16 February 2016

5 security threats facing Russia


While peace in Syria may still be a distant thought, the Ukraine crisis seems to be moving in the direction of a frozen conflict.

However, Russia still faces a number of security questions, all of which may well prove a nasty headache for Putin.

For Russia to remain the top level world power that its elites desire it to be, Russia must maintain a grip on its western borders, while remaining both influential in Central Asia and maintaining control of its borders.

That is easier said than done.

The Baltic question

While the Baltic States rapidly exited the Russia sphere of influence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, influence in the former Soviet republics remains a Russian concern.

As Lithuanian Ambassador to London Asta Skaisgirytė put it:

“Russia wants to restore its global power. Putin’s interests in the Baltics are posture. He wants to do so in the 19th century sense of resources, population and territory.”

As Asta admits, given NATO deployments in the Baltics, the military and economic costs of direct action make outright invasion unlikely. However, Putin can assert himself in other ways.

“Cyber-attacks have gone on for many years. Indeed they have become such a regular thing we don’t make a big fuss in the media when they happen.”

Baltic reliance on Russian gas is another powerful lever, though the new liquid natural gas depot in Poland has mitigated this to some extent.

Asta continued to highlight the Russian Sputnik channel, as an important source of such material in Baltic languages, mixing half-truths with lies to undermine support for governments.

“Social media is something that is uncontrollable. Posts saying that the Baltic States are vulnerable, and that if Russia does something in the region, the west cannot do anything, are spread.”

Russia also utilises its influence within the Russian minorities, left in the Baltics after the fall of the USSR, as a powerful tool to put pressure on Baltic governments.

On the minorities question, Asta had a blunt response.

“Of course the only way to defuse the minority question is better integration. That is the only answer. But remember, the Russian minorities are European. They have been living in European counters for 25 years now. They chose to stay.”

Russia thus faces a choice in the Baltics. The more it launches thinly veiled attacks on them, the closer they will move within Europe. While European treasuries may dislike it, NATO has accepted western responsibility for Baltic security, and will continue to oppose Russian maneuverers.

Russia, whatever emotional attachments it may have to the region, thus faces trade off, and must assess whether a historical and cultural attachment to the Baltics is worth the damage its interference causes to relations with Europe.

A fair weather friend in Belarus

An autocratic satellite of Russia, if not entirely behind Putin’s war in Ukraine, Belarus remains all that is left of the Russian buffer with the EU. In the military-focussed Russian foreign policy, Belarus’s loyalty is considered vital to prevent NATO troop basing in the country, that it believes would leave Moscow prostrate in times of war.

However, keeping control is easier said than done.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belorussian president from 1994, remains well entrenched in power.

Accusations have been raised of disappearances, as well as the imprisonment of activists such as opposition politician Alaksandar Milinkievič and even the alleged prison rape of opposition activists.

However, he is often more clever than brutal. As one Belorussian source put it,

“Lukashenko is very good at silencing dissent. He does not need to use mass suppression. He simply uses a well-trained police force to kettle (surround) and remove dissenters from public spaces, and lock them up for a week or two.”

Putin’s hold over Lukashenko is reliant on subsides.

“Belorussia imports Russian crude oil and reprocesses it for the European market. Proceeds from this make up around 50% of the Belarussian budget.”

Such subsidies and the income they generate have been under pressure from the fall in the oil price.

Through his participation in the Minsk accords, seeking a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis in 2015 Lukashenko has placed himself as an “honest broker” between Russia and the EU this is a position that works for Lukashenko. In the Russian sphere, but with options.

Indeed, the EU recently relaxed a swathe of asset freezing measures against Belorussian officials.

While Lukashenko is supported by a like-minded ex-Soviet elite, and a strong security state seems safe, without the resources to buy off key sections of his populace, for example with very high pension rates, his rule may be threatened.

And for Russia, while Lukashenko may be a “political animal” to Russia, responsive to offers and threats, there is no guarantee that Lukashenko’s successor, or even Lukashenko himself, will do so if Russia can no longer back up its threats with real force.

The new Great Game in Central Asia

While the big strategic question on the mind of European policymakers is Russia’s greater assertiveness, when one Russian defence official was asked by his British counterpart about what Russia’s greatest foreign policy fear was, he got a single word response.


China’s growth, hungry for oil and resources, gives it significantly more play in Central Asia that it has had historically, and governments in the region are well aware of this and Central Asian government are well aware of this. Money talks, and this terrifies foreign currency strapped Russia. While it retains media control, it faces a considerable contest for influence in countries like Kazakhstan, where China has signed 33 agreements worth $23.6 billion in areas from hydropower to steel over the last year.

This terrifies the Russian elite, whose view of Central Asia as a reserved area where other powers will not be permitted to interfere. This fear has driven Russian arms transfers to states in the region to buy support, such as $1bn pledged to Kyrgyzstan in military aid in 2015.

While China and Russia often speak kind words in public, opposing the more internationally interventionist West, and will act together when self-interest calculations are made, Russia and China remain at loggerheads in a new Great Game.

Chechnyan splits ahead

Russia faces its own pressures on its borders. While a brutal but successful war fought in 1999-2000 ended aims of independence, and restored technical federal government, the region remains highly unstable.

Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s barely-tamed warlord, retains a brutal hold over his fiefdom, and has retained fierce independence, ordering his forces to open fire on any Russian police officers setting foot in the region unannounced in April.

Indeed, a series of leaks in the Russian press have given strong indications that Boris Nemtsov former Russian deputy PM and later Kremlin critic, was murdered on the orders of Kadyrov.

While this cannot be verified in the murky post-modern world of Russian politics that such directly critical material was allowed into the press suggests a split is on its way.

Putin’s central government seems to be heading for a showdown with Kadyrov sometime soon. And this is unlikely to be peaceable.

Moldova in the balance

In recent years, Moldova has been torn between Russia and the EU.

A former Soviet Republic, it was another state within which the EU was expanding its eastern partnership into with Russia was occupied with other issues, Moldova looked like it was moving closer to Europe, with the defeat of the Communists in the 2009 election spelled a closer relation to the EU.

However, Russia remains a player. Balazs Jarabik, scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said.

“Russia and Moldova share some common culture, language, religion and history. So I would say Russia has a lot of influence.”

That said, Moldovan politics is not merely split between modernisers and reactionaries. The current Prime Minister Pavel Filip is embroiled in a political crisis caused by banking fraud that cost 15 per cent of Moldovan GDP. This has severely undermined the country’s stability.

“The so-called pro-European politicians are bigger cronies and oligarchs than the nominally pro-Russian ones and the country is cracking under such political polarization between the two camps.”

Russia also has the powerful lever of Transnistria, the small republic independent from Moldova on the border with Ukraine. This pro-Russian enclave has been independent since 1991, and is yet another frozen conflict that could be exploited to put pressure on Moldova to move eastwards.

Russia has largely held off from intervening in the crisis to steer the country eastward. Indeed, it has cut subsidies to Transnistria in recent years.

Moldova, while only a small, poor country on the edge of Europe, will be another litmus test for the intervention limits of Russian foreign policy.

More trouble on the horizon

Ukraine and Syria are far from all on Russia’s plate.

While Russia’s more assertive foreign policy has prevented some states on its borders from moving deeper into Europe, this has been less clear in Central Asia.

So far, Russia has left the question of where its line of control ends open in many places.

As the global balance of power shifts eastward, these questions are becoming more and more pertinent to Russia’s place in the world.

George Greenwood is a freelance political journalist, published in the New Statesman, The Independent and The International Business Times.