David Batashvili, Research Fellow
Russia is now in the process of sustaining a crushing military and geopolitical defeat. It is quite possible that this defeat will ultimately leave Russia unable or unwilling to keep up the pursuit of its aggressive geostrategy. This is not certain, however. If Russia remains an actively hostile power after its current war with Ukraine is over, the United States and Europe will need to be prepared to face the new aggressive moves Moscow might contemplate. This issue would be especially acute in Russia’s neighborhood, particularly in the case of Belarus and Georgia.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an integral part of wider geostrategic efforts systematically conducted by Russia. These systematic efforts are exercised in two general directions.
One direction involves Russian efforts targeting the international leadership of the US and its democratic allies. Unlike the Cold War period, Russia is no longer capable of contending for its own global preeminence. It is therefore striving to at least remove American preeminence. Moscow’s explicitly stated goal is to replace the current US leadership with what inhabitants of the Kremlin call a ‘polycentric’ world.
This would mean a world without a clearly preeminent power or alliance, with several great powers, each possessing a geographic sphere of influence, interacting with one another in shifting sets of hostility and cooperation. The last time such a system existed was in the years prior to World War I.
Another general direction of Russian geostrategic efforts is dedicated to Moscow’s attempt to rebuild its lost empire in some new form. Russia has spent the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union trying to undermine its neighbors’ sovereignty in service of this goal.
Ukraine is central to this Russian empire-rebuilding endeavor. Due to Ukraine’s size and location, as well as other geographic, demographic and economic facts, a Russian empire is not a viable project without Ukraine, or at least a large part of its territory. Once Moscow’s political, covert and diplomatic efforts to control Ukraine’s geopolitical future consecutively failed over the period of 2013-2021, it was only by military means that the Kremlin could hope to achieve its purposes in that country.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is now headed towards a disaster. Ukrainian military capabilities have grown since 24 February 2022 thanks to the Western support. The Russian ones, on the other hand, have degraded dramatically. The whole dynamic of the war clearly indicates that new Ukrainian offensives that will liberate remaining Russian-occupied territories are a matter of time, and probably not a very long one.
Once Moscow’s military disaster in Ukraine plays out to the full, a key question will be what consequences it will bring about within Russia. The answer to this question currently belongs to the realm of the unknown. Regime change and prolonged internal turmoil are both very possible. These scenarios could put an end to Russia’s current aggressive geostrategy – either permanently or at least for a while. If neither materializes, however, Russia’s struggle against the West and against its neighbors’ sovereignty could continue without pause.
In such case, even a severely weakened Russia would keep up its attempts at subversion against the Western states and their democratic systems. It would also continue to operate against Western interests in various geographic theaters, including in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Western Balkans. Russia’s immediate neighborhood, however, would remain the most dangerous area. Belarus and Georgia in particular would be under the greatest threat in such a scenario.
Although Russia’s empire-rebuilding efforts cannot really succeed without the subjugation of Ukraine, Moscow might calculate, perhaps erroneously, that it can prepare for the next few years, and then make another attempt at Ukraine. In the meantime, it could concentrate on softer targets.
Such targets would not be in ample supply for a defeated Russia. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will be protected by their NATO membership. Moldova will remain geographically unreachable. Azerbaijan is Turkey’s treaty ally. Kazakhstan is protected by China’s interest in it, an interest Moscow will not dare to defy.
Belarus and Georgia, however, would be extremely vulnerable to Russia due to their current state. In Belarus, Lukashenko has doomed his country to international isolation while giving Russia full military access. Georgia is in a state of critical and rapid democratic backsliding, while its ruling regime combines anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric with a refusal to oppose Russian interests.
Unprotected from without and rotten from within, both Belarus and Georgia are there for Moscow’s taking, if Russia emerges from its war with Ukraine capable of any serious geostrategic effort at all. While it is very possible that it will not, this is not presently certain, and the potential risk is too serious to ignore.
Complete subjugation of either country by Russia would seriously damage Western interests. The full integration of Belarus into Moscow’s empire would worsen the strategic position of NATO’s northeastern flank, as well as that of Ukraine. The subjugation of Georgia would allow Russia to restore its currently shaken position in Armenia, where Nikol Pashinyan’s administration is trying to start moving away from the Russian predominant influence. Russian strategic control of both Georgia and Armenia would cut all possible communication between Azerbaijan on the one hand and Turkey and Europe on the other. It would also give Moscow control over the routes connecting Kazakhstan and Central Asia to Europe, as well as over all communications running through the South Caucasus transportation corridor.
By now, Moscow’s willingness to make dramatic steps by military and covert means should be evident even to the most skeptical mind. While it might be likely that impending defeat in Ukraine will bring down the regime currently in the Kremlin, Americans and Europeans should also prepare for an opposing contingency, where, despite the military, diplomatic and economic catastrophe, Russia will remain willing and able to keep up its aggressive geostrategy.
Belarus may be too far gone at the current stage, but Georgia still retains civil society, critical media and political opposition that are not yet fully suppressed. There is still time for the West to generate a strategy to keep Georgia from falling under Moscow’s sway. This time, however, may be very limited.