Russia’s apparent reduced willingness to pursue military options in its neighbourhood suggests a shift in how it conducts its foreign policy. Cvete Koneska argues that this should not be read as a sign of Russia in retreat; instead, we can expect Russia to employ a more diverse toolbox to achieve its foreign policy objectives.
On 10 November, after six weeks of clashes in the long-disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a peace agreement that put an end to the violence and sanctioned the partial return of disputed territories to Azerbaijan. The peace deal was sponsored by Russia and it is being enforced by Russian peace-keeping troops that were immediately deployed in the region – an outcome that is hardly surprising given Russia has retained significant influence over the Caucasus in the past three decades since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
However, what preceded the signing of the agreement surprised many observers of the region. Unlike Turkey, which overtly supported Azerbaijan including with military means, Russia remained relatively uninvolved. Not only did it not match Turkey’s material support, but its rhetoric was mild. Moreover, Russian leaders clarified that their commitments under the Collective Security Treaty (CST) with Armenia only extend to the internationally recognised territory of Armenia, not the occupied territories, indicating no intention to militarily intervene on Armenia’s behalf.
A DECLINING HEGEMON?
Russia’s restraint over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has raised questions about Russia’s foreign policy in the South Caucasus. Its reluctance to visibly reassert its military dominance and political influence in its neighbourhood opens broader questions about Russia’s continued political and economic power – is Russia’s power and influence in the region waning?
Indeed, similar patterns are discernible elsewhere in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Russia has been similarly non-committing in its reactions to other developments in the region. In May, when protests erupted in Belarus after the presidential election that saw incumbent Alexander Lukashenko re-elected for a sixth term in office, Russia condemned the unrest and recognised his election victory. However, Russian leadership has done little to shore up Lukashenko’s position domestically. As protests in Belarus continue into December, Russia looks unlikely to directly intervene to resolve the deadlock.
In Kyrgyzstan, Russia took a similar position when anti-government protests started after a disputed election in October. Though Kyrgyzstan is another party to the CST, and Russia has military bases in the country, Russian foreign ministry officials did not signal that a direct intervention to restore stability was likely. Instead, Russian officials were understood to have met with representatives from both sides in a bid to put an end to the unrest and potential prolonged instability.
LESS VISIBLE, EQUALLY POWERFUL
Despite what appears to be growing inclination not to meddle and intervene in neighbouring states, a deeper look into each of these cases – and Russian foreign policy – suggests that Russian interest and influence in the FSU region is undiminished. In view of increasing challenges in its immediate neighbourhood from growing powers such as Turkey in the Caucasus or China in Central Asia, Russia is likely to intensify its efforts to maintain its influence across the broader region. However, it is likely that Russia is looking to alter its approach and is increasingly moving away from a display of military might and direct diktats in domestic affairs of other states, in favour of a more complex repertoire including political, economic and cyber tools.
Whether this approach will leave Russia in a stronger position remains to be seen. An evolution to a softer power may be difficult to achieve for Russia, despite cultural and institutional ties with other FSU countries.
1 While on the surface the outcome of the latest clash between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh appears as a convincing victory for Turkey, the picture on the ground is more complex. Turkey demonstrated its military might and reach into Russia’s ‘back yard’ in the South Caucasus. But Russia’s long-term position in the region does not seem to be under threat. Indeed, Russia is now responsible for implementing and guaranteeing the peace agreement, while Turkey is not involved in it. With Russian soldiers and tanks on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh it does not appear that Russian influence in the region has weakened. Russian troops are more acceptable than Turkish troops for both sides, and Russia has maintained its relations with both sides in the conflict.
2 Turkey will continue to challenge Russia here and elsewhere; the two powers have competing interests in Libya, Syria, the Caucasus and the Balkans, but theirs is far from only a confrontational relationship. There are many projects where Turkey and Russia collaborate, from energy projects such as the Turkstream pipeline, to politically challenging Europe’s role and influence in the broader region. The situation is similar in Central Asia, where Russian dominance will continue to be challenged by other regional players, China and increasingly India too. Ultimately, these challenges will mean more instability and potential conflicts in the FSU and the broader region, as regional powers exploit local tensions and competing group aspirations to boost their geopolitical positions.
3 Russia’s growing restraint will become more visible in relation to domestic politics in countries in the region. As in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan recently, Russia will be unlikely to directly intervene during political instability and unrest. Instead, it will support its preferred candidates, but despite its defence treaties and military bases in most countries in the region, Russian troops will not be adjudicating electoral disputes. Again, this does not indicate that Russia has no wish to influence domestic developments in the FSU, but it signals that Russia is more likely to use alternative foreign policy tools to achieve its goals.