Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a press conference at the Commonwealth of Independent States Heads of State meeting on October 13, 2023, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine its most pressing geopolitical priority for at least the last 19 months, Moscow hasn’t had much time or opportunity to wield as much power and influence over all its other neighbors – a position it has enjoyed since the breakup of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago.
Russia’s influence over parts of the South Caucasus region — which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — and other former Soviet republics such as Belarus and further afield such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan varies from state to state. It also largely depends on the degree of pro-Western or pro-Russian sentiment among the people and the leadership, as well as the level of economic and geopolitical dependence on Moscow.
But analysts say one thing is certain: The war in Ukraine has created the irony that a disengaged Russia has lost a degree of power, control and leverage over its own wider backyard.
Azerbaijani soldiers regulate traffic as refugees wait in their cars to leave Karabakh for Armenia, at the border in Lachin on September 26, 2023.
Emmanuel Dunand | Afp | Getty Images
Azerbaijan’s seizure of Armenia’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region in September highlighted Russia’s somewhat weakened or reshaped role in the region — given its perceived lack of anticipation of the attack and lack of intervention in a long-running conflict in which it has traditionally been a mediator.
In a sign that Russia has been immobilized by the conflict in its own backyard, just one day before Azerbaijan launched its blitzkrieg, the Russian Foreign Ministry he said in a statement that the humanitarian situation was improving in Nagorno-Karabakh and hoped that this would help “normalize” Armenia-Azerbaijan relations.
This pool photo distributed by Russia’s state-run Sputnik agency shows Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kyrgyz counterpart Sadyr Japarov attending a welcoming ceremony ahead of their talks in Bishkek on October 12, 2023.
Sergey Karpukhin | AFP | Getty Images
The Kremlin is rejecting accusations that it no longer has the leadership position it once enjoyed, with President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov telling CNBC that there is “no such possibility” that Moscow’s influence on its neighbors has waned.
“Each region is equally important for Russia. Russia continues to play its role in the Caucasus,” Peskov said in emailed comments.
Geopolitical analysts are less clear-cut, saying that Russia’s failure to seize Ukraine within days — as Moscow expected — when its forces first invaded in February 2022 put its military prowess in a new light on the her neighbors.
“The question arose about the real combat capability of the Russian military,” Vira Konstantin told CNBCoopspolitical scientist and expert in international relations.
Within the first month of fighting, and with Russian forces retreating from the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine’s armed forces managed to dispel a “key myth of Russian propaganda”, he noted – that the Russian military was strong, well-equipped and capable .
In effect, he said, Kiev’s resistance highlighted to Russia’s neighbors and partners that “Russian power is a bubble with only one nuclear button at its center.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the room during the Russo-Uzbek talks at the Grand Kremlin Palace on October 6, 2023.
Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov, who once worked under Putin in his early days before becoming disillusioned with Russia’s geopolitical direction of travel, agreed that the war in Ukraine, ironically, made Russia look weaker between of its post-Soviet neighbors.
“If you take Ukraine out of the equation, it’s really clear that Russia doesn’t control the post-Soviet space, because Ukraine is bigger and more important than anything else. So it’s fair to say that if you don’t control Ukraine, you don’t control the post-Soviet space,” he told CNBC.
“When it was clear that Russia failed to ratify Ukraine, everyone else saw it and started to behave more independently. People see that [Russia] it is not achieving this ultimate task and that means they are weak and must turn elsewhere,” he noted.
Milov said there were two schools of thought in Russia two decades ago: one was that Moscow needed to reassert dominance over its post-Soviet neighbors, and another – followed by Milov – believed that Russia’s neighbors should treated as equals and integrated with Russia. , in a wider western space.
Milov said his school of thought had been erased over time – Putin, he said, “squeezed it up”.
Geopolitical analysts say Russia’s influence may have waned, but it certainly hasn’t disappeared — it remains a superpower among its neighbors and the possibility of further Russian intervention in breakaway regions such as Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia no discount has been made.
Igor Semivolos, executive director of the Center for Middle East Studies in Ukraine, noted that while it could be said that the “intensity” of Russia’s interactions in what it considers its backyard has decreased — particularly as it “concentrates the main effort on the Ukrainian issue ” — it is not entirely correct to say that “Russia has lost its grip”.
“Generally, so far, the weakening is seen only in the context of a reduction in Russian foreign policy initiatives in this region,” he told CNBC in emailed comments, adding that Russia is still “maneuvering and trying to distribute resources to keep the situation under control.”
But if Western nations wanted to seize the opportunity to break Russia’s increasingly precarious hold on its neighbors, they needed foreign policy initiatives and security guarantees now, he said.
“It is important that other powers start entering the region, the US and Turkey [could] offers countries their own security formulas [guarantees]and maybe in the future, these security formulas will become more attractive than the Russian one,” he said.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev addresses the nation after “anti-terrorist operations” by the Azerbaijani military in Karabakh led to a ceasefire in Baku, Azerbaijan, on September 20, 2023.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Analysts say the West should certainly reach out to such Eurasian countries while the opportunity presents itself and Russia is distracted with Ukraine. Azerbaijan’s decision to strike Armenia while Russia had turned its back, figuratively speaking, showed that Moscow’s hands are largely tied, they note.
“Russia’s war in Ukraine has shaken stability in the South Caucasus, and Moscow may try to regain influence in the region at the expense of regional peace and security,” Vasif Huseynov, head of Western Studies at the Center for Analysis of International Relations. an Azerbaijan-based think tank, noted in the analysis.
However, greater US engagement with people like Azerbaijan could “enhance a peace platform between Azerbaijan and Armenia” and could help “counter threats to common interests” from Moscow and Tehran, he noted.
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