Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst

Publication: N6

Review period:  April 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:                                                                                 

  • The origin of the term “post-Soviet space.”
  • Azerbaijan deepens military cooperation with Russia, a strategic ally of Armenia.
  • Ukraine arrests the Major General of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) for spying for Russia.
  • Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists swapped prisoners for Easter.
  • Armenian government asks the Russian president to reduce the price of gas.
  • Belarus wants to diversify its oil imports.
  • Russia banned another Western NGO from operating in Russia.


Origin of the Term

The Main Term:  Our publication reviews Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space. Here you can learn the origin of the term “post-Soviet space.”

Origin of the Term:  After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, political or scientific circles began to use various terms to denote the territories of the republics within the Union. Two terms gained special popularity:  the “post-Soviet space” and the “near abroad.”

“Near abroad”

The term “near abroad” was first used by the newspaper Izvestia on January 15, 1992. The “near abroad” refers to former Soviet republics which Russia believes should be under its influence. According to Russian experts, the term has more historical-cultural significance than geographical.

“Post-Soviet space”

In the 2000s, the use of the term “post-Soviet space” became more frequent in Russian political and academic circles. The term first appeared in an article by Lithuanian journalist, Algis Prazauskas. The article was published in the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on February 7, 1992. The term “post-Soviet space” implies Russia’s right to retain significant influence over former Soviet republics since Russia is considered the legal successor of the Soviet Union. This term has several meanings and designates either former Soviet republics (12 states in total) that are or were members of the CIS, with the exception of the Baltic states, or all former Soviet republics, including the Baltics.

New Trends:  In recent years, a new term the “Eurasian space” has become increasingly popular in Russian political and academic circles. The new term relates to Russia’s attempt to launch new integration processes on the Eurasian continent and create a new geopolitical reality. As believed in Russia, the “Eurasian space” comprises the post-Soviet space and other countries in the region bordering the former Soviet Union. The further “popularity” of the term will depend on the success of Russia’s policy in the Eurasian space.


Azerbaijan Wants to Buy Russian Fighter Jets

Main Event:  On April 8, 2020, a spokesman of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation announced that the Russian side was ready to start negotiations with Azerbaijan on the sale of fighter jets.

Representatives of the Azerbaijan Air Force visit the Russian enterprise manufacturing combat aircrafts. Source:   Web-page of the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan.

Event in Details:  On April 7, as part of military-technical cooperation between Azerbaijan and Russia, a delegation of the Air Force of Azerbaijan visited enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex. The Azerbaijani delegation visited Russian military plants manufacturing Su-35 and MiG-35 fighter jets. During the visit, the Azerbaijani side expressed interest in purchasing modern Russian-made combat aircrafts. In turn, representatives of the Rosoboronexport company expressed readiness to sell fighter jets in a quantity that meets the needs of the Azerbaijani Air Force.

Azerbaijan has tended to increase its military expenditures since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In this respect, a significant shift has occurred since 2006 when oil exported via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline became an important source of income for the country. The budget allocated for the security sector in 2005 amounted to USD 644 million. In 2020, Azerbaijan’s budget expenditures on security and defense increased by 20.9% as compared to 2019 and totaled USD 2.3 billion. In recent years, Azerbaijan has been actively modernizing and re-equipping its aviation. The growing military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Russia is notable.

Why the Event is Important for Azerbaijan:  Azerbaijan believes that increasing military expenditure on modernization is a way to shift the military balance with Armenia in favor of Azerbaijan, forcing Armenia to eventually make concessions in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The development of military relations with Russia in recent years are aimed at weakening Russia’s pro-Armenian position in the conflict. The approach has yielded some results. For example, during the Four-Day War in 2016, during which Azerbaijan reclaimed a small part of its occupied territories, Russia’s apparent neutrality was perceived as more supportive of Azerbaijan.

Why the Event is Important for Russia:  For Russia, it is important to develop military cooperation with Azerbaijan, a country with rich energy resources, in terms of developing a new market for Russian military products as well as increasing the Kremlin’s political influence in the South Caucasus. At the same time, it is a message to Armenia whose new leaders are skeptical of Moscow’s allegiance.

Why Armenia Should Consider the Event:  Armenia is the closest ally of Russia in the South Caucasus and a member of the pro-Russian Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). However, in recent years a rift has been simmering in bilateral relations. For example, Armenia perceived the position of Russia and some members of the CSTO during the military confrontation with Azerbaijan in 2016 as supporting Azerbaijan. Yerevan believes that an indicator of the change in Russia’s sympathy for Armenia is the deepening military cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan that has been observed in recent years.


Ukraine Detained a Russian Spy

Main Event:  On April 14, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested SBU Major General Valery Shaitanov on charges of treason and terrorism. As instructed by the Russian special services, Shaitanov plotted to assassinate a well-known volunteer, Adam Osmayev. Osmayev is the commander of the Dzhokhar Dudayev volunteer battalion fighting against Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

Event in Details:  According to the Security Service of Ukraine, they have video and audio evidence confirming that Shaitanov has been cooperating with the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation since 2014. Shaitanov revealed secret information to the Russian special services and assisted the Russians in selecting and recruiting SBU officers. Shaitanov is the highest-rank official that has been accused of espionage since the day Ukraine declared its independence. Shaitanov was promoted to the rank of general after the 2014 Euromaidan events.

Arrest of the General Major Valery Shaitanov. Source:   Webpage of the SBU

On March 31, the Security Service of Ukraine also announced that a secret communication channel was deciphered between a high-ranking Ukrainian naval officer, stationed in the occupied Crimea, and a representative of the Russian Federal Security Service.

Russia’s response

On April 15, in response to Shaitanov’s arrest, the Russian Federal Security Service uncovered a group of “saboteurs and terrorists” of the Ukrainian intelligence in the occupied Crimea, including a citizen of Ukraine and a Russian military woman who, according to them, passed state secrets to the military intelligence of Ukraine in 2017-2018.

In January, the Russian Federal Security Service also said that a man was arrested in Crimea on charges of organizing a cache of explosives on the Crimean peninsula on behalf of the Ukrainian special services.

Why the Event is Important for Ukraine:  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the loyalty of the elite of the security and military sector to the independent state of Ukraine was viewed with suspicion. The loyalty issue was further exacerbated after the 2014 events in Crimea when part of the Ukrainian military elite and privates sided with Russia. Shaitanov’s case also proves that the main security challenge for the Ukrainian state is to identify pro-Russian cadres and form a new loyal elite in the security and military sectors.


Ukraine and Pro-Russian Separatists Swapped Prisoners

Main Event:   On April 16, 2020, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, announced the return of 20 Ukrainians detained by separatist militants in the east of the country. For its part, Kyiv handed over 14 detainees to separatists.

Event in Details:  Despite the ongoing “spy war” between Ukraine and Russia, Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists swapped a total of 34 prisoners for Easter.  Ukraine and Russia agreed on the exchange of prisoners on April 8 as part of the so-called Trilateral Contact Group. “The exchange of prisoners will help build trust between the parties,” said Heidi Graus, the OSCE Special Representative in Ukraine and in the Trilateral Contact Group. The swap of prisoners followed the UN Secretary General’s March appeal urging for global ceasefire amid the new coronavirus pandemic.

This is the second swap of prisoners during Zelensky’s tenure who during his pre-election campaign last year promised to end the conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk. Thirty-five prisoners were exchanged in September 2019 and Ukraine handed over 124 prisoners to separatists and received 76 Ukrainian prisoners in December. According to the UN, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed the lives of 13,200 people since April 2014.

Why the Swap of Prisoners is Important for Ukraine:  Despite Zelensky’s promise to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the military confrontation with separatists continues. In the given situation, the next exchange of prisoners will partially preserve Zelensky’s reputation.


Armenia Asks Russia to Supply Gas at a Reduced Price

Main Event:   During a telephone conversation with the President of Russia on April 6, 2020, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, discussed the issue of a reduced price for gas supply to Armenia by the Russian energy giant Gazprom. According to Pashinyan, the gas price issue has often been the subject of political manipulation and has been used for political purposes by previous governments.

Event in Details:  On March 31, the Prime Minister of Armenia addressed the Chairman of Gazprom with a proposal to start new negotiations on a price reduction. Pashinyan’s decision to start negotiations on reducing the price of Russian gas followed his talks with the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko. Both parties agreed that the current price of Russian gas set for their countries is high. In addition, Pashinyan believes that Armenia should pay for Russian gas not in USD but in RUB as this makes more sense given the slowdown of dollarization in the Eurasian Economic Union.

Price of Russian gas

On March 31, Gazprom Armenia announced reconsidering the gas price from July 1, 2020. Gazprom Armenia demands the same price for all customers which will lead to an increase in the average tariff by 11%. By January 1, 2020, the price of Russian gas for Armenia was maintained at the level of 2019 – USD 165 per thousand cubic meters. In 2018, the price was USD 150.

Gazprom Armenia, a subsidiary of Gazprom, has full control over the transportation and distribution of gas in Armenia.

Why the Reduction of Gas Price is Important for Armenia:  The price of Russian gas is the lowest for Armenia and Belarus. However, amid the new coronavirus crisis and a sharp drop in global energy prices, Armenia hopes to offset economic costs by lowering the price of Russian gas. Pashinyan’s government faces a daunting task as Armenia has no real alternative gas supplier to replace Russia (the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline cannot fully replace) and the Kremlin is also skeptical of Pashinyan’s government and does not like the persecution of former Armenian presidents (Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan) who were considered close allies of Russia. Under the given conditions, Yerevan has weak levers to put pressure on Moscow.


Belarus Wants to Diversify Its Oil Imports

Main Event:  On April 13, 2020, Aleksandr Tishchenko, the Press Secretary of the Belarusian state petrochemical company Belneftekhim, said that the company was working on signing contracts for oil deliveries with the Russian Big Five.

Event in Details:  The Russian Big Five (Rosneft, Tatneft, Surgutneftegaz, Lukoil and Gazprom Neft) have been fully supplying Belarusian oil refineries for years; however, they suspended oil deliveries to Belarus due to a disagreement over oil prices beginning on January 1. The only company that still cooperates with Belarus is Safmaria which is owned by a friend of the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko.

In early 2020, in the absence of contracts with major Russian companies, two of the main Belarusian oil refineries (Mozirsky and Novopolotsky) operated at a minimum load and mainly supplied domestic and several critically important export markets.

Despite the agreement with the Russian companies, Belarus continues to diversify away from its reliance on Russian energy supplies. On April 12, the port of Odessa received a tanker loaded with 85,000 tons of Azerbaijani oil destined for Belarus and the same amount of Norwegian oil was received at the port of Klaipeda on April 13. Belarus already received Norwegian oil in January and Azerbaijani oil in March.

Why the Agreement was Reached with the Russian Companies:  The agreement between the Belarusian and Russian sides is not the result of diplomatic negotiations but the result of a sharp drop in world oil prices and the new coronavirus pandemic. Despite the political controversy, the price of Russian oil was acceptable to both sides amid the declining oil demand worldwide.

Why Diversification of Oil Imports is Important for Belarus:  Despite the purchase of Russian oil which is still profitable for Belarus amid a sharp drop in world oil prices, Minsk continues to diversify its oil imports. Lukashenko aims at reducing the country’s reliance on Russia by 30-40% and Norwegian and Azerbaijani oil imports are part of his diversification policy. If Lukashenko is successful, Russian political pressure on Belarus will be weakened and Lukashenko will be able to maneuver independently.


Russia Banned the Activity of a US Research Organization

Main Event:  “Based on the materials studied by the Russian Office of Prosecutor General, the activity of the Jamestown Foundation in Russia is undesirable,” said the Russian Prosecutor General on April 7, 2020.

Event in Details:  The Jamestown Foundation is a Washington-based think tank which was founded during the Cold War in 1984. Initially, the foundation supported defectors from the Soviet Union and socialist countries. At this stage, the analytical research center focuses on Russia, post-Soviet countries, China, Eurasia and global terrorism. According to the Russian Office of the Prosecutor General, the Foundation’s experts encourage the North Caucasus regions to secede from Russia and promote ethnic separatism. The Office of the Prosecutor General addressed the Ministry of Justice to include the Foundation in the list of “undesirable” organizations.

A 2015 law allows Russian prosecutors to ban the activities of “undesirable” organizations if they are deemed to be a threat to Russia’s national interests. Related legislation requires non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding and are engaged in political activities within Russia to register themselves as “foreign agents.”

Since 2015, Russia has banned dozens of foreign organizations from operating in Russia. Under the current law, organizations are initially granted “undesirable” status and then the Ministry of Justice bans them from operating in Russia. The first organization to be blacklisted by the Russian government was the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

Why the Event is Important for the Russian Government:  The Russian government considers foreign organizations and local civil society as enemies. The ban on their activities is also part of the Kremlin’s policy aimed at stifling critical thinking and limiting the livelihood of opponents.