How Russia is winning at its own game

War and revolution are not inimical to Moscow if they follow paths Russian policymakers understand and even support

The current unrest in different parts of the former Soviet Union may make it tempting to conclude that Russia is losing control over its neighbourhood. And it is true that over some areas its hold has weakened – Russia’s loss of Ukraine is undeniable and serious. However, the current ructions do not mark a decline, but demonstrate rather the opposite: Russia is working on settlements for Nagorno-Karabakh and Belarus, and doing so according to its own principles. Meanwhile, the West lacks workable leverage over either issue.

Russia may appear on the back foot if one misunderstands its aims, by assuming that in Nagorno-Karabakh it stands unconditionally behind Armenia – its Collective Security Treaty Organisation ally whose control of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan relies on Russia’s military support. It is also wrong to assume that, in Belarus, Moscow stands fully behind Alyaksandr Lukashenka – the authoritarian leader who has long declared his friendship towards Russia, though not always lived up to it. In fact, Moscow is quite tired of Lukashenka’s two-faced behaviour, and would like to see a change in Minsk. It might also accept some change in Nagorno-Karabakh – as long as it happens on Moscow’s terms, or at least on terms understandable to Moscow.  

Russia’s true aim in these neighbourhood conflicts is not to back particular sides or personalities, but to defend the principles it values. It wants to delegitimise bottom-up revolutions as a means of transferring power; it also wants to signal that Western interventionism with its promotion of democracy and normative approach are unfruitful in general, and unwelcome around Russia in particular. What is playing out is essentially the same philosophy that guided Russia’s intervention in Syria – and if judged against these criteria, Moscow is doing well enough, at least at the moment.

Moscow wants to delegitimise bottom-up revolutions as a means to arrange transfers of power

In Belarus, for instance, Moscow might be backing Lukashenka for now, but in reality it is already working on his replacement. This process will take some time; Lukashenka will have some say over the terms of his exit. A recent meeting he held with opposition figures in jail was probably part of this process. Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya, though – the opposition leader now based in Lithuania and the likely real winner of the rigged election – has probably been prescribed the role of bystander by Moscow. And so has Europe. From the start, Moscow has shunned all European calls for due procedure, respect for human rights, and mediation by the OSCE. Vladimir Putin last week encapsulated his country’s position, though somewhat hypocritically, when he said: “Russia did not interfere in what was happening [in Belarus]. And we expect no one else to interfere either. No one should be stirring up this conflict to promote their own interests and impose any decisions on the Belarusian people.” 

Nagorno-Karabakh is a different type of conflict, of an ethnic-territorial kind, and the new onslaught of fighting – with an Azerbaijan emboldened by Turkish support – might suggest that Russia is facing a rival power in its neighbourhood. But for many in Moscow the advantage of having the West out still outweighs the nuisance of having Turkey in. Moscow knows Ankara and has learned to work with it. The two capitals are far from being allies: their goals in the Middle East often stand in direct opposition to each other. But both realise they need each other, as they cannot achieve their aims without some acquiescence from the other. And most importantly, the Turkish government is motivated by goals that in the Kremlin’s eyes are rational: strengthening its power at home, enhancing its leverage abroad, and pursuing economic and security interests. It lacks any Western-style rule-centric approach and instead subscribes to a worldview that Moscow understands.

Azerbaijan, too, has pursued its foreign policy without challenging Russia’s philosophical standpoint or historical narratives even though at times it has been at odds with Moscow. This is why Russia might be more relaxed than expected, even though its Armenian ally is in trouble: “Russia may have reasons to help its ally Armenia, but it has no reason at all to punish Azerbaijan, which has been an example of model behavior among the former Soviet states, as far as Russia is concerned”, notes Carnegie scholar Alexander Baunov. In Nagorno-Karabakh, it is again Moscow that has brought the warring sides together and arranged for a ceasefire, though an admittedly shaky one. The Western members of the contact group have largely been left on the sidelines.

Europeans have tried different ways to influence the situation in Belarus. Lithuania, for instance, has positioned itself on the moral high ground, arranged public shows of solidarity with the Belarusian opposition, and called for harsh sanctions against the regime. France has bet on dialogue with Putin, trying to get the latter to accept OSCE mediation. Collectively, EU leaders made great efforts in August to signal to Moscow their restraint and desire not to ‘geopoliticise’ the conflict – in the hope that Moscow would mirror the position, thus allowing for an ‘Armenian-style’ political transition with no geopolitical contest around it.

All to no avail. After adopting a wait-and-see position for around two weeks after the election, Moscow made up its mind and embarked on a strategy of transition – one that saves some face for Lukashenka; deepens Russia’s leverage in the country; brings to power a leader acceptable to Moscow; keeps both the West and the OSCE at arm’s length; and, most importantly, demonstrates that popular revolution is not an effective way to transfer power. One can imagine scenarios under which Moscow could reconsider its approach, change strategy, and even reach out to the Lithuania-based opposition. But all these would stem from developments inside Belarus itself – such as strikes that paralyse the country, or the regime splitting and crumbling – rather than something the West does or says. 

The lesson for the West is clear enough: to influence post-Soviet – or any – crises, one needs to have true leverage: either on the regional level, or on the global level that it can convert to regional influence. If one relies solely on good principles and the moral high ground, it is very easy to be outmanoeuvred in the face of a determined opponent.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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