alternatives and has asked the EU for assistance. Romania, Ukraine, and Poland have been the first to deliver gas supplied to Chisinau. This has been the first time Moldova purchased gas from a state other than Russia. At the end of October, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that the EU would grant Moldova 60 million EUR to purchase natural gas. Even though the assistance from the EU and Moldova’s neighbors and has been helpful, it could not fulfil the high demand for gas in the country.

An alternative that could substitute the Russian gas did not emerge either, and eventually, Moldova’s pro-western government was left with no option but to reach a new deal once again with Gazprom. At the beginning of November, the two sides managed to agree on “mutually beneficial terms” and Moldova secured a new five-year contract. Moldova has tried to diversify its energy, but it failed to set itself free from Russia’s monopoly. The recent energy crisis in Moldova is a clear manifestation that Russia’s still enjoys extensive energy leverage in the region and can direct it against pro-Western governments.

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A Six-Party Regional Cooperation in the South Caucasus: a Beneficial Opportunity or a Threat?

During past decades, many initiatives have been proposed for regional cooperation in the South Caucasus, mainly coming from Georga and Turkey. In 1999, then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze proposed the creation of the “Peaceful Caucasus Initiative” which was followed by Suleyman Demirel’s “Stability Pact for the Caucasus.” Later in 2008, then-Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, proposed the “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform” while then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili promoted the idea of “United Caucasus.” Despite many ambitious plans, none of the initiatives ever came into force.

In December 2020, after the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, bolstered by Turkey’s growing influence in the South Caucasus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once again made a proposition on a new regional cooperation platform. However, this time he suggested creating a new format, the Six Country Regional Cooperation Platform, which would encompass the three states of the South Caucasus (Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia) together with the greater states surrounding the region (Turkey, Russia, and Iran). During his speech at the victory celebration in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, Erdogan underlined the need for regional cooperation in the Caucasus region, as it could be a win-win game for all participating sides and could even “turn a new page in Turkey-Armenia ties”.

In the meantime, Iran also proposed the creation of a similar six-party cooperation union in the region referred to as the 3+3 platform. To introduce the initiative and discuss how to cooperate and “make coordination on regional issues” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made trips to the other five countries envisaged in the proposed platform. Nevertheless, to date, no practical steps have been taken in implementing the project, as it has been mainly part of diplomatic discussions. Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan have been enthusiastic about the project, and Russia has approved of the initiative as well. Nevertheless, the initiative has not been met with the same enthusiasm by Georgia and Armenia.

A new opening for influence

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently increased Russia’s military presence in the South Caucasus by stationing Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh, has been “keen” on the idea, according to Erdoğan. On October 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even made an announcement that Moscow was committed to the establishment of a new 3+3 format to “address the issues of security [and] unblocking economic and transport ties.”

This comes as no surprise as the Kremlin has long sought to increase its leverage on its post-Soviet neighbors to undermine the Western encroachment in the region of its “special interests”. Russia has been on the lookout to make it difficult for the Biden Administration to reiterate America’s role in the former Soviet space and strengthen cooperation in the region, especially with its strategic partner, Georgia. The second Karabakh war has been an opening for the Kremlin to reassert its influence in the South Caucasus region. 

In the meantime, Turkey has been set on expanding its regional influence as well. The Turkish government has realized Russia’s importance in the region and despite a competitive relationship with Moscow, it has sought to work with Russia to achieve its own regional ambitions. For instance, since the end of the war, Turkey, alongside Azerbaijan, has been pushing for the construction of a transport link between Azerbaijan and Turkey via southern Armenia that could solidify Ankara’s transport connection with the South Caucasus and, at the same time, boost the region’s geo-economic importance, something that largely attracts Azerbaijan as well.

Iran could gain more than any side of the initiative. Tehran was largely absent in the war and did not gain a new footing in the South Caucasus like Turkey and Russia. Iran, however, remains the only country that has maintained regular diplomatic relations with all three countries in the South Caucasus. Armenian-Turkish relations have not yet been restored, and relations between Georgia and Russia have been tense since 2008. Hence, Iran would be the only participating country to obtain a leading position in the platform and host high-level meetings.

Moreover, Iran sits astride two important trans-continental transportation corridors: the North-South Corridor and the Persian Gulf–Black Sea Transit Corridor. The South Caucasus is a gateway for Iran, as a land route via Armenia and Georgia plays an essential role for Tehran’s economy, facilitating the main transport gateway for Iran to the Black Sea and on to Europe. In the aftermath of the 2020 Karabakh war, Baku took control of the territory critical for Iran’s land transportation routes. The Azerbaijani government has imposed a tough policy on entries into the territory via Armenia, furthering recent tensions that have developed between Tehran and Baku. In this situation, Tehran’s 3+3 cooperation plan for the South Caucasus region could combine these two important and strategic transit corridors. Tehran would warm tensions with Azerbaijan and guarantee safe passage of its trucks headed towards Armenia. Through developing trans-border rail networks under the framework of a six-state initiative, Iran could boost its importance as one of the major regional players.

Cautious Georgia and Armenia

Although Azerbaijan has expressed support for the proposed initiatives put forth by Iran and Turkey, Georgia and Armenia have shown reluctance. Both initiatives are similar in their form and content, especially when it comes to members states and major areas of cooperation: economy and transport.

Armenia has serious concerns due to the unfavourable outcome of the Karabakh conflict and its difficulty to absorb a new reality. The peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been fragile since the end of the war. Although Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has recognized that cooperating with Azerbaijan and Turkey would benefit Yerevan and even showed preparedness to normalize relations with Turkey, no tangible results have been achieved in this regard yet. On the contrary, post-war border tensions between Baku and Yerevan have further undermined peace prospects between the two countries, deepening the sense of insecurity in Yerevan. Concerns in Yerevan have been exacerbated by the continued refusal of Azerbaijan to release Armenian prisoners, and reports of the torture and death of Armenians while in Azeri custody.

A substantial issue for Yerevan is the interpretation of Article 9 of the November 2020 Karabakh war ceasefire agreement. The Azerbaijani side believes the document gives it the right to establish an overland transit corridor linking mainland Azerbaijan with its Nakhchivan exclave via southern Armenia’s Syunik province, what Azerbaijan refers to as the Zangezur corridor. Nevertheless, the Armenian side interprets the reference to the term ‘corridor’ as referring only to the Lachin corridor, a narrow strip which connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, the situation has become even more strained after several comments from Azerbaijani officials that southern regions of Armenia used to be the “ancestral land” of Azerbaijanis, which have slowed down the peacebuilding processes.

The initiative is even more concerning for Georgia as it is inherently incompatible with the country’s national interests. Russia, which is envisaged as one of the members of the platform, still occupies Abkhazia and South Ossetia, accounting for 20 percent of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory. For more than a decade, Russian occupying forces have demarcated along, and allegedly beyond, the administrative lines between Georgia and occupied territories, which is referred to as ‘illegal borderization’. Hence, it is implausible that Georgia would join a platform that includes Russia as a member. Georgian government officials have stated it would be difficult to take part in any regional body with Russia unless Moscow ends its occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “We have reiterated our position that it would be hard to cooperate with the occupier [Russia] in this framework, as we do not see any progress with regard to de-occupation. It is hard to talk about any kind of infrastructure projects,” stated Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani. Strikingly, he also underlined the importance of Georgia’s participation in regional initiatives to “not to fall behind the developing processes in the region” and to maintain the country’s important role in the region. However, considering the public outrage that followed the Foreign Minister’s announcement, it is dubious that Georgia would consider becoming a member of the initiative.

Tbilisi could also take concern over new transport corridors that could bypass Georgia. The construction and restoration of railway and land routes across the region as provided for by the January trilateral agreement between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan has envisioned a new transit reality for the South Caucasus. Armenia could acquire a new transit function, while Azerbaijan would have the opportunity to further diversify its transport connections with global markets. Some Georgian experts believe that new transit routes could downgrade Georgia’s regional transit role.

In the meantime, concerns in Georgia grow as the European Union and United States continue to maintain a minimal presence in the South Caucasus. Tbilisi is eager to deepen its integration in European and Euro-Atlantic institutions, especially following the 2008 war with Russia. Since then, around 80 percent of Georgia’s population has expressed support for Georgia’s integration into the European Union and NATO; Russia has been considered the biggest threat by the majority of the population. In light of these realities, it is unlikely that Georgia would seek to join an alliance that could detract from its prior ambitions.

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Iran’s Military Drills Prompt New Challenges for Baku

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On October 1, Iran carried out a series of large-scale military drills at an unprecedented scale in the north-eastern part of the country, near the border with Azerbaijan. In response, on October 3, Azerbaijan, along with its ally Turkey, made an announcement on launching joint military exercises in Nakhchivan, the Azerbaijani exclave bordering Iran from the north. The developments of recent weeks have strained relations between Baku and Tehran. While the most recent reason for the escalation could be the increased pressure on Iranian truck drivers by Azerbaijani security forces, tense relations between Baku and Tehran have been building up for years. Today, even though Azerbaijan has been victorious in the second Nagorno-Karabakh War, it may be confronted by a new threat from the south.

Iran’s fears

The most recent cause of the escalation between Baku and Tehran appears to be the detention of two Iranian truck drivers by Azerbaijani security forces. The drivers were delivering goods to Armenia through a land route passing through small slices of Azerbaijani territory. The route is the main artery between Armenia and Iran, and Iranian trucks use it to supply Armenia and the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh as well. 

The land where the drivers were detained has been internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but was taken over by Armenian forces in the aftermath of the first Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the 1990s. Nevertheless, Baku regained control over the region in the last year’s war. Since then, Baku has taken control of the territory with a tough policy on entries into the territory via Armenia. According to Armenian media reports, Azerbaijani police checked Iranian vehicles “transporting cement to Yerevan and Stepanakert” and charged them with substantial fees. In September, Azerbaijan officially confirmed that drivers were being checked by police posts situated on “Azerbaijan’s liberated territories”.

After last year’s war, restoring transport connections, specifically a route connecting Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan and Turkey via Armenia was one of the key parts of the Russia-brokered 2020 ceasefire agreement. Since then, however, no tangible results have been achieved mainly due to never-ending tensions between Yerevan and Baku.

As Baku has attempted to ratchet up the execution of the construction of the Azerbaijan-Nakhchivan transport link, there have been some statements in Azerbaijan, suggesting that Syunik, the southern region of Armenia (known as Zangezur in Azerbaijan), which is envisioned to host the route, was an “ancestorial land of Azerbaijanis” and that they have the right to “return” there. Such comments, especially from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, have alarmed not only Armenia but Iran as well.

Although Iran is a supporter of Armenia’s territorial integrity and has friendly relations with Yerevan, the route connecting the two countries is essential for Tehran’s economy. Iran does not have a lot of trading partners in its neighborhood, largely owing to geopolitical ostracization from US-aligned states in the region. The land route crossing Armenia and Georgia to the further north remains the main transport gateway for Iran to the Black Sea and Europe and at the same time plays a vital role in the functioning of the North-South Corridor between Russia and Iran. The restoration of control over some parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding districts, which were also under the occupation of Armenia, by Azerbaijan has led to Iran’s transport insecurity. To solve this issue, Tehran has been pushing the idea of building a new route to Armenia that would bypass Azerbaijan proper.

“Zionist presence”

The outcome of the second Karabakh war had a significant impact on the balance of power in the South Caucasus. The victory in the war has come as an opening for both Azerbaijan and Turkey, allied countries often referred to as “one nation with two states”. Since then, Turkey and Azerbaijan have been trying to assert their regional power through military drills, which has been the worst nightmare for Tehran. Particularly painful were the Turkish-Azerbaijani naval exercises in the Caspian Sea.

One of the major factors that have aggravated the situation is the alleged Israeli presence in Azerbaijan and Israel’s support for the country. Since its independence, Azerbaijan has developed strong strategic and economic ties with Israel, and being a secular state, it developed closer linkage with Israel, than its regional rival, Iran.

Israel views Iran as the biggest threat in the region, as it supports anti-Israeli armed groups such as Hezbollah, as well as hostile governments such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Azerbaijan has been purchasing military hardware from Israel, which played a pivotal role in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenian forces last year. While Israeli-produced drones were actively involved in the Second Karabakh War, Iran has alleged that Israeli militants have been stationed in Azerbaijan. According to one leaked U.S. diplomatic document from 2009, Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel is “like an iceberg, nine-tenths … below the surface”.

This has been one of the main reasons for Iran’s security concerns. On September 30, a day before Iran began its military manoeuvres, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian had announced that Tehran would not “tolerate the presence and activities of the Zionist regime against its national security” and would opt for doing “whatever necessary in this regard”. Strikingly, the title of the Iranian military drills held on October 1 was ‘Conquerors of Khaybar’ referring to the Arabic city where Muhammad defeated the Jews in 628.

Another element of this escalation might have been the opening of a new airport in the town of Fizuli, which is located only 30 kilometres away from the Iranian border. The Fizuli airport is capable of hosting heavy transport and modern fighter jets. Given the relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel, there is some possibility that the airport may have a strategic role in the future. If Israel were to benefit from this development, it would certainly prompt concern for Iran.

By Soso Dzamukashvili

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