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YEREVAN, Armenia — When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, he was hoping to restore the glory days of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, when it was at the peak of its power. Instead, he’s ushered in chaos on a scale not seen since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
All across the ragged fringes of Russia’s sphere of influence, from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus and Central Asia, former parts of Moscow’s once-vast empire are in outright rebellion or being left to fend for themselves while the Kremlin focuses on its increasingly catastrophic war.
As it loses sway among its former subjects, new conflicts are breaking out, alliances are being forged and old rifts opening up.
Armenia and Azerbaijan
On Tuesday, Azerbaijan began shelling towns and villages deep inside Armenia in what marks the most serious escalation in the South Caucasus since the two former Soviet republics fought a bloody war two years ago.
A Moscow-brokered cease-fire paused the 2020 conflict, and saw Russian troops deployed to the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, reports indicate that the Kremlin has pulled out its best and most experienced soldiers to send to Ukraine, and in recent weeks Azerbaijani forces have pushed past the contact line and captured a series of strategic heights, with the Russians unwilling or unable to turn them back.
Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military alliance and the country’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Wednesday urged the bloc to send “military aid for restoring the territorial integrity of the country.” However, other members of the alliance have proven reluctant to intervene, with Kazakhstan ruling out deploying troops and Moscow hesitant to get embroiled in another conflict.
“Russia’s failures in the war in Ukraine means its capabilities are more limited and has created a power vacuum in the region,” said Armenian political analyst Tigran Grigoryan, after the CSTO failed to send help. “At this point, Russia is neither willing nor capable of restraining Azerbaijan.”
Baku has been steadily replacing its post-Soviet ties to Moscow with closer relations to Turkey, which provides it with advanced military hardware and trains its troops.
The blue and yellow Ukrainian flag is impossible to miss in Tbilisi, hanging from offices and government buildings. Graffiti daubed on the walls blasts obscenities about Putin, while one trendy bar demands visiting Russians sign declarations of opposition to their country’s aggression before being allowed in.
Around a fifth of Georgia’s territory is occupied by Russian troops and their proxies in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Having lost a war against Moscow and its unrecognized client states in 2008, Georgia has long left Russia’s political orbit, but the country is still third on its list of top trading partners.
Although the government loudly protested the invasion of Ukraine, it hasn’t implemented economic sanctions against Russia — which doesn’t mean there isn’t pressure to do more. More than 60 percent of Georgians polled in the weeks after the start of the war said ruling politicians weren’t taking a tough enough stance.
The rhetoric is becoming more heated. Earlier this week, Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, claimed the state should “let the people say whether they want to open a second front in Georgia against Russia” by attacking Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Kobakhidze has since said he was joking.
In January, Russian troops touched down in Kazakhstan as part of a CSTO “peacekeeping” mission tasked with quashing mass protests that threatened to topple the government. That doesn’t mean the Kremlin has gained a reliable ally.
Appearing on stage alongside Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June, Putin received an unexpected snub after announcing the war in Ukraine was necessary to protect the two Moscow-backed proxy administrations in the Donbas. Kazakhstan, Tokayev replied, does not recognize “quasi-state territories which, in our view, is what Luhansk and Donetsk are.” So much for gratitude.
Just weeks later, Tokayev told European Council President Charles Michel that his country is concerned “about the risks to global energy security” created by the war, and offered “to use its hydrocarbon potential to stabilize the situation in the world and European markets.”
Moscow retaliated two days later by shutting down of the Novorossiysk oil terminal, preventing Kazakhstan from exporting its sizable oil and gas reserves through the Caspian Sea. Antique World War II naval mines were blamed for an urgent threat to the facility, but analysts suspect the timing was no accident.
Kazakhstan is formally adhering to Western sanctions against Russia, and relations only appear to be getting worse.
Earlier in August, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev posted on social media saying that “Kazakhstan is an artificial state,” and argued that its “wild lands” had been originally colonized by Russians — a chilling echo of the Kremlin’s rhetoric about Ukraine. The post was later deleted and Medvedev, who also serves as the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and has made a series of increasingly nationalist and aggressive comments about the war and the West, said he was hacked.
Home to fewer than 3 million people, Moldova has been unable to shake off Moscow’s influence; its eastern region of Transnistria is a breakaway republic propped up by 1,500 Russian troops.
But Moldovan President Maia Sandu wants them to go, and strongly backs Ukraine.
“Russia’s unjust war against Ukraine clearly shows us the price of freedom,” Sandu said.
Both Molodova and Ukraine were granted candidate status in June to join the EU, and Brussels is helping the country wean itself off its dependence on Russian energy.
“There’s one person who deserves all the medals for putting Moldova on the road to European integration,” Veaceslav Ioniță, an economist and former MP, said earlier this year, “and that’s Vladimir Putin.”
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
On Wednesday, border guards from the two countries exchanged fire in clashes that reportedly killed two people.
Reports of artillery, armor and other heavy weapons have now led to villages being evacuated on both sides.
The long and winding frontier they share is poorly demarcated, and both accuse each other of sparking the firefight. In the days of the USSR, the border was immaterial but in recent years Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have repeatedly approached the brink of war.
Russia’s foreign ministry has “expressed readiness to assist the parties in reaching a long-term, mutually acceptable solution to border issues” and offered to share its “rich experience in border demarcation.”
However, Russia’s military power in the region is eroding. Russia pulled 1,500 troops out of bases in Tajikistan, RFE/RL reported. There are also reports that Russian soldiers stationed in Kyrgyzstan have been rotated out.
Empires rise and fall
This week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan showed the scale of the shift in power.
Putin met in Samarkand with Chinese President Xi Jinping and later admitted his Chinese counterpart had “questions” and “concerns” about the war in Ukraine.
Xi issued a carefully worded statement: “In the face of a changing world, changing times and historic changes, China is willing to work with Russia to demonstrate the responsibilities of big powers and lead, to instill stability and positive energy in a world of chaos.”
That’s a far cry from the “no limits” partnership the pair announced just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Xi also said that China would “resolutely support Kazakhstan in the defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
It’s clear there’s a new power player in the region.