Part 1 | Too close for comfort: Russia & the ‘near abroad’

Lincoln Pigman studies war at King’s College London, and is still wondering what it’s good for. Tweet him at @LincolnPigman for incisive observations about all things Russia.

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Introduction

Any conversation about Russia’s threat to international security should begin at its borders, in the so-called ‘near abroad.’ A product of Russia’s post-Soviet identity crisis, the blizhnee zarubezhye technically refers to its neighbours, nothing more. Yet, as former members of the Soviet bloc, these countries are ‘nearer’ to Moscow and its interests than most, a distinct geopolitical dynamic comparable at times to the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’; at others to the hegemonic and occasionally forceful say in Eastern European and Central Asian affairs exercised by the Soviet Union. Russia’s insistence on influencing the policy decisions of historical subordinates varies from neighbour to neighbour, as does the extent to which it enforces its interests with violence. These differences bring about a diversity of threat perceptions along Russia’s western and southern borders that defy generalisations.

Ukraine

Ambivalence defines Ukraine’s threat perception of Russia. Despite the latter’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, the reality of Russo-Ukrainian relations is far too complex to accommodate a simplistic friend-or-foe dichotomy. For one, although talk of severing diplomatic relations with Moscow persists in Kyiv, [1] economically, Ukraine cannot afford to complete its ideologically driven divorce with Russia. Although a EU-brokered gas deal late last year struck observers as a Russian defeat—acceptance that Putin could not leverage gas exports amid economic crisis—it also underlines Ukraine’s inability to end energy dependence on Russia. The uncertain future of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, dealt a near-lethal blow by the Dutch referendum on 6 April, seems to confirm an unpleasant truth: Ukraine’s economy is as shackled to Russia as ever.

This is not the place to detail how and why; nor could I improve upon Nicolai Petro’s explanation in the Guardian. [2] However, it is important to keep in mind. While the Ukrainian government does its best to appear firm in the face of Russian aggression, liberally extending sanctions against the Kremlin [3] and even committing to building a $517 million ‘Great Wall’ along its easternmost border, [4] nothing short of a clean—but cataclysmic—break from Russia can achieve Ukrainian autarky.

Whatever their economic ties, Russia remains a veritable threat to Ukraine and its security. As argued in an earlier article, the Kremlin’s ultimate goal in supporting the eastern insurgency is destabilising Ukraine to the point where no Western organisation, be it NATO or the EU, will dare accept it into its ranks. [5] Russia’s economic decline has not kept its proxies from pursuing new offensives, with multiple reports of ceasefire violations over the past month. [6] Conventional military operations in eastern Ukraine—as well as increasingly dangerous cyberattacks [7]—cost lives and tie down government resources that could be put to use improving the welfare of Ukrainians, undermining national and human security.

Russia also poses a threat in its subtle influence on decision-makers in Kyiv: entrenched in their reluctance to devolve authority to eastern territories, a key part of the Minsk II agreement, many Ukrainian politicians play into the hands of Putin. [8] Non-compliance with Minsk II makes Ukraine’s integration into Europe, and the West more generally, less likely, and leaves Ukraine in a limbo. It can neither join the West nor effectively combat Russia, in part because of the withholding of arms by Washington and co. [9]

Russia maintains economic relations that are vital to Ukraine’s stability while undercutting that same stability through military operations and information warfare, a paradox of sorts. But it is a paradox around which threat perceptions of Russia in Kyiv revolve: recognition of both Russia’s importance to Ukraine and the near-irreconcilability of their respective interests. Cynical perspectives assure that Russian aggression will cease with Ukraine’s acquiescence to a Eurasian order dominated by Moscow. Others assert that Russia will always pose a threat to Ukrainian interests, driven by deep-rooted imperial ambitions. Neither side can deny that, for the time being, Ukraine is stuck in between two camps, with one foot in the West and one in Russia. It is a predicament that will moderate threat perceptions of Russia until fundamental changes in the Russo-Ukrainian dynamic take place.

Georgia

Georgia, on the other hand, has committed itself to the West. In fact, European integration, says the Director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, is nothing short of Georgia’s main grand strategic objective. [10] Accordingly, Russia’s pursuit of regional hegemony and its threat to Georgian security—the impetus for Tbilisi’s pivot westward—bulk large in the minds of Georgian decision-makers.

Although Georgia’s attempts to join NATO began in 2002, long before the Russo-Georgian War, that conflict intensified the former Soviet republic’s efforts. Encouraged by the Bucharest NATO Communique of 2008, which promised Georgia (and Ukraine) eventual membership, Georgia has pulled out all the stops: contributing 12,000 soldiers to NATO’s operations in Afghanistan since 2010, meeting the 2% defence expenditure quota, and undergoing substantive democratisation. [11] Brussels and Washington have nonetheless done little to reciprocate Georgia’s gestures, and seem reluctant to expedite Georgian accession.

The most plausible reason why appears to be unwillingness to further provoke Russia, whom Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili recently called the ‘number one security threat’ to Georgia. [12] Yet, although the potential for Russian retaliation seems to preclude Georgian membership in NATO and the EU, beyond that blow to long-standing Georgian aspirations, Russia presents little in the way of a military threat. Since normalising Russo-Georgian relations in the wake of the 2008 war, Russia has actively sought the improvement of bilateral relations: a goal made difficult by widespread apprehension towards intimate ties with Russia.

Having foregone the hard power that turned so many Georgians away from Russia, Moscow has opted for the soft, funding groups like the pro-Eurasian Economic Union NGO Eurasian Choice and making accessible Russian television channels to reach a Georgian audience. [13] Along with the conservative Georgian church, these instruments of Russian influence strive to generate pro-Russian sentiment while eroding enthusiasm for European integration.

However, Tbilisi is not completely unfounded in its threat assessment of Russia. When unable to convey its interests to Georgia’s leadership through formal channels, Russia has returned to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, undermining Georgia’s territorial claims by granting citizenship to South Ossetians, [14] building a road on the South Ossetian-Georgian border, [15] and tacitly approving a South Ossetian referendum on joining Russia. [16] That Russia has yet to fulfil its obligations under the Six-Point Cease-Fire Agreement does not help check Georgian concerns.

Georgia’s Russia dilemma implies a choice: between further integration, which may prompt hostility from Moscow, and scaling back integration, which may leave Georgia vulnerable to Russian incursion and subversion and cost it credibility. Were Georgia to enjoy the support of the West, whether political (via the EU) or military (via NATO), it may approach that decision with greater confidence. For the time being, it is likely to remain uncertain of its security from Russia and consequently apprehensive towards its northern neighbour, its fears of a resurgent Russian threat compounded by a lack of European support.

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Belarus

Faced with the dilemma of balancing between Russia and the West, Georgia and Ukraine failed to avert ‘hot’ confrontations with Russia. Belarus, on the other hand, is only now considering the merits of partnership with Europe, having spent the last two decades in Russia’s camp. Its glances westward have not gone unnoticed in Moscow, where Putin cautiously gages Belarus’ plans and their implications for Russian regional ambitions.

Until recently, there was no reason for ‘Europe’s last dictator,’ in the words of former U.S. President George W. Bush, to consider alternatives to Russia. With Putin’s Russia a reliable economic and political partner, Lukashenko’s Belarus violated human rights with impunity, insulated from sanctions imposed by the EU and the U.S. Notably, Russo-Belarusian cooperation extends into defence and security policy, with joint exercises still commonplace. [17] In fact, some allege that Russian troops trained for the occupation of eastern Ukraine in Belarus, [18] and that Belarus is involved in infiltrating Lithuania’s armed forces. [19]

A narrative of Belarusian neutrality is not new. Despite Belarusian recognition of Crimea as de facto Russian territory, [20] an important gesture for Moscow, Lukashenko has also set up Minsk as the site for East-West negotiations on Ukraine. [21] However, neutrality is gradually giving way to balancing.

The driver seems to have been the economic crisis produced by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The Russian rouble’s devaluation triggered that of Belarus’, and a 3.7% fall in Russia’s GDP in 2015 precipitated a 3.9% drop in Belarus’. [22] Acceptance that Russia may no longer be the economic anchor it has always been has brought about political concessions to the West. These have ranged from direct, such as the release of political prisoners in August 2015, which resulted in the lifting of EU and U.S. sanctions, [23] to indirect, like resistance to problematic Russian initiatives.

For instance, take Putin’s failure to push through construction of a Russian military base in Belarus last fall. Before Ukraine, Lukashenko would have had little reason to reject increased military cooperation with Russia. Even today, the chances of Russian intervention, a la Ukraine or Georgia, are small. Instead, implications for EU/NATO-Belarus relations discourage Minsk from agreeing to increased Russian military presence inside Belarus’ borders. Lukashenko accordingly rejected Russia’s base, reasoning that it would exacerbate regional tensions. [24] He has taken a similar stance on Putin’s recent suggestion that Russian air defence systems be integrated with those of Belarus, but it remains to be seen whether Putin will take ‘no’ for an answer this time. [25]

To Putin’s credit, he has been restrained in his objections to increased cooperation between Belarus and the West, of an economic character thus far. The lifting of EU sanctions was met positively by the Kremlin, [26] and Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has noticeably avoided waging a war of rhetoric on Belarus’ pivot westward. But can it afford to? Perhaps Russia’s permissive stance on Belarus’ emerging partnership with Washington and Brussels (and even Ankara) [27] stems from recognition that an antagonistic relationship between Putin and Lukashenko is infeasible, that Russia needs Belarus: to bolster Russian security and to sustain trade amid international isolation. After creating a near-failed state in Ukraine and alienating, rather than subordinating, Georgia, it is not implausible that Russia has learned that interventionism, especially close to home, does not work.

Belarus’ perception of Russia is not that of a threat. Rather, Belarus surely views Russia as an important partner in economic, defence, and security affairs, but one to be held at a distance. The Ukraine crisis has provided Lukashenko with an excellent opportunity to build ties with the West without having to make substantive political reforms at home, maintaining some level of authoritarianism but enjoying the benefits of cooperation with the West. Russia’s embattled state means it is unlikely to begin a fourth military confrontation in a decade, certainly not while Belarus remains committed to maintaining strong relations with Moscow—even if they are no longer Belarus’ only relations. In the words of Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, Belarus ‘is not a ship that drifts one way or another.’ [28]

Conclusion

Eastern Ukraine burns, Georgia smolders, and Belarus welcomes a thaw between itself and the West. Each has its reasons to distrust Russia, but the threats it poses differ drastically. In Ukraine, Russia threatens destabilisation and an indefinite future of instability; in Georgia, the possibility of Russian retaliation keeps European integration at bay; and in Belarus, Russian interests necessitate a balancing act between Moscow and the West. Simplistic narratives of an encroaching, expansionist Russia overlook the nuances of its ties to neighbours in the ‘near abroad,’ and the unique dilemmas they face in dealings with Russia. Analyses should recognise these distinctions, foregoing generalisations and misreadings of history in favour of a perspective that can produce effective approaches to dialogue, détente, and deterrence with Russia.

Sources:

1 ‘V Verhovnoi Rade Ukrainy mogut vnesti na golosovanie proekt zakona o razryve diplomaticheskih otnoshenii s Rossiei,’ Ekho Moskvy, April 11, 2016.

2 Nicolai Petro, ‘Why Ukraine needs Russia more than ever,’ The Guardian, March 9, 2016.

3 Alessandra Prentice, ‘Ukraine extends Russia sanctions over Savchenko case,’ Reuters, March 25, 2016.

4 Damien Sharkov, ‘Ukraine’s “Great Wall” with Russia to start building in weeks,’ Newsweek, March 15, 2016.

5 Lincoln Pigman, ‘All quiet on the eastern front: Ukraine’s uncertain future,’ KCL International Relations Today, February 23, 2016.

6 ‘Boeviki 87 raz za sutki otkryvali ogon’, strelyayut v osnovnom v tyomnoe vremya sutok,’ NEWSru.ua, April 13, 2016; Paul Quinn-Judge, ‘Ukraine’s meat grinder is back in business,’ Foreign Policy, April 12, 2016; ‘Russian fighters continue to flow into east Ukraine, U.S. official states,’ IHS Jane’s 360, March 17, 2016.

7 Andrea Peterson, ‘Hackers caused a blackout for the first time, researchers say,’ The Washington Post, January 5, 2016.

8 Gwendolyn Sasse, ‘To be or not to be? Ukraine’s Minsk process,’ Carnegie Europe, March 2, 2016.

9 Oleksandr Holubov, ‘Poroshenko empty-handed in Washington,’ Carnegie Moscow Center, April 4, 2016.

10  Kornely Kakachia, ‘Current security and foreign policy challenges of Georgia,’ Lecture at King’s College London, February 25, 2016.

11 Tornike Zurabashvili, ‘Let Georgia join NATO,’ Foreign Affairs, April 12, 2016.

12 Tamar Svanidze, ‘Georgia’s Prime Minister talks EU, Russia relations with CNN,’ Georgia Today, March 29, 2016.

13 Ibid. 10.

14 David J. Kramer, ‘Renewed confrontation in Georgia,’ Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action Contingency Planning Memorandum 28 (Mar. 2016), 1.

15 Tamar Svanidze, ‘Russian troops build new road on South Ossetia contact line,’ Georgia Today, March 14, 2016.

16 ‘Disputed South Ossetia will hold referendum on joining Russia,’ The Moscow Times, April 11, 2016.

17 ‘Russia-Belarus military drills begin in Russian central military district,’ TASS, March 29, 2016.

18 ‘Russia took trainings on Donbas occupation in Belarus, the intelligence says,’ Charter 97, February 23, 2016.

19 ‘Lithuania intelligence: Russia and Belarus may be interfering with armed forces,’ Eurowire, March 31, 2016.

20 Artyom Shraibman, ‘Europe’s last dictator comes in from the cold,’ Carnegie Moscow Center, April 6, 2016.

21 Keir Giles, ‘What does Putin have planned for Belarus?’ Newsweek, April 15, 2016.

22 Ibid. 20.

23 Andrew Wilson, ‘Belarus’ balancing act: Lukashenko looks West—and East,’ Foreign Affairs, October 29, 2015.

24 Katya Golubkova, ‘Belarus says Russian military base will worsen tensions: Kommersant,’ Reuters, October 28, 2015.

25 Ibid. 21.

26 ‘Russia welcomes EU decision to lift Belarus sanctions,’ RFE/RL, February 16, 2016.

27 Vladimir Mikheev, ‘Opportunistic Lukashenko seeks benefits by courting Erdogan,’ RBTH, April 18, 2016.

28 ‘Minsk to develop ties with EU without damaging relations with Moscow – foreign minister,’ TASS, April 8, 2016.

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