“NATO and Russia: Partners in Peacekeeping” – reads the title of a NATO brochure dating back to the aftermath of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission deployment in June 1999. Going through the document today feels like reading a fantasy tale: Russian and NATO peacekeepers are described as working together to restore stability and peace to the Western Balkans, “forging increasingly durable relationships in the process”, as “relations and mutual understanding between Russian and NATO troops on the ground have continued to improve”.
From this part of the world, today’s Russia is not perceived as a "partner in peacekeeping"– and, certainly, not NATO's. When talking Russia, the image of an assertive and hard-core realist country probably comes to mind first. More recently, international attention has focused on the Russian Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner, which is active in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and, increasingly, in Sub-Saharan Africa. Data on the number of Wagner contractors and their actual tasks are patchy, but the company reportedly engages in fighting, training of local forces, personal security for Russian enterprises operating in volatile contexts, and authority-strengthening services for several local leaders, especially in Africa. Despite Wagner being a private company with which the Kremlin denies any links, this PMC has become the infamous face of Russian “peacekeeping” abroad.
At a closer look, the topic of Russia’s peacekeeping activities is more complex and diverse. Russian peacekeepers continue to be active both in Moscow’s neighbourhood and beyond – either within the UN and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) or independently as a result of international agreements, like in the case of the peacekeeping operation in Transnistria. Russia’s participates actively in UN activities. According to the latest data (September 2021), there are 72 Russian peacekeepers in UN missions globally – a number similar to Brazil’s and more than double the US’. Russia is among the ten-top countries in the world with the highest number of military observers at the UN.
This dossier provides a multi-faceted view on Russia’s peacekeeping activities, with contributions featuring a number of case studies. Most of them focus on the post-Soviet space (PSS). It is not surprising given that the region represents the primary arena for Moscow’s peacekeeping activities due geographical proximity – hence, Moscow’s heightened sense of risk for conflicts’ possible spillovers – and Russia’s historical primacy and current role as peacemaker. Which peacekeeping activities does Russia carry out? Is there a “Russian way” to peacekeeping? If so, does it align or clash with European and US ones? Understandably, answers to these questions largely depend on whether one looks at the issue from Nagorno-Karabakh or the Central Asian Republic (CAR).
Starting with the PSS, Adriana Cuppuleri argues that, while Russia has always claimed to be a mere mediator in peace processes there, its military presence reflects broader geopolitical goals rather than the simple desire to curb violence. In her article, she gives an overview of international and domestic factors behind Russia’s choice to militarily intervene in the region, calling for a broader analysis that embraces complexity and considers the different variables on the table.
Last September marked one year since the start of the latest conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian). The war was ended in November by a Moscow-brokered truce, which established the presence of roughly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers in the area. Olesya Vartanyan dives into the Russian peacekeeping mission, listing several delicate and positive talks performed by the peacekeepers whilst also pointing to one major problem: the mission lacks a detailed mandate. This uncertainty, together with Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s refusal to return to the negotiating table, may create problems for Moscow in the future. Carlo Frappi looks at the same topic through Baku’s lens. He argues that Russia’s peacekeeping mission and, more broadly, its strengthened role in the Karabakh issue constitutes the main compensation for the Kremlin’s neutral stance during the 2020 war and the biggest diplomatic price Baku had to pay for its military victory.
The conflict in Ukraine is often considered a watershed moment for European security and Russia-EU relations in particular. Its transformation into a low intensity – to some, frozen – conflict contributes to making the prospects of its resolution even dimer. Tetyana A. Malyarenko deals with the UN peacekeeping mission that was proposed in 2018 and that many, including in Ukraine, consider the most preferable way to resolve the conflict. However, Malyarenko claims that proposals over that and other peacekeeping missions have never been a subject of serious negotiations, either between Kyiv and Russia-backed rebels or between Kyiv and Moscow in the Normandy format.
The Taliban’s return after the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan poses risks of instability and uncertainty, especially for Central Asian (CA) states, most of which border the country and face — or have faced —terrorist threats. Elena Zhirukhina looks at Russia’s role in mitigating such hazards through an enhanced role as a security provider for the CA region and beyond. She argues that the Afghan crisis provides Russia-led international regional organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with the opportunity to prove their practical relevance to CA.
While the Syrian war seems to have disappeared from international radars, the conflict is still ongoing, with serious humanitarian consequences. It is a well-known fact that Russia’s 2015 military intervention changed the fate of the conflict; it is less known, however, how Moscow operates on the ground. Emmanuel Dreyfus describes how the Russian Military Police (MP), a structure developed in the context of the Russian defence reform initiated in 2008, became the Kremlin’s major tool to protect Russian military assets and checkpoints across the Syrian territory, but also — after 2016 — to carry out the bulk of humanitarian and peacekeeping operations set up by the Russian military command.
If Syria has been receiving less media attention over the last month, the same does not go for Africa and, especially, Russia’s involvement in the continent in the security field. Sergey Sukhankin’s piece tackles Russia’s “security export” model in Sub-Saharan Africa. Russia’s strategy involves the use of military-technical cooperation as a tool of building ties and proliferating its influence on the continent, similar to what the USSR did during the Cold War. However, Sukhankin claims that contrary to the USSR, todays’ Russia has neither “soft power” nor enough economic resources and innovative potential to pose a serious challenge to other powerful bidders for African markets and resources. Hence, Russia’s competitive advantages in Africa are limited and could hardly compete with other powerful players that are active in Africa, such as EU members, China, Japan, India, and the US.