Massive protests continued in Belarus for more than a month. These were against the rigged elections which kept President Alexander Lukashenko in power. They offer an insight into Russia’s strategy to retain the regions of the former Soviet Union within its sphere of influence.
Prior to analyzing this, the primary default Western propaganda narrative about ongoing events in Belarus need clarification. While Lukashenko heads a corrupt and authoritarian regime allied with Russia, his regime is far better than other regimes in the former USSR region with whom NATO powers do business.
Like in Syria, Libya and Ukraine, Western concerns have little to do with human rights or freedoms. They revolve mostly around geopolitics and the West’s expansionist ambitions. Our primary focus is not the identification of Western interests in Belarus or even an assessment of Lukashenka’s track record. We will analyze Russia’s responses to disruption of the status quo in the former Soviet regions and their long-term repercussions.
Since gaining independence 30 years ago, most former Soviet republics, especially Muslim majority states, are still run by remnants of the Soviet bureaucracy, known in Russian political vocabulary as nomenklatura. This is what gives Moscow so much influence in the region compared to other external players.
The ruling elites in these countries were at some point in their careers allowed to occupy key positions by the direct vetting process overseen by the KGB. This was based on the criterion that put their loyalty to Russia as the most important prerequisite.
This reality combined with Russia’s determined actions, as demonstrated in Tajikistan in the late 1990s, Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and now in Belarus show that Moscow is determined to not allow the post-Soviet region to slip out of its sphere of influence, especially not into the Western orbit. However, Moscow’s reaction suffers from serious shortcomings that make it difficult to sustain its modus operandi. It relies primarily on military and security tools to retain influence.
In Tajikistan, Russia relied on its military presence and military assistance to Emomali Rahmonov. The aim was to marginalize and eliminate Central Asia’s only officially registered Islamic political party from the coalition government. This was agreed upon through Iranian efforts to end the Tajik civil war.
Once Georgia moved to restore its territorial integrity in South Ossetia, the Russian army invaded the country. In Ukraine, when the masses backed by the West overthrew a corrupt regime, Moscow initiated a proxy separatist movement. And in Belarus, Vladimir Putin declared that Russia formed a reserved security force ready to enter the sovereign nation if things get out of control.
While these policies are no different from NATO regimes’ bombing of Libya, invasion of Iraq or meddling in Egypt, many societies in the former Soviet republics are particularly sensitive to Moscow’s meddling due to the long history of Russian colonialism. These realities combined with Western political backing and propaganda make these societies prone to adopting anti-Russian sentiment.
Moscow’s emphasis on resolving issues using hard power reinforces the Western narrative and unintentionally reignites anti-Russian sentiment by drawing parallels between Czarist or Soviet colonization of post-Soviet regions. The Russian leadership cannot be oblivious to this reality. So, why does Moscow give credence, even if unintentionally, to the Western narrative?
Russia knows that due to historical, geopolitical and social realities, the West cannot effectively counter Russia’s hard power in the post-Soviet space. Thus, Moscow does not see the need to eliminate the primacy of hard-power from its regional politics. Also, NATO might be calling the shots in North Africa or Western Europe, but in the former Soviet regions, Russia is boss. Thus, by turning the struggle, directly or indirectly into the military arena, Moscow accrues significant practical and political advantage in outmaneuvering NATO regimes and retaining superiority in the region. NATO cannot respond to Russia’s hard power short of going to war. While this strategy currently serves Moscow well, it has major shortcomings and may backfire.
Russia realizes that hard power can only work in certain specific circumstances and there is a need to finetune its approach. Soon after Russia decisively confronted Ukraine’s drift towards NATO, the Russian media and the ruling establishment enthusiastically adopted a new term, politechnologiyi or political technologies.
Russia’s political-technologies approach is strategically organized and partly decentralized. It is a media-centric, social, economic and political approach in pushing back NATO’s soft-power projection. It has been clumsily attempted in Ukraine, where it had to constantly appeal to the legacy of the Soviet Union, outdated Marxist narrative of history and old school slogans. It has limited appeal beyond the pro-Russian constituency in Ukraine. A similar, but slightly more improved approach is currently being used in Belarus. For example, the Russian media has far more critical coverage of its ally in Belarus than it did during the 2014 events in Ukraine. Russian proxies in Ukraine were presented as a bulwark against imperialism who could do no wrong. Lukashenko and his regime are being gently criticized. Instead of talking about how good the health care or pension system of Soviet Belarus was, Russian pundits, media and officials talk about Lukashenko’s achievements in establishing a strong IT sector and running state factories relatively efficiently.
Nevertheless, Moscow is still far behind in its soft-power skills. For example, after many Belarus state media employees quit and sided with the protestors, Russia simply flew in media crews and analysts to assist the Lukashenko regime in battling the opposition on the information front. This crude tactic was used quite bluntly and while it did help Lukashenko to counter the protest movement in the information field, it backfired by creating an anti-Russian sentiment among the protestors which was previously almost non-existent.
Before analyzing whether Russia will be able to sustain its superiority in the post-Soviet space through the usual approach, it must be noted that at times Moscow has shown tactical prudence when events got out of control in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. In both countries, regimes loyal to Russia which previously were part of the Soviet bureaucracy were overthrown by popular uprisings, but Moscow did not intervene in a forceful manner as it did in Ukraine, Tajikistan, Georgia or Belarus. Why?
Due to its hostile geopolitical environment, Armenia cannot afford to leave the Russian sphere of influence and survive as an independent state. Thus, Moscow was not worried that the new government of Nikol Pashinyan would expel Russian troops and replace them with NATO forces. In Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet official Askar Akayev was toppled by a spontaneous mass protest movement which brought to power politicians that were also willing to work with Moscow. Both cases show that if Moscow’s geopolitical redlines are not crossed, it can tolerate popular uprisings. The issue is though, in most post-Soviet states, Moscow’s interests only coincide with the ruling regimes and not the masses. For example, in Azerbaijan, Russia does not wish to see the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in Armenian occupied Karabakh. A similar situation applies to Georgia. In Central Asia, Moscow is the primary backer of the kleptocratic regimes and its treaties, agreements and cooperation are with the regimes, that do not benefit the masses.
Until 2015, Russia did not face an organized indigenous push to reduce its influence in the post-Soviet space. However, when Georgia’s ex-president Mikhail Saakashvili, known for his staunch anti-Kremlin views, became a governor in Ukraine, this began to change. As deputy prime minister and founder of the think-tank, Office of Fast Solutions, Saakashvili has focused on creating an alternative governance model in Ukraine to the one inherited from the Soviet era which he frequently identifies with Moscow’s malign meddling. Thus, Russia should expect a strong political challenge to its influence. Saakashvili has long advocated reduction in Moscow’s influence and it seems his aim goes beyond Ukraine. Last month, Saakashvili’s new semi-governmental organization was joined by billionaire Margulan Seissembayev from Kazakhstan, who is not on good terms with the pro-Moscow regime there.
Another key trend which will create obstacles for Moscow’s regional influence will be the generational transition in the former Soviet republics. All Muslim republics except Kyrgyzstan are ruled by family dynasties. The younger generation which is expected to take over from Soviet era dinosaurs are mostly Western educated who looted their country’s wealth and are now stationed mainly in Western capitals. Thus, once the current leaders are gone, the new generation of rulers will not have the same bond with Moscow, if the power transition goes smoothly. Even Russian historian of the region, Aleksei Malashenko admits that overall, the upcoming generation of Central Asians will be more distant from Russia and probably more hostile.
Thus, can Moscow continue to rely on the military and security leverages in order to safeguard its position in the region? The straight answer is no. Multiple Ukraine-type engagements will create a quagmire for Russia which NATO regimes will exploit. However, it would be naïve to assume that Russia has no soft leverage. The primary Russian non-military leverage are the migrant workers from Central Asia and other former Soviet republics, whose remittances prevent an economic crisis in these republics. For example, if Moscow expels 1.5 million Uzbeks working in Russia, the government in Tashkent will face serious turbulence.
Russia’s primary weakness in its soft leverage consists of an unappealing narrative. Its over reliance on romanticized nostalgia for the stable life in the USSR has limited generational appeal. Also, Russia’s information narrative is disruptive, not inclusive. The Atlantic Council’s in-depth study in February 2020 of Iranian information struggle makes the following comparison with Russia: “If the principal intent of Russia’s digital influence efforts is to distract and dismay, Iran’s goal is most often to persuade.” This is an important point to note because it highlights that Iran has a narrative and an indigenous idea rooted in Islam which it uses with confidence to win over people to its side. Russia on the other hand lacks a basic co-optation mechanism to win over the masses to give its actions some legitimacy in the region. NATO’s 2014 interference in Ukraine to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych was legitimized because the Western alliance camouflaged its meddling through the mobilization of indigenous population. Moscow could not do the same in the Russian dominated regions of Ukraine. Thus, it went for the easier option and assisted in creating armed militias.
How Russia manages the situation in Belarus is as important as the outcome of the challenge to Lukashenko’s 24-year rule. It will offer insights into how Moscow will handle anticipated challenges to the status quo in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Changes in these regions will have wider ramifications for the Muslim world as both Turkish and Iranian influence will come into play. Currently Russia’s supremacy in the region is unchallenged but if Moscow continues to ignore people’s grievances and formulates policies strictly through the authoritarian regimes, sooner or later, an external force will exploit people’s growing concerns against Russia. In the long-run, Moscow will not be able to retain its influence in Central Asia without Turkish-Iranian assistance. Currently Moscow assumes it can go it alone but this may turn out to be a strategic mistake.