Will 2020 see another Russian incursion into Eastern Europe? The threat of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe is once again lingering. As if by clockwork, Russia’s relations with its neighbors are under scrutiny once more, six years after its annexation of Crimea and 12 years after its invasion of Georgia. Following the botched presidential elections in Belarus, and the emboldening of a female-led popular opposition movement, President Vladimir Putin is aware that a democratic process in yet another country of Russia’s perceived sphere of influence is a spillover risk that must be avoided. Putin’s fear of contagion was further compounded by the concurrent, but likely not coincidental, poisoning of Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny while he was campaigning in Siberia before last month’s regional elections. With Navalny recently released from Berlin’s Charité hospital, and Belarusian protesters still taking to the streets of Minsk, Western governments are struggling once again with how to deal with Putin. Meanwhile, new conflicts and protests simmer in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and beyond.
As attention drifts, Europeans and Americans are well-advised to keep an eye on the larger picture. One of the shortcomings in Western policy over the last two decades has been a failure to hold Russian actions to account. When the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014, Western capitals didn’t adequately link Russia’s aggression in Ukraine with previous aggressions in Georgia, nor did they call out these incidents as parts of an underlying strategy of aggression rather than separate events. In fact, Russia’s invasion four months after the NATO Bucharest Summit in April 2008, which denied Georgia of its expected Membership Action Plan, was as much a test by Putin of Western resolve as it was one of Russian military capabilities. In 2008, Western governments failed to draw the political conclusions or to act on them accordingly – or both. In contrast, Russia internalized the lessons learnt in combat and diplomacy in Georgia and undertook a massive organizational, technological, and logistical modernization of its armed forces. As a result, Russia is resurgent in the Black Sea and Caucasus region, occupying hundreds of kilometers of Georgian and Ukrainian coastline with unfettered access to military installations. The Black Sea base in Sevastopol has also enabled Russia to project power into the Mediterranean and the Middle East. If Georgia was Russia’s rehearsal for the ‘near abroad’, Syria was Russia’s test for its Near Eastern ambitions, which have since expanded to Libya and beyond. The West has been all too lenient with Russia’s incrementalist approach and has failed to understand that its regional tactics are components of a much larger strategy.
It is therefore wrong and dangerous to compartmentalize geography and address Russia’s numerous infringements as individual incidents. In fact, it is precisely the well-meaning separation by European politicians of Russia’s various aggressions that prevents them, and the wider public, from understanding the connectedness of the challenges facing Europe’s Eastern Flank from the Baltic to the Black Sea and farther afield to the Middle East. From its support of separatists in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine to its actual occupation of Georgia and the annexation of Ukrainian territories; from its weaponization of energy flows, fake news, and Russian citizenship through ‘passportization’ to its funding of right-wing nationalist political movements in Europe; from its decisive military rescue of the Assad regime in Syria to its current posturing on Belarus and on the Karabakh conflict, Putin’s Russia has followed a coherent plan. Perhaps even more important is Putin’s ability to sell each issue to what he still calls ‘Russia’s international partners’ as something unique and in need of a distinct international dialogue platforms adapted to obfuscate Russia’s designs: Geneva for Georgia, Minsk for Ukraine, Astana for Syria, and the list goes on. Once describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” Putin has since been on a clear course to re-establish Russia as an empire – of which the Soviet Union itself had been an iteration and which has provided key elements to right-wing strategist Aleksander Dugin’s vision of Eurasianism.
Taking Halford Mackinder’s historical ‘Heartland’ theory of 1904 as an actual plot by Atlanticist powers, Dugin’s pivot is that Russia is a victim that needs to strike back. In his influential ‘Foundations of Geopolitics’ of 1997, he postulates a number of strategic goals: to question as a matter of principle Belarus’s and Ukraine’s legitimacy as states; to dismember and absorb Georgia; to re-incorporate the states of Central Asia. In the Middle East, he wants Russia to treat Turkey with ‘geopolitical shocks’ via the Kurds, and to forge a strong axis with Tehran dominated by Moscow – whereby Armenia would be a strategic partner and Azerbaijan could be split up. Towards the West, Dugin prescribes getting Germany into Russia’s orbit, exploiting France’s traditional anti-American reflexes, and separating the UK from Europe. China, in contrast, is seen as the single most serious contender for influence in Eurasia.
These basic concepts are not simply theoretical. Their tactics, like pursuing a zone of influence in its ‘near abroad’, have already made it into the so-called Primakov Doctrine published in 1998-1999. Doctrines are one thing, but operations are another. Putin has been the catalyst for operationalizing these strategic ideas into geopolitical objectives that have since made international news. Underpinned by Putin’s use of the oil and gas industry, this deadly recipe has provided a roadmap for how to make Russia great again. What happens in the Black Sea with Putin’s pervasive patchwork politics of pipelines, intimidation, occupation, and annexation is therefore only one variation of a theme that resonates throughout all of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions.
Unfortunately, Western governments have subscribed to Russia’s self-victimization strategy for too long. Initially, European and American policymakers demonstrated their regional naivete, unfamiliar with Moscow’s political usage of Soviet national fragmentation strategies regarding titular nations and autonomous entities. Instead, they felt compelled to acknowledge that protracted ethnic conflicts were at work, could not easily be solved, and were at best to be cooled down and frozen. And they bought into the idea that Russia was best placed to mediate and bring about stability or that security concerns claimed by Russia were somehow legitimate and needed to be respected when, on the contrary, it was the rights and sovereignty of other countries that were at stake. As a result, over the years, various European governments have redeveloped détente strategies vis-à-vis Russia reminiscent of Germany’s 1970s Ostpolitik, the difference being that such approaches have become wholly misplaced and inappropriate. Marketed with labels like ‘modernization partnership’, an ineradicable constituency still thinks that a mutually beneficial economic track with Russia could be separated out from a political one. In particular, Germany responded well to these overtures or even initiated them through the powerful Ostausschuss, the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations. In contrast to these attempts, Chancellor Angela Merkel succeeded almost remarkably well in maintaining consensus on keeping sanctions against Russia within her Christian and Social Democrat coalition as well as across most of the EU. However, such measures run the risk of eroding over time. While the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce professes to abide by political decisions and legal provisions, economic cooperation below the sanctions threshold continues. High-level business conferences continue to be held, with organizers regularly advocating for sanctions to be lifted. The case of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder as Chairman of the Board of Nord Stream AG is therefore peculiar but not unique. With Nord Stream 2 on the Baltic Seabed almost complete, it has taken the combined Navalny and Belarus factors to question the political validity and expediency of the enterprise. Politicians and pundits are increasingly acknowledging that this double-entry bookkeeping, with separate political and economic accounts, has failed.
As containing Russia becomes urgent once more, the traditional stabilizing role played by Ankara in the Black Sea has inconveniently gone missing in action. Back in the early 1990s, Ankara found new neighbors across what had been a lake largely closed by the Cold War. The establishment of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Council (BSEC) was supposed to accompany regional trade and investment ambitions. At the time, an important aspect was Turkey’s need to improve its energy security. After initiating the Blue Stream gas pipeline from Russia across the Black Sea in the late 1990s, energy supplies have been diversified. Since 2006, Turkey has been able to receive oil from the Caspian Sea through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and gas through the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines. However, fast forward to the post-Arab Spring situation and much of Turkey’s regional ambitions in the Black Sea have evaporated. With his bet on the forces of political Islam in Syria and North Africa, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have overstretched Turkey’s capabilities and set Turkey on a geopolitical collision course with Russia. After the initial posturing following the shootdown of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 on the border with Syria in November 2015, Turkey’s increasing vulnerabilities were exposed step by step, notably regarding Kurdish issues. Erdogan has since prioritized his relations with Russia. The TurkStream gas pipeline, initiated in 2014 and jointly inaugurated in January 2020, has underscored these new dependencies that go either way. With Russia and Turkey facing each other in various Middle Eastern settings, Turkey is now aware that diplomatic games are played across multiple geographic theatres.
The Karabakh conflict, for example, in which Turkey sides with Azerbaijan, is but the latest addition to an increasingly varied power geography. Furthermore, Erdogan’s unpredictability, both in the Eastern Mediterranean and domestically, does not add to a sense of security among the Black Sea countries most exposed to Russian expansionism.
Where does this leave the strategic political and security interests of the EU and the US?
First, the West should recognize the strategic importance of the wider Black Sea region beyond oil and gas. While both were crucial to explain why Western countries should be involved in the region, hard security issues separate from economic considerations are paramount. Energy supplies remain, of course, important. But they could potentially be sourced from elsewhere. However, Russia’s resurgent geopolitics command attention wherever it plays out, resource rich or not. While the energy argument may one day run out of steam, the security argument will not.
Second, NATO countries should remember that the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 developed immediately out of a seemingly innocent Russian maneuver in the Northern Caucasus. Russia’s surprise readiness drill in July 2020, by which it instantly mobilized 150,000 military personnel, dwarfed the previously scheduled 2020 NATO (plus partners) Sea Breeze and Noble Partner maneuvers. However, modest as the latter may be, they are essential for NATO and its Black Sea partner countries to convey messages of political and threat awareness and military readiness, and to demonstrate a high level of interoperability. All are key components of deterrence vis-à-vis Russia, which has again amassed 80,000 troops as part of its annual Caucasus 2020 maneuver.
Third, Erdogan’s predicaments in balancing Black Sea ambitions and entanglements in the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly becoming a dilemma for NATO itself. While Turkey would ideally stabilize the Black Sea region, Ankara might now be compelled or tempted to strike deals with Russia that would harm other Black Sea countries. To compensate for any potential Turkish reliability gap, NATO needs a more coherent political and military forward presence in the Black Sea area beyond Bulgaria and Romania. Just as West Germany and West-Berlin were part of the Western Cold War alliance system under much more precarious circumstances, so should Georgia and Ukraine now become more meaningful parts of a credible Western deterrence shield.
Ekaterine Meiering-Mikadze is a fellow with MEI's Frontier Europe Initiative. She is a diplomat and development professional who served between 2004 and 2017 in subsequent postings as ambassador of Georgia to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq as well as the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia. The views expressed here are her own.
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