It also revealed the limits of Russia’s ability to shape events in what the Kremlin considers its backyard: the former Soviet republics and regions of Central Asia, through the Caucasus and into Eastern Europe.
Every point on the map these days offers yet another test for Moscow.
To the south, the three-decade-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has resumed. To the west, protests calling for the ouster of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko are well into their second month. And to the east, Kyrgyzstan is facing its third political crisis in 1
As Russia’s interests abroad have focused on building its status as a player on the global stage – including malicious operations such as trying to influence US presidential elections – the Kremlin’s grip has weakened closer to home. Competition from Turkey, China and the West is increasingly challenging Moscow’s one-time dominance in the former Soviet space.
“Russia is not the dominant power in any of the regions of the former Soviet Union,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The current trio of upheavals, he added, “really sheds light on the situation.”
Moscow’s diminished foothold in what it considers “close abroad” could pose other unrest for President Vladimir Putin and the promise of stability he often proclaims to Russians.
Street protests and political upheavals in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan in particular could rattle in the Kremlin, analysts say. The concern is that they could encourage Russia’s anti-Putin factions – which are already angry over the nerve agent poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August.
Fight with Turkey
Russia has entered a delicate diplomatic line between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has been involved in fighting since September in a conflict dating back to the Soviet era.
Although Russia is treaty-bound to protect Armenia, Putin clarified last week that Russia’s military commitments only apply to attacks on Armenia and not to Nagorno-Karabakh, a pro-Armenian breakaway region within Azerbaijan’s borders.
On Wednesday, Azerbaijan acknowledged that it was hitting a complex of military hardware in Armenia – an escalation that threatens to break Moscow’s hitherto neutral stance.
Later in the day, Putin spoke by telephone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the two leaders “stressed the urgent need for joint efforts to end the bloodshed as soon as possible and move to a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem,” according to a Kremlin statement. reading of the summons – their first since this round of fighting broke out.
Although Russia has an alliance with Armenia, pro-Russian groups have lost ground in Armenia since a revolution in 2018 led to a change of leadership. The political shift has provoked fears in Moscow that Armenia is steadily turning to the West, the center of its vast and politically active diaspora.
Turkey has thrown its full support behind Azerbaijan in the conflict. Turkish involvement also threatens Russia’s main interests in the region: the arrival of Syrian mercenaries to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan, which Russia’s foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin has warned could become a starting point for Islamist militants to enter Russia.
Russia and Turkey are already on opposite sides of two other proxy wars in Syria and Libya.
Trenin dismissed the notion that the Kremlin may have stretched thin with its ambitious foreign policy agenda, but “it certainly needs to pay more attention to its neighborhood now, more attention to its alliances.”
“It did not work very well,” Felgenhauer continued.
There are few places that are more locked into Moscow’s trajectory than Belarus.
Putin has publicly supported the defeated Lukashenko and has likely seen the longtime ruler as a safer way to hold Minsk against Moscow.
At the same time, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is building ties with Western leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
Mass protests continue to reject Lukashenko’s official landslide victory as rigged. Putin has left the door open for Russian intervention if he said in late August that “the situation is getting out of control.”
The reason goes beyond the alliance with Lukashenko. Russia does not want to see another revolution succeed so close to Moscow – already stung by a 2014 political uprising in Ukraine that ousted pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych.
In Russia’s Far East region of Khabarovsk, the site of ongoing protests over the arrest of a popular governor, protesters have often expressed solidarity with the Belarusian opposition. According to a poll by the independent Levada Center this month, 63 percent of Russians said they were aware of the protests in Belarus, and 28 percent said they were aware of them.
“The people of Belarus are very close to the people of Russia – you basically have the same language and very much the same culture,” said Carnegie’s Trenin.
“So I think people in the Kremlin are looking very closely at the techniques used by the organizers of these demonstrations,” he added. “They study it very, very carefully because they think something similar could be used, in Russia, when the situation is appropriate.”
On Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya issued what she said was a “people’s ultimatum” issuing a statement demanding that Lukashenko resign before October 25, otherwise a nationwide strike will begin on all businesses, all roads will be blocked and sales in the state’s stores are collapsing. “
Kyrgyzstan was split into rival political sides after controversial parliamentary elections on 9 October. Opposition forces broke into the parliament building in the capital, Bishkek, seizing several other government buildings, leaving the country in a duel for leadership. The election result was canceled.
The Kremlin described the situation as “chaotic” last week. But Moscow’s efforts to help stabilize the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan were also lacking.
Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, spoke with Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Omurbek Suvanaliyev by telephone last week. But the next day, Suvanaliyev was removed from the post.
Then on Thursday, pro-Russian President Sooronbay Yeenbekov announced his resignation, creating even more confusion for Moscow. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, quickly arranged a call with Kyrgyzstan’s new foreign minister, Ruslan Kazakbayev.
Lavrov “expressed concern about the development of the domestic political situation” and said Russia was willing to work with “legitimate Kyrgyz government bodies”, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Kyrgyzstan, which has the highest percentage of Russian speakers among Central Asian countries, hosts a Russian military base but is also heavily dependent on Chinese investment.
Arkady Dubnov, a political analyst and expert in Central Asia, said that “Russia’s influence there remains extremely high.” But Russia has suspended providing financial support to Bishkek until the situation stabilizes, according to the Russian news committee RBC, citing an unnamed official in Russia’s finance ministry.
“The new post-Soviet generation does not suffer from nostalgia for the Soviet era and does not consider Moscow a political trendsetter,” Dubnov said.