What's next for Russia and the post-Soviet space in 2016?
What should the world expect from Russia's foreign policy in Ukraine, the South Caucasus and Central Asia? To answer that question, one needs to take into account the complicated situation in Syria, Russia’s strained relationship with Turkey and potential complexities around Afghanistan.
Pictured: A soldier of the 1st Slavic militia brigade of the Donetsk People's Republic. Photo: RIA Novosti
In 2016, the post-Soviet space will continue to be a top priority for Russian foreign policy. Moscow will keep working on resolving the issues that carried over from last year and will definitely seek to find solutions to its advantage. Some of the most pressing areas include the Ukrainian crisis and ensuring the security of Russia’s southern borders, especially those of the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
The Russian leadership will also focus on the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict, but, most likely, through its ties to the situation surrounding Ukraine. Of course, Moscow will emphasize the promotion of Eurasian integration projects, which are seen as a reliable instrument for keeping allies close.
The situation is further complicated by the significant influence that external players can exert on issues involving Russia and countries in the post-Soviet space.
The Ukraine-Syria conundrum
The confrontation between Russia and the West is intertwined with the resolution of the conflict in Southeast Ukraine, while fallout from the deterioration in Russia-Turkey relations (which has been steadily growing up to this point) adversely influences the dynamics of the Nagorno-Karabakh standoff. The war in Syria - and the situation in the Middle East in general - can also have a major effect on the post-Soviet space.
Still, It is clear now that any attempts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis promoting the idea of international anti-terrorist cooperation in Syria have not worked out. Nor is it likely to work out in the future. However, the current situation has less to do with Washington's reluctance to compromise with Moscow and cooperate on fighting a common foe in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), and more to do with the mutual lack of trust that is slowing down the much-needed antiterrorist coalition.
Had Russia and the West agreed on a "Syrian deal," powerful regional players, including Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel, all with their ambivalent interests and ambitions, would have threatened the practical implementation of any agreements that failed to promote their interests or did not include them. Indeed, regardless of how vested Washington is in its Doha, Ankara and Riyadh allies, U.S. control has its limits.
Even more so, Tehran cannot be expected to act as Moscow's loyal vassal. Thus, even if the "deal" comes to fruition, it will be over the future of Syria, not over Ukraine. The agreement will not be concluded between Russia and the West, but rather, will be drawn up by all interested parties, including immediate combat participants.
Therefore, the Ukrainian puzzle devoid of Syrian ties persists as Moscow's most complicated issue in the new year. Presently, we are observing a decline in conflict intensity compared with the first six months of 2015. The negotiation format labeled Minsk-2 de facto was extended for another year.
However, not a single major controversial issue has been put on the real agenda. Kiev does not believe that there is room for people's republics of Donbas in Ukraine’s future. Moscow currently does not perceive Southeast Ukraine as the second Crimea. It is rather seen as a counterweight to the political influence of the rest of Ukraine, which is focused on accelerated integration into NATO and the EU.
As before, in 2016 the line in the sand for Russia is the defeat of Donetsk and Luhansk separatists by the Ukrainian military backed by the West. If this were to happen, Moscow might respond by reconsidering the current status of the two people's republics, which would escalate the tensions between Russia and the West.
However, with the deepening recession and the consequences of sanctions that exacerbate the crisis, Moscow would prefer a different scenario that involves the suspension of all status talks together with the actual halt of military operations. Such a scenario suits the West as well, for it is tired of the conflict in Southeast Ukraine and believes that easing tensions should be the first step towards the reintegration of Ukraine (excluding, of course, Crimea).
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However, after the U.S. and EU proclaimed the impossibility of dealing with Russia "in the usual fashion," they have not come forward with a new cooperation model that would work under the new conditions, except for putting pressure on the Kremlin through sanctions and trying to push it to concede. It is highly unlikely that extending sanctions against Russia until "all Minsk Protocol conditions are observed" is the best way to ensure peace for Donbas.
Caucasus and Central Asia
The Caucassus and Central Asia will maintain their importance for Moscow in 2016. Still, the situation here is different from Syria and Ukraine. Here Russia has a lot more resources and opportunities. In these regions, Moscow is implementing integration projects, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Eurasian Economic Union and Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The first project involves Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the second is between Moscow, Astana, Yerevan and Bishkek, and the third incorporates Uzbekistan, which traditionally prefers strong bilateral relations to multilateral integration. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a major institution for Russia-China cooperation.
In 2016, Moscow will push for the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Given the strategic nature of military and political cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey and Armenia and Russia, the escalating Russia-Turkey confrontation dramatically increases the risk of enhancing the military conflict in Nagorno-Karabach and having it spread beyond the Caucasian region.
Thus, Moscow will have to pursue three goals: prevent a critical deterioration of bilateral relations with Baku, boost cooperation with Yerevan and increase its own diplomatic efforts along with participation in the Minsk group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Minsk format will be used, among other things, as an instrument of targeted cooperation with the U.S. and EU, which is represented by France at the Minsk Protocol meetings.
An equally important task is the de-escalation of Russia-Turkey confrontation. We can hardly expect any breakthroughs in this area, but Ankara and Moscow are capable of steering away from the point of no return.
In 2016, Moscow will continue to guarantee the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but will not extend the Crimean scenario there. Uniting with Russia is not an issue for Abkhazia, but it is one of the most discussed topics in South Ossetia.
This partly acknowledged republic will soon enter its presidential election cycle (the election will be held in 2017), and the unification of North and South Ossetia as part of the Russian Federation is going to be widely used by all major contenders as a campaign theme. Moscow will not be able to ignore the opinion of a certain part of the Ossetian elite, but the Kremlin will do its best to refrain from repeating the Crimean experience.
As for Central Asia, Russia will likely increase military and economic support of acting regimes in the region. Yet Moscow should be more scrupulous and selective in this issue. For example, in Tajikistan, the authorities pressure the "systemic" Islamist opposition (the Restoration Party), which it interprets as breaking the rules set after the end of the civil war (which lasted from 1992-1997).
Thus, the change in the status quo here yields additional risks that the Kremlin should take into account. However, in Central Asia unlike other regions of the post-Soviet space, Moscow cooperates with and competes against not only the U.S., but also China. All these three global players are now facing the threat of a destabilized Afghanistan and the growth of radical Islam, which lays the foundation for at least situational pragmatic partnership that could later grow into more efficient cooperation.
Ultimately, at the very least, Russia will be seeking to maintain its positions within the territory of the former Soviet Union. Moscow is not likely to come up with something new. Currently, there is no reason to believe that Russia is going to pursue a precisely aligned strategy. Most likely, it will abide by the current policies and find ways to respond to emerging challenges.