|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
Review period: July 16-31, 2020
Russia claims regional hegemony in the post-Soviet space and considers that strengthening Western positions in the region poses a threat to its national interests. The purpose of our review is to provide readers with information about important events related to Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space. The review is a biweekly publication and will be useful for everyone – decision-makers, public employees, media representatives and other people who are interested in the ongoing processes in post-Soviet countries.
The Lublin Triangle – A New Format of Regional Cooperation
Main Event: On July 28, 2020, the Lublin Triangle – a new political platform for regional cooperation was established between Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.
Event in Details: In the southeastern Polish city of Lublin, a new format of regional cooperation was established with the participation of the foreign ministers of the three countries. The new union will focus on resolving issues of political, economic and social cooperation. However, the broad goals of the regional union include restraining Russian influence, delaying the completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline project, promoting Ukraine’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, working on the de-occupation of Crimea, and etc.
In 1569, in Lublin, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland were united into one state – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (the Rzeczpospolita). The borders of the Rzeczpospolita coincide with the borders of the member states of the new Triangle except for Belarus. This is a kind of hint that in the case of the desired changes in Belarus, Minsk might join the union as well.
The member states of the Lublin Triangle are already cooperating in the field of security. In 2014, the parties signed an agreement on the establishment of a joint brigade – LitPolUkrBrig. The brigade was formed in the fall of 2015. Its headquarters is based in Lublin.
Why the Event is Important: The goal of the post-Soviet countries is to weaken Moscow’s influence in the countries bordering Russia in the west and to strengthen the influence of Euro-Atlantic institutions through deeper coordination in politics, economics and security.
Why the Event is Important for Ukraine: The new format of regional cooperation will give Ukraine additional leverage to move closer to Euro-Atlantic structures and the possibility of using additional tools in the confrontation with Russia.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: For Russia, from a historical perspective, the formation of the Lublin Triangle is seen as an attempt by Poland to restore its historical influence over the countries bordering Russia in the west as well as to create additional mechanisms for the implementation of anti-Russian policy.
Russia Celebrated Navy Day in Occupied Sevastopol
Main Event: On July 26, 2020, Russia celebrated Navy Day. Festive events were held on the Black Sea, including in occupied Sevastopol.
Theatrical performance during the parade. Source: RIA Novosti
Event in Details: Navy Day was celebrated throughout Russia. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, also attended the main event in St. Petersburg. More than 30 warships, submarines and cutter boats were involved in the parade and the military sporting event in Sevastopol. The parade was hosted by Aleksander Dvornikov, Commander of the Southern Military District of Russia. Military bases in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region are under his subordination.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine protested the parade in Sevastopol and sent a protest note to the Russian embassy. Kyiv also sent a notification regarding the parade to the UN Secretary General.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, the note was returned to Ukraine without consideration since Russia, as a sovereign state, can hold parades and celebrations on its territory without the consent of other countries. The Ministry also stressed that since 2014, the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol are part of Russia.
Why the Event is Important: Such events additionally highlight that Crimea and Sevastopol belong to Russia and show the limited resources that Ukraine and its supporters have to change things in favor of Ukraine in regard to the occupied Crimea.
Ukraine Will Receive Military Assistance from the US
Main Event: On July 30, 2020, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced legislation to provide military assistance and reform support to Ukraine over the next five years.
Event in Details: The Ukraine Security Partnership Act authorizes USD 300 million per year in foreign military financing to Ukraine, including lethal military assistance as well. In return, Ukraine is to implement necessary reforms in the field of defense industry where problems with transparency and efficiency of procurement exist.
The bill co-sponsors are influential senators such as Jim Risch, Bob Menendez, Jeanne Shaheen and others. The Act also calls for the State Department to set up a working group with Ukraine and policy reform assistance and to re-appoint a special envoy for peace talks.
The United States has given Ukraine more than USD 3 billion in aid, including more than USD 1.6 billion in military assistance.
Reaction of Russia
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, the initiative of the US senators will be the ground for conflict escalation in Donbass.
Why is the Event Important: The new long-term US military assistance will help Ukraine to modernize its armed forces. This will be a message to Russia that Kyiv is not alone in the confrontation with Moscow.
Russian Mercenaries Detained in Belarus Ahead of Elections
Main Event: On July 29, 2020, 33 citizens of the Russian Federation were detained in Belarus. Reportedly detainees were mercenaries of the private military company – Wagner.
Detention of the Wagner mercenaries. Source: State TV channel – “Belarus 1”
Event in Details: Wagner has recently become one of the most well-known paramilitary companies whose mercenaries take part in various hotspots around the world, including eastern Ukraine and Syria. The company is owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of the Russian president. According to media reports, some of the detainees were fighting in Donbass and were on their way to Sudan via Belarus.
Reaction of Russia
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin Spokesman, said that Moscow demands an exhaustive explanation from Belarus about the detention of the Russian citizens. Russia denies any illegal activity that would be grounds for the detention, saying that the Russian citizens were in transit to another country. According to Peskov, the detention of the Russian citizens is not in line with the allied relations. On July 31, the issue was discussed with the Russian president at a meeting of the Russian Security Council.
Tightening border control with Belarus should be considered as Russia’s response. Citizens of Belarus are asked for telephone numbers and passport data while leaving Russia which leads to large queues.
General Context: The detention of the Russian fighters coincided with the presidential elections in Belarus scheduled on August 9. The President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, is running for his sixth term; however, unlike the previous cases, the pre-election environment is radically different. Despite the neutralization of his key rivals (two arrested, one fled to Russia and then moved to Kyiv), Lukashenko’s opponents have rallied around Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, was a candidate for the same election until his arrest in May, 2020 after which Svetlana Tikhanovskaya announced her intention to run in his place. She has attracted support from across the spectrum of Belarus’s political opposition. Rallies in support of Tikhanovskaya and in opposition to Lukashenko have been the largest in the history of post-Soviet Belarus. Amid the economic challenges and the threat of a new coronavirus pandemic, Lukashenko’s victory no longer seems as easy to achieve as it was in previous elections.
On July 24, prior to the detention of the Wagner fighters, Lukashenko, during his visit to a military unit, said that some forces could use professional military mercenaries from private military companies. Reportedly, Belarusian law enforcement agencies had information about the arrival of more than 200 fighters in Belarus with the aim of “destabilizing the situation in the country ahead of the election.” Interestingly, a similar arrest of fighters occurred in the previous pre-election period as well.
Lukashenko described the detention as an “extraordinary case” and accused Russia of “dirty intentions.” The detainees were accused of plotting a terrorist attack.
Why is the Event Important: The president of Belarus is using anti-Russian rhetoric in his run-up to the elections and is trying to present his rivals as pro-Russian. Linking the Russian mercenaries to the pre-election campaign is something like a pre-written scenario to discredit Lukashenko’s opponents and, if necessary, legitimize the use of force.
Main Event: The border confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which started on July 12, 2020, is escalating to the regional scale.
Event in Details: On July 12, far from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, about 55 km from the Georgian border in the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan and the Tavush region of Armenia, a military confrontation broke out that claimed dozens of lives, including an Azerbaijani general. Since the Four Days War of 2016, this has been the most serious confrontation in our neighborhood.
“Brawls” in Russian Cities
The border confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan continued with clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani migrants in Russia. On July 25, participants of a violent confrontation were arrested in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The violence erupted on July 24 after Azerbaijanis beat Armenians in Moscow and later attacked a car with Armenian license plates. Later, both sides attacked shops and restaurants owned by Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Moscow. The ambassadors of Armenia and Azerbaijan to Russia called on their compatriots not to violate Russian laws.
On July 29, Turkey-Azerbaijan joint military exercises demonstrating support to Azerbaijan were launched on the entire territory of Azerbaijan, including Nakhichevan and the surrounding areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. For its part, by the order of the president of Russia of July 17, 2020, a surprise complex check for combat readiness was launched in the Southern Military District of Russia. Also, preparatory exercises for strategic command-staff exercises – Kavkaz 2020, were launched in the Military District.
Reaction of Russia
Despite the fact that Russia and Armenia are allies and partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow’s position was more neutral than expected by its ally. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, called on both sides to show restraint and conform to their commitments. However, he did not demonstrate an active pro-Armenian stance. In recent years, there has been increasing talk on cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan, raising suspicions in Yerevan that Moscow may no longer be pro-Armenian at a critical juncture.
Why is the Event Important: The ongoing confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan has shown that the conflict between the two countries has the potential to spill beyond the region and involve other countries as well. At this stage, the likelihood of a regional confrontation is low; however, the Armenian-Azerbaijani brawls in Russian cities and military exercises ongoing in parallel indicate that there is a risk of Russian-Turkish involvement in the conflict.
Washington’s Stance Against the Nord Stream 2 is Tightening
Main Event: Political turmoil about the North Stream 2 persists. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, once again opposed the construction of the North Stream 2 at a senate hearing on July 30, 2020.
Event in Details: “We will do everything we can to make sure that that pipeline doesn’t threaten Europe,” said the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, adding: “We want Europe to have real, secure, stable, safe energy resources that cannot be turned off in the event Russia wants to.” In order to halt the controversial project, Washington intends to impose sanctions on companies that continue to help Russia build the pipeline. Washington has already warned several companies regarding the anticipated sanctions.
Pompeo’s speech in the Senate was preceded by a number of similar statements and decisions:
About the Project
Reportedly, the North Stream 2 project is 94% complete. Upon the project’s completion, as anticipated by the Russian side in 2021, the Nord Stream 1’s productivity will be doubled to 110 billion cubic meters per year which is more than a quarter of the EU’s gas consumption. The Nord Stream 2 will stretch across the Baltic Sea and directly connect Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. The Nord Stream 2 will be the longest offshore pipeline (1,230 km) in the world.
Why Halting the Project is Important for the US: Washington considers the project a threat to the national interests of the United States, targeted towards eliminating Ukraine from the European gas transit network and increasing Russia’s influence in the European energy sector.
Why Halting the Project is Important for Ukraine: Upon the Nord Stream 2 project’s completion, Ukraine’s transit function will be minimized and Ukraine will become vulnerable to Russian political and economic pressure. Without the Nord Stream 2, Ukraine would retain its status as a major transit country for Russian gas and, as a result, maintain some leverage in negotiations with Russia.