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Jan 10, 2024

Russia’s Geostrategic Shifts

By launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has brought back geopolitics to Europe for good. It’s striking, however, that a country with such limited resources has been able to set the framework within which the Europeans are forced to act.

Russian paratroopers walk before boarding Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes as they take part in the military exercises "Zapad-2021" staged by the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at an aerodrome in Kaliningrad Region, Russia, September 13, 2021.
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For Germany and the EU Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine since February 2022 has been a game changer: For the first time since the end of the Cold War, it is now widely understood that Europe’s security is threatened. Furthermore, there is a growing realization that the European Union and its member states are in geopolitical competition with Russia.

The decision by EU leaders on December 14, 2023, to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova and to grant Georgia “candidate status” was a geopolitical decision; the whole EU enlargement process is now infused by it. But the “return of geopolitics” narrative is a very German and European one, since for countries like Russia it has always been about geopolitics. Russian elites have been thinking in win-lose categories, in zones of influence and buffer zones, as well as about the weaponization of energy and strategic infrastructure for decades. Therefore, it should not have been a surprise that a major conflict about territory and borders, in this case Ukraine’s, has emerged. For Moscow, threatening Ukraine in particular means a changing security situation for Georgia, Moldova, Poland, and the Baltic States.

With its war against Georgia in 2008, which ended with Moscow’s de-facto control of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as with the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas since 2014, Russia made clear that it is willing to fight for territory. The 2022 war against Ukraine is further proof (which should not have been needed) that the Russian leadership is willing to use force against neighboring countries if they want to leave Moscow’s “sphere of influence.” In the understanding of the Russian elites, post-Soviet countries are not sovereign, and their attempt to integrate with other institutions, especially NATO and the EU, needs to be sanctioned if Russia is not to lose its position as the regional hegemon.

The Black Sea and Geopolitical Power Projection

The Russian military buildup in the Black Sea since 2014 has had the clear goal of changing the security balance in the region. At that time, keeping Western states out (an ambition shared with Turkey) and cutting off Ukraine from the Azov Sea were already part of a strategic policy to change the rules of the game of European security. The annexation of Crimea, and  modernizing the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, were key for underpinning this strategic shift, which for too long has been discussed almost exclusively in the context of Russian domestic policy.

In fact, Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea is part of a bigger geostrategic approach, since this region connects Europe with Asia and is the springboard to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Russia’s Syria campaign since 2015 was only possible after having gained military dominance in the Black Sea. Taking advantage of the US withdrawal from parts of the Middle East and former US President Barack Obama’s hesitancy vis-à-vis Syria were opportunities for Moscow to increase its impact in the Middle East.

Russia’s GDP equals that of Spain; it has much fewer resources than the United States, NATO, or the EU member states. Profiting from the weaknesses of US decision-making and disengagement, therefore, was instrumental for Russia to extend its influence. It also plays two additional roles, also informed by its limited resources—that of a spoiler power, which has neither the capacities nor the mindset to be a responsible order power; and that of a disrupting power, which uses hybrid means to impact global developments and push its geopolitical agenda forward.

For instance, in Africa, with its private military forces such as Wagner, Russia is actively projecting power and gaining resources. This is much cheaper than deploying regular Russian forces, but serves the interest of the Russian state. Private military organizations are earning their own money by providing training and military protection to authoritarian leaders. Here, like in any other region, it is also about pushing back Western influence. African governments like those in the Central African Republic, Mali, or Libya pay back with natural resources and loyalty to Moscow.

It is noticeable that Russia’s policy is often not about dominating territories outright by way of military occupation, but through close informal links with authoritarian and corrupt elites. Gray zones with a certain level of disorder, weak institutions, and competing groups of warlords are a perfect environment for Russia to gain influence via informal ties, corruption, and “private” military forces. This approach comes under pressure if there is political change such as the one Ukraine saw in 2013 with the Euromaidan and growing public pressure for democratic transition, EU integration, the fight against corruption, and less Russian influence.

A Game Changer

President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a large-scale invasion of Ukraine is, therefore, an exception to the successful Russian policy of creating and maintaining gray zones. With the attempt to take Kyiv by force, topple the Ukrainian government, and install a pro-Russian leadership, the Kremlin wanted to get a whole country under its control. It was not only a reaction to the assessment that with Ukraine Russia is losing the key country in the post-Soviet region. But it also was carried out based on the assessment by Putin that, after the limited reaction of the European countries and the US to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, the Kremlin would not incur any major costs. The comprehensive Western sanctions and the support for Ukraine came as a surprise for the Kremlin.

But Russia has adapted to the new situation and has prepared for a long war. The economy has shifted (partly) to a war economy, the rationale of the distribution of resources and the consolidation of the regime is taking place within the logic of an ongoing war against the West. Even if Russian propaganda sells this war against Ukraine as a proxy war against the West, more important is that control over Ukraine is key for Russia being an empire. Putin, in his “historical essay” of 2021, went so far as to describe “Russians and Ukrainians as one people,” confirming that he wants to rewrite history and thinks in imperial and colonial terms. Russian elites will never give up on the attempt to either conquer or destroy the country. There is no deal or appeasement possible; Russian elites and society with their imperialist mindset will never accept an independent and sovereign Ukraine. Therefore, the assessment of some Western observers, i.e., that Russia could be satisfied with parts of Ukraine and a ceasefire, are wrong.

The war against Ukraine is not only changing Russia, however, but also its relations with its post-Soviet neighbors. Russian interests have changed within the new context of comprehensive Western sanctions and an economic and political decoupling from the West. Russia has to concentrate its resources on Ukraine, it is becoming weaker as an “authoritarian security provider.” Post-Soviet neighbors are becoming even more important for Moscow, and the Russian state and businesses have become more active in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Since trade and transit routes to Europe are now disrupted, investment in infrastructure and new corridors as well as cooperation to circumvent sanctions are growing.

In addition to trade routes to China and growing investment in pipeline infrastructure in this direction, the North-South route via the South Caucasus to Iran and further to the Indian Ocean is also gaining in relevance. On the one hand, Russia is much more active in terms of high-level meetings, investment in infrastructure, and enlarging trade routes with its post-Soviet neighbors. According to a latest European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) report, Central Asian countries enjoyed growth rates in 2023 of 5.7-5.9 percent, due to the relocation of Russian money and business activities. On the other hand, Russia is changing its priorities and is willing to make compromises which were not acceptable before.

Change is noticeable in the South Caucasus, too. The takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023 by Azerbaijani military forces and the exodus of Karabakh Armenians from the region was coordinated with and accepted by Moscow. It will have to withdraw its “peace forces” from the region and lose influence over Azerbaijan. For Russia, Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey have become more important as part of the North-South transit route and Turkey in particular for circumventing Western sanctions. Russia has to increasingly compete with other actors in the South Caucasus about influence, and Azerbaijan and Turkey, Iran, and, to some extent, Israel will be key actors in shaping the new regional (security) order.

Simultaneously, the Russian leadership is using informal ties, investments in infrastructure, economic incentives, and security blackmail to increase its influence. Georgia, the newly declared EU membership candidate, is a case in point. Moscow is instrumentalizing its influence over the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to threaten the security of Georgia as a whole. At the same time, it offers the Georgian ruling elites opportunities to make money by helping to circumvent sanctions, including by opening the air transit between both countries, ending the visa ban, and showing interest in investing in the deep seaport of Anaklia.

Georgia is a key country in the South Caucasus and post-Soviet region, crucial in terms of transit and trade but also as an example of reforms and transatlantic integration in the past. Here again, Russia is in competition with the EU over geopolitical influence in this key region, but also as a norm setter in regional conflicts or the legal sphere. The attempt of the Georgian government to introduce a “foreign agent” law in spring 2023, copied from Russian legislation and aimed at cutting civil society off from external funding, was stopped by public protests at the last moment. In Central Asia, authoritarian governments are also copying Moscow’s “foreign agent” law and legislation on internet control.

The Rise of New Regional Orders

The major trend of the coming years will be the negotiation of new regional orders in Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Eastern Europe. As a result of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the country is not strengthening its hegemony over the post-Soviet region, but accelerating the collapse of the empire. Russia will have to compete with other countries and actors for influence in these regions, especially with authoritarian states like China, Turkey, Iran, and some Gulf states, but also with the EU.

At the same time, Russia still has a lot of leverage and instruments to influence the countries of the regions—be it in terms of gas dependency, like in the case of Moldova and Armenia, labor migration in the case of several Central Asian countries, or as a market, especially within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union. According to the EBRD report, Russia registered 3.5 million new migrant workers in 2022, 90 percent of whom were coming from Central Asian countries. They are helping to keep the Russian economy running at a time of huge state investment in the military industry and an outflow of the skilled labor force due to the war and the mobilization.

With its wars against Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has opened a Pandora’s box. It brought back competition over territory and borders to Europe. Azerbaijan’s 2022 incursion into Armenian territory undermined the territorial integrity of the Armenian state. The discussion about an extraterritorial corridor via Armenian territory connecting Azerbaijan with its exclave Nakhichevan or about Azerbaijani exclaves on the territory of Armenia could be a next step by Baku to move its borders further. For the unresolved conflicts in Europe this is bad news—whether with a view to Serbia’s pressure on Kosovo or the dysfunctionality of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

So, geopolitics may be back on European minds. The really striking fact about this, however, is that despite its limited resources, Putin’s Russia has been able to set the framework within which the EU and Germany are now forced to act.

Stefan Meister is Head of the Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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