This autumn was hot in the post-Soviet region and we are talking not about the weather here. Protests have been going on since summertime that arose right after announcement of obviously falsified results of the presidential election. A new revolution broke out in Kirgizia, too, where results of the presidential election were nullified, and head of the country resigned. The situation in Sakartvelo is also troublesome – also after election. The oppositional forces threatened to boycott the work of newly elected parliament by resigning the won mandates because they suspect the winning party in falsification of voting results.
Finally, renewal of the frozen conflict in Nagorno Karabakh became the most relevant event. Azerbaijan won it not easily, although very securely. Armenia was saved from the defeat thanks to the bilateral ceasefire. By the way, many people in Yerevan considered this settlement to be a betrayal. Mass protests arose in the capital of Armenia and building of the parliament was devastated.
What is Russia doing in this situation? The question is not random here, since namely Moscow claims for leadership in the post-Soviet region. It sees the former Soviet republics to be the area of particular interest and thinks it has a right to interfere with their internal affairs. On the other hand, it seems that in all this context Russia has been not a so apparent player as we all could expect.
Is delay in Belarus strategic?
Moscow got actively involved in affairs of Belarus, although here it does not seem that Russia was in a hurry. After mass protests arose in Minsk and other towns of the country, Russia obviously avoided showing its clear position. We could almost see a certain confusion of the Kremlin – most probably because it got no express signal from the government what it should support – “timeless” President Alexander Lukashenko or just protestors.
In this case Moscow probably was purposely waiting. A lot of people talk that head of Russia Vladimir Putin does not actually like Alexander Lukashenko. Even though Belarus is considered to be the closest ally and partner of Russia, head of this country has always stood out for his smartness. We can recall a lot of cold episodes in relations between Moscow and Minsk when Alexander Lukashenko bullied Russia by making threats to change its route towards the West. The most interesting fact is that previously such blackmail used to succeed, although it is obvious that nobody in the West is waiting for Alexander Lukashenko.
Finally, at the beginning of September the Kremlin finally officially supported the president of Belarus. Prime Minister of Russia Mikhail Mishustin rushed to Minsk. During their meeting Alexander Lukashenko told an absurd story about a conversation between Warsaw and Berlin as if taken over by Belarussian special services. In this conversation, according to the president of Belarus, Americans acknowledged that they staged poisoning of the representative of the Russian opposition Alexey Navalny in order to distract Russia from events in Belarus. It is hard to tell whether there are people who believed in this story (the ‘record’ was made public), however in one way or other it became a part of the political discourse.
Later Alexander Lukashenko went to Moscow and met Vladimir Putin. In this way support of Moscow was established. Now people say that Moscow is planning to remove the authoritarian head of Belarus step by step. We will soon see whether such a plan exists.
Did it win or lose?
Moscow has been passive in the newly hot conflict in Nagorny Karabakh for a long time. Russia heavily instigated the fighting parties to stop shooting and come to a negotiating table. Moscow looked very weak in the background of Turkey, which actively supported the closest ally Azerbaijan. Of course, we should mention that finally Russia became the ally, which helped to stop the conflict for the time being. A bilateral ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan was signed with help of Moscow cooperation. Under the agreement Russia now will bring its peacemakers to the conflict area, which might be considered to be victory of the Kremlin.
Actually, it is not yet clear who is winning and who is losing in this context. We can say that Armenia experienced a total defeat, which, by the way, was considered to be an ally of Russia and support in the region. Unrecognized republic of Nagorny Karabakh, which is actually controlled by Yerevan, lost part of its territory, including a strategically important town Shush. Besides, according to the settlement, Armenia must return the bigger part of the territories occupied during the conflict in 1992-1994 to Azerbaijan.
People in Azerbaijan celebrated the victory, however even here we can find those, who think that Baku found itself cheated. Actually, Azerbaijan got close to the goal to return all Nagorny Karabakh and other occupied territories. It seems that fighters of Nagorny Karabakh and troops of Armenia supporting them had no possibilities to resist the Azerbaijan military forces that were approaching the capital Stepanakert of the unrecognized republic. Actually, this was also acknowledged by the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikola Pashinian, who told that representative of the troops asked him to pursue a bilateral ceasefire. A settlement signed in this situation might be treated as a stop of Azerbaijan in the midway – a victory that was a crossroad that was relinquished.
The hottest controversies arise about what Russia won in this conflict. The opinions are different – some people think that in this case the winner is only Moscow, while other people think that it experienced a crushing geopolitical defeat. Let’s discuss both opinions.
Those, who think the Kremlin was the winner in this situation, emphasize that the current settlement actually is the burial of political future of the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikola Pashinian. They note that the mentioned politician appeared in the power during the colour revolution in spring 2018, which pushed politicians that were more favourable to Moscow out of the power. A special emphasis is made on the fact that now Russia is strengthening its military influence in the region – through peace-support forces. We should not forget that at a certain time events in Sakartvelo demonstrated that Moscow was able to get use of so-called peacemakers for its own objectives and in its own interest. Besides, going back to the relevant situation the status of a peacemaker appeals to Moscow.
Those, who say that the Kremlin actually lost, emphasize other things. Firstly, they deny the argument that Moscow allowed Azerbaijan to attack Nagorny Karabak in order to take revenge on Nikola Pashinian. The present Prime Minister of Armenia did not make any important steps for his country to move away from Russia. Now, in return, Armenians are disappointed in Moscow and the fact that it did not provide any actual military assistance. The question is whether it is a too high price for removal of the politician, who was not their favourite one.
Some other things were also emphasized such as when the troops of Armenia equipped with Russian-made weaponry turned out to be too weak to withstand modern military technologies (Azerbaijan was actively using unmanned aircrafts made in Turkey and Israel not only for intelligence but also for destruction of military equipment and defeat of military personnel).
One more aspect is that so far Moscow was silent or avoided to define its position in a more precise way, Turkey expressed its express claims to leadership in the region. Baku saw and felt an obvious support of Ankara, which, most probably also contributed to resolution of Azerbaijan to start acting. Thus, achievements of Moscow are not so much unambiguous.
Delay of Moscow in case of both Belarus and resumed conflict in Nagorny Karabakh might look as a strategic solution. Talking about events in Belarus, most probably that was the case. The Kremlin was simply waiting and was watching which course the events would take – whether protests would swipe away Alexander Lukashenko and his regime or the dictator would withstand, making use of repressive measures. It turned out that head of Belarus has sufficient resources of power structures and is not planning to withdraw – and he finally got a clear support of Moscow.
In case of Nagorny Karabakh, the delay might also seem a strategic step, however then we have to admit that this step was favourable to Azerbaijan rather than the ally of Russia – Armenia. Yet again, we can discuss whether the Kremlin did not want to get into a potential conflict with Turkey or simply had no resources to start an active participation and involvement. In either case, this first of all demonstrates weakness of Moscow.
It seems that Russia simply fails to play in all possible fronts. One way or the other it has to live with Donbas separatism problem created by itself (a political and financial support of separatists). We should not forget involvement in the conflict of Syria. The dilemma of Belarus also adds here, where the dictator Alexander Lukashenko lost support of majority of people. Resources of Moscow have been almost exhausted as a result of sanctions imposed by the Western world. For the sanctions the Kremlin again can blame only itself. Therefore, what seems a strategic delay or a smart political game to onlookers, an unexpected step of Vladimir Putin, by which he “has beaten everybody”, can be explained in a more simple way (in the opinion of the author of this article – in a more precise way) that geopolitical ambitions of Russia are actually limed by its actual possibilities.