Arc of instability on Russia’s periphery

Blast site hit by Armenian  rocket, city of Ganja, Azerbaijan, Oct 17, 2020 

An arc of instability has appeared on Russia’s peripheral regions to the west and southwest — Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan. These regions are vital to Russia’s national security and weakens its capacity to be a resurgent power on the world stage.  

Belarus is a de facto buffer zone for Russia vis-a-vis the West. Russia cannot afford to let Belarus be sucked into the western orbit. (Read my article Belarus: Scramble for Heart of Europe, NewsClick, August 6, 2020) 

Moscow claims to have evidence that the colour revolution in Minsk was masterminded by the US with its allies in Central Europe — Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Georgia playing certain assigned roles.

President Alexander Lukashenko has not been a dependable ally, but Moscow has little choice but to back him, since a regime change may instal yet another unfriendly regime on Russia’s western borders. 

Moscow cannot afford to agonise whether it is on the ‘right side of history’, although its preference would have been for an orderly democratic transition in Belarus. 

The Russian focus is currently on providing space and resources for Lukashenka’s authoritarian regime to roll back the colour revolution and restore constitutional rule. 

The controversial Alexey Navalny case that appeared at the high noon of the Belarus upheaval remains a mystery. Was it coincidental? As it turned out, Russia’s relations with the EU — Germany, in particular — sharply deteriorated, which becomes yet another complicating template.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh began in July, triggered by Armenia. It has since led to large-scale retaliation by Azerbaijan, which took the form of a military offensive to regain control of its territory that has been under Armenian occupation for past three decades.  

The conflict has serious implications for Russia’s national security insofar as Azerbaijan borders North Caucasus, which remains vulnerable to Islamist terrorism. 

Unsurprisingly, the Turkish-Azeri axis causes anxiety in the Russian mind, given President Erdogan’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ ideology and Ankara’s selective use of radical islamist groups as geopolitical tool. 

Erdogan has extended blanket support for the Azeri drive to regain control of the Nagorno-Karabakh province. This weakens Moscow’s capacity to influence Azeri president Aliyev. 

On the other hand, Armenian prime minister Pashinyan is a slippery politician who rode to power on the wings of a US-backed colour revolution in 2018, reportedly financed by George Soros. (Read my articles in Asia Times A color revolution in the Caucasus puts Russia in a dilemma, May 9, 2018 and Color Revolution in the Caucasus rattles Russian leaders, August 8, 2018)   

Moscow is under treaty obligations to guarantee Armenia’s security but, paradoxically, Pashinyan is charioting that country steadily towards the western orbit, and gets support from the influential Armenian diaspora in the US and France.  

Equally, Moscow is also under obligation to moderate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the framework of the Minsk Group, which it co-chairs along with the US and France.  

There is a contradiction here insofar as the Minsk Group will neither be able to satisfy the Azeri resolve to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh nor pressure Armenia to vacate its occupation of the enclave. 

Azerbaijan views the Minsk Group with scepticism and hopes that Turkey would help break the impasse. The US and France have gladly ceded to Russia the prerogative to represent the Minsk Group. 

Meanwhile, the US and its Middle Eastern allies — Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — would hope that sooner or later, the ship of Russo-Turkish entente would hit the iceberg of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and capsize. 

A rupture in the entente cordiale with Turkey could disrupt Russian strategies regionally — not only in Syria, Libya, Eastern Mediterranean but also in the Black Sea, Ukraine, Georgia, etc. — and can only work to the advantage of the US. Besides, Russia has a flourishing bilateral economic partnership and business ties with Turkey. 

The US’ Middle Eastern allies regard Turkey as an existential enemy and estimate that a break-up between Ankara and Moscow will enable them to cut Erdogan down to size. 

Moscow is genuinely on the horns of a dilemma. Putin invested heavily on a relationship with Erdogan despite the latter’s mercurial nature. 

Russia is a stakeholder in Erdogan’s alienation from the western camp and is mindful that any excessive pressure on him may prove counter productive. Germany is waiting in the wings to offer Turkey a renewed EU partnership. 

Putin is moving cautiously, taking utmost care not to fracture the Russian-Turkish entente. On his part, Erdogan who is a past-master in brinkmanship, also made some overtures to Putin this week. 

Erdogan’s phone call to Putin on October 14 signalled his continued interest in working with Russia not only in the Caucasus but also in Syria, while the Turkish decision, after much procrastination, to test the Russian-made S-400 ABM system carried a big message to Moscow reaffirming the strategic importance Ankara attaches to alliance with Russia. 

But, having said that, Turkey would also hope that Russia accommodates its presence in the Caucasus where the Ottoman legacy is a compelling fact of Turkish collective memory. As a rising regional power, Turkey aspires to expand its influence, which is only natural. 

Turkey belongs to its region and is not an extra-regional interloper such as the US or France. It is futile to try to counter Turkey in its natural habitat. On the contrary, Russia may see advantage in having Turkey as a constructive partner in the larger interests of regional stability in the Caucasus.  

Compared to Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh, which remain highly complicated issues, Kyrgyzstan’s colour revolution has been tackled with relative ease — for the time being, at least. 

The ease with which Moscow squashed the colour revolution shows that Russia still remains the provider of security for the region. The US influence in Central Asia pales in comparison. (See my article in Asia Times Moscow derails Kyrgyz colour revolution.) 

In the final analysis, the tensions in all three hotspots — Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan — are playing out against the backdrop of the deep chill and rivalry between Moscow on one side and the US, EU and NATO on the other side. 

The NATO is already flanking Belarus and has begun challenging Russia’s pre-eminence in the Black Sea, co-opting Georgia as its Caucasian beachhead. 

The NATO has a presence in Afghanistan for over 15 years already. It aspires for influence in the Central Asian region in a post-settlement Afghan setting.  

Clearly, the high volatility in Russia’s western and southwestern periphery is a manifestation of the geopolitical struggle between Russia and the US. Russia, therefore, needs a counter-strategy. 

Turkey and Iran can be — and should be — Russia’s natural allies in the emerging regional and international security scenario. There is nothing like absolute security, after all, and the concept of ‘sphere of influence’ has become outmoded. 

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