Review period: June 16-30, 2021
Russia claims regional hegemony in the post-Soviet space and considers that strengthening Western positions in the region poses a threat to its national interests. The purpose of our review is to provide readers with information about important events related to Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space. The review is a biweekly publication and will be useful for everyone – decision-makers, public employees, media representatives and other people who are interested in the ongoing processes in post-Soviet countries.
Russia's Struggle for Control Over the Black Sea
Main Event: On June 23, 2021, the Russian Coast Guard opened fire at the British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender and expelled it from the waters of the occupied Crimea.
Event in Details: The HMS Defender was sailing from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to Georgia through the waters off the coast of Crimea which Russia considers as its own territorial waters. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergey Ryabkov, and the Spokesman of the Russian President, Dmitry Peskov, made quite harsh statements and did not rule out the possibility of firing shots in such cases.
The British side, unlike Russia, considers Crimea as part of Ukraine and, therefore, recognizes the adjacent border waters as Ukrainian. Russia declared several areas of Black Sea waters closed even for peaceful navigation for six months. Accordingly, Moscow believes that the British ship “violated the Russian state border.”
HMS Defender. Source: BBC
British-Ukrainian Military Cooperation
On June 21, in Odessa, on board of the British Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Defender, Ukraine and the United Kingdom signed a memorandum on the joint construction of warships for the Ukrainian navy. The memorandum also envisages Britain’s assistance in the construction of two new bases for the Ukrainian navy. The memorandum was signed within the framework of the Political Cooperation, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement which President Volodymyr Zelensky signed during his visit to London in October 2020. As a result of the agreement, Ukraine received a loan of GBP 1.25 billion for the development of its military forces. In total, Ukraine will receive eight ships, the first two will be constructed in the UK and the rest in Ukrainian shipyards.
Modernization of the Ukrainian Armed Forces
The Navy Development Concept provides for the navy modernization by 2025. Russia and its Black Sea Fleet are considered as the main rivals and potential adversaries of the Ukrainian navy in the sea. Ukraine seeks a permanent military presence in the nearest naval zone, 360 kilometers off the coast, to protect its national interests.
Military Exercises and Russia's Reaction
Following the incident with the British ship, a total of 32 countries, including NATO member states, began military exercises in Ukrainian waters of the Black Sea on June 28. Russia began mobilizing its air defense system in the occupied Crimea to monitor the exercises.
Why the Event is Important: Russia perceives activities of NATO member states in the Black Sea, especially in the field of military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia, as a threat to its national security. Similar incidents involving a British ship are a kind of warning from the Kremlin that Moscow will not allow the excessive appearance of NATO members in the Black Sea and is ready to use military force.
Another Detainee on Charges of Spying for Ukraine in the Occupied Crimea
Main Event: On June 24, 2021, a person was arrested on charges of espionage in favor of Ukraine in the Russia-occupied Crimea.
Event in Details: The detainee is accused of gathering information about flights of Russian military planes in favor of the Ukrainian Intelligence Service. According to the Russian Federal Security Service, the suspect has long been collecting and transmitting secret data to Ukraine using special devices equipped with antennas and radio receivers.
Russia has detained dozens of people in Crimea on various charges since its annexation in 2014. Those who doubt the legitimacy of Russia's presence on the peninsula are the main targets of the Russian Special Services. In addition, the number of espionage cases identified by Russian and Ukrainian special services has increased dramatically since 2014.
In 2020-2021, the relevant services of Ukraine and Russia arrested a number of people on charges of espionage:
Why the Event is Important: After the 2014 events when Russia annexed Crimea and openly supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, the “spy war” between Russia and Ukraine intensified. There have been frequent reports of “spies” on both sides indicating a high degree of military-political confrontation between Moscow and Kyiv.
EU Imposes New Sanctions on Belarus
Main Event: On June 24, 2021, the EU introduced new economic sanctions against Belarus.
Event in Details: The new targeted economic sanctions will affect those state enterprises (manufacturers of petroleum and tobacco products, and potassium chloride) that are the main source of income for the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko. The restrictive measures include the prohibition to sell, supply, transfer or export equipment, technology or software to Belarus which are intended primarily for use in the monitoring or interception of internet and telephone communications. Furthermore, the sanctions restrict access to EU capital markets for Belarus.
The sanctions are a response to the escalation of serious human rights violations in Belarus and the violent repression of civil society, opposition and journalists as well as to the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk and the related detention of a journalist on board on May 23.
The EU is the second largest trade partner of Belarus after the Eurasian Economic Union. European exports to Belarus amounted to USD 7 billion in 2020. Industrial enterprises are the biggest source of revenues for Belarus. The Belneftekhim petrochemical company exported goods worth of USD 4.2 billion while exports of the Belaruskali company, accounting for 20% of the global supply of potash fertilizer, totaled USD 2.4 billion.
Belaruskali - Belarusian State Company Producing Potash Fertilizers. Source: Belarusdigest.com
Response from Belarus
As the Belarusian President, Aleksander Lukashenko, noted, Belarus must reorient its sales market in response to the economic sanctions.
Why the Event is Important: Amid increased economic sanctions from the West and political pressure, only Russia, which remains the main supporter of the Belarusian president, has the ability to compensate for the lost revenues vis-à-vis Lukashenko's regime. The introduction of the Western sanctions will strengthen the isolation of Belarus and create a new opportunity for Russia where Lukashenko agrees on deeper integration and follows the rules of the Kremlin’s game.
Russia Evaluates Elections in Armenia
Main Event: The party of the Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, won early parliamentary elections which were held in Armenia on June 20, 2021. Pashinyan also thanked the Russian leaders.
Event in Details: Pashinyan's political party won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections with 53.91% of the vote. In the 107-seat parliament, Pashinyan's Civil Contract Party will have 71 seats, allowing it to independently form a government. Alliances of the former presidents, Robert Kocharyan (29 seats) and Serzh Sargsyan (7 seats), will also be represented in the parliament.
On the second day, June 21, Dmitry Peskov, the Spokesman of the Russian President, stated that Moscow was closely monitoring the elections which Pashinyan's Party won by an overwhelming margin. Peskov expressed hope that the choice of the Armenian people will create an opportunity to deal with the difficulties in the country.
The Russian Foreign Ministry expects that the results of the election process will contribute to the development of Armenia, the strengthening of Russian-Armenian relations and the establishment of peace, security and stability throughout the South Caucasus, especially in the framework of the November 9, 2020 and January 11, 2021 tripartite agreements between the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia.
Pashinyan Expresses Gratitude
On his Facebook live stream, Pashinyan thanked the Russian President and the Prime Minister for their support to Armenia and the Armenian people. During a telephone conversation, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, congratulated the Armenian Prime Minister on his victory.
Why this Event is Important: Nikol Pashinyan does not enjoy sympathies from Russia; however, the Kremlin refused to openly interfere in the run-up to the elections, even though Pashinyan’s opponents were Moscow’s favorites. Robert Kocharyan is known for his friendship with Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin believes that in the wake of the defeat in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, Pashinyan’s victory in the elections will not endanger Armenia’s pro-Russian orientation.
Russia Expands its Military Base in Armenia
Main Event: The 13th session of the Armenian-Russian Intergovernmental Commission was held in Moscow on June 28, 2021.
Event in Details: In Moscow, a delegation from Armenia discussed the issue of the land and real estate transfer which is necessary for the deployment and operation of the Russian military base on the territory of Armenia. The delegation was comprised of representatives of the Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, the General Staff of the Armed Forces, the Armenian-Russian Joint Group and the Cadastral Committee.
The issue of expanding the Russian military base in Armenia became topical after the 44-day war in 2020. Shortly after the end of the war, two military base divisions were opened in the Syunik region and Russian border guards were stationed in some parts of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. On May 27, a total of 3.5 hectares of the district land was handed over to Russian border guards. Syunik is located in the south of Armenia and the region faces new security challenges in the wake of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. After Azerbaijan reclaimed the territories which were lost during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, Azerbaijani military posts were set up near the settlements of Syunik.
Russian Military Base in Armenia. Source: Wikipedia
Armenia and Russia are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The organization unites Russia’s ally countries. Armenia is the only country in the South Caucasus where a military base is deployed under a bilateral agreement (there are illegal Russian military bases in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. A total of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh since November 9, 2020). Following the 1995 agreement, the 102nd military base with up to 5,000 military personnel was deployed in Gyumri. In 2010, the deployment of the base was extended from 25 to 49 years (until 2044). On November 30, 2016, Armenia and Russia signed an agreement on creating a joint military group consisting of the armed forces of the two countries.
Why the Event is Important: Armenia's security environment has deteriorated since its defeat in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. Russia was a guarantor of Armenia's security even before the war. After the military failure in the 44-day war, Russia's support became even more critical for Armenia. Yerevan periodically comes under pressure from the Azerbaijani military forces in those sections of the border where the issue of the state border remains unclear. The Armenian crisis is an opportunity for Russia to further increase the scale of its military presence in the South Caucasus.
Russia Talks about the Opening of a Turkish Military Base in Azerbaijan
Main Event: On June 18, 2021, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that reports on the establishment of a Turkish military base in Azerbaijan are “rumors.”
Event in Details: Lavrov’s statement became necessary after the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey signed the Shusha Declaration on June 15. The declaration provides for the development of cooperation in the military sphere which the president of Turkey did not rule out.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin Spokesman, said that he was observing the ongoing developments on the possible opening of a Turkish base in Azerbaijan.
After the end of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, Turkey and Russia started cooperation in monitoring the post-conflict situation. In this regard, an unprecedented event occurred and the joint Monitoring Center was set up in the region to monitor the implementation of the November 9, 2020 ceasefire agreement.
Why the Event is Important: Russia and Turkey became partners in monitoring the post-conflict situation in the region; however, the opening of a Turkish military base in Azerbaijan is a matter of national security for Russia and a red line that Turkey and Azerbaijan should not cross.
Kyrgyzstan Receives a New Batch of the Russian Vaccine
Main Event: On June 22, 2021, Kyrgyzstan received a batch of 80 thousand doses of the Sputnik V Russian vaccine against the coronavirus.
Event in Details: According to the Kyrgyz Minister of Health and Social Development, Alymkadyr Beishenaliev, Kyrgyzstan received part of the vaccine in the form of humanitarian aid and the rest was purchased from budget funds. This is the third batch of the vaccine. In Kyrgyzstan, vaccination started a few weeks ago but the vaccine supply ran out. In April and May, Kyrgyzstan twice received per 20 thousand doses from Russia and hopes to receive a total of 500 thousand doses.
Situation in other Post-Soviet Countries
The Sputnik V vaccine is being used in the following post-Soviet countries: Belarus, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Unlike these countries, Ukraine is refusing it. The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine banned the registration of the Russian vaccine. Georgia will also not use the vaccine. The de facto republics of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region also received 6,500 and 2,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine.
On August 11, 2020, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, announced the registration of the “first vaccine in the world” against the coronavirus. The Sputnik V Russian vaccine was financed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The vaccine was developed at the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology and one of the largest biopharmaceutical companies in Russia - Binnopharm. Production of the vaccine began on August 15.
Why the Event is Important for Kyrgyzstan: Given the global deficiencies in vaccine supplies and the growing number of confirmed cases of infection, it is important that Kyrgyzstan receive sufficient vaccine doses in a timely manner for which Bishkek seeks to leverage its close ties with Russia.