Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst

Publication:  N18

Review period:  October 1-15, 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.


Main Events:        

  • Russia says Nagorno-Karabakh could become a springboard for international terrorists.  
  • After breaking the agreement reached in Moscow between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia offers to deploy military observers in the conflict zone.
  • Amid the ongoing military confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh, the peacekeeping forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) conduct exercises in Belarus.
  • Russia welcomed an initiative of the President of Belarus to meet with imprisoned opposition activists.
  • The European Union imposed sanctions on companies and individuals involved in the construction of a railway bridge in the Kerch Strait.
  • The UK will boost the Ukrainian navy.
  • The Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration arrived in Bishkek to resolve the internal political crisis in Kyrgyzstan.
  • A military serviceman and his brother were arrested in Russia on charges of sharing state secrets with Estonia.


Russia Says Nagorno-Karabakh Could Become a Springboard for Terrorists

Main Event:  On October 6, 2020, Sergey Naryshkin, the Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, said that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh was attracting international terrorists.

Event in Details:  According to Naryshkin, the South Caucasus could become a new springboard for international terrorist organizations. He said mercenaries could penetrate from the conflict zone in Russia and other neighboring countries of Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to the Russian Intelligence Service, there are mercenaries from the Middle East in the conflict zone, including Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups.

On October 8, the Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Stanislav Zas, said the organization had seen the appearance of Syrian mercenaries in the conflict zone. A similar statement was made by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, on October 2. Macron said Syrian mercenaries arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh via Turkey. The participation of fighters from Syria in the hostilities was also reported by the foreign media.

On October 12, the Russian Ministry of Defense also announced the deployment of terrorists from the Middle East to Nagorno-Karabakh. The Minister, Sergey Shoigu, also discussed the issue with his Turkish counterpart.

Why the Event is Important:  Russia views the emergence of a new springboard for terrorist activities in its neighborhood as a threat to its own security. Russia suspects that Turkey is involved in the transportation of mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh, trying to impact the course of the conflict to the detriment of Russia’s interests. Moscow’s statements in the South Caucasus, which it sees as its sphere of influence, are also aimed at preventing the involvement of external actors (especially Turkey) in the current conflict.


Russia Offers to Deploy Military Observers in Nagorno-Karabakh

Main Event:  On October 9, 2020, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, participated in a meeting between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The meeting was held in Moscow.

Event in Details:   This was the first high-level meeting between the conflict parties since September 27 when the military confrontation resumed. The meeting between the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Jeyhun Bairamov, lasted 11 hours.

According to the agreement, the parties agreed to cease fire on October 10 for humanitarian purposes and swap prisoners of war, other hostages and dead bodies. Lavrov had a telephone conversation with his counterparts on October 10 as well; however, the agreement was soon broken and the military confrontation on the front line did not slow down.

Sergey Lavrov had a telephone conversation with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. Source: Website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

On October 14, Lavrov offered the parties to deploy Russian military observers in the conflict zone.

Resumed conflict: The military confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan resumed on September 27. After the 1994 Ceasefire Agreement to end the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, this is the largest-scale confrontation that continues until now. In 2016, as a result of the Four-Day War, Azerbaijan gained a small territorial advantage. In July 2020, a several-day-long confrontation took place near Nagorno-Karabakh at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

Why the Event is Important:  The continuation of the conflict poses a reputation risk to Russia as Armenia is its strategic ally and Azerbaijan became Russia’s important partner in recent years. Russia, if its mediation ensures the cessation of the hostilities, will emerge as the only power that can influence the ongoing processes in the region.


Collective Security Treaty Organization Exercises in Belarus

Main Event:  On October 12-16, 2020, the Unbreakable Brotherhood 2020 command-staff exercises of the peacekeeping forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will be held at the Losvido military training ground in Vitebsk District, Belarus,

The official opening of the exercises. Source:  Website of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Event in Details:  More than 900 people will participate and over 120 units of equipment are involved in the exercises. CSTO peacekeepers will work out joint operations in Eastern Europe. From the Russian side, more than 140 servicemen of the Central Military District will participate in the exercises.

According to the Deputy Minister of Defense of Belarus, Chief of General Staff Alexander Wolfovich, the exercises will be held in two stages. As part of the exercises, participants will organize, prepare and conduct a peacekeeping operation in one of the CSTO regions.

The exercises coincide with a difficult period. The situation in three of the CSTO’s six members is difficult:  the protests in Belarus after the presidential elections did not stop, complete chaos reigns in Kyrgyzstan after the parliamentary elections and Armenia is involved in a military confrontation with Azerbaijan.

Other military exercises: 

  • On September 14-25, the Slavic Brotherhood-2020 joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises were held at the Brest military training ground in Belarus, near the Polish border.
  • On September 21-26, the Kavkaz-2020 military strategic command-staff exercises were held in the Southern Military District of Russia.

Why the Event is Important:   Amid the ongoing military confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh, one of the messages of the exercise may be that CSTO peacekeepers are ready to take part in ensuring peace in the South Caucasus.


President of Belarus Visits Opponents in Prison

Main Event:  On October 10, 2020, the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, visited opposition activists in an investigation isolator of the Security Committee.

Aleksander Lukashenko meets with opposition activists in prison. Source:  Website of the President of Belarus.

Event in Details:   Among 11 arrested activists who attended the meeting were several members of the opposition’s Coordination Council and Lukashenko’s main rival, Viktor Babariko, who was barred from running in the presidential election and was arrested. Maria Kolesnikova, one of the arrested leaders of the opposition, refused to meet the president.

Details of the four-hour meeting are unknown. However, the main topic of conversation was a constitutional reform. Lukashenko plans to amend the constitution to overcome the crisis which will include the redistribution of presidential power between other branches of government. After the meeting, Lukashenko changed the detention of several opposition activists to house arrest. Despite Lukashenko’s attempts to “engage in dialogue” with the opposition, Babariko said that nothing was agreed at the meeting.

The Kremlin welcomed Lukashenko’s initiative to meet with the opposition.

Political context:  The presidential elections in Belarus were held on August 9. Protests against the incumbent President, Aleksander Lukashenko, have been ongoing since then. The West did not recognize the election results and the European Union imposed sanctions on high-ranking officials in Belarus. Only Russia supported the Belarusian leader in the political crisis.

Why the Event is Important:  Russia believes that the dialogue initiated by Lukashenko, even with the imprisoned opposition activists, and the constitutional reform will help overcome the internal political crisis in Belarus which will lead to the development of political processes in favor of the Kremlin:  Lukashenko’s power, reliant only on Russia, will be weakened and create the possibility of a safe transfer of power.


Europe Imposed Sanctions on Companies Responsible for the Construction of a Railway Bridge in the Kerch Strait

Main Event:  On October 1, 2020, the EU announced asset freezes on four companies and two individuals involved in the construction of a railway bridge in the Kerch Strait.

Event in Details:  The railway bridge sits alongside a road bridge that was officially opened in May 2018. The railway line was opened later, in December 2019, both connecting mainland Russia with the Crimean peninsula.

After the opening of the road bridge, the European Union imposed sanctions on six companies involved in the construction. Russia was first sanctioned on March 17, 2014 for the annexation of Crimea. The list of sanctions is then updated periodically.

The Crimean peninsula. Source:  Wikipedia.

The construction of the 19-kilometer bridge was decided after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014. The bridge provided Russia with a direct land connection to the occupied region. The construction began in February 2016.

Why the Event is Important:  The EU’s decision, an expression of support to Ukraine, includes the annexation of Crimea on the international agenda and puts political and economic pressure on Russia.


The UK Will Boost the Ukrainian Navy

Main Event:  On October 8, 2020, the leaders of the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed a bilateral agreement aimed at curbing Russian influence.

Event in Details:   The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, during his visit to London signed an agreement on a political, free trade and strategic partnership. The agreement was to be signed after the UK exited from the EU.

As part of the agreement the defense ministers of the two countries signed a memorandum on defense cooperation. The memorandum envisages spending USD 1.61 billion on naval equipment which is in dire straits after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitry Kuleba, also spoke about the possibility of establishing a British military base in the Nikolayev Oblast. However, a spokesman of the presidential administration later said that two new naval bases, planned to be built on the shores of the Azov and Black Seas, would be Ukrainian and not foreign.

Ukraine will also receive USD 6.5 million as a humanitarian aid from the United Kingdom to help people living in Kiyv-controlled territory and fight the new coronavirus pandemic.

Why the Event is Important:   After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine’s military capabilities in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov were significantly weakened. The UK support will boost the Ukrainian navy and strengthen its position towards Russia.


Kremlin Representative in Kyrgyzstan

Main Event:  On October 13, 2020, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of Russia, Dmitry Kozak, arrived in Bishkek to resolve the internal political crisis in Kyrgyzstan.

Why the Event is Important:  Preliminary results of the parliamentary elections of October 4, 2020 sparked protests in Kyrgyzstan. The next day, nationwide protests succeeded in pushing the Central Election Committee to annul the outcome of the elections.

Russia’s response

“The situation looks like a mess and chaos,” the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said about ongoing events in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz President, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, had telephone conversations with the Russian president several times. On October 13, the Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration, Dmitry Kozak (Kozak also oversees the directions of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region) visited Kyrgyzstan to resolve the crisis. The telephone conversations with Putin and Kozak’s visit were unsuccessful. On October 15, Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned to avoid a further escalation of the domestic political crisis; however, the day before, he planned to resign only after new parliamentary elections.

Interim Prime Minister

On October 10, in the midst of complete chaos, at an extraordinary session of the parliament, Sadir Japarov was appointed the prime minister of the country. Parliament re-approved Japarov’s government and program on October 14 and the president confirmed this as well. On October 5, the day after the elections, Japarov was released from prison where he was serving an 11-year sentence. He will be prime minister during the transition period and then the president after Jeenbekov resigns.

The Russian political vector remains unchanged

At an emergency press conference, Japarov said that Russia was and will remain the main strategic partner of Kyrgyzstan and that the two countries have a lot in common, as well as from a geopolitical prospective. Japarov’s statement was echoed by the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ruslan Kazakbayev.

Anti-Russian sentiments do not characterize Kyrgyz political parties. Most of them consider that deepening integration in the Eurasian Economic Union and developing bilateral relations with Russia are vital for the country.

Why the Event is Important:  The current events in Kyrgyzstan are not related to the Russia-West confrontation and are only conditioned by the internal political dynamics. Kyrgyzstan’s political elite is pro-Russian and the main challenge for Russia is to ensure a stable political environment in the country.


Russia Reveals an Estonian Spy

Main Event:  On October 6, 2020, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation arrested a Russian military serviceman in Smolensk and his brother in Pskov on charges of high treason.

Event in Details:  According to the Russian special services, the detainees were collecting and sharing state secret information with the Estonian special services. The military serviceman’s brother was permanently residing in Estonia.

“Spy wars” have intensified between Russia and the former Soviet republics in recent period. In August, a serviceman of the Strategic Missile Forces in Siberia was arrested on charges of handing over state secrets to Ukraine. In April, the Security Service of Ukraine arrested Major General Valery Shaitanov on charges of high treason and terrorist plots, and in May arrested a Russian spy suspected of illegally obtaining information on “modern missile systems.”

Why the Event is Important:  Post-Soviet countries, which Russia considers to be its sphere of influence, are a special target of the Russian Special Services. The recent high level of espionage indicates a high degree of political confrontation between Russia and Ukraine and the Baltic states.