In his interview to EADaily, senior researcher at the Caucasus and Regional Security Center of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations Nikolay Silayev has commented on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, influence of the Russian-Turkish crisis on the South Caucasus, future of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union and Russia’s attitude towards the cooperation of its allies, Armenia and Belarus, with the European Union.
The breaking news of the last days was partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria. What was the motive here?
I am not an expert on Syria but I think that Russia’s motive was its wish not to get bogged down in this conflict and to be able to control its own role in it. The political goals of the campaign have been achieved: the sides have ceased fire, the legal Syrian government has been saved and now its army has good positions for fighting ISIL and al-Nusra Front.
But can Russia believe its western partners?
What we need here is not belief but firm political and military guarantees. The political guarantee is the ceasefire. Russia had a hand in it and now it has access to the peace talks. So, this is a matter of mechanisms rather than mere belief.
Russia also has bases in Tartus and Latakia. Its marine troops are still in Syria. The same is true for its air defense systems. There may also be a fighter air group left in the area. So, Russia has full military presence in Syria and, if need be, can enlarge it in a couple of days.
After the last terrorists acts in Turkey, will the Turkish authorities dare to send troops to the mostly Kurdish north of Syria?
I think they won’t. First of all, I tend to trust the reports that the Turkish generals are no longer planning to invade Syria. Second, the United States does not regard the Syrian Kurds as enemies. Even more, the latter are a party to the peace talks. So, the Turks will hardly dare to act against the will of the Americans.
And finally, one of their motives for invading Syria was the presence of Russian air forces in that country. Now they have been removed. So, the Turks have no more motives.
Some people say that one of the reasons why Russia withdrew its troops from Syria was its wish to avoid a direct conflict with Turkey.
I don’t think the Turks would invade Syria in the first place. But even if that was the problem, what Russia did was a very elegant solution: the political goals have been achieved, the military presence has been preserved, the risks have been reduced.
What an effect will the situation in Syria have on the South Caucasus? Is there a risk of escalation in this region?
Turkish diplomacy is a very strong diplomacy. Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Baku right after the downing of the Russian plane was regarded as a signal that the Turks were ready to whip up tension in the South Caucasus. But they were bluffing. And even though Davutoglu said nothing new about Nagorno-Karabakh, what he said was perceived in the context of new Russian-Turkish relations.
But what Turkey’s role would be should it decide to interfere in the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Here we have several scenarios. First, the Turks might supply the Azerbaijani with arms – something they are already doing. Second, should the Azerbaijanis start a war, the Turks might provide them with political support – something they will do in any case. And the third scenario is that the Turks would take a direct part in the war.
But in that case they would face quite undesirable consequences. Turkey has quarreled with Russia but what Armenia has to do here? Why should it pay for this? How would the Turks explain this to anybody?
Second, Turkey is a member of NATO, Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and has a number of security-related agreements with Russia. So, this would mean a direct conflict between Russia and NATO. Would NATO be ready to quarrel with Russia because of Armenia, who has absolutely nothing to do with this whole thing.
Third, Russia has three military bases in the South Caucasus and would have an obvious advantage over Turkey in case of a war. And the final factor: it was the end of 2015 – and 2015 was the 100th year of the Armenian Genocide.
Can we expect changes in Russia’s policy in the South Caucasus in view of close Turkish-Azerbaijani ties or will it act as before?
I don’t see any reasons for changes because Azerbaijan is in the hot seat now due to the Russian-Turkish conflict and economic problems. It is really hard for the Azerbaijanis to decide whose side to take in this conflict. But why should Russia change anything? Why should it spoil its relations with the South Caucasus states just because Erdogan acted unwisely?
What an impact can the Russian-Turkish crisis have on the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union? For example, the key reason why some of the Collective Security Treaty Organization members refused to appoint an Armenian representative as their Secretary General was that this might be interpreted as an anti-Turkish step.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization has lots of problems but it has not a decisive role in Russian-Armenian relations as the sides have much more practical bilateral agreements in the sphere of security.
But my question is about the future of these two organizations. There are lots of problems where Kazakhstan and Belarus disagree with Russia...
I think both organizations have bright future. Today, they are having certain problems. But I would prefer to discuss them separately.
As far as the Eurasian Economic Union is concerned, the economies of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are deeply integrated. So, this union is natural for them. The same is true for Armenia. On the other hand, union does not mean absolute harmony. It is natural when partners have certain contradictions, especially when it comes to trade with third states. But this does not mean that there is no unity in the union.
Second, this is a long-term project. Today, ruble and tenge are both depreciating against US dollar but not in a similar way. Besides, there are contradictions concerning trade with Ukraine and banned products from the EU. The Russians have closed their eyes on the fact that some Belorussian companies are earning money by reselling such products to Russia. In order to solve all these problems, the sides are building supra-national bodies. And this is normal.
As regards the Collective Security Treaty Organization, here we see that Russia can no longer rely on its allies even though it is the key guarantor of their security.
But this is normal as those allies are much weaker than Russia. Russia is a great power with nuclear arms and modern army, one of the guarantors of global security. Belarus and Kazakhstan don’t have such capacities. This does not mean that they are bad, but this is reality.
It is natural that there is no unity in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Here I would focus on practical aspects. For example, it is a well-known fact that the organization has a deeply integrated air defense system. As long as it has such efficient systems, it will be efficient.
Can the Eurasian Economic Union involve new members, for example, Azerbaijan?
I would not expect this now. Russia and Azerbaijan are rivals on the energy market. True, formally, Russia and Kazakhstan are also rivals.
But Kazakhstan is not involved in energy projects aimed against Russia.
On the other hand, Azerbaijan has investments in Russia. Russia also has investments in Azerbaijan. Any integration needs expenses. Yes, it gives certain advantages but it also needs expenses. I doubt that Russia is now ready to take more expenses just to enlarge the union.
Besides, there is a legend saying that the Eurasian Economic Union is a revived Soviet Union and that Russia is daydreaming of seeing all former Soviet republics involved in it.
Over the last year the European Union has changed its policy on Armenia and Belarus. What does this mean?
As regards Armenia, the EU has Eastern Partnership program. Unlike the preceding European Neighborhood Policy, this program was designed as a response to Russia.
But it later turned out that no all partners wish to join it. The Europeans tried hard to attract Belarus but failed. Their true goal was to change that country’s ruling regime and foreign policy. Azerbaijan is also skeptical about Eastern Partnership. For Armenia the top priority is Eurasian integration.
Eastern Partnership was presented as a chance for bright future. But it turns out that its potential partners are not very much eager to seize this chance.
This project has failed. But the Europeans are still pretending it has not and are ready for certain concessions for Armenia and Ukraine. They are even ready to revise their attitude towards Belarus. In fact, the Europeans are trying to save their face and Armenia and Belarus can get certain advantages here.
How will Russia react to this new stage in its allies’ relations with the EU?
I don’t think it will get nervous. It will be on the watch but it will not react. First of all, I am sure that both Belarus and Armenia are informing Russia of the details of their talks with the EU. Ukraine’s example has shown that the association agreement is an enslaving mechanism. Since the EU has no such plans on either Belarus or Armenia, I see no problems here. Russia is quite flexible to be able to find appropriate mechanisms for its allies to combine their Eurasian integration with contacts with the EU.
Interviewed by Hayk Khalatyan, EADaily observer