Putin bosses them, but now everyone is waiting like a loaded rifle: Vucic’s position is especially interesting
Even if the mobilisation of reservists ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of September brings some tactical victories, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is already considered a strategic defeat.
Russia is now weaker in all respects – economically, politically and militarily.
Europe will undoubtedly suffer from Putin’s moves this winter, but the Russian President’s hybrid war has also accelerated its energy diversification and transition.
The war in Ukraine has shown that Russia is no longer a military power, at least when it comes to conventional warfare. What are its allies in Beijing and Ankara thinking now? If Putin attacks Ukraine with nuclear weapons, it will only confirm that he has suffered a major strategic defeat.
Although Western analysts say that Ukraine is not expected to triumph in the war any time soon, Russia is already visibly weaker than before. It is not retreating, it is deflating. As a result, the sound of a geopolitical vacuum is already being heard on its periphery – from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
A weakened Russia is creating a vacuum that could further upset an already weak global status quo. Baer believes that the United States and Europe should vigorously but quietly begin to forge a new world order, i.e. to prevent the emergence of one even worse than the present one.
The current weakening of Russia is a continuation of a process that began with the fall of the Soviet Union, argues Baer.
Since the collapse of the USSR, two wars have broken out in Chechnya and several in the Caucasus, and authoritarian leaders have taken control of Central Asian states. These were post-colonial conflicts. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not very different from these conflicts.
Since Putin came to power in the late 1990s, his authoritarian regime has sought to dominate all the former Soviet republics. Putin is doing this because he does not see these countries as sovereign, but also because he fears that democracy could easily spread throughout the region if any of these countries were to adopt it in the right way. In Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia has created or maintained so-called frozen conflicts (conflicts in which hostilities have ended but no peace agreement has been signed or no political settlement reached that satisfies both sides) and is using them as negotiating levers. Putin’s war against Ukraine, which began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and escalated at the end of February 2022, is in many ways also a frozen conflict, with the Russian President not believing that Ukraine and its people, culture and language should exist in perpetuity.
Putin could ease up a little on the defeat he will suffer (partly already defeated) in Ukraine. The world is now watching to see whether Russia will consolidate and develop. With its influence and power set to decline sharply, the situation in Eurasia could become quite dynamic.
Armenia turned to the West
Putin’s use of natural gas as a weapon of war with Europe has helped Azerbaijan and its authoritarian leader Ilham Aliyev. Putin’s war has made Azerbaijan’s most important export product more expensive. Emboldened by this and sensing that Russia was preoccupied with the conflict in Ukraine, Azerbaijan invaded Armenia in September. This was the first clash between the two countries since the war they fought two years ago. The Armenians claim that more than 200 of their soldiers were killed and just under 300 wounded in these clashes. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended after the Russians intervened and then facilitated the signing of a peace agreement between the two sides. This time, the September conflict was not ended by the Russians, but by the United States of America.
Although the West is mainly focused on Aliyev and his moves, Baer believes that in the long run it is more important that Armenia did not ask for political help from the Russians, but from the West, which gave it. This fact could have a significant impact on the future of the region. If Armenia and Azerbaijan finally resolve their border issues, it will be at the Western negotiating table, not the Russian one. At the moment, Russia can neither start such negotiations nor guarantee that the agreement will be respected.
Georgia’s toxic political culture
The situation in Georgia shows what could happen if Russia’s influence were to wane even further.
After the Rose Revolution that broke out in 2003, and especially during the Russo-Georgian war that took place in 2008, the West hoped that democracy could enter the Caucasus through Georgia. But Russia prevented this.
After the Russo-Georgian war, Russia occupied the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both regions are considered part of Georgia by the Georgian Government and the United Nations, but Georgia does not control them. Russia is using these two regions to put pressure on Georgia and to hinder its development.
The Russians have done something similar in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas.
With Moscow currently preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and its failures, Georgia could lean even more towards the West and implement a new round of democratic reforms. Unfortunately, the Georgian government is largely controlled by Moscow-linked billionaires – former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. His Georgian Dream party has dominated the Georgian political scene since 2012.
Georgia is a deeply polarised country, where corruption is spreading and the space for civil society is shrinking independently. The Georgian government has attacked the US Ambassador in Tbilisi, Kelly Degnan, even though the US is its most important security partner.
Ukraine and Moldova were therefore granted candidate status for membership of the European Union in June, but Georgia was not.
Although Georgia could move closer to the West because of the decline in Russian power, this is unlikely to happen because of the toxic political culture that prevails in the country.
Moldova’s democratic rise
Moldova could benefit most from the fall of Russia.
After the victory of the charismatic young reformer Maia Sandu in the presidential elections there at the end of 2020, Moldova seems ready for a big step forward. In June, despite the fact that a frozen conflict is active on its territory, it succeeded in obtaining candidate status for membership of the European Union.
Russia has been storing weapons and keeping soldiers in Transnistria for 30 years. Moscow finances and partly controls the eccentric leaders of the rogue region between the Dniester River and the Moldovan-Ukrainian border.
For the last few years, Moldova has been trying to win over Transnistrians with easier access to the economy and other benefits. It seems that the Moldovan government has decided to invest more energy in communicating with the Transnistrians and less in chasing the Russians. If Moldova, with, of course, the help of the European Union and the United States, achieves significant social and economic progress, then Transnistrians could perceive it as an even more attractive option.
Time will tell which way Moldova will go. Moldovan politicians used to always be able to rely on Russian dirty money, but today, because of the war in Ukraine, there is much less of it than there used to be. Moreover, the Russians do not have time to sabotage the Moldovans at the moment, because they have to deal with the war in Ukraine.
Despite these positive indicators, we should not forget that there are still armed Russian soldiers in Transnistria.
Of all the frozen conflicts with a Russian footprint, the Moldovan one could be the first to be brought to a successful end. Democracy is on the rise there, and Putin is currently on the defensive.
Putin’s allies and friends in the Balkans
Alongside Moldova, the Balkans could benefit most from a war-weakened Moscow.
Putin has developed a relationship with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, and Russian public diplomacy has often successfully communicated with the Serbian public. Vucic has so far successfully balanced and manipulated Russian, European, American and Chinese interests to achieve his agenda.
The fall of Russia could make him turn more to Beijing, but it is equally possible that he will turn to Brussels and Washington. At the moment, however, it is not known whether Vucic is ready and whether they have the political space to resolve the Kosovo issue – the condition that stands between Serbia and its membership of the European Union.
The West needs to keep a close eye on the situation in the Balkans, because the Republika Srpska is currently ruled by one of Putin’s long-time allies, Milorad Dodik. The leader of the Bosnian Serbs recently met Putin and supported the illegal referendums held by Russia in four Ukrainian regions. In addition, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a very fragile country politically and its current constitutional framework is not sustainable. This fragility is largely of its own making, but the international community must also take some of the ‘credit’ for it.
Putin, for example, could damage Europe and the world if he were to encourage Dodik to announce that he wants to annex Republika Srpska to Serbia. This possibility would require the White House to send a serious and persuasive envoy to Sarajevo in the near future to knock these possible ideas out of Dodik’s head./Jutarnji.hr/