Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
In light of a growing U.S. presence in Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, Russia is looking to strengthen relationships with key nations to maintain their influence and hedge against potential threats. Specifically, Armenia and Serbia are increasing their cooperation with Russia politically, militarily, and economically. Current events in Ukraine and the Middle East are driving these alliances and the increased cooperation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Armenia and Russia have a long history of good relations. As Christian nations in a largely Islamic region, the factors behind a positive partnership are obvious. Both nations were historic enemies of the Ottoman Empire, and both nations have complex histories with neighboring peoples in the Trans-Caucasus region.
In contemporary times, Armenia has committed to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union and has recognized the referendum which brought Crimea into the Russian Federation. Relations between Yerevan and Moscow also extend to recent joint-military drills, including the testing of new drone technology in Armenia’s mountainous environment. These drills are likely intended to check Turkish military power, given the recent themes that were employed.
Yerevan also maintains good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country which Russia is looking to increase economic and strategic cooperation with. Together, a Moscow-Yerevan-Tehran coalition would be a formidable force, exerting great influence over the greater Middle East, something analysts in Moscow have already realized. This likely plays a role in Moscow’s long-term strategic thinking, especially given the threats Russia faces from the region.
Armenia and U.S.-supported Azerbaijan fought a series of armed conflicts over the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which currently holds de-facto independence from Baku. Surrounded by NATO member Turkey, and historically hostile Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia will likely continue to strengthen relations with both Moscow and Tehran unless there is a drastic change in the region’s geopolitical reality.
Like Armenia, Serbia and Russia are historic allies. During the 1990s, Moscow supported Belgrade’s positions against Slovenian and Croatian independence, and provided aid during the armed conflicts that followed. Hundreds of Russian volunteers fought alongside Serbian paramilitaries, including prominent members of the contemporary Donetsk Peoples’ Militia.
More recently, it was announced that the Russian and Serbian Air Forces will hold joint-exercises in 2015, adding to existing military cooperation between the two nations (which includes an official defense pact). Economic cooperation between Moscow and Belgrade is also increasing, and Serbia remains committed to the South Stream Pipeline project. Following the 2014 floods, Russia sent significant relief aid to the thousands of displaced Serbs, further expressing good will towards the country.
Likely Moves and Counter-Moves
Cooperation between Russia and Serbia is likely to increase over the next decade in response to the increased U.S.-Polish relationship and the regional rise of Turkey. The threat of Jihadism in the Balkans further adds to the strategic logic of the Moscow-Belgrade partnership but also provides a potential opportunity for Western cooperation. Both Russia/Serbia/Armenia and the existing Western defense frameworks face the common threat of Sunni extremism and a common anti-terror front has already been contemplated in foreign policy circles. This area of common ground could well be the basis for further security cooperation going forward.
So long as the situation in Ukraine remains tense, it is likely that the United States will look to build-up Poland and Russia will increase its security relationship with Serbia. So long as the Middle East remains unstable and tensions in the South Caucasus persist, Russia will increase its cooperation with Armenia and look to expand relationships with countries such as Iran and Syria. It is also likely that Russia will also look to improve its relationship with Israel, which has consistently been warming under President Putin.
As the only major power that has good relations with Iran, Syria, and Israel, Russia will likely be increasingly looked to as a deal-maker in the Middle East and Caspian Sea region. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already looked to Russia to help resolve Iranian issues, something that would have been almost inconceivable a decade ago. Given these developments, it is in the U.S’s long-term interests to build positive relations with Russia, especially as the situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate.