• Russia’s subdued expectations of a Biden Administration
• A fragile Russia-brokered peace in Nagorno-Karabakh
• Another layer of complexity in Russia-Turkey relations
• Russian Navy eyes the Indian Ocean
Russia awaits Biden without illusions
Vladimir Putin is one among very few world leaders not to have congratulated US President-elect Joe Biden. Asked about this, Foreign Minister Lavrov gave the legalistic response that congratulatory messages are usually sent after official announcement of election results, which has not happened in the US. Congratulations can be sent before such formal announcement, when there is no dispute and the other side recognises the victory of the opponent. This happened in 2016, but not yet in 2020. Such a legalistic stand is typical of Russia, but in this case, it is also true that Russia saw no particular advantage in recognizing Biden’s election in a hurry.
As Foreign Minister Lavrov said to the media, Russia expects a Biden Administration to act like the Obama Administration and does not expect much improvement of US-Russia relations. Russians remember that it was the outgoing Obama Administration that launched the current spate of sanctions against Russia, laying the foundations of the “Russiagate” investigation that effectively circumscribed the Trump Administration’s freedom of action vis a vis Russia. The Trump Administration has launched 46 rounds of sanctions against Russia and enacted legislation for secondary sanctions, covering defence and energy cooperation with Russia by third countries. Lavrov commented that in a sharply polarized political environment in America, hostility to Russia is the one common ground bringing Republicans and Democrats together. In Lavrov’s words, “Russophobia in American society has become so widespread as to become part of the political culture”.
The commentator Dmitry Trenin has said US-Russia relations are at their worst since 1983. Considering the range and scope of sanctions, concerted efforts to isolate Russia in major international forums, the military confrontations through their proxies in multiple theatres and the breakdown in virtually every arms control arrangement, there is merit in this assessment.
Russians remember then Vice President Biden’s close involvement with Ukraine, famously captured in his widely quoted joke that he spent more time on the phone with Ukrainian President Poroshenko than talking to his (Biden’s) wife. The US ensured during those years that the Franco-German sponsored Minsk process on Ukraine did not make progress. President-elect Biden has also signalled his likely approach on Belarus during his election campaign: working with European partners and allies for “economic support for a truly sovereign, democratic Belarus” and for a “peaceful transfer of power”.
The limited hope that Russia currently seems to harbour is that there may be constructive US-Russia dialogue on arms control (President Putin has floated some proposals – see Review 10/20), and that the Biden Administration’s approaches to the Paris climate change Agreement, the nuclear deal with Iran, WTO and North Korea may offer opportunities for some US-Russia cooperation.
Tactical success in Nagorno-Karabakh, strategic challenges remain
After 44 days of fierce fighting, with estimated military and civilian casualties over 5000, Armenia and Azerbaijan reached an agreement, brokered by Russia, on November 9.
Ever since the commencement of this round of hostilities in late-September, the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group – the US, Russia and France – have issued joint appeals to the protagonists to cease hostilities and not to target civilian populations, deplored the involvement of third parties – Turkish military advisors and Syrian “jihadist forces” (Macron) – and called for political negotiations (see Review, 09/20). As both the US and France were consumed by domestic developments, Russia seized the initiative for solo mediation efforts, in which (as per the Russian telling) its Foreign and Defence Ministers, as well as the intelligence agencies, were in constant contact with their Armenian and Azeri counterparts, closely supervised by President Putin, who remained in almost daily contact with his counterparts in the two countries. Eventually, Russia persuaded Armenia and Azerbaijan to enter into a tripartite agreement, ending the war on terms largely favourable to Azerbaijan.
Under the terms of the agreement, all seven Azeri districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) that Armenia had seized in the 1990s would revert to Azerbaijan. The latter had already regained control of four in its military campaign; the other three would be returned by Armenia by December 1. The territory of NK itself would effectively be divided into two parts, with its northern part (including the capital of Stepanakert) under continued Armenian control, and the southern part under Azerbaijan administration. The return of displaced persons and refugees to their places of origin in NK and adjacent districts would be facilitated, with assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. An estimated 800,000 Azeri refugees had fled the area in the 1990s after the Armenian occupation.
A 2000-strong Russian peacekeeping force is to be stationed along the Armenian-Azerbaijani contact lines and a corridor connecting Karabakh to Armenia. The duration of its mission would initially be for five years, automatically extendable by another five, unless either party asks for discontinuance.
The agreement provides for “reopening of all economic and transportation links in the region.” This means opening a road/rail corridor between Azerbaijan and its enclave of Naxchivan (which borders Turkey and has been cut off from the Azeri mainland since the 1990s), for travel of goods and people. Russian border troops would secure the flow of goods and passengers in that corridor. Since Armenia is a CSTO ally, there is already considerable Russian military and special forces presence on its territory, including along the Iranian border. Armenia’s railway network is, in any case, managed by Russian Railways.
The agreement reflected the decisive military successes of Azerbaijan forces, operating with overt diplomatic, and semi-covert military, support from Turkey. Its predominantly Russian weaponry was vastly enhanced by Turkish and Israeli UAVs, long-range missiles and air defence systems. Turkish military advisors were reportedly on hand to advise on operational military tactics. The achievement of the agreement was really that it halted Azeri advances before it delivered the ultimate humiliation to Armenia of taking the whole of NK (which is recognized as Azerbaijani territory under international law, enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions). Thus, while restoring considerable territory to Azerbaijan, it leaves the final decision of the legal status of NK to the future.
The armistice was a welcome boost for Russia and President Putin personally, amidst a somewhat gloomy domestic and international scenario. Coronavirus is sweeping the country in a strong second wave, more lethal than the first; the government’s handling of it is coming under increasing public criticism. Externally, unsettling developments in its immediate neighbourhood – Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; deteriorating relations with the European Union and an uncertain outlook on relations with the incoming Biden Administration are all matters of concern for the Kremlin. The peace deal in the South Caucasus was therefore an opportunity demonstrate Russia’s continued clout in the South Caucasus and President Putin’s skills as a negotiator. Much publicity was given to the immediate follow up, by establishing Russian peacekeeping presence and liaison with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross, etc to expedite the rehabilitation and resettlement process.
In stopping the carnage and the bloodshed, the Russian intervention was an obvious success. On the face of it, its peacekeeping presence for the next five years (at least) puts it in pole position to influence developments in the region for a long time. However, there remain significant strategic challenges. The final status of NK has not yet been settled. Having tasted blood with decisive military victories, Azerbaijan (and its sponsor, Turkey) will likely push – sooner, rather than later – to press home the advantage for a fuller settlement. On the other side, though Russia can claim that it stopped the fight before Armenia’s humiliation was complete, Armenians are already grumbling that its treaty ally did not come to its aid early enough to prevent the military debacle. Russia’s defence, that its CSTO commitment to come to the military support of Armenia only kicked in if Armenian territory was threatened (not Armenian-occupied territory of other countries), is unlikely to cut much ice with those who recall Russian actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
Though they did not make adverse comments, there were indications that the US and French co-chairs were not happy that Russia had left them out of the final negotiations. In the current atmosphere of Russia-West hostility, it is likely that the fine print of the agreement will be challenged, particularly Russia’s monopolization of the peacekeeping role. Foreign Minister Lavrov and FSB (Intelligence Service) chief are already hinting darkly that “certain forces” are working for the armistice to fail, so as to discredit Russia and to expel it from the Caucasus.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan settlement has also drawn Iran into a stronger engagement with the region. By restoring Azerbaijani control over much of the northern bank of the Aras river, it extends the interface of Iran’s 20 million Azerbaijanis with their (less numerous) brethren in Azerbaijan, whom the Iranian leadership has often considered potential threats to Iranian territorial integrity. The strong Turkish presence, the import of Syrian rebels and the Israeli arms connection with Azerbaijan would further enhance Iranian concerns. The envisaged transregional transportation routes would traverse Iranian territory. The likely increase in Iranian activism in Azerbaijan to protect its security and economic interests would impact on the political situation in the region.
Finally, while Russia skilfully kept Turkey out of the final negotiations and the peacekeeping arrangements (at least for now), the Turkish drive towards and across the Caspian has been given strong momentum by the Azeri operations, adding another layer of complexity to Russia-Turkey relations.
Russia-Turkey relations become more complex
As mentioned above, Russia successfully resisted Turkey’s attempts to insinuate itself into the mediation process, and rebuffed Azerbaijani and Turkish efforts to have Turkey included in the peacekeeping role. However, in a face-saving solution, a “peacekeeping centre for ceasefire monitoring” was agreed upon. It was clarified by Russia that it would be a bilateral Russian-Turkish military observer mission, located on the Azerbaijan mainland, away from the contact line, and would use technical equipment like drones to remotely monitor ceasefire compliance.
Turkey’s strengthening foothold in Azerbaijan is an inevitable consequence of Azerbaijan’s military successes. President Erdogan was unflinching in his support for reclamation of Azerbaijani territory, openly promising diplomatic and military support. Appeals from the Minsk co-chairs at the highest levels and strong criticism of third-party intervention did not deter him. The breakdown of earlier ceasefire agreements in October were directly attributable to Turkey’s encouragement to Azerbaijan to consolidate its victories on the battlefield.
President Putin was in close touch with his Turkish counterpart to find a compromise solution. Among the tools of “persuasion” used by Russia was apparently a devastating Russian-Syrian airstrike on Turkish-backed Faylaq al Sham camps in northern Syria, reportedly killing dozens of its fighters. The terrorist group is believed to be Turkey’s main coordinator of Syrian rebel groups, including those “assigned” to Libyan and Azerbaijani war theatres. The implicit threat to disrupt the Russia-Turkey arrangement to restrain Syrian attacks on militants in Idlib appears to have bought Turkish moderation in Azerbaijan (for now).
Turkey’s ambitions in the region add to the already difficult Russia-Turkey relationship, in which both sides have balanced their divergences of strategic interests with the benefits of bilateral cooperation. As the influential Russian analyst Andrei Kortunov points out, the troops of NATO member Turkey now “receive permanent residence” in Azerbaijan. He adds with more than a hint of understatement that “a large-scale Turkish presence in the Caucasus cannot be perceived in Moscow as anything other than a strategic challenge”.
The Russian and Turkish Presidents meet often and are often on the phone, addressing each other as friend or brother. There is a similar intensity of interaction at the levels of foreign ministers, defence ministers and intelligence agencies. But, for all their fraternal protestations, neither side flinches from harsh coercive action like the recent Idlib airstrike. In an earlier incident in February, also in Idlib, a Russia-backed Syrian operation killed about 60 Turkish soldiers, who had “strayed” from their observation post, to which a Russia-Turkey agreement had restricted them. A Turkish riposte killed four Russian special forces personnel. Turkey openly gloated about the military operations earlier this year, that decisively pushed back Libyan strongman Khalifa’s forces which were supplied with Russian weaponry and assisted by the Wagner mercenary fighter group. [Russia could not respond publicly, since it could not acknowledge the illegal presence of its fighters in Libya.] While the war in the South Caucasus was raging, President Erdogan sent his own message to his Russian counterpart by inviting Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to Turkey in October (when the Armenia-Azerbaijan war was at its peak), declaring that Turkey would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and concluding an agreement on defence cooperation that included joint development of sophisticated systems, including combat drones, aerospace engines and missile technology.
When asked in a media interaction about divergent Russia-Turkey perspectives on Syria, Libya, Ukraine, NK and on Erdogan’s Ottoman ambitions, President Putin responded that Russia-Turkey interactions are important for both countries. Bilateral trade exceeds $20 billion. President Erdogan pursues an “independent” foreign policy. Withstanding considerable pressure (from the US and Europe), the TurkStream gas pipeline project (under the Black Sea) was completed quickly. In contrast, Putin said, Europe is unable to summon the independence or sovereignty to go through with the Nordstream 2 project, though it is of great economic advantage to it. The same is true of military-technical cooperation: Turkey decided it needed the Russian air defence system, S-400, and Erdogan bought it, defying NATO. Working with such a partner, Putin declared, is “not only pleasant but also safe”.
As for Turkey’s aspirations, Putin said he does not care, since the interests of Russia are reliably protected and all its partners are aware of it. The solution is to uphold one’s position and seek compromise when positions diverge. However tough President Erdogan’s stance may look, Putin said, he is a flexible and pragmatic person.
Every additional divergent perspective will demand progressively more flexibility and pragmatism.
Russian Navy eyes the Indian Ocean
Russia announced that it has agreed with Sudan to create a “naval supply station” in Sudan, near Port Sudan. Though it is at present a logistics support centre, the intention is likely to be to develop a full-fledged naval base. The agreement is for 25 years, with provision for a 10-year extension by mutual consent. Russia will build living quarters, warehouses, naval maintenance facilities and docks to berth four warships, including nuclear-powered vessels, and a Russian garrison of 300. As part of the agreement, Russia will provide anti-aircraft cover to its own base and Sudanese naval assets in Port Sudan.
The effort is obviously to restore Russian naval presence in the North African region, which was vacated after the Cold War (during which there was Soviet military presence in South Yemen and Ethiopia). With its increased military presence in Syria since 2015, Russia has significantly upgraded its naval facility in Tartus on the eastern Mediterranean. The base in Sudan gives it a presence on the other side of the Suez Canal, with the possibility of projecting Russian maritime influence along the shipping lanes of the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean – to which Russian naval access at present is only from its Pacific coast. It should be noted, however, that upgrading the Sudan facility to a full-fledged naval base will have to await further progress in Russia’s warship development programme.
(The views expressed are personal)
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