The coronavirus pandemic and the risks of “thawing” the conflicts in the South Caucasus and Ukraine, Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance – this and much more tells in an exclusive interview newcaucasus.com Head of the South Caucasus Branch of the Ukrainian Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (Tbilisi) Vladimir Kopchak.
– In an interview with the Financial Times, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili said that the problems caused by the pandemic and falling oil prices, as well as the current political situation, could push Russia to aggression against Georgia. How realistic do you think such a scenario is? And in relation to Ukraine?
– Let’s start with the fact that both Georgia and Ukraine already live in conditions of external aggression by Russia, which has occupied the territory of our countries. The fact that our situations at the front, on the line of contact are differently “frozen” or our occupied territories in different “recognition status” by Moscow – this does not change the essence of the Kremlin’s aggression. So it continues against Georgia, is conducted systematically in all directions and with all the tools, as it is now called “soft power” or “hybrid war”. Today, when Georgia enters the final phase of the election race, in a pandemic (when, for example, the situation with countering the epidemic in Georgia in contrast to the catastrophe in Dagestan looks almost perfect), this “work” of the Kremlin to destabilize the situation intensifies, and systematically. With the activation and activation of the whole agency of influence – in politics and business, economy and “culture”, in the media and non-governmental “expert” segment, on the church front and so on… Something else in the current reality to expect from Moscow would be strange and naive .
I think that Salome Zurabishvili still meant a new military escalation on the part of Russia at the front, from the standpoint of the occupied territories. The probability of this is not zero. The same process of “border” on the line of demarcation continues, provocations are not so difficult to organize, especially since Tbilisi today, to put it mildly, has very limited tools to somehow counteract this. Some appeals to the concerns of the West are difficult to take seriously. In Ukraine, however, hostilities have not stopped since 2014, we have more than fifty servicemen killed this year alone. And a possible further Russian offensive (from different directions – occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea, the blockade of Odessa from the sea, etc.) in Kiev is not ruled out. And, I want to believe, they are preparing for a variety of scenarios.
The catastrophic situation in a number of regions of the Russian Federation with the epidemic, the collapse of the economy in the face of falling oil prices against the background of sanctions for the occupied Ukrainian Crimea and part of the Ukrainian Donbass on the one hand, should keep the Kremlin from new military adventures. Now Moscow is pushing for the return to its orbit of the interests of both Ukraine and Georgia (South Caucasus) as a whole. Ideally for the Kremlin – loyal authorities in Kiev and Tbilisi, who have given up (not necessarily loudly and publicly) the European and Euro-Atlantic course of their countries. Systematic work is being done in all the above areas, plus through its lobby in the West. Moans about “lift the sanctions for Donbass and Crimea, because the pandemic” – from the same opera. Fortunately, these moans remain without feedback.
At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that the collapse of the international security system, the further collapse of the Russian economy, the collapse of the governing system against the background of centrifugal processes in the regions may push the Kremlin to a new “victorious” war. By the way, the crisis has not yet had a significant impact on the systemic strengthening of the troops of the Southern and Western military districts.
In an old interview with Putin, there is an indicative of his thesis about the “rat cornered.” It sounded purely Freudian. Therefore it is necessary to prepare here for any “surprises”.
– Do you think the coronavirus pandemic reduces or increases the risks of escalating conflicts in the South Caucasus?
– In part, I have already answered this question above. Everything, one way or another, is closed to the behavior of Russia, which acts as an aggressor in the case of Georgia and an “arbiter” or “moderator” of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict (read the war) over Karabakh. In the Kremlin’s paradigm, the South Caucasus is an exclusive zone of Russian national interests. Therefore, it is difficult for me to give an unambiguous answer to this question. Linear logic suggests that the epidemic objectively reduces the likelihood of a frontal military confrontation. For example, Azerbaijan, which has significantly intensified militant rhetoric recently, in my opinion, is further constrained by the pandemic factor (in addition to the factors that have existed for many years, where the same Russian stands out). You can add the banality that now none of the regional or global players are interested in the new (old) hot spot on the map.
However, in the case of the Kremlin, linear logic does not always work. “De-escalation through escalation” – a favorite trick of Moscow, which we have seen many times – in Ukraine, Syria, even earlier in Georgia…
– A number of US politicians (Adam Kinziger, Kurt Walker) called for Ukraine and Georgia to join the North Atlantic Alliance, despite the occupation of part of the territories of these countries by Russia. Do you think these are unfounded statements or is NATO accession really close? Can the rules be changed or an exception made for these countries in any way?
– Statements are not unfounded. Introduction – not close. Or blurred in terms of forecasts. I never tire of repeating that today NATO for Ukraine and Georgia is not even about standards (of course here), but about values and civilizational choices, if you will. In terms of standards, development of the security sector (and this is not only the armed forces), the level of cooperation and integration with the Alliance, it is necessary to reach such a level that the issue of joining at some point becomes more a problem for NATO than Kiev and Tbilisi.
As for “exceptions”, for example, in Georgia, less attention should be paid to the Kremlin’s well-known mouthpieces, which try to speculate that joining NATO “requires the abandonment” of Sukhumi or Tskhinvali. This is a rehearsal of Kremlin narratives that have nothing to do with reality.
Of course, Moscow will in every way hinder these aspirations, which we have been observing for a long time. The Kremlin will press, threaten, bargain, “shake” – us and our partners. But I am sure that the end result depends largely on us, on our resilience, commitment to our strategic choice. Not only in words, but also in deeds – in the field of concrete reforms. And the geopolitical situation, the situation in Russia itself, in the Kremlin or, as it is fashionable to say today, “around the Kremlin,” can change dramatically. I do not predict when this will happen. But it can happen, including, suddenly. When, again, the messages of Kinsinger, Walker, and more suddenly become very relevant. To be ready for this “suddenly” – that’s the question «
– There are periodic calls in Armenia to withdraw the Russian military base from the country. Is it real in the short term?
– Armenia, in my opinion, has long been in a geopolitical trap. Russia has paid too high a strategic price to guarantee its security. In addition to the non-alternative nature of the defense union itself, we see the total dependence of the Armenian economy on Russia, formed over many years. Hence the corresponding level of control of the Armenian political elites by the Kremlin.
One can welcome Nikola Pashinyan’s democratic transformations and initiatives in Armenia as much as you want after the velvet revolution (I say this quite sincerely), but all this breaks down into a banal rhetorical question – do I have room for maneuver in Yerevan today in principle? It is obvious that any success in this field will be perceived in the Kremlin as a threat. In the current geopolitical paradigm of Armenia and the South Caucasus in Yerevan, an anti-Russian leader with “geopolitical reversals to the West” is still impossible by definition.
In this coordinate system, do you suggest that I model the conditions for the withdrawal of the 102nd Russian military base from Gyumri? And what about the air base in Erebuni near Yerevan? Troops of the border service of the FSB of the Russian Federation on the border of Armenia with Turkey and Iran? On whose initiative should this happen? Are any sane alternatives for Yerevan being considered now?
Therefore, I do not yet see the real preconditions for Russia’s military withdrawal from Armenia. Because the 102nd base in Gyumri is not only, and not so much about Armenia, Karabakh or even the CSTO, it is about the South Caucasus, Turkey, Iran at least. I assume that the Kremlin may at some point “give up on Pashinyan,” but this will not mean giving up on Armenia (no matter how much one hopes for it in Baku). Why the Kremlin? It is another matter that Armenia is now the least ready for the onset of the very “sudden” we talked about above. This is well understood in Yerevan, but it seems naive to me to expect any initiatives from the Armenian side to bring this matter closer with my own hands.
… I fully understand the outrage and resentment of people in Gyumri and throughout Armenia, when a service bastard from a Russian base kills a local family of seven. Or when another bastard from there kills a local elderly woman to death. Emotions sound different from activists, human rights activists, ordinary citizens. In fact, the Armenian side cannot resolve the issue today to at least take the criminal to the local court – the base command simply refuses to release him.
As for the statements of some politicians in Armenia about the need to withdraw the Russian base – today I see no point in considering them seriously. It is often very similar that such statements follow, if not by direction, then in agreement with Moscow, in order to “suppress” or “swing” the ruling team, and so on. Well-known practice in general.
– Recently, there has been an intensification of shootings both on the line of confrontation in the Karabakh direction and directly on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. What can this be related to?
– Such things have been happening constantly on both sides for many years. Calms alternate with bursts – the work of snipers and more. The current surge indicates that the communication channel between the opposing parties, which was established as a result of personal meetings between Ilham Aliyev and Nikola Pashinyan, has been de facto completely destroyed. We did not have to expect any significant breakthrough from these meetings, but in 2019 there was a real period of silence, almost unprecedented for Karabakh. Unfortunately, this is not the case now.
We can note the last (at the end of April this year) activation of Russia to push through a “step-by-step plan” for resolving the conflict. The old record, the novelty is only why Moscow is excited right now. Contradictions between the Kremlin and N. Pashinyan’s administration are heating up. There is no way out of the impasse, and the frequent skirmishes at the front only shade this impasse.
– Despite the fact that Baku has increased the volume of military purchases from different countries, Yerevan claims that it is ready to effectively resist the military force of Azerbaijan, threatening to even go on the counter-offensive if Baku risks repeating April 2016. To what extent can we compare the military potential of the two countries?
– Yerevan publicly states what it should state. Such rhetoric against the enemy is commonplace. At the moment, there is no doubt that the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan exceed the potential of the enemy quantitatively and qualitatively in terms of the range of weapons. Baku also has a banally higher estimated mobilization potential. If anything, Azerbaijan needs to advance, and its military machine has been systematically preparing for this for many years.
Another issue is that I do not yet see objective conditions for Armenia and Azerbaijan to soon find each other (whatever signals are heard from Baku today) – we have already discussed this above. I agree that Azerbaijan has the right and motivation to begin the liberation of its territories by military means, it is, after all, doctrinal. At the same time, I do not think that Baku is ready to do so regardless of the current external circumstances. I simply do not believe, for example, that anyone in Baku really believes in the Kremlin’s current readiness to “give up Armenia as a more unnecessary asset.” When I spoke about the “moderation” of the conflict by Moscow, I meant not only Armenia’s vassal dependence on Russia, but also the Kremlin’s existence today of a powerful system of blackmail, influence, and pressure on Baku.
In case the Armenian side will fight, it has no other way out. But the version of “April 2016”, in my opinion, will not work in its pure form. There won’t be that suddenness factor, at least. At the same time, I do not rule out an asymmetric response from Armenia in the event of a new escalation. But this will be a full-scale confrontation that will go beyond the purely Karabakh direction. This will lead to the involvement in the war in one form or another of regional players. I do not rule out the option of a full-scale war, but not to consider it. Here with forecasts of “who whom” – without me.
– Moscow has already sent military “humanitarian” convoys to a number of countries and regions under the pretext of helping to fight the pandemic. Including in Armenia, as well as in self-proclaimed Abkhazia. Why do the military help fight the virus outside Russia?
– More than a hundred “rubber convoys” have already been sent to the occupied part of Donbass and without a pandemic, which included tanks, armored personnel carriers, “Grads”, “Hurricanes”, “Tornadoes”, EW systems, and SAM “Buk”. ) – everything that was needed for the formation and subsequent functioning of the 1st and 2nd occupation army corps, part of the 8th All-Army of the Southern Military District of the RF Armed Forces.
What surprises you in Russian “rubber convoys”? Why the military? Probably because only the military there today is able to transfer or deliver anything normally. The country is like that. Well, the tasks are appropriate – intelligence, formation and strengthening of the presence, information and psychological pressure, demonstration of force, hybrid PR “lift the sanctions”, etc. Everywhere is different, but without the military in any way. What in Armenia, what in occupied Abkhazia, what in Italy…
– It is believed that Russia has repeatedly tried to introduce its “peacekeepers” in Karabakh, but encountered opposition from both Yerevan and Baku. What is it connected with?
– These “peacekeepers” may appear on the new line of demarcation in Karabakh, and this is simply not beneficial for either Yerevan or Baku. It is not profitable in different ways, but, as we see, even the interests of Azerbaijan and Armenia may coincide in some situations.
I see the introduction of its military in Karabakh as one of the key motives for Moscow’s recent sharp intensification of the conflict, a “package” / “phased” plan, and so on. Yerevan must give way to a number of districts (not in principle, but such a voluntary step would mean at least political suicide for any Armenian leader today). Moscow assumes security guarantees in the new realities – no matter in what format of military presence. At the exit, this may lead to the emergence of a de facto new Russian military base already on the territory of Azerbaijan.
It is clear why Armenia is not interested in it. I am sure that Azerbaijan is also well aware of all the consequences of the implementation of such a scenario. Of course, the return of even part of the territory is an achievement and a victory. But such a “Russian peacekeeping” scenario further delays the complete deoccupation of Karabakh indefinitely. This is obvious. It does not leave the feeling that Baku has both forces ready to accept such a half-baked option and its opponents. Whose logic outweighs it is difficult for me to judge.
– If the situation in the world continues to worsen – oil prices will remain low, the economy will fall, poverty will rise, can this affect the foreign policy of world players? Will Russia’s behavioral model change? Are some “political concessions” from Moscow possible? First of all, in relation to Georgia and Ukraine?
– We have already touched upon the issue of the Kremlin’s behavioral model in the context of the systemic crisis, and the choice of a “corner-driven rat” is really small.
As for Ukraine, all the recent peace initiatives of President Zelensky are broken just by the Kremlin’s unwillingness to make any concessions. It was read initially, Moscow is ready to accept only a version of our surrender. With Crimea removed from the negotiating agenda, with the now occupied areas of Donbass returned on its terms and with a “special status” in the form of the so-called LDNR. With its puppet regime in Kiev. With Ukraine in the form of another Russian “province”. The fact that Kiev does not want to put up with such a situation is very infuriating and angry with Moscow, it is obvious.
As for Georgia, official Tbilisi has been living in the “do not tease Moscow” paradigm for many years. In fact, the aggressor country has received here more than significant preferences in various fields – the economy and not only, I see no point in listing. And how much has it helped Georgia in terms of concessions from Russia? The question is rhetorical, but the Kremlin’s appetites are only growing.
So I do not see acceptable conditions for us for the Kremlin to suddenly take and make concessions. Only force majeure circumstances can change Russia’s behavioral model. And not for long, as history teaches. How ready we will be for such circumstances depends only on us.
Irakli Chikhladze, for newcaucasus.com
Translated by cacds.org.ua