Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Russia has sought to maintain its sway in the post-Soviet space despite numerous upheavals. It has worked to solidify bilateral ties and create multilateral institutions to bind the ex-Soviet republics to their former metropole. However, 2020 was not kind to Russia’s ambitions in its near-abroad. In August 2020, demonstrators in Belarus began staging weekly protests against rigged presidential elections, won “officially” by long-standing leader Alexander Lukashenko. Then, in September, war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Additionally, in October, violent protests led to the ouster of Kyrgyz president Soornonbay Jeenbekov. Russia seemed surprised by the rapid succession of crises.
The unrest in Kyrgyzstan was jarring for Putin, but Russia’s privileged role in the country’s politics likely remains secure. His influence over Belarus is more tenuous; the anti-Lukashenko demonstrations continue even as Putin continues to advocate Belarus’s incorporation into Russia despite public opposition in both countries. The war in Nagorno-Karabakh, though it ended with Russian peacekeepers patrolling key contested areas, may also signal Russia’s declining influence in its near-abroad. The landscape has changed, and Russia’s limited resources may finally be constraining its regional policy.
Civil Unrest in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus
As I have argued elsewhere, Putin fears “people power”—that is, citizens taking to the streets to overthrow corrupt, authoritarian leaders, especially in the post-Soviet space. Increasingly, since the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, Putin believes that these examples of “people power” have been and will continue to be promoted by the West. Worse still, Putin is frightened of the potential demonstration effect of such uprisings. If a corrupt authoritarian leader is overthrown in one of the successor states, what effect might that have on Russian citizens? This has contextualized Russia’s response to events in both Kyrgyzstan and Belarus.
Although Kyrgyzstan has disappeared from the headlines, the potential for instability there is ongoing. Given Kyrgyzstan’s location at the heart of Central Asia and its contiguity to China, Russia could hardly ignore the upheaval. The Kremlin maintains two military bases there, and the nation is a member of both the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
The instability began on Oct. 4, 2020 when rigged parliamentary elections resulted in lopsided wins for parties allied with then-president Jeenbekov. Protesters took to the streets, attacked government offices, and freed political prisoners, including former President Almazbek Atambayev and populist member of parliament Sadyr Japarov.
As Jeenbekov’s grasp on power slipped and he proved unable to control the street, the Kremlin tried to reach an arrangement between Jeenbekov and the opposition. On Oct. 12, Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of the presidential administration, traveled to Bishkek in a last-ditch effort to broker an agreement between the populist Japarov and Jeenbekov. In the view of noted analyst Erica Marat, Jeenbekov never found a firm “footing” with Moscow, and despite some rumors of Russian support, there was no obvious coordination between Moscow and Bishkek to keep him in office after the elections. Within days of the unsuccessful mediation, Jeenbekov resigned, leaving the field to Japarov. Japarov became prime minister and acting president, and moved to consolidate his power through constitutional changes that transformed Kyrgyzstan into a strong presidential system.
The leadership change is the third in Kyrgyzstan since 2005. In each instance, protests against electoral irregularities and corruption led to new governments. Russia intervened more actively in 2010 by pressuring then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to close the U.S. base at Manas. This time the upheavals appear spontaneous, and Russia’s response has been focused on ensuring stability. Generally, there is little likelihood that any Kyrgyz president would move Bishkek out of Russia’s orbit. The country is too poor and too dependent on remittances from Kyrgyz living in the Russian Federation. Thus, it seems clear that what truly riled the authorities in Moscow was the example of instability and popular unrest.
The same cannot be said about the now four-months’ long demonstrations against Belarus President Lukashenko. The Belarusian president had consistently downplayed the coronavirus pandemic, even going so far as to tout vodka as a cure. When the people were confronted with clearly rigged presidential elections, thousands took to the streets. Belarusian authorities’ brutal response, which included beatings and torture, only further inflamed the opposition and protests spread beyond Minsk.
Lukashenko has been a reluctant partner for Putin. Long dependent on Russian subsidies, Belarus has at times attempted to have it both ways. It signed a “union state” agreement with Moscow in 1999 but resisted pressure to turn the agreement into reality. Although Belarus is one of the original signatories of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Lukashenko struck a more defiant tone in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and has refused entreaties to permit a Russian military base inside its borders.
Now, facing the gravest threat to his hold on power, Lukashenko has coordinated his response with Moscow. According to most observers, the basic deal between Minsk and Moscow consists of Lukashenko excluding Western influences in Belarus in return for economic and political support. When Lukashenko flew to Sochi in mid-September 2020 to meet with Putin, that quid pro quo was on the line. In order to avert a meltdown of the Belarusian economy and to give Minsk time to resolve the crisis, Putin extended a $1.5 billion loan. For his part, Lukashenko claimed that the West was fomenting the unrest, which he likely hoped would lure Russia to help without having to concede too much to Moscow. In the longer term, Putin pressured Lukashenko to open up Belarus to more Russian influence and urged Lukashenko to amend the constitution to ease the crisis. Lukashenko has seemingly warmed to the idea of constitutional change. He sees rewriting the constitution to lessen presidential power as a way to split the opposition; by the same token, Moscow sees constitutional change as a way to ease him from office.
For now, the standoff continues, as do the protests each Sunday. Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya remains in exile, and is increasingly supported by Western Europe. Lukashenko is temporizing. He has announced that he would leave office once the constitutional changes are agreed; however, the opposition wants free and fair elections first. According to Arkady Moshes, Russia is in a “no-win” situation. Lukashenko is the system, and while Putin may want to ease him out of office, doing so would risk the collapse of the country’s power structure. Alternatively, if Lukashenko leaves office now, the world—and Russian society—would perceive that Lukashenko was pushed out by “people power.”
Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh
If the political unrest in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus tested Russia’s handling of “people power,” the war in Nagorno-Karabakh challenged Moscow’s role as the preeminent power in the South Caucasus and threatened the Kremlin’s ability to contain the years-long hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The latest war has its origins in the messy collapse of the Soviet Union, when ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh, with the support of Yerevan, declared its independence from Azerbaijan. In 1994, a Russian-mediated cease-fire ended the violence but left Armenians in charge of Nagorno-Karabakh and occupying the surrounding seven provinces. For 26 years, Azerbaijan chafed at the loss and waited for the opportunity to regain its territorial integrity. Throughout this period, the Kremlin has maintained close ties with Armenia and simultaneously developed significant economic ties with Azerbaijan, including arms sales and oil and gas deals.
The most recent war proved to be substantially different from earlier outbreaks in several fundamental respects. First, Baku is better armed than it has been in the past: President Ilham Aliev has used Azerbaijan’s oil and gas revenues to purchase sophisticated weapons from Russia and drones from both Turkey and Israel. Indeed, the Turkish drones proved decisive in the war. Second, Turkey has emerged as a major player in the region and beyond. Over the summer, Turkey and Azerbaijan conductedjoint military exercises, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for Armenia’s complete withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh.
Third, the Kremlin reportedly harbored suspicions about Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashanyan because he came into office after popular demonstrations against his predecessor in 2018. From the outset of his tenure, Pashanyan insisted that Karabakh authorities be included in any peace negotiations, and in the lead-up to the war he formally called for Nagorno-Karabakh to be united with Armenia proper, in contravention of the Madrid Principles, a prior agreement that called for Armenia to cede control of the seven surrounding districts and participate in further negotiations about the status of the contested territory.
According to some analysts, Putin may well have been exasperated by Pashanyan’s intransigence and perhaps even signaled to Baku how far the Azeri forces could go. Russia certainly let the war go on for several weeks. After several thousand deaths, multiple failed cease-fire attempts, and significant Azeri military successes, Moscow managed to negotiate a deal in which the Armenians withdrew from the seven districts surrounding Karabakh and Russian peacekeepers were deployed to the area. The Lachin Corridor—which connects Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia proper—will be patrolled by Russian troops and a 30-mile-long corridor will be established to link Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan, an ethnically Azeri exclave within Armenia. The cease-fire also establishes a joint Russian-Turkish monitoring center. Most significantly, the agreement leaves unresolved the status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself.
For Armenia, the outcome is a humiliating defeat. In contrast, Azerbaijan celebrated a victory that it has sought for the past 26 years. Perhaps to shore up Armenian support for Moscow, Putin, at a Jan. 11 meeting in Moscow, offered plans to end Yerevan’s geographic and trade isolation. For Turkey, its involvement in the war and its support for Baku represent a formalization of Ankara’s role as a Caucasian power; Erdogan has effectively challenged Moscow’s monopoly in the region.
A new era?
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and certainly since the invasion and annexation of Crimea, the prevailing narrative of Russian policy toward the Soviet successor states has been one of meddling, manipulation and expansion of Moscow’s influence. The ongoing crises that began last year arguably illustrate a new pattern.
In Kyrgyzstan, Japarov won the Jan. 10 presidential elections by a wide margin, but how stable his government will be remains to be seen. During the campaign, Japarov made generous promises to the population and he apparently recognizes that he’ll need Russian support if he is to be successful. Given Moscow’s economic constraints, it is unclear how much Russia will be willing to provide. Despite the tenuous nature of the situation, it appears unlikely that the Kremlin will want to intervene more directly in Kyrgyz events.
The Belarusian crisis seems more intractable. Moscow, although apparently reluctant to use force, is retaining the military option. In November, Russia and Belarus signedan agreement that permits either side to carry out law enforcement operations if “such assistance is of interest to the other.” Yet in December, Putin called upon Lukashenko and the opposition to reach an accommodation.
For Russia there is no easy answer. If the Kremlin pushes unification, the Belarusian people, who oppose being incorporated into Russia, will turn against Moscow. Further complicating the situation from the Kremlin’s perspective, the Russian people do not support absorbing Belarus either. Alternatively, if Lukashenko manages to hang on, Russia would need to increase its subsidies to keep him in power. Either of these alternatives would require major investments of Russia’s increasingly scarce resources. But, perhaps, either would be more palatable to Moscow than Lukashenko’s abrupt departure from the scene.
In contrast to the dramas in Kyrgyzstan or Belarus, the war in the Caucasus represents a different dynamic. Traditionally, Russia has sustained a fragile balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a job made more complicated by Ankara’s growing global ambitions. If, as some observers have suggested, Moscow gave the proverbial “wink and a nod” to Azeri military action, the Kremlin has in all probability lost support in Yerevan. Protests against Pashanyan erupted on the streets of Yerevan following the Armenian withdrawal, threatening both his tenure and, by extension, perhaps the deal itself. In response, Putin applauded Pashanyan’s “courage” and urged his Collective Security Treaty Organization colleagues to “support both the prime minister and his team in order to ensure peace[.]” The future is unclear. According to Igor Zevelev, many Armenians now doubt Russia’s role as a “security provider and staunch ally.”
It has been argued that Moscow “won” the conflict because 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are now patrolling Nagorno-Karabakh. But that “win” is not necessarily secure. First, questions remain as to whether the troops will be able to protect both Christian and Muslim sites in Karabakh and elsewhere. Second, although the mandated withdrawals have been implemented, the threat from armed militias remains. In one incident, in late December, Azerbaijan claimed that ethnic Armenian fighters killed an Azerbaijani soldier in Agdam. Additional violations of the Moscow-brokered deal could further erode the fragile cease-fire.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the cease-fire agreement does not mention Karabakh. With no agreement about a process to resolve the issue, what happens in five years’ time is unpredictable. Might one side request the Russian troops be withdrawn? Could Russian troops protect Armenians? Alternatively, if Russia refused an Azerbaijani request to withdraw, would the Kremlin lose influence over Baku and by extension perhaps further attenuate ties with Ankara?
Turkey and Russia have a complicated relationship at best. They simultaneously compete and cooperate in Syria, and they are rivals in Libya. Even though the joint monitoring center offers the appearance of cooperation, Turkey is an increasingly independent actor and willing to challenge other regional and international players. What that implies for Moscow’s power in the Caucasus will slowly become clear. According to some commentators, Turkey’s strong support for Baku surprised Moscow, and others have characterized Azerbaijan’s success as providing Erdogan “a very important foothold in the region.” According to Alexander Gabuev of the Moscow Carnegie Center, “In the South Caucasus Moscow is still one of the key players, if not the strongest player. However, it clearly has no control over developments, and its influence will gradually wane from a position of former colonial metropolis to one of a powerful neighbor.”
If Gabuev’s assessment is correct, several additional questions need to be answered. Even being the most “powerful neighbor” necessitates a nuanced understanding of events in the post-Soviet states and of course requires resources to support its status. The further out from the Soviet shadow, the more separate from the Kremlin these states become—and, by extension, the more differentiated from one another. Indeed, if there is one lesson that the Kremlin has had difficulty learning, it is that events—especially domestic politics in the other post-Soviet states—are unpredictable.
In Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, people took to the streets to protest corruption and political manipulation. Yet Putin clearly prioritizes stability and in the long-term risks alienating the populations of these states. The very fact that Putin continues to push for integration with Belarus, in disregard of public sentiment, means that Russia lacks the understanding and perhaps the soft power to be flexible enough to adapt to societal changes.
The tools that Russia employed in the past to exert and maintain its influence have failed. The Collective Security Treaty Organization provided no help to its member-state Armenia during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Eurasian Economic Union never achieved any real measure of integration. Russia seems unwilling or unable to spend what would be required to “win” public support in the other ex-Soviet states. It has also been unwilling to underwrite the costs of the multilateral institutions that might cement Russia’s role in the region.
Moscow has been battered by falling oil prices, the coronavirus and the attendant economic slowdown. Indeed, not only has the Kremlin mismanaged the pandemic, but it also has not used capital to bolster its failing economy. Consumer sentiment is declining, and 43 percent of respondents in a recent Levada Center poll feel that Russia is moving in the wrong direction. In 2019—even before the pandemic—a Russian studyof public opinion noted that “[c]ontinuing stagnation in the economy and lower incomes have undermined confidence in the regime, and foreign policy mobilization and propaganda no longer compensate for the ‘economic negative.’”
Domestic and international circumstances are now curtailing Russian ambitions and actions. Dmitri Trenin has put a positive spin on the situation, calling it a “mature” policy. In contrast, a more persuasive argument is that the allegedly new policy is more than likely dictated by the Kremlin’s recognition that it has limited resources at its disposal. This is not to say that Russia will cease attempting to influence events in the post-Soviet space. But it does mean that Moscow will have increasingly limited resources with which to play its old role. For the moment, Putin seems to want to have it both ways: cutting costs while making the best of a bad hand.