By Lili Bayer
As Russia withdraws from Syria, it is time to ask what’s next for the Kremlin’s strategy. Russia’s involvement in Syria, as Dr. George Friedman pointed out earlier this week, was never really about the Syrian crisis. Russia’s chief strategic vulnerabilities are in Europe. As the European Union fragments, Moscow’s top concerns will be U.S. involvement in Central and Eastern Europe and Turkey’s transformation into an assertive power in the Black Sea region.
Maintaining a Neutral Buffer
Russia’s weakening and Europe’s fragmentation are contributing to a shift in the competition over buffer zones between the two regions. Before the onset of Russia’s current financial troubles, Moscow worked to boost its position in Ukraine, Central Europe, the Balkans and further afield through energy deals, loans and investments. Low world energy prices have undermined the Kremlin’s ability to offer attractive energy deals, and Russia’s economic problems are limiting the government’s ability to offer loans and direct funding to friendly governments.
Nevertheless, Russia’s declining position coincides with the waning influence of the European Union in these buffer countries. EU member states in Central Europe are locked in disputes with Brussels on issues ranging from migrant policy to the rule of law. At the same time, states that over the past years clamored to meet EU standards in the hope of eventually joining the bloc, like Serbia and Macedonia, are moving away from close cooperation with Brussels. Meanwhile, Ukraine, the epicenter of competition between Russia and the European Union, is embroiled in a domestic political crisis and still struggling to implement reforms advocated by the Europeans.
A key part of Russia’s national security strategy is to maintain a buffer zone to its west. Ideally, Moscow would like to boost its own influence in this buffer area, but at the very least Russia’s strategy stipulates that these zones must be somewhat neutral. A weakening Russia has limited ability to improve its position in these countries, but Europe’s fragmentation means that the competition over the buffer zones has become more subdued. Therefore, Moscow has little to worry about when it comes to the European Union.
Approach to Dealing with the U.S. and Turkey
There are two primary strategic threats facing Russia: U.S. involvement in Central and Eastern Europe, and Turkey’s rise. Since the annexation of Crimea, the U.S. and NATO have boosted their military presence and defense cooperation with countries on the bloc’s eastern edge. Russia fears an increased buildup of Western, and in particular U.S., troops and equipment close to its western borders. Above all, Russia is concerned about the potential for increased defense cooperation between the U.S. and Ukraine. Thus far, the U.S. has shied away from granting significant military assistance to Ukraine, and NATO membership for the country is not on the table in the near term.
Russian strategy when it comes to the U.S., therefore, will likely be multilayered. First, Moscow will hold large-scale exercises along its western frontiers and maintain influence in Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in an effort to deter the U.S. from developing significant defense ties or commitments with Kiev. As we have written, Russia is open to compromise on Ukraine, as long as the country remains neutral. Second, as in the case of Syria, Russia will find ways to take on roles in global negotiations and assist the U.S., thus improving its negotiating position with Washington. Third, Moscow will seek to capitalize on divisions within NATO to weaken the alliance’s cohesion, especially with regards to deployments in the east. The first two elements of this strategy are feasible, but Russia will find it difficult to implement the third.
In Turkey, the Kremlin faces a strategic dilemma. As we have outlined, Ankara is likely to become more assertive in its neighborhood. Turkey controls the Bosporus and thus the Russian navy’s access to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s involvement in Syria has already caused friction between the two powers. Russia cannot afford a direct conflict with Turkey at the moment, but Russian strategists likely are preparing for a long-term struggle with Turkey for influence in the Caucasus and Black Sea region, as well as in the Middle East as Russia continues to support the Assad regime. A weakened Russia has less to offer Black Sea countries like Bulgaria or Caucasus powers like Azerbaijan: it can no longer afford to offer pipeline projects, nuclear power plant deals and loans to the same extent as in the past. Faced with a more powerful Turkey, however, a weak Russia could ultimately make aggressive and unpredictable moves to counter Turkey’s expanding influence.
Russia’s position is declining, and the country’s ability to fulfill its strategic goals is limited. Moscow’s focus is now on U.S. moves in what the Kremlin considers its own backyard, as well as Turkey’s growing importance. Russia’s involvement in Syria was largely a tool for the Kremlin to achieve goals elsewhere. Moscow’s attention is now on the main threats to Russian power.