Uladzimir Matskevich: Destabilization is a threat to the regime, but is of great use for Russia

Aliaksei Yurych, EuroBelarus Information Service

Russia tries to maintain its hegemony in the region not only using economic and political ways, but also military threat and the constant threat of destabilization of situation in Belarus and Ukraine.

The use of force in Ukraine and Syria gave Kremlin additional arguments for bargaining and strengthening its role in the post-Soviet region, in Eastern Europe, and in the Middle East. It seems that by results of two military campaigns Moscow managed to preserve Russian hegemony at the post-Soviet area and in the Middle East. Since Russian economy does no longer allow buying political loyalty of its satellites, military threat and the threat of destabilization of the situation are used as instruments of forcing the countries to “befriend” Russia.

Philosopher and methodologist Uladzimir Matskevich told the EuroBelarus Information Service about the tools that Russia uses to maintain control at the post-Soviet area and in the Middle East.

— Russia has absolutely unexpectedly withdrawn its troops from Syria — politicians and experts are still guessing the reasons for that. In your opinion, what prompted Putin to withdrew from Syria?

— I think the Kremlin's actions are determined by big politics and international diplomacy. Russia's intervention in Turkish affairs affected the interests of almost all geopolitical players; the US, the EU, and NATO (of which Turkey is a member) could not but interfere in the situation. Consultations at the very top were going on. I think that by means of intervention in Turkish and Syrian affairs, followed by withdrawal of the troops, Russia bargained certain concessions. Moscow pursued some not entirely clear interests in this big politics.

— Does the withdrawal of the Russian troops mean that the Kremlin's aggression will be redirected to the other side? Should we expect the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

— The Russia-Ukraine war retains its relevance — it is the major foreign military conflict that Russia is drawn in. Syrian adventure has somewhat distracted the world's attention from the Russia-Ukraine war. Russia cannot and isn’t going to dissolve the large-scale military intervention in Donbas. Therefore, we cannot say that the withdrawal of the Russian military contingent from Syria will somehow enhance the interference in the Ukrainian situation. These two campaigns are interconnected by diplomatic and geopolitical ways rather than by the military. Military units, which Russia has involved in Syria, are not applied in Ukraine. Therefore, we cannot say that the released units will be deployed to Ukraine, but for the subversive groups.

The military side of the Ukrainian conflict and Russia's intervention in the Syrian conflict in connection with the war with ISIS differ from each other a lot. But in the geopolitical game launched by Putin these are two related things.

— Does it mean that in the near future we should expect the aggravation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

— I'm not sure. I think that the geopolitical game that unfolded around the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict included Ukrainian agenda. I think that the United States, NATO, and the European Union have made certain concessions concerning Ukrainian issue; I believe that the bargaining concerned totally different things: NATO's eastward expansion, the inclusion of Ukraine in the EU neighborhood political sphere of influence more closely than it happens now. Most likely, Russia has been bargaining about the possibility to keep the position of an actor in the region, which it controls.

— Is it possible that the Kremlin has learned from its aggressive policy and understood that not everything in this world is solved by force alone?

— I think that the Kremlin doesn’t build its own geopolitical plans only based on force. The use of force was a demonstrative trick: Russia has demonstrated that it can use force in the diplomatic and geopolitical games, not be limited by negotiations, bargaining, and so on. The use of force in Ukraine and Syria gave the Kremlin additional arguments for bargaining and strengthening its role in the post-Soviet region, in Eastern Europe, and in the Middle East. The Kremlin is not so naive so as to think that it can solve its problems both in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union by means of power. A demonstration of force was a step aimed at inducing the West to make concessions. Of course, it is not the military force of Russia that plays the main role now but its economic weakness. Having realized that Russia is losing its historical function in the region, Moscow has decided to show its strength to the detriment of its economic interests.

I think that this policy has been effective. Russian hegemony in the former Soviet area and in the Middle East will be preserved. But this doesn’t mean that military conflicts will be escalated. Basically, Russia isn’t ready for large-scale military operations no matter where — neither in Ukraine nor in the Middle East. But since such actions of Russia are dangerous, the West is forced to make concessions.

On the other hand, on a historical scale, Russia’s actions might play a positive role. The West has been refraining from taking action in Syria and Iraq for a long time, whereas Russian intervention led to the strengthening of the US’ and Turkey’s presence in the region. It might lead to a quick resolution of the Syrian conflict. But we shouldn’t rely on the positive outcome of the Syrian confrontation; but, nevertheless, if “corruption war” with enormous sacrifices stopped quickly it would be good for all the parties.

— Thus, we can say that the Russian intervention has played a positive role in the war against ISIS, can’t we?

— I would refrain from the “positive” characteristics; the Russian intervention has rather prompted the West to active steps. Neither NATO nor the United States has a strategic plan for quick and positive resolution of this conflict. Activation is better than passive observation of the conflict; but uncertainty still remains.

— You admit that Russia managed to maintain hegemony in the post-Soviet area. But previously Moscow has been obtaining political loyalty in exchange for economic preferences or threats. Now that Russia is in economic recession, how will its hegemony be implemented within the Eurasian Economic Union, for example?

— Russia has been trying to use economic leverages — economic pressure or economic preferences — in order to monitor the situation in the former Soviet countries. But it didn’t bring results with all the countries: if in respect of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia this policy is successful (Armenia is facing the constant threat of the Karabakh conflict aggravation and a war with Azerbaijan), when it comes to Ukraine and Georgia economic leverages have been hardly working at all. That is why Russia decided to launch a military conflict in Georgia, and in 2013-2014 — intervene in Ukrainian affairs.

We have to understand that Russia has a great potential to destabilize the situation in any of the post-Soviet countries, but it cannot normalize the situation in any of these countries. Russia manages to control the post-Soviet area at the expense of the constant threat of destabilization — political, economic, and social. To do that, large economic power isn’t needed; control over the property is enough (and Russian money is present in all post-Soviet countries). It won’t play a more positive role in their development, but it can play the negative role quite well: both bribery of officials as well as creating difficulties with the management of entire economic spheres. For example, the whole power industry in Armenia is controlled by the Russian capital. Russia won’t be able to invest enough money in Armenia's power industry in order to protect Armenian power industry, but it is quite capable to withdraw its money from the country and bring the country to an energy crisis. This threat keeps Armenian government on a short leash.

There exists a similar situation with Ukraine and Belarus. Russia can refuse to purchase strategically important goods from our countries; can turn off gas, just as it has repeatedly tried to.

In reality, Russia doesn’t have many possibilities. In recent years, Moscow was compelled to demonstrate force in relation to Ukraine, which is absolutely unprofitable for Russia itself in economic terms. It concerns not only Western sanctions, but also the structure of the Russian economy: not only we depend on Russia, but also Russia partly depends on the trade and deliveries from our countries. Interrelation of technologic and industrial links makes us interdependent. That’s where the origin of attempts to preserve the Russian hegemony in the region by not only using economic and political ways, but also military threat and the constant threat of destabilization of situation in Belarus and Ukraine comes from.

— Will the threat of destabilization of the situation in the country continue until Belarus is economically tied to Russia?

— Yes, it will. To understand the maneuvering and seemingly irrational actions of Lukashenko's regime, it is necessary to understand how the regime and Lukashenko himself are afraid of Russia's actions to destabilize the situation in Belarus. Destabilization of the situation is a threat to Lukashenko’s regime, but it is extremely advantageous for Russia, which would have had full control over Belarus in case of socio-political crisis; regardless of who is in power at the moment, Russia can impose its own terms. And Lukashenko is afraid of destabilization much more than of a Russia’s direct military intervention or economic terms that Russia puts forward to him.