Russian President Vladimir Putin is walking a fine line on a number of foreign policy fronts. Photo: AFP/Grigory Sysoev/Sputnik

An arc of instability has appeared in Russia’s peripheral regions to the west and southwest – Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan. These regions are vital to Russia’s national security and its capacity to be a resurgent power on the world stage.  

Belarus is a de facto buffer zone for Russia with the West. Russia cannot afford to let Belarus be sucked into the Western orbit.

Moscow claims to have evidence that the color revolution in Minsk was masterminded by the US with its allies in Central Europe – Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Georgia – playing certain assigned roles.

President Alexander Lukashenko has not been a dependable ally, but Moscow has little choice but to back him, since a regime change might install yet another unfriendly regime on Russia’s western borders. 

Moscow cannot afford to agonize over whether it is on the “right side of history,” although its preference would have been for an orderly democratic transition in Belarus. 

The Russian focus is now on providing space and resources for Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime to roll back the color revolution and restore constitutional rule. 

The controversial Alexey Navalny case that appeared at the high noon of the Belarus upheaval remains a mystery. Was it coincidental? As it turned out, Russia’s relations with the European Union – Germany, in particular – sharply deteriorated, which became yet another complicating template.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh started in July, triggered by Armenia. It has since led to large-scale retaliation by Azerbaijan, which took the form of a military offensive to regain control of its territory that has been under Armenian occupation for the past three decades.  

Movsumov Qowkar, 32, checks his neighbor’s home damaged by shelling during fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the city of Terter early on October 18, 2020. Photo: AFP/Bulent Kilic

The conflict has serious implications for Russia’s national security insofar as Azerbaijan borders the North Caucasus, which remains vulnerable to Islamist terrorism. 

Unsurprisingly, the Turkish-Azerbaijani axis causes anxiety in the Russian mind, given President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” ideology and Ankara’s selective use of radical Islamist groups as geopolitical tools. 

Erdogan has extended blanket support for the Azerbaijani drive to regain control of the Nagorno-Karabakh province. This weakens Moscow’s capacity to influence Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. 

On the other hand, Armenian Prime Minister Nikoi Pashinyan is a slippery politician who rode to power on the wings of a US-backed color revolution in 2018, reportedly financed by George Soros. (Read my Asia Times articles A color revolution in the Caucasus puts Russia in a dilemma, May 9, 2018, and Color revolution in the Caucasus rattles Russian leaders, August 8, 2018.)   

Moscow is under treaty obligations to guarantee Armenia’s security but, paradoxically, Pashinyan is charioting that country steadily toward the Western orbit, and gets support from the influential Armenian diaspora in the US and France.  

Equally, Moscow is also under an obligation to moderate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the framework of the Minsk Group, which it co-chairs along with the US and France.  

There is a contradiction here insofar as the Minsk Group will neither be able to satisfy the Azerbaijani resolve to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh nor pressure Armenia to vacate its occupation of the enclave. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP/Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik

Azerbaijan views the Minsk Group with skepticism and hopes that Turkey will help break the impasse. The US and France have gladly ceded to Russia the prerogative to represent the Minsk Group. 

Meanwhile, the US and its Middle Eastern allies – Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – would hope that sooner or later, the ship of Russo-Turkish entente will hit the iceberg of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and capsize. 

A rupture in the entente cordiale with Turkey could disrupt Russian strategies regionally – not only in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, but also in the Black Sea, Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere – and can only work to the advantage of the US.

Besides, Russia has a flourishing bilateral economic partnership and business ties with Turkey. 

The United States’ Middle Eastern allies regard Turkey as an existential enemy and estimate that a breakup between Ankara and Moscow would enable them to cut Erdogan down to size. 

Moscow is genuinely on the horns of a dilemma. President Vladimir Putin invested heavily in a relationship with Erdogan despite the latter’s mercurial nature. 

Russia is a stakeholder in Erdogan’s alienation from the Western camp and is mindful that any excessive pressure on him might prove counter-productive. Germany is waiting in the wings with a renewed offer to Turkey for EU partnership. 

Putin is moving cautiously, taking utmost care not to fracture the Russian-Turkish entente. On his part, Erdogan who is a past master in brinkmanship, also made some overtures to Putin last week. 

Erdogan’s phone call to Putin on October 14 signaled his continued interest in working with Russia, not only in the Caucasus but also in Syria, while the Turkish decision, after much procrastination, to test the Russian-made S-400 anti-ballistic-missile system carried a big message to Moscow reaffirming the strategic importance Ankara attaches to an alliance with Russia. 

But having said that, Turkey would also hope that Russia accommodates its presence in the Caucasus, where the Ottoman legacy is a compelling fact of Turkish collective memory. As a rising regional power, Turkey aspires to expand its influence, which is only natural. 

Turkey belongs to this region and is not an extra-regional interloper like the US or France. It is futile to try to counter Turkey in its natural habitat. On the contrary, Russia may see an advantage in having Turkey as a constructive partner in the larger interests of regional stability in the Caucasus.  

Compared with Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh, which remain highly complicated issues, Kyrgyzstan’s color revolution has been tackled with relative ease – for the time being, at least. 

The ease with which Moscow squashed that color revolution shows that Russia remains the provider of security for the region. The US influence in Central Asia pales in comparison. (See my Asia Times article Moscow derails Kyrgyz color revolution.) 

In the final analysis, the tensions in all three hotspots – Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan – are playing out against the backdrop of the deep chill and rivalry between Moscow on one side and the US, the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on the other. 

NATO is already flanking Belarus and has begun challenging Russia’s pre-eminence in the Black Sea, co-opting Georgia as its Caucasian beachhead. 

NATO has had a presence in Afghanistan for more than 15 years already. It aspires for influence in the Central Asian region in a post-settlement Afghan setting.  

Clearly, the high volatility in Russia’s western and southwestern periphery is a manifestation of the geopolitical struggle between Russia and the US. Russia, therefore, needs a counter-strategy. 

Turkey and Iran can be – and should be – Russia’s natural allies in the emerging regional and international security scenario. There is nothing like absolute security, after all, and the concept of a “sphere of influence” has become outmoded.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.