Free-rider on the storm: How Russia makes use of crises in its regional environment
Europeans too often see strategy in Russia’s tactical use of regional crises. The EU and member states should help eastern partners become more resilient in the face of such opportunism.
What a difference a year makes! In autumn 2020, Russia’s position seemed to be slipping in numerous former Soviet states. In Belarus, large-scale protests appeared to herald the end of the Alyaksandar Lukashenka era. Maia Sandu’s defeat of Igor Dodon for the presidency of Moldova deprived Russia of its best political ally in the country. Kyrgyzstan’s “October revolution” saw a new generation of nationalist-leaning leaders emerge with no background in old Soviet structures. Meanwhile, in the South Caucasus, Turkey’s decisive support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict suggested the end of the delicate balance Russia had carefully maintained for two decades.
Yet, at the start of 2022, the picture is completely different: Russia has managed to strengthen its position across the region. The pressure this has helped generate has effectively brought the United States and NATO to the negotiating table.
The US and Russia are set to hold talks in Geneva on 10 January, and the NATO-Russia Council meets shortly afterwards, on 12 January. This diplomatic sequence could be the first step towards de-escalating tensions generated by Russia’s recent military build-up on the borders of Ukraine. Russia has put forward demands that are widely seen as non-starters for the US and NATO. And it has made these demands public, which raises the issue of Moscow’s intentions: is it really serious about these demands or are they a mere pretext to blame Washington and NATO for the failure of the talks? Or, in other words: is Russia really willing to reach a compromise or is it merely trying to push its advantage as far as possible (and admitting the possibility that the talks will fail if it does not get 100 per cent satisfaction)?
A broader look at Russia’s approach to its neighbours may reveal something about how it deals with – and makes the most of – the crises that have emerged on their territories. Over the last year, Russia has systematically used crises in its regional environment to advance its interests. By seeking tactical gains instead of crisis resolution, Russia creates confusion among rivals, real or supposed, and pushes them into a defensive posture – which in turn prevents them from developing a more ambitious strategy for the region. Throughout most of the Belarus crisis, the US and the European Union have reacted to events, trying to manage them as they unfold and guess what Moscow’s next steps will be. US and EU policymakers should be aware of this approach when discussing European security with Russia, as it makes compromise less likely, though not completely impossible.
How has Russia strengthened its position? In the South Caucasus, after successfully mediating a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it reinforced its military footprint by deploying peacekeepers. Russia is now able to decide the agenda of talks, as well as the formats in which these should take place. In Georgia, the attempted mediation by European Council president Charles Michel has lost momentum in face of the deep polarisation of the political landscape. The protracted political crisis is not directly benefitting Russia but it is impeding reforms and therefore affecting the EU’s influence and credibility in the country, which Moscow can only welcome.
In central Asia, the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan helped restore Russia to its role as ultimate guarantor of the security of the region’s post-Soviet republics. This has allowed it to reinforce the capacities of its bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and in September it conducted military drills in Tajikistan. Russia can now set conditions for US military cooperation with these countries, in stark contrast to the role they were able to play relating to NATO operations in Afghanistan back in the 2000s. Russia has now also started deploying troops to Kazakhstan, together with other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, following unrest in that country.
In Belarus, Russian support helped Lukashenka hold on to power. Not only has Moscow financially supported a regime on the brink of default, it has also seconded workforce to compensate for the massive strikes in state enterprises and by journalists, replacing staff who resigned or were sacked. But Moscow’s backing was not unconditional, and Lukashenka is now increasingly dependent on Russia. He therefore had to sign up to 28 roadmaps for further integration between the two countries, which he had previously been reluctant to do. He also recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea, thereby dooming to failure any attempt at improving an already-strained relationship with neighbouring Ukraine. The effective integration of Belarus into the Russian Federation is not yet on the agenda, but Lukashenka may no longer be able to block it.
In Moldova, the Russian government communicated openness to cooperation with the reformist government that took office after the July 2021 parliamentary election. But, by September, it had manufactured a gas crisis to remind Chisinau of its vulnerability. Though Russia denied any political agenda, it pushed Moldova to delay the reorganisation of MoldovaGaz and thus the implementation of the unbundling envisioned in the framework of EU-Moldova relations. This was a political concession that the Moldovan government had to accept before gas supplies resumed at a sustainable price.
Last but not at all least, in Ukraine, Moscow successfully blocked any meaningful discussion in the Normandy Format and pushed for direct contact between the Ukrainian government and the de facto authorities of Donetsk and Luhansk, as clearly expressed in the correspondence with French and German counterparts published by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (a perhaps unprecedented move). By increasing military pressure on the borders of Ukraine, first in spring 2021 and again over the last couple of months, Russia has distracted attention from the discussions that were supposed to be taking place in the Normandy Format over conflict settlement in Donbas and turned it towards a conversation with the US about European security.
Whether it will push further and initiate a direct military intervention in Ukraine beyond Donbas remains an open question. The answer will relate to the way Russian authorities see and use crises. What the last few months have shown is a pattern in which Russia takes advantage of an existing crisis to advance its interests by making use of the whole range of potential forms of leverage: diplomacy, energy, media, and other channels of influence; and, of course, military leverage. Over the last year Russia has not primarily been trying to resolve crises in its neighbourhood; it has used them in order to reinforce its own positions.
For the upcoming talks with the US and NATO, this pattern makes it unlikely that Russia will accept any compromise that fails to strengthen its positions in Ukraine and elsewhere in eastern Europe (unless it sees the absence of a compromise as a bigger threat to its interests in the region). The US and NATO should therefore seek the right balance between deterrence and de-escalation to convince Russia that a more cooperative approach to security is in its own interests, including transparency and confidence-building measures, as well as arms control commitments. They will also need to make clear that any attempt at destabilisation would come with a cost.
The EU, which for the time being will not take part in the talks, still struggles to comprehend Russia’s logic, as it differs fundamentally from its own approach to crises: the EU and its member states always prioritise compromise, in order to resolve a crisis, as they see stability as an interest in itself. Because the EU is unlikely to change this approach, it should at least clearly define its strategic interests in its neighbourhood and work on anticipating and preventing crises – namely, identify more precisely its own vulnerabilities and those of its neighbours, and make use of the instruments it has to reinforce its own resilience and the resilience of its eastern partners. Short of that, the EU will keep witnessing tactical gains by Russia in each and every crisis in its neighbourhood, while continuing to mistakenly assume the existence of a grand strategic design behind Moscow’s moves.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.