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The past year was filled with changes and challenges that tested individual and collective resilience. Despite significant changes to everyday life, the security challenges around us remain largely the same: national interests and patterns of behaviour do not alter overnight.
That being said, the coronavirus pandemic enabled authoritarian regimes to exert further influence and strengthen their grip on free society. This, however, proved to be a double-edged sword: while citizens were busy putting on their masks, some authorities lost theirs and revealed their cards. This was especially true in Russia. Last year’s developments vividly displayed the Kremlin’s fear of forfeiting its status quo advantages. The Moscow government showed signs of fatigue, confusion and a lack of willingness to adhere to elegant political manoeuvres, either at home or abroad.
The enforced constitutional amendments, a rising trend of regional protests and the assassination attempt of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were a testament to the Kremlin’s increasingly fragile rule.
The question of Vladimir Putin’s enduring presidency after the scheduled 2024 elections had been a topic du jour among policy observers for a while – many expected a brilliant political manoeuvre worthy of the significance of this ‘2024 challenge’. The reality, however, reflective of the current leadership’s stagnation, was disappointing: a simple constitutional amendment came into force, dictating that a presidential candidate’s previous terms in office – before these amendments came into effect – would be discounted, thereby bypassing the constitutional limit on two-term presidencies.
While it was expected that Putin would remain in power after the 2024 elections, amending the constitution in such a straightforward manner was considered unlikely, given its lack of sophistication and the questionable legitimacy of the move. Previously, it was presumed that a new position would be created for him by a minor reshuffling of power structures. Such an insipid move to reset his presidential terms surprised the majority of Russian society. The middle classes in large cities in particular hoped that the end of Putin’s presidency in 2024 might have brought some positive changes to the country’s political system.
Although the Kremlin attempted to create an illusion of political debate and meritocracy throughout the amendment process, these changes funnelled further dissatisfaction among the Russian population. While the constitutional amendment was approved by 78% of the voters in a referendum held in July 2020, there was an unusually high number of protest votes among some hitherto pro-regime voter groups.
The protests in the Russian Far East, in Khabarovsk Krai, also demonstrated the increasing social dissatisfaction and the Kremlin’s misjudged policies owing to its disconnection from society. The replacement of the governor of the krai was used to create a favourable setting for the central government in the 2020 regional elections, and served as a reminder that undermining Kremlin-backed candidates and its agenda comes with consequences. This triggered an unpredicted backlash, igniting a series of mass protests and confrontation, and attracted unwanted attention towards the Kremlin.
The culmination of the Kremlin’s miscalculations – caused by its apprehensiveness – was the assassination attempt of Navalny in August 2020. Increased domestic tensions pushed the Kremlin to opt for radical solutions. Once the attempt came to light, Russia’s behaviour and its selected PR strategy appeared disorientated and disorderly. It failed to predict the impact that such an event would have internationally and domestically, especially after Navalny’s return to Russia.
While the Kremlin saw the coronavirus crisis as a means to create further schisms within Western societies and fuel populist movements, the events in Belarus served as a stark reminder of the fragility of autocratic systems and the power of grassroots movements.
The extent of the protests following the Belarusian presidential election in August 2020 was an unpleasant surprise for the Russian leadership. Despite knowing that the continued support for Alyaksandr Lukashenka would undermine Belarusians’ support towards Russia, the Kremlin decided to continue supporting him. Over the years, Lukashenka had monopolised relations with Russia. This meant quickly finding another suitable candidate to replace him was not possible.
Russia wants to avoid Lukashenka being ousted by protesters at all costs in order to eliminate the possibility of Russians following suit, especially now, given its own fragile domestic environment. It would prefer Lukashenka’s successor to be predictable and loyal to the Kremlin; or a weak president surrounded by several centres of power vying for the Kremlin’s attention.
Broader European Security Considerations…
A pro-Kremlin leadership is equally important for Russia’s security posture. Considering its geographic location and territorial scope, Belarus acts as a buffer for Russia on its western border and adds depth to the western strategic direction. Belarus can therefore be used as a bridgehead and a base for Russian troops, blocking NATO’s access to the Suwałki Corridor. This, in turn, would affect air traffic in neighbouring countries’ airspace and establish a land link with the Kaliningrad Oblast.
Such a scenario is expected to be rehearsed at Belarus and Russia’s joint military exercise, Zapad 2021, for which Russia will deploy tens of thousands of troops along the borders of the Baltic states, and by extension, those of NATO’s. The Russian Air Force flight activity over the Baltic Sea is predicted to increase significantly, accompanied by warships from the Black Sea and Northern Fleets which will likely be moved to the region. As in the previous exercise, Zapad 2017, Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army is likely to deploy some of its forces to Belarus as part of the Regional Grouping of Forces of Belarus and Russia.
… and China Links
While Zapad 2021 is largely expected to mimic the exercise in 2017, an interesting aspect to look out for this year is China’s possible participation. China has participated in Russia’s annual strategic exercise since Vostok 2018. Should Chinese armed forces decide to participate, it will be interesting to see how they define their role in a military operation against NATO in Europe.
Although Sino–Russian cooperation has not been without impediments, the two share a common foreign policy denominator: to deter the West. While there are no indications of China and Russia establishing a real, meaningful alliance at present, what stands out is the Kremlin’s inability to defend its interests when China ignores them.
For example, Russia failed to protect the interests of Vietnam or Rosneft in the South China Sea. It faced the same problem in Central Asia, which has historically been Russia’s stomping ground: China is increasing its influence in Tajikistan, and Russia is unable to prevent it. It is evident the relationship between the two is dominated by Beijing, with the Kremlin left to accept its decreasing international influence. This, to an extent, is also illustrated by the Russian media refraining from criticising Beijing when the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
Despite Russia having shown signs of fatigue and diminishing influence on the international arena in 2020, its ambitions in its self-defined ‘Near Abroad’ have remained intact. The increasingly apprehensive Kremlin will try to retaliate by attempting to strengthen its grip domestically and internationally. The West needs to remain vigilant.
Mikk Marran is the Director General of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service.
The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service’s sixth annual risk assessment which also includes assessments of Russia’s foreign policy towards neighbouring countries, Africa and China is available here.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Wirestock/Adobe Stock.