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A Chain of Crises in Russia’s “Near Abroad” Catches Moscow by Surprise

Image: Oksana Antonenko

BY OKSANA ANTONENKO

As Russia struggles to contain the second wave of Coronavirus infection and its economic fallout, the Kremlin is facing another major challenge—rapidly proliferating crises in its “near abroad.”

A combination of mass political protests in Belarus, the resumption of full-scale conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and a political crisis in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of the postelection violence represents the most significant shake-up of the former Soviet Union region since President Vladimir Putin first took power in Russia over twenty years ago.

And more crises may be lurking on the horizon. Georgia and Moldova are facing difficult elections in the coming months, and a two-month-long ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is in danger of collapsing in the absence of any tangible breakthroughs on the political front.

Moment of Truth

Since his first days in office, President Putin’s key foreign policy objective has been to gain Western recognition of Russia’s dominant—if not exclusive—responsibility for political and security dynamics in post-Soviet Eurasia. Much has been sacrificed on the altar of this “sphere of influence” doctrine: billions of dollars in subsidies to the post-Soviet elites, years of economic stagnation due to Western sanctions and underinvestment, many Russian lives damaged fighting proxy wars in Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asia. But Russia’s influence in the region continued to fade under an increasingly activist EU, China, and even Turkey.

In the end, it took the global pandemic for Russia to finally secure de facto acquiescence from Europe and America to its leading role in managing regional crises. This recognition did not come from a sudden increase in Western trust in Russia’s capabilities or intentions but from the fact that the COVID-19 crisis has left the West with no spare capacity to manage complex crises on its periphery. After all, it was Russia that always claimed this region the area of its vital national interests.

Hence Western policymakers and think-tankers have been shrugging their shoulders and conceding that “Moscow holds all the cards” for ending the crisis in Belarus, for stopping the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and for returning some semblance of order to the streets of Bishkek. Russia’s moment of truth has arrived. Or has it?

Sphere of Ignorance

The paradox is that if Russia does indeed hold these cards, it has so far failed to play them. Judging by the Kremlin’s reactions to each of the three crises, it has been taken entirely by surprise by the unfolding events, which have been predicted and analyzed for years. After all, these crises have befallen some of Russia’s closest and most loyal partners within the CIS, the Eurasian Union, the CSTO, and all other post-Soviet clubs.

Not only was Russia very slow to respond, its reactions have been small scale, tactical, and completely ineffective in changing the course of events on the ground. It is still hard to discern whether Moscow is ready to acknowledge the real root causes of these crises, let alone whether it has a plan or a vision for resolving them.

The “sphere of influence” is looking more like a “sphere of ignorance,” one in which Russia appears to be looking for miracles to reinstate the status quo rather than offering any solutions to crises on its borders.

Buying Time

It took President Putin several weeks after the grotesquely rigged elections in Belarus to formulate a Russian response to the crisis. Far from being proactive and encouraging a smooth power transition in Belarus, capitalizing on Belarusian’s remarkably positive attitudes toward Russia, the Kremlin chose to invest its influence and credibility in preserving the status quo. This approach had two immediate impacts: it quickly established Moscow’s complicity in the current violence on the streets of Minsk, thus damaging public attitudes toward Russia, and at the same time it failed to provide sufficient backing to the Lukashenko regime to ensure its viability.

Russia’s response to the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been even more puzzling. Having gambled for years that the best way to preserve the fragile status quo in this conflict was to supply both Armenia and Azerbaijan with large quantities of arms, Moscow finds itself with little leverage to silence these guns once this flawed military balance strategy appears to be on the point of failing. Azerbaijan’s offensive should not have come as a surprise to Russia—after all, President Aliev has repeatedly threatened to impose a military solution on Armenia in the absence of any progress at the negotiating table. Yet Moscow appears to have no plan ready for this scenario and was caught unprepared to face an escalation of the conflict on this scale. As the fighting spreads, Russia’s capacity to bring about a ceasefire, either through its direct influence over the conflicting countries or through multilateral diplomacy, appears a long way off.

The collapse of the government in Kyrgyzstan following yet another disputed election will produce a lingering crisis in the region, which is already reeling under high social tensions. Having asserted its role as the main external security provider for Central Asia, Russia has a stake in ensuring that the crisis is contained quickly and effectively. Yet if Moscow has some strategy to achieve this, it has been kept secret. What appears on the surface is that Moscow has been taken by surprise yet again. Since refusing to intervene in Kyrgyzstan’s first violent crisis in 2010, Moscow has consistently refrained from using its political and economic leverage to help overcome entrenched political and social divides. With the large volume of remittances sent home by Kyrgyz workers in Russia and the multibillion-dollar Russian-Kyrgyz economic assistance fund (set up to compensate Bishkek for the expulsion of an American military base), Russia could have promoted closer economic integration between that country’s traditionally divided north and south and encouraged a workable power-sharing governance arrangement. But Moscow has always sided with whichever corrupt elites were in power in Bishkek. Moreover, it chose to completely ignore the fact that the large-scale exodus of Kyrgyz labor migrants from Russia, a result of its COVID mitigation measures, could have contributed to the onset of the current crisis. Russia’s wait-and-see approach has exposed the limits of Russia’s capacity to prevent and manage crises in the region.

Turning Point?

It would be naïve to argue that any one country—be it Russia, China, or the United States—could have managed multiple crises in such a diverse and complex region as post-Soviet Eurasia. But that is precisely the point. For years, Russia has been fighting costly geopolitical battles to claim a role it is neither willing nor able to fulfill, at least not unilaterally. Geopolitical rivalries provided an excuse—in the form of multiple conspiracy theories about color revolutions or NATO expansionism—for Russia’s modest achievements as Eurasia’s stabilizer-in-chief. When the pandemic unexpectedly removed the West’s appetite for yet another geopolitical stand-off with Russia, Moscow was left with very little to show for its unchallenged leadership.

Could this moment be a turning point, a window of opportunity, when geopolitical rivalries, which have cost the so-called “countries in between” dearly, are put aside, and Russia and the West start learning the tools of cooperative crisis management without a zero-sum playbook? Such an outcome could be one consequence of the pandemic that results in real positive change.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Image: Oksana Antonenko

Oksana Antonenko

Global Fellow;
Director, Global Risk Analysis, Control Risks Group

Oksana Antonenko is a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute. She spent over 20 years analyzing Russian politics and foreign policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, London School of Economics, and Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is based in Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

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