As crisis after crisis unfolds in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and the Southern Caucasus, a visibly nervous Kremlin is scrambling to restore stability in its ‘near abroad’. For the sake of optics, Russia may project that these former Soviet Republics remain firmly within its sphere of influence, but reality suggests otherwise. Speculations are rife that Moscow’s ‘iron grip’ over the Eurasian region is progressively slackening.
President Vladimir Putin, who has always ridden the wave of a strong and resurgent Russia, is concerned that rival nations like China, Turkey and to some extent, even Iran, will exploit this moment of weakness. Western democracies too, are watching from the sidelines, ready to fish in troubled waters.
Ensuring Russian hegemony in Eurasia has been a top priority for President Putin; a legacy of the erstwhile Soviet Union that he wishes to nurture. As a Cold War warrior, he has publicly lamented the disintegration of the Soviet Union, terming it the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’. For him and his like-minded followers, restoring Russia to its former glory is a matter of national pride.
Moscow has, over the years, brought to bear its combined weight of diplomatic, economic and hard military power for the furtherance of this national interest. In 1992, for instance, it signed the Collective Security Treaty with a number of post-Soviet states. This was widely perceived as a Eurasian military alliance to counter NATO’s dominance. A few years later, the Customs Union Agreement and the Treaty on Increased Integration was also concluded, paving the way for a Russian-dominated trading zone in Eurasia. At present, this pursuit of economic integration has crystallised in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Conceived as a vehicle to neutralise the European Union (EU), the EAEU is believed to be Mr. Putin’s pet project. It aims to promote the free movement of goods and services, as well as the establishment of a single market.
Russia’s obsession with maintaining a ‘sphere of influence’ in Eurasia and keeping the ‘Western powers’ at bay, has been most visible in its conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine. In 2008, at a time when Georgia was contemplating joining the NATO, Moscow engineered the military occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia through thinly-disguised proxies. Similarly, it intervened in Ukraine and wrested Crimea away, when Ukrainian nationalists overthrew a pro-Russian president and made efforts to join the EU.
Pushed to the wall due to its own internal turmoil (including a falling economy), and wary of encroachments on its turf, Kremlin continues to ‘divide and rule’ its erstwhile client states to retain its status as the only regional arbiter. At present, however, this meticulously crafted strategy seems to be unravelling, especially in the South Caucasus.
For the past few months, Moscow has been desperately seeking to douse a number of fires lit in its immediate backyard. Belarus, for instance, is in the midst of an unprecedented civil strife, led mostly by women. They are protesting against the re-election of the autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenko, who openly professes to surrender sovereignty to the Russian Federation. President Putin's financial and security support for Lukashenko has further infuriated the protesters.
This represents a symbolic threat to Mr. Putin's credibility .The charges levelled against Mr. Lukashenko bear an uncanny similarity to what he himself is accused of in Russia, ranging from vote-rigging to crackdowns on protesters. The possibility of the Opposition in Russia drawing inspiration from these developments can hardly be discounted.
As regards the Southern Caucasus, it appears that Mr Putin has been blindsided by the speed and ferocity with which Azerbaijan, ably supported by Turkey and other Islamic countries, has made determined inroads into the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. For years, Azerbaijan has been patiently depending on Russia and the Minsk Group to remedy what it terms is a 'historical wrong'. Apparently, with the active support of Turkey, it has been preparing assiduously for a military solution, which is currently playing out in the region. Although Russia has maintained good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, by signing a military pact with the former and selling weapons to the latter, the ceasefire brokered by it has not lasted for even 24 hours. On the contrary, its ‘military balance’ strategy vis à vis Armenia and Azerbaijan has come back to bite it.
To add to Russia’s woes, Kyrgyzstan has also recently plunged into chaos. Accusing the authorities of rigging elections, protesters have taken to the streets and toppled the government of Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Here too, Moscow seems to have been taken completely by surprise, raising serious questions about its ability to discern popular trends and foresee potential threats to regional stability.
Russia is fully aware that any signs of weakness on its part will encourage international and regional rivals to exploit the geopolitical situation. It has already learnt a bitter lesson in the Baltic States, about the power of popular movements in deposing autocratic regimes propped up by Moscow. It has laid the blame squarely on western democracies for all these troubles. Now, the fact that Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, some of its closest allies, maintain cordial relations with the West, is doing little to assuage its concerns.
The perpetual worry is that organisations like the NATO may be biding their time to encroach into post-Soviet spaces and exert military power with their new partners. In fact, the presence of NATO tanks in the Baltic countries, in close proximity to the borders of Belarus, is already causing the Kremlin to become anxious. Moreover, institutions like the EU, with their models of economic development and assistance, continue to be an attractive partner for many of the Eurasian states.
Meanwhile, in the Southern Caucasus, it is becoming harder to ignore Turkey’s growing assertiveness in favour of Azerbaijan. Having been effectively checkmated by President Erdoğan in Northern Syria, followed by Libya, the effectiveness of Turkish drones in the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is particularly rankling for the Russian military. After all, this is nothing short of a direct challenge to Russian hegemony in its own backyard.
Finally, China, whose pockets run quite deep, has been strengthening its diplomatic ties with Kyrgyzstan as well as other Central Asian countries by underwriting loans, boosting energy investments, and initiating talks on security. As it expands its economic footprint through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Russia’s appeal as an economic partner pales in comparison. This, in turn, dilutes Moscow’s influence in the region and affords greater flexibility to its neighbours for geopolitical manoeuvring.
It would not be unreasonable to conclude, therefore, that the chinks in Putin’s armour are finally starting to show.
- Russia is struggling to preserve its influence in the ‘near abroad’. By still harbouring dreams about regaining its past ‘Soviet glory’, it fails to take into account the aspirations of its neighbours, whose people seek a democratic way of life and closer ties with the West.
- To retain its influence, Moscow needs to compete with the political, cultural, and economic alternatives offered by other global powers. Maintaining a security presence in the neighbourhood and aggravating existing fault lines to exercise regional clout, will only prove to be costly in the long term; both in terms of finances as well as the fading of political ties.
- While having constitutionally ensured his rule until 2036, a groundswell of popular support within Russia is important for Putin's continuation as President, for the next 16 years. At a time when his approval ratings are threatened by a stagnating economy, anti-Kremlin protests in the Russian Far East, as well as the alleged poisoning of Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, it is important that the events in Russia’s neighbourhood be handled deftly.