In August, a fraud-marred presidential election brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Minsk, ushering in weeks of unrest and forcing Belarus’s strongman to solicit Moscow’s grudging support.
In September, the simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into all-out war, pulling Turkey into a confrontation in which Russia has long been the leading arbiter.
In October, the political opposition in Kyrgyzstan stormed government buildings in the capital, Bishkek, eventually leading a Moscow-friendly president to resign amid fears of bloodshed.
And in November, Moldova’s election pitted the pro-Russian incumbent against a rival pushing for closer ties with Europe and brought victory for the latter, dealing another blow to Moscow’s interests.
Concurrent political crises in Russia’s neighborhood have commanded the Kremlin’s attention. But a more cautious approach than in years past, analysts say, coincides with a reevaluation of its geopolitical priorities and the instruments available to achieve them — and the pursuit of a more pragmatic policy toward a region Moscow has long claimed as its sphere of influence.
“Russia’s understanding of influence is about to change,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian foreign policy analyst who advises the Kremlin. “This is the natural next step in its postimperial transformation.”
The image of a resurgent Russia ready and willing to protect its perceived interests in the former Soviet Union was bolstered by its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine crisis of 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and intervened militarily to back an armed insurrection in the Donbas after the downfall of a Moscow-friendly president in Kyiv.
President Vladimir Putin has sought to defend Russia’s status as a premier power broker even as he has publicly advocated allowing foreign countries to sort out their own problems, railing against Western influence and shoring up support for his counterparts in a region accustomed to volatility.
Even by those turbulent standards, 2020 has produced something akin to a perfect storm of upheaval stretching in an arc from Minsk to Moldova through the South Caucasus and Central Asia. And while Moscow has appeared to stand by and watch things develop, at least at first, analysts say the outwardly less assertive stance is testament to a more calculated approach based on an awareness of its limitations, rather than a geopolitical retreat.
“As far as Moscow is concerned, all the countries that emerged from the ex-Soviet republics are on their own,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a recent column. “To Russia, 30 years after the breakup of the U.S.S.R., they are all foreign states; emotions are kept apart from politics: There are no special attachments, and no free discounts.”
The new approach may be heavily driven by financial imperatives.
The Eurasian Economic Union, an economic bloc conceived by Moscow, was meant to become a rival to the European Union and encompass some 200 million people across the former U.S.S.R. But it has failed to spur deeper integration, after Russia balked at bankrolling the project and other members voiced concern over its political motives.
And while Western sanctions have had little effect on Russia’s foreign and domestic policy stance, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic they’ve hit the country’s economy in a way that has prompted a rationalization of its regional approach, says Yuval Weber, an expert on Russian military and political strategy at Texas A&M’s Bush School in Washington, D.C., and Marine Corps University’s Krulak Center.
Leaders of former Soviet republics who use promises of Russian support to rally electorates have faced greater pressure as that support has dried up. If anything, Russia has engaged in a sort of economization of its foreign policy.
“When you don’t send money, people don’t take your call as quickly,” Weber says.
Russia has certainly not retreated from its regional role. In the South Caucasus, after appearing to hesitate, it expanded its military footprint by negotiating the introduction of its peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh after weeks of deadly fighting. But it may also have legitimized the active involvement of Turkey, Azerbaijan’s staunchest ally, by making it part of the cease-fire monitoring process.
Putin has continued to actively back his counterparts in the region, extending a tradition of rule based on personal loyalties and pledges of support.
“We will do everything to support you as the head of state,” he told Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov in a meeting on September 28. Little more than two weeks later, Jeenbekov stepped down amid violent protests over disputed parliamentary elections. Moscow did not intervene on his side.
And like the Eurasian Economic Union, other transnational projects championed by Moscow have fallen by the wayside.
A plan to create a fully fledged Union State comprising Russia and Belarus has hit similar roadblocks, even as Belarus’s longtime leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, faces immense pressure to fulfill Moscow’s demands in return for its support for his embattled government — support that could turn against Russia the many Belarusians for whom Lukashenka is anathema.
Indeed, it’s the political crisis in Belarus — rather than war in Nagorno-Karabakh or upheaval in Kyrgyzstan — that has hit closest to home for the Kremlin. The regime built by Lukashenka in 26 years at the helm there is similar in many ways to that overseen by Putin in Russia: a super-presidential political system overtly suspicious of the West and focused on stamping out protest before it spins out of the state’s control.
The security services beholden to Lukashenka have deployed excessive violence in an unsuccessful bid to suppress rallies that have rocked Belarus since the disputed August 9 election. And if Putin decides to run for a fifth term as president in 2024, he may see that tactic as instructive for his own efforts to stifle dissent — making this year’s crises in Russia’s neighborhood a case study for future challenges at home.
“You can’t just wave off the events in Belarus,” says Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former Kremlin speechwriter. “[Lukashenka] is acting in the same way Putin acts in similar situations. And if in Belarus an uprising turned out to be possible, then you can’t count out a Russian uprising in 2024.”