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Moscow’s Tight Embrace: How the Kremlin Forces Countries to be Its Friends

Kseniya Kirillova reports on how Russia is pursuing its geopolitical goals to advance its power and reach, in opposition to the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Moldova, Igor Dodon, in 2017
Moscow’s Tight Embrace
How the Kremlin Forces Countries to be Its Friends

Kseniya Kirillova reports on how Russia is pursuing its geopolitical goals to advance its power and reach, in opposition to the West.

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While reporting on amendments to the Russian Constitution, some in the Western media believe that, now the Russian President Vladimir Putin has found a way to stay in power through constitutional reforms, attempts by Russia to co-opt Belarus will no longer be on its agenda.

However, the director of the Belarusian Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies, Arseny Sivitsky, is convinced that – regardless of domestic Russian political perturbations – the Kremlin will not abandon its attempts to swallow Belarus.

Brotherly Blackmail

According to Sivitsky, the transition of power “from Putin to Putin” is relevant to Belarus with regards to how the Kremlin seeks to attain its geopolitical goals.

After negotiations in Sochi, the Russian leadership very transparently hints that the next stage of the Belarusian-Russian confrontation involves the introduction of elements of an economic blockade against Belarus,” he said. “The Rosselkhonadzor [the Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance] pointedly banned the Belarusian delegation from exhibiting at the international food exhibition Prodexpo 2020. This step is a clear confirmation that Belarus is not getting, and will not get, a respite and that the Russian leadership will ‘resolve the Belarusian issue’ as quickly and harshly as possible.”

He said that Russia’s plan for Belarus would take the form of a “destructive version of  interference and destabilisation”.

Threats to the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have been published in the ‘Nezygar’ Telegram channel, which is close to the Putin administration, has more than 290,000 subscribers and is referred to by some Russian propagandists as “the main political insider”.

Investigations have revealed that the channel is tied to the curator of the Kremlin’s information policy, Alexei Gromov, who reportedly controls Nezygar through Vladislav Klyushin, the owner of the Katyusha media monitoring system, which is used by the Ministry of Defence and the Presidential Administration of Russia. Such a channel is likely to contain a huge amount of misinformation, but it is also highly unlikely that it would dare publish threats of a foreign policy nature without coordination with its curators.

A recent post on Belarus on the channel said: “On the one hand, this confirms our assessments of Lukashenko’s inadequacy, on the other hand, it indicates that this situation is taken very seriously in the Kremlin. In fact, it should be noted that, if the small-scale Fuhrer really allows himself to repeat the ‘Ukrainian gas number’, but only with theft from the oil pipe, he will automatically launch the ‘Ukrainian political scenario’ with Maidan, exposing the so-called ‘golden loaf of Lukashenko’, and the inevitable flight of the Führer under the pressure of nationalists, whom he himself fed from his hands. We previously warned about this.”

In turn, Lukashenko does not seem to be afraid of anonymous threats and Russian trolls, and notes that Russia continues to hint at Belarus integrating its energy prices with Russia, but that neither Belarusian nor Russian citizens will want to take this path”.

A Trojan Horse

It remains to be seen whether Belarus will be able to fight back against an obsessive alliance with Moscow.

The leader of the civil campaign ‘European Belarus’ and former presidential candidate, Andrei Sannikov, believes that Lukashenko will not be able to become the main force of any resistance. According to him, the Belarusian President has already “surrendered” all key positions to Moscow – including allowing the Russian Army and special services almost complete freedom of action on its territory – and it now only trades at the price of final surrender. Belarusian civil society can become the only force capable of resisting Russia’s “creeping annexation,” he believes.

Meanwhile, the experience of other countries is telling. Integration and closer economic cooperation with Moscow is most often carried out to the detriment of Russia’s partners, and does not provide them with any guarantees of protection against the Kremlin’s aggressive actions.

On January 9, for example, in a grand ceremony in Istanbul, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Putin officially opened the TurkStream natural gas pipeline, created by Russia, Turkey, Serbia and Bulgaria. In Bulgaria itself, this initiative caused a mixed reaction. The Atlantic Council of Bulgaria responded with sharp criticism of the project – in particular, that it only meets Russian interests, which are “alien” to Bulgaria’s national interests.

“If our country succumbs to Kremlin pressure, realising yet another Russian energy interest, it will become a long-term hostage to hostile geopolitics,” the council said. “This will make Bulgaria even more dependent on Russia – a country that has made energy supplies the main pillar of its expansionist foreign policy. There is a real danger that Bulgaria [an EU member state] will be used as a Russian Trojan horse in the EU and NATO.”

Back in 2015, Russian special services organised an assassination attempt on arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, as well as his son and colleague. According to the Bulgarian prosecutors, Russia continues to spy and recruit Bulgarian citizens. In response to the aggressive behavior of Moscow, Bulgarian authorities expelled two Russian diplomats from the country and achieved a decrease in gas prices – however, it did not dare to reduce its dependence on Russian resources.

War of Clans

At the end of last year, the President of Moldova, Igor Dodon, expressed a desire to be friends with Moscow.

On 28 December, Sputnik published a rhapsodic interview that Dodon gave on Putin. In it, he said that not a single significant global issue of world politics can be resolved without the participation of Russia and also mentioned “a number of very important projects to strengthen the mutually beneficial partnership between Russia and Moldova” that Putin allegedly helped him to implement.

According to Moldovan journalist and foreign policy expert Sergei Ilchenko, these projects only consisted of activities designed to benefit one of the ruling clans of Moldova. For him, the seeking of such a relationship with Russia “means the final death of the Moldovan state”.

Ilchenko said that Transnistria – officially the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ – a strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border that is internationally recognised as part of Moldova – is “now completely under Moscow’s control”.

“Of course, there are small handouts from the Kremlin, sometimes financial ones,” he added. “Sometimes they are expressed in lifting restrictions on the export to Russia of some Moldavian products. However, this has little effect on the economy because 70-80% of even Transnistrian exports go to the West.”

It seems that corruption, blackmail, economic pressure and direct threats are the methods on which Russian “cooperation” with other countries is based. At the same time, these countries – at a minimum – suffer losses and have a greater vulnerability to other, more destructive operations of the Kremlin on their territory.

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