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Wounds With a Russian Knife in Them

Wounds With a Russian Knife in Them

Friday, 19 November, 2021 - 06:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

It was supposed to be a five-year «breathing space» in which two belligerent neighbors would resolve their disputes and shape a durable peace with help from their big altruistic neighbor.

And yet, just months after the “good news” was spread by all concerned, Armenia and (former Soviet republic) Azerbaijan have reignited their border war in Transcaucasia with Russian troops keeping a low profile.

Vladimir Putin had hailed the ceasefire that his emissaries had negotiated as “a great achievement” and a sign that Russia, if given a chance, would act as peacemaker not the troublemaker that the European Union claims.

The duel in Transcaucasia may appear too insignificant and too remote to merit special attention by the broader outside world. The dispute over the tiny enclave of High Qarabagh would look too exotic to merit special attention.

The “interim solution” imposed by Russia denies Azerbaijan control of the enclave while preventing its ethnic Armenian population to develop working state structures. In other words, the wound remains open with a Russian knife in it that could be turned anytime Moscow wished.

At the same time, the “interim solution” makes both regimes in Baku and Yerevan dependent on Russian power for at least the next five years. It also keeps Turkey out, thus depriving Azerbaijan of a powerful regional ally. On the opposite side, Armenia is deprived of an opportunity to seek meaningful support from potentially sympathetic powers in Europe and North America. Moscow also benefits from its new military presence in the region by gaining control of borders with the Islamic Republic in Iran.

Is the “situation” as developed in Transcaucasia a model of Russian behavior in the international arena?

Several examples could be cited in support of a “yes” answer.

In Ukraine, having annexed Crimea, Putin is careful about the dosage of his support for secessionists in Donetsk. He wants them strong enough to keep Ukraine in a state of tension but not too strong to create a full-fledged breakaway state.

Putin is playing a similar game in Moldova by supporting ethnic Russian secessionists up to a point but not to the extent that could enable them declare full independence.

Russia’s relation with Georgia is also shaped by a variation on the same theme. Having formally annexed South Ossetia, Moscow still maintains a military presence in Abkhazia, another chunk of Georgian territory seized in 2008 while casting itself as an honest broker in a quest for “a permanent solution”.

Moscow has seized the opportunity by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to beef up its own military presence in neighboring Tajikistan, ostensibly to cope with a potential threat from the Taliban across the border.

This is meant to keep the Taliban on their best behavior for fear of facing Russia as an active adversary. At the same time, it casts President Imam Ali Rahman’s regime in Dushanbe a Russian protégé. In the past few weeks, Moscow has used the Taliban bogeyman to strengthen military “cooperation” with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan as well.

By keeping all those nations in a state of crisis with their neighbors, Putin achieves one of his two geostrategic goals: preventing NATO expansion to Eastern Europe, Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Because no country in conflict with its neighbors would be allowed to join the US-led coalition, it is important for Russia to keep all those wounds open with his knife in them.

Putin’s second geostrategic goal is to throw a lasso around the European Union and, wherever possible, encourage defection by some of its members.

The proximity pressure exercised against the Baltic Republic is part of that strategy which is also being tested by using Belorussia as a surrogate to knock holes in the EU’s outer borders with hordes of immigrants recruited in the Middle East.

Russian activism in Syria and Libya, and its strange alliance with Egypt in the Libyan theatre, are also calculated to exert pressure on the EU which, Putin believes, is in a weak position caused by Brexit and the five-years of uncertainty that the United States has experienced under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

At another level, the openly pro-Russian path taken by the Khomeinist leadership in Tehran gives Putin another card to play with minimum, not to say zero, actual political and/or economic investment by Russia.

The message is that without acknowledging Russian leadership stature there could be no peace and stability in the Mediterranean, central and eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

With the US behaving strangely for the past five years or so and the EU crippled by Brexit, the Western democracies have not been able to develop a coherent analysis of the Russian challenge let alone shape a policy to deal with it. Sending a small number of American or British troops to the Baltic republics and Poland may provide some beguiling TV news footage while huffing and puffing about sanctions could be seen as a sign of confusion rather than a strategy to stand against a de-stabilizing power.

One problem is that many Western analysts pretend that in dealing with the Russian challenge the choice is limited to the full-scale cold war that could morph into military confrontation or appeasement of the kind that Angela Merkel preached right to the end of her term as Germany’s Chancellor.

Rethinking strategy for dealing with Russia needs to consider a number of issues including internal developments that, while tactically beneficial to Putin and Putinism may be detrimental to it. Today, Putin does not face a credible internal opposition because no one has succeeded in developing a credible alternative to his narrative. By putting too many chips on Alexander Navalny, Western powers have indicated support for another version of Russian nationalism of which Putin claims to be the original version.

One school of thoughts in Western policy-making circles is to let Putin choke on the morsels such as Syria, Libya, Islamic Republic in Iran, Donetsk, Transcaucasia and Byelorussia that he has bitten but cannot chew let alone digest. That may sound clever in pseudo-Machiavellian terms but could be disastrous in terms of big power politics.

Despite several signals by Russia indicating its fear of a rising and aggressive China, the issue has received little attention from the US and EU. Bringing Russia in from cold and preparing for a smooth end to decades of Putinism remains one f the biggest challenges that Western democracies face today.

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