Russia’s neighbors are worried

22 June, 02:53 PM

For obvious reasons all the focus has been on Ukraine but risks seem to be building around its borders - and unsure here whether this is because of Russia. The cynic in me talking here but there is rarely smoke without Russian fire in the region.

Kazakhstan

All focus on President Tokayev’s comments at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, where he rejected the legality of Russia's proxy republics of Donbas annexation and push sovereignty.

This was seen as a brave move as he was invited to the summit to show his loyalty to Moscow after Russian troops operating as part of the CSTO intervened to keep his regime in office after the early-year social unrest.

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Tokayev's remark during the Economic Forum was seen as an insult to Russia and Putin, who was on the stage with him.

Putin proceeded to hit back, trying to humiliate Tokayev by mispronouncing his name - seemed very staged.

Guess the question here is was he set up? He was asked about the status of DPR and LPR, and because of sensitivities about northern Kazakhstan and fears that Russia might aspire to slice that territory off in a Greater Russia construct, he was never going to be able to say anything supportive of the DPR and LPR push by Russia.

If he would have said otherwise he would have played to the opposition at home which is strongly supportive of Ukraine. Perhaps Moscow just saw this as a win-win - they asked him the question and either he argued in support of DPR/LPR annexation/independence and underlines then his loyalty/dependence on Moscow or, as transpired, he shows disloyalty to Putin by rejecting the DPR and LPR construct and builds a case for Russia to slice off northern Kazakhstan.

The latter is kind of how the Russian media has played it - disloyal Tokayev, owes us but is stabbing us in the back, so let's show him and disloyal Kazakhs by taking the bit of Kazakhstan where a majority of ethnic Russians live.

Georgia

Recently a large-scale demonstration was held there, with a feel of Euromaidan.

Some 120,000 people went on the streets. It is the largest demonstration in years. Their beef is the backtracking on reforms by the incumbent administration which saw the EU take a pass on giving Georgia Candidate EU member status, as it seems set to do for Moldova and Ukraine.

The complication here is the back seat role of Ivanishvili, the black "cardinal" or "oligarch" behind the throne of the ruling Georgia Dream party which he founded and was instrumental in throwing the former Pro-Western firebrand, Mikheil Saakashvili, out of office in 2010.

Saakashvili is now in jail in Georgia on what the opposition argues are trumped-up charges – and the EU used political polarization as one of the reasons for stalling giving candidate member status to Georgia.

Saakashvili was obviously Putin’s nemesis dating back to the 2008 Georgia - Russia war. Ivanishvili is widely seen as being pro-Russia and his political drive to power back in 2010 and since as part of a Russian project to oust Saakashvili.

So many of the demonstrators feel that Ivanishvili, and Russia, are behind the EU’s decision not to confer candidate member status.

Some are calling for ousting the current government if they don’t deliver the reforms needed to secure candidate member status. Elections were though held in the late 21’ and the Georgia Dream coalition beat the UNM opposition quite convincingly albeit the opposition boycotted the second round of elections on upset that Georgia Dream had reneged on a prior election deal on the format of elections.

There was criticism of the election process by the US. Concerns, obviously here what happens if a second Georgia-coloured revolution sees the ousting of GD and Ivanishvilli - I guess we would then find out if the latter was a Russian proxy.

Kaliningrad

Lithuania is blocking the transit of sanctioned goods through its territory to Kaliningrad, which it argues has the backing of the EU.

Panic buying of goods has been reported in Kaliningrad. Russia has reacted furiously to the restrictions being imposed by Lithuania promising direct action.

It is fair to say that Kaliningrad is a strategic imperative for Russia - defending/sustaining it is. Russia will react for sure, the only question is how.

The Russian security council is meeting with Patrushev, not Putin chairing it.

Question is that mean anything - does it signal that Putin does not see this as a central stage.

Question what Russia could do militarily. A land attack to drive a corridor through Lithuania would be a direct attack on Lithuania triggering NATO Article 5 defense.

Putin knows this means war with NATO. Can Putin afford that when he is struggling to deliver on even his now much reduced strategic objectives in Ukraine (Donbas plus the southern land corridor)?

He would also have to launch an assault through Belarus, stretching his supply lines, and splitting his forces - there has recently again been talk about another assault on Ukraine from Belarus, likely meant to divert Ukrainian forces from Donbas.

I guess Russia could seek to use its sizeable naval assets in the Baltic Sea to enforce some kind of tit-for-tat blockade on Lithuanian trade. But again that would be seen as a huge escalation by both NATO and the EU.

It would then be a fine dividing line whether that would trigger the NATO Article 5 defence - use of Russian naval ships to blockade Lithuanian ports, would that constitute an attack on Lithuania, and the EU? Debate?

Guess in all the above the question is can Putin afford to open new fronts when he is still engaged in a bitter battle in Donbas, with his forces stretched. Arguably an attack on Kazakhstan slicing off the north of the country would be low hanging fruit - unlikely contested that much by Kazakhstan, while the West would struggle to help supply Kazakh forces.

But it would kill reasonable Kazakh - Russia relations, and Kazakhstan would likely react by trying to pull out of all Russian-led economic and security organizations.

It would likely move closer to China as a result. That said, I doubt that China would be appreciative of more Russian efforts to mix up the international order, and this would likely just put more upward pressure on oil and commodity prices, global inflation and the cost of living crisis in China itself as Xi goes into the end of year party Congress. That said, the reality is that Putin does not appear to have cared that much about forcing up oil, commodity, and food prices thru the war in Ukraine.

Sense here still on Kazakhstan, that if Putin is losing elsewhere and needs an easy win to rebuild his credibility back home, then he will use/keep Kazakhstan therein in reserve.

In Georgia, he will likely wait out the domestic political scenarios, but if politics there begins to move against him then I think we will see more posturing on South Ossetia and Abkhazia to worry the Georgians and NATO. Albeit he likely lacks the forces in position to make a decisive new move into Georgia.

He will hope that stirring things up on Abkhazia/South Ossetia will concentrate minds in Tbilisi and NATO, perhaps changing the domestic political mix in Georgia.

And meanwhile, on energy, cutting NS1 flows to Europe seems clearly an effort by Putin to stall Europe's efforts to build gas stocks thru the summer, ready presumably for another installment in the European energy wars this winter.

Therein the question is if Putin is just doing this to lay the siege technology on Europe for a long war, or is he building pressure for a scenario still where he aims to offer some peace deal this fall on Ukraine (he keeps Donbas, plus Kherson and Zaporizhiya) and wants the Europeans to crap their pants on energy sufficient to ask for the Ukrainians to do whatever it takes to help them out of their energy crisis by conceding land to Russia.

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