The last thing Vladimir Putin needed is another hotspot in Russia’s “near abroad” — Russia’s term for the 14 republics that once were part of the old Soviet Union, along with the Russian Republic.
In 1994, Putin boasted of an ambitious imperial restoration project; his plans included a “New Russia” encompassing parts of Ukraine and Belarus, along with a Eurasian Union (including, among others, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) that eventually would grow to rival the European Union.
That was then. Now, Putin sees his vision fading as popular unrest and armed conflicts take hold in the former-USSR territories he had scheduled for restoration.
Putin’s vision of USSR restoration has suffered immense setbacks and continues to absorb damaging blows to his once-ambitious plans: The 2008 Five-Day War removed Georgia permanently from the Russian orbit. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s occupation of Eastern Ukraine poisoned Russian-Ukrainian relations and finally established Ukraine as a nation independent of Russia.
The year 2020 also has not been kind to Putin’s USSR restoration project, as citizens have gone into the streets to reject the Putin model of fake elections. Putin’s somewhat irritating ally, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, must be propped up by Russian special forces and propagandists in the face of massive street demonstrations, led predominantly by women. Massive demonstrations following another fake election removed a pro-Moscow government in Kyrgyzstan, and there seems to be no political movement to take its place. Within Russia itself, mass demonstrations in Khabarovsk challenge the heart of the Putin regime — his principal principle of the Kremlin power vertical.
As if things couldn’t get worse, two former Soviet republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have resumed a bloody territorial conflict. And Russia – beset by economic and COVID-19 crises and struggling to meet its defense targets – must calm things down in the explosive arena of Caucasus politics.
After some three months of sporadic but bloody conflict between Armenian and Azeri forces, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, brokered a “humanitarian” ceasefire allowing for war dead and wounded to be exchanged. That was an interesting role for Moscow, since it has sold weapons to both sides but is a more predominant armorer of Armenia. The weekend ceasefire reportedly lasted only hours before mutual shelling resumed.
Today’s conflict is part of a centuries-old dispute centered on Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory fought over since antiquity. It was part of Armenia before and during the Middle Ages, a protectorate of tsarist Russia in the 1800s, then transferred to Azerbaijan as an autonomous region at the start of the Soviet era in the 1920s. The current tension has festered since Armenia – according to U.N. Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 – seized that Azerbaijani territory in 1988. A tenuous 1994 ceasefire has been interrupted by periodic clashes, including the outbreak in July which spread into new border territory beyond Nagorno-Karabakh.
The conflict could broaden into significant geo-political proportions. Russia has a mutual defense pact with Armenia that it is supposed to activate if the fighting intensifies; Turkey is a natural ally of Azerbaijan. Russia and Turkey have yet to define their own mutual relationship with respect to Syria, where both have committed troops — and Turkey, it must be remembered, is a member of NATO, which complicates any confrontation between it and Russia.
Then there is the relationship of the two warring countries to the West, one which is not as simple or one-sided as portrayed by a recent column in The Hill. Both have committed troops to U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts since 2001. But contrast Armenia’s greater reliance on Russian armaments and other support (including a Russian military base) to Azerbaijan’s close coordination with the U.S. on a variety of issues, and the Azeris are widely considered by analysts to be the more West-oriented. In addition, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) carries Azerbaijani natural gas through Turkey to Europe — a critical rival to Russia’s Gazprom that has been threatened by the current fighting.
It is in everyone’s interest, but especially Russia’s, to calm the conflict. Yet, the prospects seem bleak, as each side accuses the other of being the aggressor and clings to historical enmities. The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has announced that he welcomes talks but will make no concessions, and he demands that the Armenians “abandon our territory in peace.” Armenia is unlikely to heed Aliyev’s words.
Vladimir Putin has gained the reputation of a dexterous architect of foreign policy who can turn a weak set of cards into winning hands — but recent events call into question such an evaluation. In just a matter of weeks, he has been reduced to propping up an uncomfortable ally (Lukashenko) and sending his foreign minister to separate two former Soviet states fighting over land of great nationalistic value but no great geopolitical significance. And he faces the prospect of anarchy in Kyrgyzstan as small parties there vie for control.
A supposed foreign policy genius of Putin’s stature can afford the occasional setback. But he has now suffered a string of setbacks, including the failed poisoning of his last-standing political rival, Alexei Navalny. Soon, people may start asking: If former KGB chief Putin can’t carry out a relatively simple poisoning, how can he bring peace to a centuries-long regional feud and resolve other crises, too?
Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.