I don’t talk about Russia much. Mostly because I don’t take it very seriously. I take its nukes very seriously, but my fears there are more about mismanagement of stockpiles than the possibility of intentional use. When it comes to Russia’s position in the world I see it as an under-funded and doomed power that is trying to do way, way too much with what little it has left. When Russia looks strong, it’s usually because the United States has done something incredibly stupid, like overthrow a democratically elected president on Russia’s periphery or destroy an Arab state.
This impression does not seem to be widely shared, so I suppose a video explaining this view is long over due. Weirdly, my excuse for finally getting this complicated map video out there is what I believe to be an unacknowledged Russian victory. We’ve been hearing about all these farcical Russian victories for half a decade, and now that there’s a real one, everybody seems to be ignoring it. Today’s video also explains why that is…
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. So I have been making fun of the idea that Russia is winning, and that Putin is some kind of geopolitical genius for years now.
There is a specter haunting Europe. The Russian Bear has awoken and presents a new threat to peace and security. In almost three years of Machiavellian politics, and non-linear warfare, Russia has taken over… very little of a country that’s basically half Russian?
Never mind! In the Baltics, Russia’s overwhelming power has succeeded in dramatically accelerating NATO’s militarization of the Russian Border? Uh…
Russia’s forays into Libya, and especially Syria are less straightforwardly embarrassing, but the way they seem to have set up a Russo-Turkish cold war are a tremendous strategic gift to the United States. Two hyper nationalist regional powers that want to compete,but aren’t serious enough about it to go to war are actually perfect for off shore balancing. If only anybody in Washington DC was smart enough to notice.
DC would rather use Russia to scare the tax payers that vote on defense spending, which makes a recent oversight all the more surprising. Last fall, Russia achieved its first unambiguous victory in the Rogue Russia era. I don’t get why we don’t hear more about the Russian role in Azerbaijan and Armenia. It was a tremendous victory. Seriously. And they didn’t have to fire a shot.
Unlike the United States, a country that hasn’t had a coherent foreign policy goal since 1989, Russia is pretty explicit about it’s goals. It regrets the loss of the Empire built by the tsars, and it wants to preserve its influence in all the Soviet Republics it lost with the break up of the USSR in 1991. All of the biggest breaks with the West were about Russian objections to growing Western influence in these regions. The 2008 invasion of Georgia was about stopping NATO, and the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine interventions were a response to a pro-EU coup the US organized or at least endorsed in that country in 2014.
The Georgia and Ukraine interventions were quite rightly huge international news. They were also big losers for Russia. The 2014 interventions led to sanctions, but more importantly they led to resentment and fear across the Russian periphery. The Baltics now have many more NATO troops on the ground, and it’s hard to imagine Russia ever building any good will in the majority of Ukraine again.
What happened last fall was very, very different. The region has many frozen conflicts, but the one that unfroze so dramatically last fall was different. For one thing, it involved a conflict between two separate states, rather than a Russian supported enclave vs. a state like Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine. In this case, Armenia was occupying a separate enclave on what international law recognized as the territory of Azerbaijan. Also this Armenian held Azeri territory had two different statuses. There was Nagorno-Karabakh, a traditionally Armenian territory within Azerbaijan that most of the world thinks deserves some level of self-government and relationship with Armenia. There were also a number of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, that absolutely nobody who wasn’t Armenian believed belonged to Armenia.
Something else that only Armenians failed to recognize in the run up to this war was how unstable this all was. 25 years ago, when both countries were newly independent from the Soviet Union, Armenia had won the war. They won because their large wealthy diaspora gave them a headstart on nation building and funding weapons. Over the next 25 years that advantage disappeared.
As Azerbaijan consolidated itself it’s oil and gas industry became more and more internationally important, and the country became vastly richer than Armenia. Azerbaijan’s ruling family poured this money into military equipment. So by last fall, not only did Azerbaijan have three times as many people as Armenia, it also had a much more modern and powerful military.
The war went pretty much as you would expect. The only surprising thing is how quickly it happened. In around 40 days Azerbaijan used Turkish and Israeli drones to crush Armenian resistance, and it looked like they were on the cusp of taking over all of Nagorno-Karabakh and probably driving out it’s historic Armenian population…
Now when this was happening, I thought this was super embarrassing for Russia. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, sort of a crappy Russia-centered imitation of NATO. To have one of the six members of this organization losing a war was deeply humiliating for Russia. Or at least we thought so.
Until Russia picked the perfect moment to jump in. Armenia was losing badly, and Azerbaijan was in the difficult position where the next step was massacre and ethnic cleansing, something that would have made it a lot harder to sell oil internationally. So both countries invited Russia back in. Russia now has a stepped up military presence in Armenia, and a completely new military presence in Azerbaijan, protecting what’s left of Nagorno Karabakh. As a face saving measure, Turkey supposedly has some role policing the ceasefire too, but that strikes me as pretty meaningless. It’s not like the Turks will be allowed to set foot in Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, while the Russians are to some extent trusted by all.
This Collective Security Treaty Organization now looks pretty damn real. Russia didn’t just re-occupy parts of two former Soviet Republics, the international community is actually grateful that it did so. Even if we won’t admit it. Nobody wanted to see Armenian civilians dying or displaced, but nobody else was going to step in to save them. This Russian involvement is supposedly just for five years, but I don’t think they are leaving in any of our lifetimes.
Let’s zoom out and look at the big picture. The post-Soviet Republics that are central to Russian Foreign policy can be divided into three chunks. In the West, Russia has lost pretty comprehensively. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all now members of the EU and NATO. Belarus is still Russia aligned, but it’s home to a lot fewer people than it’s size indicates, just ten million and falling, and even that’s looking a little shaky nowadays. Russia has carved a few scraps off of Ukraine, but at the cost of turning most of its 44 million people against Russia forever. The stans make for a lot less dramatic news, but the Russian position in the East may be even worse than in the West. For now, the legacy of Russian empire still has surprising power, but it’s China that is going to matter out here in the future. Russia and China may be facing similar demographic problems, but the scale that China is going to continue to operate on is just vastly higher than Russia. China’s trillion dollars of Belt and Road infrastructure projects are a minor concern for Western powers. But they are an arrow to the Jugular of Russia’s standing in the eastern post-Soviet Republics.
Russia’s sinking prospects elsewhere make these three central post Soviet republics all the more important. This is Russia’s soft underbelly. Chechnya, a province Russia almost lost in the 1990s is just over the border from Georgia. In the 1990s, the 2000s and 2010s this region was a topic of intense geopolitical interest. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, leading to great resentment and greater US and European inroads. Armenia’s Prime minister Pashinyan rose to power in 2018 on a partially anti-Russian platform of friendlines to the West. Well all of that’s over now. I thought about doing the research and animation necessary to describe the intense swings of Georgian politics,but really, who cares. It’s four million people, and now they are surrounded by Russian occupied territory on most sides. The struggle for this post Soviet region is over. Russia won.
Russia really needed a win, and they got it. In recent weeks border disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have prompted Armenian PM Pashinyan to formally request intervention by the CSTO, making that organization look more important, and making it pretty clear that Russia will be garrisoning that border for a lot more than just five years. This should allow Russia to focus more of their diminishing resources on the Eastern and Western fronts where they are perpetually falling behind.
Honestly the Russian victory here is kind of stunning. They have completely met their goals in one of the three post-Soviet regions, effectively taking it off the board as an arena for competition with the West and China. But nobody is talking about it that way. Why is that? Well I think it comes down to conflicting narratives.
Washington DC wants you to be scared of Russia. But it also wants you to be scared of anything else it can use to drive up defense spending. Terrorists, Narcos, UFOs, even climate change, they want you scared. Fear is the goal, not an accurate picture of anything. And if a good story gets in the way of legitimately analysis that is troubling in a more serious way, US media will go with the good story every time. In recent years Washington, DC has gotten more and more interested in an Anti-Turkey narrative. Nothing gets people more angry at Turkey than thinking about what they did to the Armenians. So DC is selling Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia as a Turkish victory, even though Turkey kind of got played by Russia here.
When Armenia loses, it just builds more fear if the Turks look like winners than it does if the Russians do. It’s that simple and that stupid. So the biggest Russian victory in decades isn’t recognized as Russian. I think it’s important to try to see past Washington DC propaganda. We can’t understand the world at all if we don’t.
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