Imperial Restraint of Russia
Therefore, any changes in the capabilities and status of Armenia and Belarus are inevitably evaluated by observers in terms of the impact of these changes on Russia’s position, and in general, its ability to ensure control over the territories closest to its borders. Ultimately, we are talking about Moscow’s ability to implement classical imperial behaviour, expressed in the need to play a decisive role in the affairs of its neighbours in order to ensure its own security, which could be threatened either by the penetration of hostile powers or simply uncontrolled chaos. If in the case of Belarus the Russian authorities have expressed their support for the legitimate government quite unequivocally, in the South Caucasus their position has turned out to be more nuanced.
We should not now strive for a primitive justification of Russian behaviour, and Moscow, in any case, does not need justifications. Another thing is more important – to try, starting from recent events, to comprehend those features of Russia’s reaction to the emerging challenges. Starting from this understanding and correlating its results with the broader international context, one can see new signs of how Russia in 2020 formulates and defends its basic interests and values.
This, however, was not a reason to leave him alone with the pressure of his European neighbours and his own opposition. Regardless of questions concerning Lukashenko’s loyalty to Russia, there are few doubts regarding the foreign policy orientation of those who want to overthrow him. Poland, which has acted together with a very small Lithuania as the main sponsor of the opposition, is a NATO country and an important US ally in the region. Warsaw’s foreign policy activism is not its own autonomous invention, but reflects the long-term efforts of the West to squeeze Russia out of the entire territory of the former USSR.
Regarding the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the situation is not so obvious. Even if we leave out the circumstances that both warring peoples are friendly to Russia, and that there are large diaspora communities of the respective countries living in Russia, a number of decisions made by the Armenian leadership over the past two years were enough to cause bewilderment in Moscow. The international context looks qualitatively different. Azerbaijan’s military offensive was supported at the diplomatic level by Turkey. Although this power remains a NATO member state, its size, ambitions and concerns clearly do not fit to the circle of “normal” US allies in Europe. Ankara’s relations with most European states are rather tense, and with France, the main nuclear power of the West after the United States, these relations are particularly bad. The military conflict with Turkey does not threaten Russia with the prospect of serious escalation – periodic clashes between the parties happened in Syria and always led to diplomatic agreements.
Thus, we see that Russia’s actions in these two situations directly depend on how the development of events would affect the balance of power in its relations with the West. The reduced capabilities of Russia determine the policy of ranking the external challenges. This suggests that some of them must be looked at as truly fundamental for survival, and at others as an opportunity to engage in the diplomatic game. Russia was not at all interested in the mediation of one of the leading European powers in the settlement of the Belarusian crisis, since it would still seek an unfavourable change in the overall balance. Interaction with Turkey has turned out to be acceptable, since it does not entail such changes, but, on the contrary, allows for the closing of one of the channels of US and European influence in the affairs of the former USSR.
Leading European states within the EU and the US are also seeking to maintain imperial control over certain countries and entire regions. However, with rare exceptions, they do this through various forms of economic manipulation. The global influence of the United States, of course, is different – its military presence remains in most regions of the world, but it does not always imply a willingness to act as a protector of its dependents. Discussions about the degree of war risks the United States can take are constantly on-going. Among the countries of the European Union, only France maintains military contingents in several former African colonies. As we saw in the events in Mali, these forces can be successfully used to suppress threats at the local level. In both cases, both powers fully control only their immediate environment: the United States in Canada and Mexico, and France – within the framework of European integration. In more remote areas of influence, the ability to exert it is associated either with advanced technical capabilities and military overstrain (USA), or with a limited range of goals and objectives (France and Great Britain).
The growing mobility of the international environment is forcing the great powers to pursue a more prudent and restrained policy in terms of their own obligations, and Russia is no exception. We can hardly expect that in modern conditions it is the only one to retain the features of imperial behaviour inherent in already very distant historical eras. Moreover, unlike Austria, Great Britain, Turkey or France, it has retained its main acquisition from the period of active territorial expansion – the space between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean. These territories are the only imperial achievement that brought profits to the Russian state, not losses, as was the case with all other possessions, from the Baltic to the Pamir. Other nations can only count on Russia to be truly interested in participation if they occupy a geographic position that is critical for Russia’s security. In the case of the space of the former USSR, these nations are Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The refusal of the great powers to meet their obligations beyond the minimum necessary limits is, at the same time, a new challenge for the very concept of international order. The hegemony of one power in terms of the science of international relations is a way to overcome the consequences of the anarchy of the international system. It does not matter at all that in the case of the United States after the Cold War, the whole world, with rare exceptions, acted as such a zone. However, now the question is whether it is possible amid conditions when powers that are theoretically capable of claiming hegemony do not need order to ensure their own security and development? This issue is extremely topical now, when international institutions are in a state of deep crisis. And the more the great powers save their energy in accordance with clearly defined priorities, as Russia is doing now, the less hope we have that the growing anarchy will be replaced by some form of “concert”.