by Gordon M. Hahn
The potential for a military conflict between Russia and NATO continues to grow as Russo-Western contention over spheres of influence in the historically war-torn region of Eastern Europe-Western Eurasia, what some call or hope to institute as the ‘Intermarium’ between the Black Sea in the south and the White or Baltic Sea in the north, continues to move towards resolution. The few outstanding areas of unclaimed territory include Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. None of these states is a member of NATO, the EU, or any of the various Russian-led international organizations. Belarus, with the rule of Aleksandr Lukashenka teetering on the edge, is moving from the same category of decided to undecided states in the Russia-Western great geo-strategic game. Belarus’s status as a member of the Russia-Belarusian ‘union state’, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) are being cast into doubt as a result.
Once an avoidable confrontation, before NATO expansion east in violation of promises made to, and the national security interests of Moscow, this tectonic is now a permanent and most dangerous feature of the international landscape for decades to come, marking a return to a pattern that has produced four world wars: the Napoleon, Crimean, First, and Second World Wars. Good luck with that.
The confrontation is carried out by assigned proxies, sometimes but not always assigned from one of the two opposing camps. Thus, NATO member Poland has been hosting NEXTA TV, the headquarters of the Belarusian opposition’s so far struggling and peaceful revolution from below. The opposition’s leadership is hiding out in NATO member-country Lithuania. Putin has pledged to help Lukashenka put down any violent demonstrations. Parts of western Belarus are populated by large Polish communities, raising the spectre of a Polish-Belarus conflict. Lukashenka has played up the Western involvement and warned of a NATO threat to his country’s stability, even its independence. He has done the same in regard to Russia, playing both sides of the fence. Although Moscow has tired of Lukashenka’s game and bluster, it cannot be excluded that the situation could develop in such a way as to force Moscow to intervene on his behalf in order to save face and/or prevent the loss of another ally to world history’s most powerful military bloc encroaching into its sphere of influence and to its very borders.
To the south, Ukraine’s increasingly unpopular president Volodomyr Zelenskiy, now sick with COVID, has been courting the sickman of NATO—Turkish soft authoritarian leader Recep Erdogan and his Ottoman restoration project. In recent years, with the Donbass civil war still smoldering and Turkish claims on Crimea, Ukraine and Turkey have deepened economic and military ties. Erdogan visited Kiev in February and Zelenskiy announced that Turkey would provide $36 million in military aid, and a deal was signed for Ukraine to provide the An-178 high-wing transport aircraft to Turkey. The leaders also declared their intent to double bilateral trade turnover from $5 billion to $10 billion. In October, Ukraine agreed to transfer technical knowledge to Turkey to support Turkey’s space agency and a satellite research and development lab to Roketsan, Ankara’s leading state-owned missile and rocket engine and satellite manufacturer. Could Erdogan be eyeing an alliance with Kiev in order to return Crimea to Ukraine under Turkish protection, opening the possibility of joint rule or a Turkish protectorate some time in the future?
With the re-start of Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the last month, Turkey through its ally Azerbaijan has secured a bridgehead for extending its influence in the latter’s renewed foothold in its breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The renewed war and resulting truce and peacekeeping agreement negotiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin saddles Moscow with a risky peace-keeping operation in the breakaway republic. Armenia laid claim to the predominantly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan in the late Soviet era. Stalin had drawn the borders of the area in such a ways so as to facilitate breaking traditional ethno-national allegiances on the way to constructing Soviet man’s new proletarian culture and national identity. Turkey and/or Azerbaijan and, who knows, perhaps others may have instigated Azerbaijan’s move to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh with an expectation that a military defeat of Armenian forces in the breakaway region would not be difficult and could bring down the ‘color revolution’ (2018) government of Prime Minister Nikola Pashinyan, bringing to power nationalists, such as Zhirair Selifyan, who would withdraw Armenia from the EEU, CSTO, and Moscow’s orbit. Such will certainly be suspected in Moscow ciricles.
Moreover, Moscow’s assumption of a peacekeeping role in this bitterly contested interethnic and inter-state dispute is fraught with danger. It should be recalled how the August 2008 Georgian-South Ossetiyan/Russian Five-Day War began: with Georgia’s blistering attack on breakaway South Ossetiya’s capitol of Tskhinval with hundreds of inaccurate GRAD rockets, killing hundreds, including 19 Russian peacekeepers. Any future Azerbaijani attack to re-coup Nagorno-Karabakh is now fraught with the prospect of dead Russian soldiers and a Russian military response that could bring Turkey directly into the fray. This raises the specter of a Russian military response that potentially could touch on Ankara’s territory – a Syrian-Russian operation spilling over into southern Turkey – tripwiring a response on behalf of Turkey by its NATO allies. Although I am not one who sees Brussels’ or Washington’s (or Moscow’s) hand in the renewal of military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh, there is no doubt that Ankara sides with Baku as a way of strenthing Turanic influence in southern Eurasia in competition with Moscow. And NATO has dome nothing to restrain its wayward member, whch is increasingly nationalistic, militaristic, expansionist, and revanchist. Erdogan is a kind of useful crazy uncle for the alliance which has no issue with creating problems with Moscow to put it less than bluntly.
There are some things to watch for in the days, weeks, and months to come. A de facto NATO proxy (Turkey, Ukraine and/or Rumania) political move in Moldova after today’s second round of the presidential election pitting the pro-European, -Rumanian, and -Ukrainian candidate, Maya Sandu, and the somewhat pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon (during his administration decisions were made to end the supply of Russian gas and electricity from Russia and Transdniestr). There is a real possibility that Sandu can win, or the election outcome could spark a domestic ‘color revolution’ crisis. In addition, Sandu has indicated she would prepared to support some sort of unification of Moldova with NATO member Rumania. Such a move would very likely spark a civil war in the country or at least re-start another ‘frozen conflict’ involving a breakaway region in a former Soviet republic, Moldova’s Transdniestr, which has large ethnic Russian and Ukrainian populations. Also, a Turkish, Ukrainian, or Turko-Ukrainian diplomatic offensive in Moldova featuring stepped up military cooperation might also be in the offing. Some sort of Russian countermove regarding the internal politics in the Baltics or in Turkey’s backyard in Syria might follow such events.
In sum, Russia’s Western flank, NATO’s eastern flank is becoming a tinderbox. Outside meddling in the ‘Intermarium’ between the Black and White Seas constitutes a new ‘Iron Curtain’ but without the iron. It is a porous front between to distrustful powers: Russia and the West. It is a historical confrontation that becomes very potentially hot when the West fails to integrate Russia, and Russia fails to become fully Western in its politics and economics. Moreover, with the possible arrival to the U.S presidency of former Vice President Joseph Biden and Democrats’ control of both houses of Congress, there will be great impetus in Washington to push color revolutions and arms sales to any and all of Russia’s antagonists. The world is getting less and less stable and more and more dangerous.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media. Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.