09 October 2020

 

Full Report: Russia

Predictions

  • Kremlin will seek to avoid military responses to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and ongoing unrest in Belarus, expanding influence instead through diplomatic and economic efforts
  • Moscow will seek to assume mediator role in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, although will risk becoming embroiled in conflict should Turkey step up military support for Azerbaijan
  • Moscow will continue to provide political and economic support to Belarusian president, although will look to promote alternative candidate who will maintain geopolitical norms should Lukashenko’s position become untenable

 

Event

Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed on 2 October that Belarus’ list of sanctioned EU officials will automatically apply in Russia, and said that it considered EU sanctions targeting approximately 40 Belarusian officials for their involvement in rigging August presidential elections “open and unacceptable pressure on the Belarusian authorities”. Meanwhile, Russia’s Western Military District continued solo military drills on 28 September following joint military drills between Russia and Belarus along the Belarus-Poland border on 18 September. Further joint exercises with Belarus – as well as Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – are scheduled for 12-16 October. Separately, on 8 October, the Kremlin confirmed that the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan had been invited to participate in peace talks in Moscow following the outbreak of conflict in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh on 27 September.

Russia: Moscow will seek to assume mediator role in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but risks becoming embroiled should Turkey step up military support for Azerbaijan
Context

Mass protests calling for Belarusian President Lukashenko’s removal have continued in Belarus for two months following credible accusations that he rigged the August presidential election to secure 80% of the vote, and a subsequent violent crackdown on critics (see our 21 August report). Moscow has extended support to Lukashenko since the outbreak of unrest, including by dispatching Kremlin advisors and its own RT news anchors to the country after mass walkouts of state television workers and agreeing to refinance Minsk’s debt by providing a USD 1.5 billion loan. The Kremlin’s confirmation that Minsk’s retaliatory sanctions against EU officials will also apply in Russia will have been intended as a further, symbolic demonstration of support for Lukashenko. Moscow continues, however, not to provide overt military assistance to Minsk, likely due to the financial burden of such a move, as well as the diplomatic tensions this would create with the EU and US.

Analysis

The Kremlin regards Belarus as a strategic buffer to NATO presence in Europe, and its continued provision of political and economic support in the face of unrest will be intended to entrench Russian influence in the country. Moscow will also hope that its support for Lukashenko will put pressure on him to consent to closer economic integration. Over the past year, Lukashenko has angered Moscow by resisting formal economic integration efforts, instead reaching out to Washington and the EU in a bid to financially benefit from the rivalry between the West and Russia. Lukashenko’s current political vulnerability will provide Russia with an opportunity to reassert itself as Minsk’s main ally and trade partner, as demonstrated by the resumption in September negotiations between Belarusian and Russian officials on a draft roadmap for economic integration.

Meanwhile, there is an increasing risk that Russia could become embroiled in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moscow holds a defence pact with Armenia, guaranteeing mutual assistance in the event of an external conflict, although has strong ties with Azerbaijan, to whom it has previously supplied arms. The Kremlin has therefore attempted to position itself as a mediator in the conflict, as highlighted by its offer to host negotiations, as well as calls for Turkey to help bring about a ceasefire. However, Turkish President Erdogan has explicitly voiced his support for Azerbaijan “until victory” (see our 7 October Turkey report), and any increase in Turkish military support would likely inflame tensions, potentially forcing Moscow to intervene.

Outlook

That said, Ankara is likely to engage with Moscow over the conflict, as it continues to do regarding military tensions in Syria, and in an attempt to protect burgeoning military and economic ties between the two countries. Meanwhile, Russian military intervention in Belarus remains highly unlikely, as Moscow will be cautious to avoid provoking anti-Russia sentiment that would risk compromising its future cooperation with Minsk. If Lukashenko’s position becomes untenable, the Kremlin will seek to promote an individual it believes it can work with, either from within Belarus’ existing political and security establishment, or a figure from the opposition who will maintain geopolitical norms with Moscow.

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