In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up its military and propaganda campaigns around the world


Diane Francis

Nov 16, 2020

Financial Post


Russian President Vladimir Putin has been very, very busy lately playing geopolitical chess, as America plays checkers.


In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up its military and propaganda campaigns around the world. Russian disinformation campaigns have actively sought to influence elections in the U.S. and elsewhere.


In August, Putin’s rival, Alexei Navalny, was poisoned. Talks between the U.S. and Russia on a new arms control treaty reached a stalemate in October. And Putin is the only major world leader who hasn’t called Joe Biden to congratulate him on his victory.


As the U.S. election campaign dominated headlines all summer and fall, millions more people were placed under the boot of Russia in Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, without a shot being fired from a Russian AK-47. Putin also expanded his military presence in Syria, Libya and the Arctic, and will certainly do so in Afghanistan if Trump pulls American troops out.


In August, a rigged election in Belarus brought citizens to the streets in protest, and Russia moved in immediately to prop up its embattled dictator. Now Moscow controls its economy, media and police forces. America and the European Union objected but did very little.


Then, this month, Russia became involved as a “peacekeeper” in a dispute between two former Soviet republics — Armenia and Azerbaijan — and was given the green light to send troops into the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh.


This has made the entire region nervous because the Russian troops are nothing more than an occupying force executing a de facto takeover of territory. This is similar to what the Kremlin did in Ukraine in 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and killed tens of thousands of people. It still occupies the region, which represents seven per cent of Ukraine’s land mass.


Putin is like a chess grand master, slowly removing pieces one by one.


“Putin appears to have achieved a significant victory in Nagorno-Karabakh that threatens to alter the geopolitical balance throughout the former Soviet space in his favour,” wrote Anders Aslund, a Eurasia expert. “He has succeeded in expanding Russia’s military

presence in the strategically important region without encountering any Western pushback.”


Aslund is a colleague of mine at the Atlantic Council, and a former economic advisor to Russia, Ukraine, Sweden and other countries, whose most recent book is “Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.”


Russia’s slow-motion conquests also involve “grooming” or destabilizing fragile democracies in the region. This fall, Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts came to a sudden halt, despite a reform-minded president and parliament, due to attacks by Russian-backed media outlets, politicians and oligarchs, as well as Russian-influenced judges. Ukraine, which has aspirations to join the European Union, has been plunged into a constitutional crisis.


Ukraine’s western neighbour, the Republic of Moldova, also struggles. Its election pits a democratic, pro-European Union presidential candidate against a pro-Russian incumbent who is backed by Russia and its disinformation network.


Like Ukraine, Moldova lost a chunk of its territory, the region of Transnistria, to the Russians in 1992. The same fate befell Georgia, where Russian troops have occupied South Ossetia since 2008.


With lame-duck President Donald Trump shaking up the Pentagon, and two more months in power, the stage is set for more chess moves. This is when America’s allies, from the European Union and NATO members such as Canada, must wade in collectively by condemning Russia and imposing more sanctions. They await Joe Biden’s accession. But Putin certainly hasn’t.