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Benyamin Poghosyan: The Evolving Geopolitics of the Eastern Partnership Countries

Photo: New Eastern Europe

The 2019 marks the tenth anniversary of the EU Eastern Partnership program. Throughout the year many international conferences and workshops have been organized with a key goal to evaluate the program, but more significantly, to evaluate the future developments in the six member states. Different scenarios are being discussed with both optimistic and pessimistic views.

The six Eastern Partnership countries have different backgrounds and foreign policy priorities. However, there are key common external drivers that significantly influence their geopolitics. Among them are the Russian policy towards its neighborhood and the West - US / EU / NATO - vision for the region.

All Eastern Partnership countries, except Belarus are involved in conflicts to some extent. Ukraine and Georgia are in a tough fight with Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a "no peace no war" situation and Moldova is seeking regain control over Transnistria. Meanwhile, they have different foreign policy goals and orientations. Ukraine and Georgia seek NATO and EU membership, Armenia, and to some extent Belarus makes efforts to diversify their foreign policy without crossing red lines and jeopardizing strategic alliance with Russia, Azerbaijan keeps balance with no intention to join either Russian ice organizations nor EU or NATO , while Moldova albeit signing the Association Agreement with the EU tries to partner with both camps.

To make any valid mid term assessments on the future geopolitics of these countries, the understanding of the development of key external drivers is of crucial importance. In this context, two possible scenarios may evolve based on changes or consistencies in Russia's and the West's behavior.

Scenario 1. The eventual change of Russian policy

The most significant geopolitical player in the region is Russia. Russia views these territories as a necessary buffer zone to prevent the penetration of malignant Western influenza deep into Russia. Russian leadership is apparently convinced that the key goal of the "United West" - the US, EU and NATO, is the significant weakening of the Russian state which may eventually result in a "regime change" bringing into power puppet regime dependent on the West.

According to this logic, the first step of this plan is the reduction of Russian influenza in the post-Soviet space and the establishment of anti-Russian regimes there. Within this perspective, Russia should do everything to keep its influences in the near abroad, fight against the growing Western influenza and, as a minimum, create chaos in those states where pro-Western forces have managed to come to power.

Under this scenario, Russian foreign policy will be largely unchanged at least until mid-2024 which means that in the coming five years the Russia - West competition and Russia - Ukraine, Russia - Georgia hostile relations will continue with minor positive changes (like recent prisoners' swap which is an important step but has no strategic implications). Status quo will remain unchanged - Russia will continue to provide hard security guarantees for Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics and Abkhazia and South Ossetia effectively prevent Ukraine and Georgia membership into either the EU or NATO. Russian forces will remain in Transnistria and Russia will continue to press Belarus for further integration. As for Armenia, Yerevan will continue its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Russian military base will continue to be employed in Gyumri. Azerbaijan will deepen its economic and military-technical cooperation with Russia and simultaneously resist Russian attempts to drag it into the EAEU or CSTO.

Russian foreign policy will change after the 2024 power transition, either as a result of a liberals victory (which many think is too unlikely) or, most likely, as a result of a personality change in the Kremlin. The new President, even if from a narrow circle currently surrounding President Putin, may choose more conciliatory foreign policy based on a purely pragmatic approach - to save the Russian economy from sanctions caused by stagnation and decline. According to this scenario, Russia after 2024 will make moves to bring Donbass back under Ukraine control, will remove its troops from Transnistria and start contemplating the cancellation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia independence recognition. As a response, West will cancel most of the anti-Russian sanctions, we will hear less and less Western talk about Crime and the situation around 2025-2027 will resemble Russia - West relations in 2009-2011 after the Russia - Georgia war. There is a possibility of launching Ukraine and Georgia EU membership process after 2025 with some prospects of becoming full EU members until 2030.

Scenario 2. More flexible West

In this scenario, the West makes a decision not to wait until 2024 improves its relations with Russia. This policy may be driven by both economic incentives (this applies mainly to Western European heavyweights such as Germany and France) as well as geopolitical considerations to bring Russia into an anti-China camp (this applies mainly to the US). The West will offer a deal to Russia that envisages the de facto buffer status for Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan and acceptance by the West of the Russian control over Armenia and Belarus.

In this case Russia brings back Donetsk and Lugansk under Ukraine control but these territories receive special status with possible veto power over Ukraine foreign policy. Some Russian military presence continues there under the umbrella of the OSCE or UN peacekeeping mission. Russia maintains its military presence also in Moldova, as well as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia agrees to stop further borderisation policy in these two regions, but they effectively remain under Russian control. In this scenario, the West is de facto abandoning any idea of ​​Ukraine and Georgia membership in either the EU or NATO, meanwhile, Russia is promoting not making efforts to bring them along with Moldova and Azerbaijan into either the EAEU or the CSTO.

The West significantly reduces anti-Russia sanctions, opens its capital markets for Russia and increases Western foreign direct investment as well as open access to modern technologies for Russian companies. Simultaneously Russia grants additional economic privileges to the European big business, but most importantly, supports the US in its anti-China activities. Russia may ban Chinese IT giants' access to Russian markets, join Western criticism over Belt and Road initiative and reduce the level of Russia - China military technical cooperation. Russia may also take an anti-China stance in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization using its influenza there to create obstacles for China in Central Asia.

Scenario 3. Preservation of the status quo

In this scenario, neither Russia nor the West significantly changes their policy in the mid term perspective. The power transition in Russia does not bring any novelty. Under this scenario, Russia will continue its tough anti-Western policy also after 2024. Parts of Eastern Ukraine as well as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria will remain under de facto Russian control. Russia will continue efforts to weaken Ukraine and Georgia statehood and support Pro-Russian forces there. Western sanctions will remain in place and may become even tougher but will fail to bring about significant changes in Russian behavior. Russia - West relations will remain at their lowest point and there will be growing Russia - China strategic cooperation. Despite tough anti-Russian sanctions and rhetoric the West will not initiate any meaningful process of Ukraine and Georgia EU or NATO membership even with the possibility of not providing NATO article five guarantees to Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Donetsk and Lugansk.

Thus, most likely in the mid-term perspective we will witness either a preservation of the status quo with possible growing instability or we will see some grand bargain between Russia and the West which will transform the so-called “in between states” into the buffer zone between Russia and the West.


Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman and Founder, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies