The U.S. Zeroes in on Russia's Borderlands

7 MINS READNov 15, 2018 | 10:00 GMT
U.S. soldiers take part in a military parade in Kiev on Aug. 24, 2018, to celebrate the 27th anniversary of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union.

U.S. soldiers take part in a military parade in Kiev on Aug. 24, 2018, to celebrate the 27th anniversary of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union. Ukraine is at the heart of the rivalry in Eastern Europe between the United States and Russia.

  • From Eastern Europe to the Caucasus to Central Asia, the United States will increase ties with countries along the former Soviet periphery in the coming year in an effort to increase pressure on Russia.
  • The United States will cultivate security ties with pro-Western states in Russia's borderlands through weapons sales and military exercises.
  • At the same time, Washington will offer economic and security incentives to countries that are more firmly in Moscow's orbit in an attempt to wean them off Russia.
  • Russia will respond with its own hybrid warfare tactics in the region as a means of resisting the United States and the West and spreading its own influence.
Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Annual Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments in the coming year.
The standoff between Russia and the West has shown little sign of abating throughout 2018, and recent U.S. efforts to ramp up the pressure on the Kremlin signal that such tensions are only going to increase in the year to come. In an effort to alter Russia's foreign policy, the United States has imposed sanctions on the Russian economy amid threats to impose more next year. And now that the United States has announced its intentions to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, new military buildups by both sides are inevitable.
The Big Picture

In its 2018 Annual Forecast, Stratfor wrote that the United States would increase sanctions against Russia and that tensions would rise between Washington and Moscow. These tensions will intensify in the coming year, particularly in the former Soviet periphery.

Another key element of U.S. pressure on Moscow centers on Washington's ties with former Soviet countries on Russia's periphery, from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Because of Russia's lack of geographic barriers, these territories form buffer states that protect the country's core from foreign powers while also providing a conduit for the Kremlin to project influence outward. Indeed, Russia's rise and fall as a regional and global power has historically depended on its ability to control these territories; as a result, these states have naturally played a crucial role in the United States' containment strategy against Russia in the post-Soviet period. And as tensions grow between Moscow and Washington, these borderland states will become an increasingly central theater for the competition between the United States and Russia.

Eastern Europe: Battleground Ukraine

At the heart of the two powers' rivalry in Eastern Europe is Ukraine, which is currently in its fifth year of conflict. Washington has played an important role in backing Kiev from a political, economic and security perspective in its war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The United States already provides security support to Ukraine by conducting joint military exercises and delivering limited amounts of lethal weaponry, most notably the Javelin anti-tank missile systems. The United States is likely to increase its weapons sales to Ukraine in the coming year and assist Kiev's efforts to bolster its navy in the Sea of Azov, which has emerged as a new potential flashpoint in Ukraine's standoff with Russia. The developments will undermine the negotiation process held in Minsk, Belarus, to end the Ukrainian conflict, making a resolution to the conflict and a U.N. peacekeeping deployment to eastern Ukraine unlikely in the coming year.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the prospective withdrawal of the United States from the INF Treaty will lead Washington to strengthen U.S. military assets and conduct more joint military exercises in frontline NATO members like Poland, Romania and the Baltic states. In addition, the United States will move forward in its negotiations to establish a permanent military base in Poland, though an actual deployment will not take place this year. Russia will respond with its own military buildups in areas like Kaliningrad, western Russia and Crimea while also pursuing its own talks to build an air base in Belarus. In this battle for Russia's periphery, Washington is expected to offer Belarus economic incentives in an effort to dissuade it from increasing its military ties with Moscow. Belarus will be receptive to the U.S. overtures, yet it will remain strategically aligned with Russia when it comes to security.

A map showing the countries in the former Soviet periphery.

The Caucasus: Wooing Armenia

In the Caucasus, Washington will focus its attention on strengthening ties with the Armenian government. Armenia has traditionally been one of the closest and most loyal allies of Russia — the country is a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization military bloc — but political tensions have emerged between Armenia and Russia in recent months following the rise to power of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan in April's Velvet Revolution. The United States hopes to exploit these tensions by driving a wedge between Armenia and Russia — something it has already tried to do, as evidenced by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton's visit to Armenia last month, when he expressed the United States' interest in selling weapons to Armenia. Moscow has viewed Bolton's offer as a direct challenge, as Russia currently has a monopoly on weapons sales to Armenia, as well as 5,000 troops in the small republic. While Armenia is ultimately unlikely to abandon its strategic alignment with Russia, political frictions between the two could offer the United States an opportunity to chip away at a key ally on Moscow's periphery.

Armenia's major adversary, Azerbaijan, will also attract U.S. attention, particularly when it comes to pressuring Iran. Azerbaijan's relationship with its southern neighbor will come under strain as the government seeks to maintain its foreign policy balancing act by switching gears to participate in the U.S. containment strategy against Tehran. Indeed, Azerbaijan already stopped purchasing natural gas from Iran before U.S. sanctions came into effect against the Islamic republic on Nov. 5, and it is likely to decrease economic ties with Tehran further this year. At the same time, the United States will also increase security support and conduct more military exercises with Georgia, the only country in the region that is actively pursuing European Union and NATO integration.

The United States' efforts to make inroads into Russia's borderlands will, in turn, shape Moscow's own actions against the West.

Central Asia: Uzbekistan Comes in From the Cold

To the east in Central Asia, the United States is likely to increase its initiatives to counter terrorism and drug smuggling in the region, especially in countries bordering Afghanistan like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. But Russia and China will also conduct their own counterterrorism efforts, creating the potential for a rise in tensions in the great power competition between Moscow and Beijing on one side and Washington on the other.

On the economic front, Washington will also strive to foster better economic ties throughout Central Asia in countries like Kazakhstan and, especially, Uzbekistan. The latter's president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has slowly brought his country out of the shadows, creating opportunities for external powers to increase economic and security ties with the Uzbek government — something that has naturally piqued the interest of Russia and the United States. Wary of Moscow's growing economic ties with Uzbekistan, U.S. officials have explicitly stated their desire to compete with Russia in terms of economic and investment deals. As a result, Uzbekistan is likely to solicit as much economic support as possible from both countries while maintaining a delicate balancing act between the two that stops short of entering any formal alliance.

The United States' efforts to make inroads into Russia's borderlands will, in turn, shape Moscow's own actions against the West. Intent on exploiting Europe's divisions and undermining EU and NATO unity, Russia will be active in its hybrid warfare campaign against the West by meddling in others' politics, disseminating propaganda, launching cyberattacks and staging covert operations against Western and Western-leaning countries like Ukraine and the Baltic states. Though Russia might not succeed in offsetting the United States' overtures to the states in the former Soviet periphery, it could foment greater instability in the borderlands, thereby making those areas a key battleground in the broader U.S.-Russian standoff this coming year.

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