There are signs that the EU and Russia are managing their relations better in their common neighborhood. Neither has achieved its ambitions in countries such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Although a “grand bargain” is not possible at the moment, the two sides have a common interest in halting a deterioration in relations.
The establishment of independent Ukrainian and Belarusian statehood facilitates the development of Russia’s own national project, which is oriented towards the future, rather than towards the restoration of the past. Its key foreign policy feature is real sovereignty and the freedom of geopolitical maneuvering.
Four years ago, Armenia’s failure to sign the EU Association Agreement was an early indication of the impending Ukraine crisis. Now, an Association Agreement-lite has been signed with Brussels. While this doesn’t represent a normalization of relations between Russia and the EU in the post-Soviet space, it’s important symbolically. Rather than an “either/or” approach to integration, the EU and Russia are gradually moving in the “both/and” direction.
Alexander Lukashenko, who used to take offense at not being invited to the Eastern Partnership summits, declined an invitation to last month’s summit. This clearly demonstrates that the initiative has lost its value even in the eyes of its members, but it doesn’t mean that closer cooperation is impossible for Belarus and the EU. Both parties are simply coming to the realization that quick breakthroughs won’t happen.
Last week’s events change little on the ground in the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic.” They do, however, demonstrate the degree to which Moscow cannot control the strategically important region. Despite the Kremlin’s best efforts, conflict between local authorities grew so out of hand that Moscow was forced to send armed reinforcements.
The conflict in Transnistria is far from both resolution and explosion. Convergence of international players’ interests in maintaining peace and high levels of connectivity between the Moldova and Transnistria has resulted in stability. But a conflict management strategy that relies upon a sub-optimal equilibrium is hardly enough—more needs to be done to prepare for a settlement in the long term.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is growing closer to Uzbekistan-born Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who could help the president solidify his power as he continues to struggle against the Uzbek National Security Service (SNB) and its chief, Rustam Inoyatov. However, any belief that oligarchs will help modernize Uzbekistan is naïve. They will simply assume the power once wielded by the SNB.
Russia and the West have a choice in the South Caucasus. They can either treat the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as being isolated from other conflicts—such as those in the Donbas and Transdniestria—or they can use it as an additional argument in their overall confrontation.
To prevent further escalation, international actors should not play into Moldova’s divides. They must stop seeing Moldovan politicians as either friends or foes, and instead promote greater competition in the country’s politics. Otherwise, while pursuing their own geopolitical interests, Russia and the EU could both fall victim to manipulation by local politicians.
The conflict in Karabakh is the only one in the post-Soviet space where Russia and the West are ready to work together. But none of the mediators are currently discussing the core issues in the dispute.