Kyrgyz mine-clearing experts prepare to go to work after fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Ak-Sai, Kyrgyzstan, Sept. 20, 2022
Is war in Ukraine costing Russia control of its own backyard?
- By Fred Weir Special correspondent
September 28, 2022|
For three decades, Russia has been struggling to manage the ongoing collapse of the USSR. Its primary goals have been to bind former Soviet republics to Moscow-led international organizations, to keep outside powers away from its backyard, and to use its considerable clout to at least freeze the many territorial and political disputes that still bedevil the region.
Now, thanks to the war in Ukraine, all of those objectives look compromised.
Tensions are spiking around the former USSR, where a massively distracted Russia seems increasingly unable to perform its usual role of regional stabilizer due to growing commitments to the war and the negative example it has set by using force to settle its own post-Soviet disputes.
Over the past month, an armistice brokered by Russia between Armenia and Azerbaijan after a bitter war two years ago broke down as Azerbaijani forces, backed by Turkey, surged forward and attacked the recognized territory of Russian-allied Armenia. And an unresolved border dispute ignited in bloody fighting between the mountainous Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, both Russian allies, leaving at least 100 people dead and a diplomatic quandary for Moscow in its wake.
Those two crises have simmered down with hastily imposed cease-fires, but those and many other potential flashpoints remain. Analysts warn that the entire post-Soviet region – never very stable – will continue to present problems for Moscow in the form of conflicts, political instability, and an increasing tendency to flirt with foreign powers to offset the influence of a Russia preoccupied with Ukraine.
“Russian military action in Ukraine, which is not going according to its initial design, has consumed a lot of Russian resources and energy,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Obviously different countries will use this situation to pursue their own agendas. … A general reconfiguration of the post-Soviet space has been underway for some time. Many of these new countries need to demonstrate their sustainability as states. They are very nervous about their neighbors and their own internal stability. The Russian operation in Ukraine has given a big impetus to all such tensions and uncertainties.”
Indeed, Russian behavior in Ukraine, which is ostensibly aimed at protecting Russian-speaking populations, must worry other post-Soviet states with large ethnic Russian minorities in their midst, such as Kazakhstan, Moldova, and the Baltic States, says Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “It’s not just that Russia is distracted,” he says. “Many must wonder, if it can happen in Ukraine, why not to other countries as well?”
Simmering regional conflicts
The world breathed a sigh of relief three decades ago when the USSR broke up peacefully along its internal borders, which had been drawn by successive Soviet leaders largely for their own political convenience. The savage wars that had rocked the former Yugoslavia seemed to be largely avoided, and 15 new sovereign states took their place on the maps and in the United Nations. That was in large part due to the extraordinary restraint and nonviolent convictions of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
But post-imperial issues abounded, including territorial disputes and breakaway statelets in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and even Russia itself. Large populations of ethnic Russians were left stranded beyond the borders of Russia, especially in Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Central Asia, and have been a constant source of tensions ever since.
“The problems that followed the USSR’s collapse were serious. The rules, boundaries, economic conditions that prevail in a united state turn dangerous when parts of it become separate entities. Rules and systems change,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. “These problems are not always resolved peacefully.”
Russia overturned any semblance of post-Soviet accord, experts say, by invading Ukraine and seeking to redraw the borders it inherited from the USSR. That sets an example to others, and also undermines Russian credibility as a mediator for other frozen conflicts in the region.
Two years ago, Russia declined to come to the assistance of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ally Armenia on the grounds that the attacking Azerbaijanis were only retaking their own sovereign territory that had been illegally occupied by Armenia in a post-Soviet war. Russia was able to impose a peacekeeping regime at that time, but it has all but unraveled in recent weeks as Azerbaijan moved to take more territory and even attacked Armenia proper.
As Russia struggled to reimpose the cease-fire, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flew to Yerevan to express her support for Armenia, and also fan the flames of Armenian outrage – that its supposed big protector, Russia, appeared to be missing in action as Armenia faced Azerbaijani aggression alone.
“Pelosi has a big Armenian American constituency, so she might have been acting in her own political interests, but she also seems to speak for the U.S.,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “It was an opportune moment to emphasize to Armenians that Russia is not a reliable patron for Armenia, and she said that explicitly in Yerevan.”
Demonstrators with American and Armenian national flags gather at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts where U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered her speech, in Yerevan, Armenia, Sept. 18, 2022. Ms. Pelosi called for a negotiated solution to the countries’ conflict.
That situation remains exceedingly dangerous, not just because Azerbaijani ambitions have grown amid political crisis in Armenia, but also because it raises the specter of a much wider war. Turkey is Azerbaijan’s key sponsor, while Iran has mobilized forces and warned that it might intervene if Armenia’s borders should be threatened. In recent years, Iran has become an important trading partner and even something of a strategic partner for Armenia.
“Azerbaijan is getting stronger; Armenia is growing weaker. That’s reality,” says Mr. Kortunov. “If Armenia should be in real jeopardy, Russia will have to intervene because its credibility is at stake. But it’s the worst possible moment for that, as far as Moscow is concerned. For now, diplomatic tools are being deployed.”
The danger of a wounded Russia
No matter how it turns out, Russia’s war in Ukraine is going to have a huge impact on many former Soviet countries. If Russia should lose the war, the consequences could be widespread and devastating, says Mr. Kortunov.
In 2008, Russia successfully intervened to block a Georgian military attempt to retake two pro-Russian breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which belong to Georgia under international law.
“A lot of these suppressed conflicts will swiftly unfreeze,” he says. “Georgia has unfinished business [with those rebel regions], and a wounded Russia may not be able to exert itself next time. There is endemic unrest in other places, like Belarus, that could easily flare up again. Central Asia is a perennial problem. Russia and the CSTO were able to quickly restore stability in Kazakhstan earlier this year with a quick and limited intervention. Would it be able to repeat that in future?”
After experiencing battlefield setbacks, Russia has doubled down on its Ukraine gamble and embarked on a “partial mobilization” that will likely bring more troops and fresh tactics to its prosecution of the war.
As of now, Mr. Kortunov adds, “Russia still intends to win in Ukraine. In that case, we will be looking at a very different set of consequences. But the changes will still be huge.”