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Putin’s dwindling circle of friends in Emerging Europe

epa05682657 Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) attends a meeting with with Russian business community representatives in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 19 December 2016. EPA/ALEXEI DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL / POOL MANDATORY CREDIT

The number of European countries friendly towards Moscow has dwindled to just a handful since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February. Defending Moscow’s actions is now a toxic option in Europe, because not only has Russia launched an unprovoked land war in Ukraine, but it is also seen by the countries in the eastern part of the continent as posing a potential existential threat to them too. 

Further east, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the South Caucasus have long lived with the presence of Russia as the pre-eminent great power. With Russia to the north and China to the east, they have little choice but to accommodate Moscow, even while prizing their own territorial integrity just as Ukraine does. That has led their governments to hold back from criticism of the invasion or from joining sanctions, while declining to cheerlead for Russia or formally recognise its annexations of Ukrainian territory either. 

Thus there only are a handful of states in Russia’s near neighbourhood that have remained on cordial terms with Moscow – from EU member Hungary and candidate country Serbia in Europe, to Armenia, Azerbaijan and the five Central Asian republics – yet none can be said to approve of the war in Ukraine. Of the Central, Eastern and Southeast Europe region just Bosnia & Herzegovina, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey and of course Belarus have not joined sanctions imposed by the EU and other Western nations. All except Belarus backed UN resolutions condemning the invasion, and even the Central Asian republics, much more vulnerable to Russia, given their geographic location, stopped short of recognising Moscow’s recent annexations of four Ukrainian regions. 

Indeed, Russia can probably be said to have only one true friend: Belarus. The neighbouring country’s leader Aleksander Lukashenko has openly said the country is participating in what he and Putin call the “special military operation” in Ukraine, though he does argue Belarus’ participation was primarily limited to preventing the conflict from spreading to Belarusian territory and to preventing a Nato strike on his country.

Accordingly, Minsk has been targeted by many of the sanctions imposed on Moscow. Russia and Belarus were also therefore the only significant European countries not invited last week to the inaugural summit of the European Political Community.

Friends and foes in the EU 

Situated on Nato’s eastern flank, the Baltic states, Poland and Romania are among the most hawkish on Russia within the EU. They have consistently argued in favour of tougher sanctions and other actions such as a ban on Russian tourists.

But while the EU has imposed several increasingly tough packages of sanctions on Russia, there are a wide variety of different opinions within the bloc, and one of the eastern EU members – Hungary – takes a diametrically opposite position to those of its neighbours. 

Viktor Orban, the Hungarian strongman, was not always a fan boy of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He depicted himself as a courageous fighter against communism when he first came to power in 1998, even if this was much exaggerated. 

But after a secret meeting with Putin while he was subsequently in opposition, Orban returned to power in 2010 with a completely transformed attitude, and he has since forged close ideological and economic ties with Putin’s Russia, visiting Moscow regularly. 

This has always mystified observers, some of whom have speculated that the Kremlin must have some kompromat on him. Equally likely is that he simply admired Putin’s modus operandi, and copied some of his authoritarian tactics, such as the culture wars against sexual minorities.

This year, Orban even flew to Moscow in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine when Putin was being shunned by Western leaders. After Putin invaded in February, Orban was slow to criticise the Russian dictator. 

In the Hungarian general election in April, he painted himself as a supporter of peace, and accused the democratic opposition of seeking to drag the country into war. Orban has refused to let arms supplies to Ukraine go directly across the Hungarian border into Ukraine. He has repeatedly called for a ceasefire and peace talks.

There are also now significant economic reasons for Orban’s subservience to Moscow’s line. Since his return to power in 2010 his regime has built up energy links with Russia, deepening the country’s dependence on Moscow. Hungary now relies on Russia for 65% of its oil and 90% of its gas imports. The latter are made under a secret contract that, according to media investigations, hardly appears to be a bargain for Budapest.

While other countries have been deliberately cutting their energy links with the Kremlin, Orban’s foreign and trade minister rushed to meet Putin last month to beg for even more gas ahead of the winter.

This dependence has made the Hungarian radical right-wing leader a constant critic of, and drag on, attempts by the EU to tighten sanctions on the Kremlin. 

He has blamed the sanctions rather than Putin’s dictatorship for the cost of living crisis, saying that the sanctions hurt Europe more than Russia. His regime is currently launching a national consultation survey to gauge the view of Hungarians on sanctions with biased questions, one of its typical means of steering the national debate (using public funds) and claiming popular backing for policies it has already decided on.

This stance towards Putin has further damaged the Orban government’s already weak standing in EU capitals. Orban is more and more an outlier in Europe owing his relationship with the Russian dictator, with even Poland downgrading its links with him.

Yet by threatening to use his veto, Orban has won an exception on crude oil sanctions for pipeline oil to Hungary (and other former Soviet bloc neighbours). Products and services for nuclear power plants (NPPs) will also be exempted from sanctions. Hungary has recently taken delivery of fuel rods from Russia for its planned massive expansion of the Paks NPP, which is being built by Russia’s Rosatom for €12.5bn. Orban even managed to overturn EU plans to impose sanctions on Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

Aside from Orban, Putin used to be a favourite among many on Europe’s far right and populist right, but there was a rush to disavow previous connections after the invasion. French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s order to have 1.2mn election pamphlets showing her shaking hands with Putin being destroyed a few weeks after the invasion is a case in point. 

Italy’s snap general election in September 25 was watched closely for signs it could bring about about a change in direction for what was previously one of the most hawkish states in the EU. 

Giorgia Meloni is set to become the country’s next prime minister after her right-wing nationalist Fratelli d’Italia took the largest share of the vote. She has sent mixed messages on Russia; as one bne IntelliNews columnist pointed out, while hailing Russia in her 2021 autobiography as the “last defender of Christian values in Europe”, she has strongly condemned the invasion and voted in favour of sending military aid to Ukraine. Her likely coalition partners – Matteo Salvini, a well-known fan of Putin, and Christian-conservative Forza Italia led by billionaire former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has a long-standing friendship with the Russian president – are seen as more pro-Russian.

Bulgaria’s about-turn 

In Southeast Europe, Bulgaria did an abrupt turn from Russia hawk under former prime minister Kiril Petkov – Petkov’s refusal to pay for gas in rubles led to Gazprom cutting off supplies this spring – to a much softer stance following President Rumen Radev’s appointment of a caretaker government under Golub Donev. In a move that sparked protests in Sofia at the prospect of returning to Moscow’s sphere of influence, Golob’s ministers have said they want to resume talks with Gazprom

Like Italy, Bulgaria held a general election recently. However, in Bulgaria there is no immediate prospect of a new government being formed, as the parliament is highly fragmented. Thus Radev will continue to play an outsized role in Bulgaria politics. The two parties that took the largest share of the vote on October 2, Gerb and Petkov’s Change Continues, both identify as being part of the pro-Western camp, but with major policy differences on other issues. Change Continues has already ruled out a coalition with Gerb. The most likely outcome therefore is another caretaker government pending yet another snap election. Until a stable majority can be formed in Parliament, Radev will be the one with the power to appoint caretaker ministers. 

Russia’s friends in the Western Balkans

Serbia, despite not being an EU member, has been under heavy pressure from Brussels to join EU sanctions on Russia, as one of the candidate countries from the Western Balkans. 

Belgrade has so far refused to do this, citing its long-standing friendship with Russia and position of neutrality. On the other hand, Serbia has voted in favour of UN resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine, and publicly said it cannot accept the results of the referenda organised on the annexations of parts of eastern Ukraine to Russia. 

There are two main reasons for this. First, there remains a strong pro-Russian contingent in Serbia. This was evident in June when Putin was voted the most popular world leader in one poll. Putin sympathisers were also in evidence at a series of marches against the holding of the EuroPride event in Belgrade earlier this autumn. Even within the cabinet, there are pro-Russian and pro-Western voices. 

Secondly, Russia has consistently supported Serbia over the Kosovo issue. Russia has used its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block Kosovo – which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 – from joining the UN, and has long been Serbia’s staunchest backer on the issue. Serbian politicians also look back to Russia’s support during the sanctions imposed during the wars of the 1990s and the Nato bombings of Serbia and Montenegro in 1999. 

As with Hungary, there have also been economic benefits to Serbia from refusing to impose sanctions, notably its new long-term gas deal signed with Gazprom on favourable terms this spring at a time when other countries were seeking to move away from dependence on Russian gas. 

Neighbouring Bosnia has been unable to impose sanctions on Russia, as these have been blocked by leading Bosnian Serb politicians. 

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik is one of Putin’s biggest fans in Europe. In the run-up to the October 2 state- and entity-level elections, Dodik visited Putin, who personally endorsed his candidacy. 

However, Dodik’s position is currently uncertain. Official data shows Dodik was elected president of the county’s Serb entity Republika Spska on October 2 – switching places with his close ally Zeljka Cvijanovic, who will take over Dodik’s old position as the Serb member of the tripartite state level presidency. Opposition leaders in Republika Srpska then demanded a recount of the votes and annulment of the election for president of the entity, claiming fraud. The issue has led to thousands-strong protests, and a recount is now in progress. 

Turkey’s tricky relationship with Russia

For an idea on just how difficult it is to stay, in full view, on amicable terms with Moscow despite the war, the case of Turkey is interesting. The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, always eager to maximise his country’s gains on all sides where possible, has attempted to maintain strong relations with both Russia and Ukraine throughout the conflict, arguing Ankara should keep itself available as a trusted intermediary ready to serve a key role should opportunities for peace talks arise.

Yet Nato member Turkey appears to have gone too far in exploiting this arrangement for economic gain – too far for the US and Europe to stomach that is. It has become known as a bolthole for Russian investors and as a conduit via which Russia can keep up trade flows otherwise shut off by the West.

Clearly annoyed and concerned, the US lately threatened sanctions against Turkish banks that continued to provide access to Russia’s Mir payments system. Five banks quickly backpedalled. What’s more, since the Kremlin stepped up the Ukraine conflict by holding sham referenda and annexing territories, even Erdogan appears to have cooled on what level of tolerance and respect he is prepared to offer Putin in public.

Even less guarded about offering Russia a sympathetic ear has been Iran, which appears to have provided depleted Russian forces with hundreds of attack and surveillance drones. Iran has made substantial trade and investment gains from keeping up its support for Russia, and stands to make much more, though Tehran, while blaming Nato for pushing Russia into a corner and thus bringing about an environment for conflict, is careful to periodically state that it would like to see an end to the war and a negotiated settlement. The Iranians are also wary of the Russians using heavy discounts to elbow them aside in ‘under the radar’ oil and gas export markets such as China, where they can avoid US sanctions enforcers.

Changed balance of power in the South Caucasus 

Armenia used to be one of the most pro-Russian states in the post-Soviet space, being the fourth country to join the Eurasian Economic Union after its three founders. Contributing factors were its relative poverty and the ever-present threat from Azerbaijan, its richer and better armed neighbour. Yerevan thus looked to Moscow for support. 

However, when Azerbaijan – seizing the opportunity at a time when Russia was distracted by the war in Ukraine – attacked Armenia in September, resulting in almost 300 deaths on both sides and the loss of Armenian sovereign territory, Yerevan didn’t find Russian help forthcoming, despite an appeal to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). 

On the evening of September 13, Armenia’s government initiated a video summit of the heads of state of the CSTO, which has a collective defence provision under which states are supposed to support their fellow members if their territorial integrity is violated. What Armenia got was merely a fact-finding mission sent by the organisation. 

Demonstrating its unhappiness with the lack of action from the CSTO, Armenia declined to take part in military exercises that the CSTO began in Kazakhstan on September 26.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev remains an ally of Putin, and he has ignored Western sanctions and refused to publicly criticise Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine (though he has defended Ukraine’s territorial integrity). But he has used the way that the Kremlin’s attention is distracted to test its willingness to keep the peace in the South Caucasus.

Last month Azerbaijan launched an attack on Armenia itself, despite Yerevan’s military alliance with Moscow. Aliyev has also been conducting peace negotiations with Armenia under EU auspices, sidelining Moscow.

Moscow has hardly reacted, proof that Azerbaijan has actually become more strategically important to Russia since the invasion, as it represents a vital link with Iran and is an intermediary between Moscow and Ankara, with Turkey becoming a critical player in the Ukraine war

Aliyev believes he has more options now that the EU is courting him as an alternative energy provider to the bloc. Brussels signed a deal with Baku in July to double the gas imports it buys in order to cut its dependence on Russian supplies. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Baku in August in a trip notable for its lack of criticism of Aliyev’s repressive regime.

Central Asian nations torn 

Central Asian states are taking a cautious approach to the war. Economically interlinked with Russia, they have also suffered economically as a result of the war and sanctions. They don’t want to risk enraging Russia by joining sanctions but Kazakhstan in particular is concerned about its own territorial integrity; the northern part of the county that lies to the south of Siberia has large ethnic Russian populations and a number of Russian politicians have claimed it belongs to Russia.

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has several times indicated his unhappiness with the war, while not going so far as to break with Russia – which stepped in to help out when Tokayev faced violent protests this winter. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, in rather general terms Tokayev criticised the fighting of wars and spoke about the dangers in the potential use of nuclear weapons, while not explicitly directing any criticism at Russia. 

He had previously snubbed Putin at the June economic forum in St Petersburg, where he made it clear that Kazakhstan would not recognise the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) that have since been annexed by Russia. Neither Kazakhstan, nor any other Central Asian state, recognised the two republics as independent nor the subsequent annexations of Ukrainian regions by Russia. 

Uzbekistan has traditionally been one of the more independent Central Asian states vis a vis Russia, with plenty of its own resources and no border with the regional giant. Though Uzbekistan, like Kazakhstan, often refers to its efforts to maintain a “balanced” foreign policy, it retains close ties with Moscow. 

Tashkent has not backed the Russian war in Ukraine and in a statement the foreign ministry said Tashkent remains committed to principles such as respecting other states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have warned their citizens not to sign up for participation in Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Kyrgyzstan, like Armenia, was let down by Russia as the CSTO likewise failed to come to its aid when a border dispute escalated and forces from Tajikistan penetrated deep into Kyrgyzstan this autumn, causing tens of thousands of Kyrgyz to flee their homes. On October 9 Bishkek announced that it had unilaterally cancelled joint military drills that were due to be carried out on its territory by the CSTO. 

This announcement came two days after the country’s president, Sadyr Japarov, skipped the October 7 CIS summit in St Petersburg that featured celebrations of the 70th birthdays of both Putin and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. As reported by bne IntelliNews, Japarov almost certainly stayed away because of still raw anger in Kyrgyzstan at the military confrontation with Tajikistan.

Tajikistan, on the other hand, appears to have accepted that it has little choice but to work with Moscow. Not only is it the FSU’s poorest country, but Russia’s military presence is critical to guarding the long and porous border with Afghanistan. Thus while Japarov stayed away from the CIS summit this month, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon turned up with the gift of two pyramids of melons.

Remote Turkmenistan rarely comments on foreign affairs, maintaining a traditional neutrality, though its closeness to Moscow is clear for all to see. Europe would dearly like to see Ashgabat get serious about constructing a trans-Caspian Sea pipeline via which it could solve some of the European states’ energy sourcing difficulties with supplies from known gas reserves that are the world’s fourth largest. However, such a move in the current circumstances would undoubtedly upset the Kremlin. Rather than risk that scenario, the Turkmens remain focused on attempting to up their gas exports to the east.