Vladimir Putin has long sought to portray himself as strong statesman and guarantor of stability, at home and abroad. Now the Russian president is grappling with successive crises among his country’s neighbors. It’s an unwelcome test of Moscow’s role as regional watchman.
From Belarus to the Caucasus, the Kremlin cannot leave the outcomes of these flare-ups to chance. Yet the post-Soviet region is atomized, Russia’s economic might is bruised and its leverage vastly reduced. There seems to be little appetite for military action, and Moscow has few successful models of engagement to draw on. It’s also no longer the only power in town as Turkey and others play a greater role.
While the ructions on Russia’s fringes haven’t been caused by the pandemic, the extra strain hasn’t helped. Remittances from migrant workers, which make up roughly 30% of gross domestic product in places like Kyrgyzstan, have dried up. Management of the health crisis has ranged from mediocre to total denial, as initially happened in Belarus. Turkmenistan has yet to officially record a single case.
Domestic political struggles have contributed more to the unrest, but also the unfinished, three-decades-old business of post-Soviet transition. It makes Moscow’s role, or its absence, all the more significant. There’s a risk more hotspots pop up too, with upcoming polls. There’s November’s presidential vote in Moldova, a country torn between Europe and Russia, and legislative elections later this month in Georgia, the first since rules were changed, reducing the chance of excessively powerful majorities.
For now, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan, is the most alarming. In 1994, as it was still emerging from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, Moscow successfully brokered a cease-fire between the two sides, and has since defused serious border clashes. It needs another such breakthrough as the two sides meet on Friday.
Putin had until now largely sought to smooth tensions and to avoid triggering trouble at home, where there is a large population of Armenians and Azeris. Turkey has tested that resolve by supporting Azerbaijan, and linking the crisis to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, portrayed as fueling instability.
Belarus is no less complex. If anything, it is more vital to the Kremlin and to Putin’s future and there are even fewer good options. So far, Moscow has stuck with strongman Alexander Lukashenko, unable to countenance a successful uprising on its doorstep. But mass protests persist two months after his contested election, so it needs to tread lightly. It can’t risk turning a Russia-friendly population into one more likely to turn elsewhere for support. Already, opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has met European leaders, and EU sanctions are in place.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is in turmoil once again as groups jostle for power after Sunday’s disputed parliamentary election. The travails of this more democratic but also corrupt state are far less dramatic for the Kremlin, even if it prefers to see stability across the region. Even so, it will still be uncomfortable to watch a tainted poll trigger resignations.
These situations may be driven by internal dynamics rather than geopolitics, but Putin needs each one of them to go Russia’s way.
Certainly the aura of hegemony is still there, nurtured by the Kremlin, which sees a superpower role for Russia everywhere from Libya to the post-Soviet states. But the country was ill-prepared for events close to home that should have been predictable, no doubt because of stretched financial and analytical resources.
After years of torpor and Russia’s increased isolation, Moscow’s backyard is not what it was. A multi-polar world is emerging, but not the one Putin has sought to promote. China is increasingly present as a key trading partner, and accounts for the bulk of foreign direct investment in central Asia. Then there’s Turkey in the Caucasus, and Iran. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has skillfully used external conflicts to bolster his domestic support. Add in the U.S.’s relative retreat and every clash becomes more unpredictable.
It’s all the more difficult for Putin to project strength abroad with a stagnating economy and signs of some popular disgruntlement at home, as with street protests in the Far East. It’s an unprecedented set of challenges for a leadership that abhors change.
When the two warring sides meet for talks over Nagorno-Karabakh in Moscow, Russia has a real opportunity to show it is still custodian, and not simply a necessary participant. Successfully brokering negotiations is already encouraging. The complexities of the clashes suggest a cease-fire at best — but even de-escalation would be a victory, and a welcome one at that.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
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