|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: April 1-15, 2021
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.
Russia Threatens to Protect Its Citizens in Donbass
Main Event: Based on information from open sources, the deployment of Russian military forces and equipment was observed on the Crimean peninsula and at the border with Ukraine.
Event in Details: According to available information, Russia massed 80,000 troops on the border between Crimea and Ukraine. Photos, videos and other data which were circulated in open sources are sufficient proof of this. The unprecedented development of the mobilization of the Russian military forces raised suspicions that Moscow is preparing for a military invasion of Ukraine.
On April 8, Dmitry Kozak, the Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration, the influential official who oversees the direction of Ukraine, took part in a session organized by the Interfax news agency. As he explained, the tense situation at the Russian-Ukrainian border was caused by the internal political situation in Ukraine which was due to “a catastrophic falling ratings [of the Ukrainian government] and the collapse the Servant of the People party faction where business and the political elite are contradicting each other.” Kozak called President Volodymyr Zelensky’s entourage “Kvartal 95 Studio (a television entertainment production company where Zelensky worked before his presidency)” who “decided to stage a Military Threat show.” Kozak resented the Zelensky team for their political experience and compared them to kids playing with matches. According to Kozak, Russia may be forced to defend its citizens in Donbass. He also stressed that if Kyiv starts hostilities, it will be “the beginning of the end of Ukraine.”
During a telephone conversation with the Turkish President on April 9, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, accused Ukraine of “dangerous provocative actions.” The Press Secretary of the Russian President, Dmitry Peskov, called the relocation of Russian troops an internal affair.
On April 13, Russia sent 15 naval vessels of the Caspian Flotilla, including three artillery and eight landing crafts, to participate in joint military maneuvers with the Russian military forces stationed in the Black Sea. The decision was made after the US informed Turkey that it will deploy two warships to the Black Sea on April 14-15. Later, Washington cancelled the deployment of the warships.
Deployment of Russian tanks. Source: Reuters
The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and his French and German counterparts discussed the need to stop Russia’s military buildup on the occupied Crimean peninsula and at the Ukrainian border on April 9 and called on Russia to de-escalate the situation.
In addition on April 15, Washington imposed new sanctions on 32 Russian legal entities and individuals for disinformation efforts and for carrying out Moscow’s interference in the 2020 presidential election. Ten Russian diplomats of the Russian Embassy in Washington will be expelled from the country.
The Commander-in-Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Ruslan Khomchak, said he would not launch an attack against separatists. He accused Moscow of using force and blackmail to escalate the tension. At the same time, Zelensky met with Ukrainian soldiers on the front line on April 8-9. It is noteworthy that 26 Ukrainian soldiers were killed this year alone while 50 military personnel were killed throughout the year in 2020. Amid ongoing tensions, Zelensky is seeking Western support and accelerated NATO membership.
Why the Event is Important: The scale of the mobilization of Russian troops is unprecedented. Moscow might be testing whether the new US president will help Ukraine and increasing pressure on Ukraine. In this case, the main message of the Kremlin is that it will not back down and Russia will use weapons to defend its citizens in Donbass if Ukraine approaches NATO and joins the organization which will most likely mean a military invasion of southeastern Ukraine and, thereby, provide ground communication with the Crimean peninsula.
Ukraine Imposes New Sanctions on Russian Companies
Main Event: By a decree of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, the National Security and Defense Council’s sanctions on Rossotrudnichestvo and ten Russian companies came into force on April 3, 2021.
Event in Details: On April 2, 2021, the National Security and Defense Council adopted a resolution on Personal Special Economic and Other Restrictive Measures (Sanctions). The branch of the Federal Agency for the CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Affairs (Rossotrudnichestvo) is accused of smuggling. Similar allegations were made against ten Russian companies, including the Volga-Dnepr cargo airline.
In March, Zelensky extended sanctions against 81 Russian companies and 26 citizens for three years.
The spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, ironically commented that she was “proud of Zelensky.” Later, due to the closure of the Rossotrudnichestvo office, Moscow sent a note of protest to Kyiv. Rossotrudnichestvo is an instrument of Russia’s “soft power” that the Kremlin is actively using around the world, especially in post-Soviet countries.
Why the Event is Important: Russia uses not only military force against Ukraine but also its “soft power” and economic tools. The introduction of the sanctions by Ukraine is aimed at preventing the growth of Russian influence.
Metropolitan Hilarion Speaks of the Violation of the Rights of the Russian Church in Ukraine
Main Event: According to Metropolitan Hilarion, the Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, the rights of believers are being violated in Ukraine.
Metropolitan Hilarion. Source: RIA Novosti
Event in Details: The Metropolitan accused the Ukrainian authorities of harassing the Russian Orthodox Church. According to him, “the rights of the parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine continue to be violated. The seizure of church buildings continues to occur in Ukraine, although the process of the fictitious reregistration of communities for further seizures of churches was stalled in most regions. At the same time, it is impossible to return the seized churches to the Russian Orthodox Church.”
The condition of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine was particularly complicated during the presidency of Petro Poroshenko through whose efforts the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly from the Patriarch of Constantinople in 2019. Since then, the transfer of religious institutions under the influence of the Russian Church to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church became more frequent. The transfer, in some cases, is the result of pressure from the government and pro-Western political groups. The goal of these groups is to weaken the influence of the Russian Church and strengthen the local autocephalous church. During the tenure of Poroshenko’s successor, Volodymyr Zelensky, the policy against the Russian Church has weakened which was facilitated by disagreements within the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church itself.
Why the Event is Important: The statements of a high-ranking clergyman of the Russian Orthodox Church speaking of the problems of the Russian Church in Ukraine may be aimed at influencing the Ukrainian government in religious matters and preventing the implementation of Kyiv’s anti-Russian policy.
Russia Speaks of the Violation of the Rights of the Russian-Speaking Population in Estonia
Main Event: During a telephone conversation with his Estonian counterpart, Eva-Maria Liimetz, on April 9, 2021, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, spoke of the violation of the rights of the Russian-speaking population living in Estonia.
Foreign Ministers of Russia and Estonia. Source: Web-page of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Event in Details: One of the topics of discussion between the ministers was the problem of the Russian-speaking population in Estonia. According to Lavrov, it is necessary to take concrete steps to address problems related to discrimination against the Russian-speaking population in Estonia related to the expulsion of the Russian language from the media and education, the politically motivated persecution of the Russian-language media and activists and attempts to falsify history.
The population of Estonia is 1.3 million, a quarter of which is comprised of ethnic Russians. Since knowledge of the Estonian language is required to obtain Estonian citizenship, many ethnic Russians remain stateless. Estonia perceives Russia as a source of threat and any issue related to Russia is viewed through a security lens which negatively affects ethnic Russians living in Estonia.
Why the Event is Important: The issue of ethnic Russians in Estonia is on the agenda of Russia’s foreign policy which Moscow uses to discredit and increase its political pressure on Estonia.
Meeting Between the Armenian Prime Minister and the Russian President
Main Event: On April 7, 2021, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, hosted the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan.
Meeting between the leaders of Armenia and Russia in Moscow. Source: Web-page of the Russian President
Event in Details: This is the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries since Nikol Pashinyan decided to hold early parliamentary elections. At the meeting, Pashinyan appealed to Putin for help with the release of prisoners of war and other detainees who were captured during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. According to various sources, Azerbaijanis detained a total of 150 Armenians. Baku considers these Armenians as war criminals and will not extradite them to Armenia.
Pashinyan also asked for Putin’s support in purchasing the Sputnik V Russian vaccine against the coronavirus. Armenia received the first batch of 15,000 doses of the Russian vaccine on April 8. Pashinyan is asking for an additional one million doses of the vaccine.
Internal political context
Pashinyan’s visit to Moscow took place against the backdrop of the ongoing political crisis in Armenia. To tackle the crisis, Pashinyan called early parliamentary elections in June. The second President of Armenia (1998-2008), Robert Kocharyan, will also run in the elections. During his visit to Moscow on April 5, Kocharyan gave an interview to the Russian journalist, Vladimir Pozner, where he spoke about his future political plans, including running in the snap parliamentary elections.
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, later confirmed that a telephone conversation took place between Kocharyan and Putin. Kocharyan and Putin are known to be friends and Kocharyan’s arrest during Pashinyan’s presidency was seen by Moscow as an anti-Russian move. It is noteworthy that on April 6 an Armenian court dropped the charges against Kocharyan for overthrowing constitutional order in 2008.
Why the Event is Important: Against the backdrop of the political crisis in Armenia, the meeting between Nikol Pashinyan and Putin has a more internal political context and is aimed at getting Russia’s support in the snap parliamentary elections in Armenia. At this stage, Russia can help Armenia in freeing war captives as well as providing the vaccine in a timely manner, both of which are the main challenges for Pashinyan. In addition, Pashinyan seeks to convince Putin that he is a “Russian man” and that he will better defend Russia’s interests than its political opponents.
Armenia Receives the Russian Vaccine
Main Event: On April 8, 2021, a Russian cargo plane arrived at the Zvartnots International Airport in Yerevan, delivering the first batch of 15 thousand doses of the Sputnik V Russian vaccine against the coronavirus.
Event in Details: The consignment was met by representatives of the Ministry of Health of Armenia, the Russian Embassy in Armenia and the Federal Agency for the CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Affairs (Rossotrudnichestvo). The Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, asked the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, for an additional one million doses of the vaccine during a meeting in Moscow on April 7.
According to the Minister of Health of Armenia, Anahit Avanesian, citizens aged from 18 to 55 years will be inoculated with the Russian vaccine and those over 55 years of age will be offered the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Due to the problems associated with the distribution of the vaccine around the world, many countries, including in the post-Soviet space, are trying to obtain Russian vaccines.
From the post-Soviet countries, Belarus, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova already registered the Russian vaccine. Unlike these countries, Ukraine refuses the Russian vaccine. The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine banned the registration of the Russian vaccine. Georgia will also not use the Russian vaccine.
On August 11, 2020, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, announced the registration of the “first vaccine in the world” against the coronavirus. The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, was financed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The vaccine was developed at the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology and one of the largest biopharmaceutical companies in Russia – Binnopharm. Production of the vaccine began on August 15.
Why the Event is Important: The widespread use of the Russian vaccine and its effectiveness will make Russia an internationally advanced scientific country in the international arena and allow using the vaccine as a tool of “soft power” of its foreign policy. In this respect, post-Soviet countries are a special target for Russia. These countries increasingly make a choice in favor of the Russian vaccine. It is noteworthy that a Rossotrudnichestvo (a tool of Russia’s “soft power”) representative was present at the delivery of the Russian vaccine in Armenia.
Armenia Seeks Further Expansion of Military Cooperation with Russia
Main Event: Speaking in Parliament on April 14, 2021, the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, said that military cooperation with Russia is the backbone of Armenia’s security.
Event in Details: According to Pashinyan, the core of the Armenia’s external security is the Armenian-Russian military alliance which is enshrined in several dozen agreements. He said that within the framework of the joint military group and the joint air defense system of the Armenian-Russian Armed Forces, “an attack on Armenia means an attack on Russia.”
Pashinyan added that there are discussions on expanding the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri and opening the base division in the Syunik region. Syunik is located in the south of Armenia and the region faces new security challenges in the wake of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. After Azerbaijan reclaimed the territories which were lost during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, Azerbaijani military posts were set up near the settlements of Syunik. Russian border guards are already securing the state border in the Syunik region.
Armenia and Russia are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The organization unites Russia’s ally countries. Armenia is the only country in the South Caucasus where a military base is deployed under a bilateral agreement (there are illegal Russian military bases in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. A total of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh since November 9, 2020). Following the 1995 agreement, the 102nd military base with up to 5,000 military personnel was deployed in Gyumri. In 2010, Russia and Armenia extended the term of the agreement on the deployment of the base from 25 to 49 years (until 2044). On November 30, 2016, Armenia and Russia signed an agreement on creating a joint military group consisting of the Armed Forces of the two countries.
Why the Event is Important: Armenia’s security environment has deteriorated since its defeat in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. Russia was a guarantor of Armenia’s security even before the war. After a military failure in the 44-day war, Russia’s support became even more critical for Armenia. The Armenian crisis is an opportunity for Russia to further increase the scale of its military presence in the South Caucasus.