Russia’s next move: Belarus and Turkmenistan

The media is laser-locked on the non-war with Iran and impeachment. In typical Russian fashion, Russia has been able to fly under the radar and stay out of the news. But the recent resignation of the government showed that its not quiet in Russia.

Putin continues to make moves to solidify his power in Russia. We already knew that. Putin’s larger goal is to recreate the USSR. He wants the Russian empire to extend again from the Pacific to Lithuania, the Arctic to Kazakhstan. While he’s made moves, successfully, in Ukraine, its come at a cost. The Russian economy shrank considerably, suffering under pretty severe sanctions, sparking protests in Moscow. Putin isn’t stupid, so his next moves will come in Belarus and Tajikistan, and they’ll look vastly different.

Yup, that’s a nasty drop. From Wikipedia.

Belarus has always been close to Russia, and as the next door neighbor to NATO, gives Russia a way to intimidate the nearby countries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. But Belarus has been happy with its independence. It’s ethnically different from Russia, has its own currency, and is relying more on European Union support. A Ukraine-style invasion isn’t likely.

Instead, expect to see Putin setup Belarus as a failed state and use legal agreements to bring them into the fold. Putin has tried to get Belarus to rejoin Russia, using a 1999 Union Treaty to start discussions, but this hasn’t worked. But Putin has more levers, especially economic ones. Since most of Belarus’ oil and gas comes from Russia, Russia will no longer give Belarus a discount, worth about 10 billion dollars a year, unless it walks down the path of Belarus/Russia unification, including a single currency and unified government. President Trump’s warning about Russia using oil as an economic weapon will likely get played out in Belarus in 2020.

Turkmenistan is different. Bordering Russia and Afghanistan, it is landlocked except for a coastline on the Caspian Sea. With large natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan needs export routes, and has been pursuing a pipeline under the Caspian Sea. More importantly, much of its oil and gas is purchased by Russia or China, making it vulnerable to Russian economic measures.

Putin will likely pursue a different path with Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan remains dangerous, and an IS affiliate known as the Islamic State in Khorasan is continuing to cause problems. Russia has kindly offered military assistance, giving it a legal way to move military forces into the country. Over time, this will give Russia more influence in the region, especially as the United States removes troops from Afghanistan.

Putin will likely first pull economic levers to get Turkmenistan back into the Commonwealth of Independent States, a treaty that Turkmenistan hasn’t ratified yet. Then, expect there to be multiple “terrorism” problems that require Russian assistance. Over time, this will turn Turkmenistan into a larger version of Belarus, with an eventual goal of unification.

It’s not all hopeless. The US can use its export of petroleum to wean these countries off of Russian oil dependence. Cheap, safe nuclear power could be exported to eliminate the need to burn oil or gas for electricity. Media, hospital care and technology, all areas that the US and Europe are leading on, could make these regions profit and want to more align with democratic ideals. It’ll require us to care about an area of the world that most people can’t find on a map, but if we do, it could stunt Russia’s world domination desires.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

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