- - Monday, September 7, 2020

Growing concerns of expanding Russian influence over Belarus come on the heels of recent reports from the Senate Intelligence Committee and other agencies which once again exposed Moscow’s attempts at political interference in the United States and malign activity against American troops abroad.

These developments are no surprise to anyone watching Russia over the last two decades, as the Kremlin has used the same playbook of hybrid warfare in its immediate neighborhood. Deploying political subversion, direct military action and manipulating energy (mostly natural gas) supplies, Moscow is hard at work to weaken its neighbors and pull them firmly into its orbit. This seems to be driven both by Moscow’s post-imperial nostalgia and its apparent paranoia about former Soviet republics getting closer to the West. For Moscow, any sign of independence by its neighbors is a proof of the Western encirclement.

Most recently, Russia has managed to set up its fraternal and, at times stubborn, neighbor Belarus for a lose-lose scenario. Eager to teach a lesson to Belarus’ eccentric President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been flirting with the West too much for the Kremlin’s taste, Moscow quietly supported the opposition — ensuring the predictably grotesque reaction by Mr. Lukashenko and the equally predictable response from the West.

Whether Mr. Lukashenko stays in power through complete surrender to Moscow or the opposition forces another election, Russia wins by effectively returning full control of Belarus and relaunching its USSR 2.0 project. For other post-Soviet states, these dynamics present a cautionary tale.

Russia’s entire set of tools is also at play in one of the world’s most strategic regions, as Moscow has decided to exert pressure on its most independent neighbor, Azerbaijan. A cross-border attack against Azerbaijan by Moscow’s obedient ally and regional proxy Armenia in July occurred right next to the energy and transportation routes connecting Europe and Asia. These are the only such routes that do not pass through Iran or Russia, adding a geopolitical flavor to Moscow’s meddling in the neighborhood. 

These events also come just as Azerbaijan is about to complete the ambitious Southern Gas Corridor project, which is poised to bring the Caspian Sea’s gas to Europe and replace Russia as the top supplier of gas to Turkey, the key regional energy market. Iranian gas supplies to Turkey have dropped dramatically as well.

Azerbaijani media has published a number of reports detailing a dramatic increase in Russian arms deliveries to Armenia during the July hostilities with Azerbaijan and in the following weeks. The reports are accompanied by military-cargo flight times, numbers and maps showing a route clearly designed to avoid Azerbaijani and Georgian airspace by flying over Iran. 

All flights entered Armenia via Iran, reinforcing the existing regional Armenia-Russia-Iran alliance. Further, many of the same flights took a path from Armenia to Syria, once again over Iran. This neatly aligns with Armenia’s collaboration with Russian in deploying troops to Syria in support of dictator Bashar Al-Assad. Equally unsurprising is the statement by Armenian Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan in Moscow on Aug. 23 that Armenia and Russia have the same enemies.

In turn, Azerbaijani officials have been uncharacteristically blunt in venting their frustration to Moscow. In August, President Ilham Aliyev demanded an explanation about Armenian arms deliveries from his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin in a widely publicized phone call, while Mr. Aliyev’s adviser Hikmet Hajiyev stated that Moscow’s assurances offered by the visiting Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu were not satisfactory.

In addition to such direct military pressure, Moscow seems to have engaged in political interference, attempting to undermine Mr. Aliyev’s effort to rejuvenate Baku’s government by bringing onboard Western-educated technocrats to replace older nomenklatura.

In response, the Kremlin seems to have activated its most obvious man in Baku: the 83-year-old former Communist ideologue and longtime presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev, who is now challenging the government by cautioning Baku to be respectful to Russia. Mr. Mehdiyev apparently has all along cooperated with Azerbaijan’s most radical opposition forces against Mr. Aliyev.

With Moscow so readily using its entire toolbox against Western allies and interests, the U.S. would be well served by a more proactive, flexible and pragmatic approach aimed at reinforcing its friends and pushing back against its adversaries.

• Paul Miller is president and executive director of the news and public-policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow him on Twitter at @pauliespoint.

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