The stick, carrot, and great Russian strategy
by Ksenia Svetlova | May, 2021
Spotlight: Russia & The Middle East
The tremendous tension that had been felt on the Russian-Ukrainian border over the past few weeks has dissipated entirely due to Russia's decision to withdraw the forces it had deployed there. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny's deteriorating health has now stabilized after the regime decided to hospitalize him, and allow external physicians to examine him (in exchange for which Navalny has agreed to desist from his 22-day hunger strike). Following some harsh blows and personal attacks, Presidents Biden and Putin have exchanged compliments in light of the Russian leader's participation in the climate summit to which Biden had invited him, and his support in minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. The two presidents are now beginning to discuss the possibility of a summit in approximately two months. Russia is using numerous sticks and plenty of carrots as it pursues its goals while navigating in a rapidly changing world. From Washington to Prague, it is not always greeted warmly, which is exactly why Russia intends to make the most of its presence and impact in the areas which it dominates.
The goings on in Prague
While thousands of Russian troops stationed near the Ukrainian border were waiting for orders, Russia wound up in the midst of a new spying and sabotage ordeal. The Czech Republic – which is traditionally quite friendly toward Russia – has accused the Kremlin of planning and executing a terror attack on Czech soil. Russian diplomats in Prague have been expelled, negotiations over the supply of Russian vaccine Sputnik V to the Czech Republic have been halted, and many energy contracts will probably not be executed. This affair has considerable repercussions for Russian-NATO and Russian-EU relations, which are expected to further deteriorate, casting great doubt over the timely completion (or indeed entire establishment) of the Nord Stream gas pipeline. This atmosphere is also affecting decision-makers in Moscow, who anticipate additional sanctions down the road, as well as obstacles on the way to realizing their polices in Eastern Europe.
The decision to withdraw from the Ukraine and embrace a softer attitude toward Washington may very well be a response to the current crisis that Russia is undergoing in Europe. Moscow prides itself on its diplomatic capabilities, and ability to maintain elaborate, even complicated, relationships with most actors in the international arena (as it is managing to do in the Middle East with Israel, Syria, Hizballah, Turkey, the Kurds, Greece, and Cyprus). A collision with both Europe and the United States is inconvenient for Russia; it prefers to thaw some of the frost that has accumulated in its relations with Washington, even if this warmth is insubstantial and does not bring with it a change in policy across the board. President Biden is far from changing his mind about Russia and its conduct – he views it as an enemy, but prefers to keep it close, simultaneously deterring and attracting it. One can hardly call this step "warming up"; it is more of a tactical action serving the great Russian strategy of broadening its impact and promoting its own interests.
The Czech ordeal is dragging Russia into greater involvement in its smaller neighbor's – Belarus' – affairs. The item on the alleged attempted abduction of Lukashenko's children is interesting because of the joint statement issued by the Russian and Belarussian security forces (the FSB). Following Lukashenko's short-term reservation, and even some positive coverage of the protest in Belarus in August and September 2020, the Russian regime is once again placing obstacles in the last European dictator's path. The (allegedly) thwarted plot will not allow Lukashenko to have any dialogue with the West, the economic difficulties as well as European and American strikes will make his situation worse, and he will have no other choice except to become rapidly closer to Russia, to the point of Belarus "integrating into" (i.e., merging with) Russia.
Another country where Russia is primarily applying the policy designed to serve its own interests first and foremost is Syria, where presidential elections are due to take place in approximately one month.
No one in or outside Syria has any doubt that President Bashar Assad, Russia's ally, will win the elections, even though most Syrians will not even be able to vote as they have become refugees or are living in areas outside of Assad's forces' control. These elections are taking place because, firstly, they must be held – the civil war is formally "over", several countries (Russia and the United States) have announced that they have defeated ISIS, and therefore Assad, who continues to insist that he is Syria's legitimate and elected president, has no other option. Over the past year, Russia has shown its discontent with Assad and his conduct, as well as his insistence upon carrying out the "reforms" suggested by UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen, and his tendency to rely on Iranian forces. Nevertheless, Moscow has yet to find another candidate who will both enjoy minimal legitimization and be loyal to Russia, promoting its interests in Syria. Bashar Assad owes Russia his life and power – but is incapable of taking the action that will save Syria from the colossal economic crisis it is in, and prevent it from collapsing inwards.
Assad is not immune to Russian criticism, but since no other candidate has been found to serve Russian interests – growing presence in the Mediterranean and extensive use of Syria's natural resources – he will be re-elected as president under Russian auspices. The economic challenge in Syria, however, remains intact. Syria is experiencing a tremendous economic crisis at present, and despite its diligent efforts, Russia has failed to set up an international front that will enable its restoration. This issue may also be raised during the June summit between Presidents Biden and Putin, if it will indeed get underway.
Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a fellow research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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