It also revealed the limits of Russia’s ability to shape events in what the Kremlin considers its backyard: the former Soviet republics and regions from Central Asia, through the Caucasus and into Eastern Europe.
Each point of the map these days offers another test for Moscow.
To the south, the three-decade-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has reignited. To the west, protests calling for Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s ouster are well into their second month. And to the east, Kyrgyzstan is facing its third political crisis in 15 years after recent parliamentary election results were annulled.
As Russia’s interests abroad have focused on building the country’s standing as a player on the global stage — including malicious operations such as trying to influence U.S. presidential elections — the Kremlin’s grip has weakened closer to home. Competition from Turkey, China and the West is increasingly challenging Moscow’s onetime dominance in the former Soviet space.
“Russia is not the dominant power in any of the regions of the former Soviet Union,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The current trio of upheavals, he added, “really shed light on the situation.”
Moscow’s diminished foothold in what it considers “near abroad” could pose other jitters for President Vladimir Putin and the promise of stability he often touts to Russians.
The street protests and political upheavals in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, in particular, could rattle the Kremlin, analysts say. The worry is that they could embolden Russia’s anti-Putin factions — which are already angered over the nerve-agent poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August.
Tussle with Turkey
Russia has tread a delicate diplomatic line between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have been engaged in fighting since September in a conflict that stretches back to the Soviet era.
Though Russia is treaty-bound to protect Armenia, Putin last week clarified that Russia’s military obligations extend only to attacks on Armenia proper and not to Nagorno-Karabakh, a pro-Armenian breakaway region within Azerbaijan’s borders.
On Wednesday, Azerbaijan acknowledged striking a complex with military hardware in Armenia — an escalation that threatens to break Moscow’s so-far neutral stance.
Later in the day, Putin spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by phone, and the two leaders “stressed the urgent need for joint efforts to end the bloodshed as soon as possible and move to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem,” according to a Kremlin readout of the call — their first since this round of fighting erupted.
Though Russia has an alliance with Armenia, pro-Russian groups have been losing ground in Armenia since a 2018 revolution led to a leadership change. The political shift has stoked fears in Moscow that Armenia is steadily turning to the West, the center of its vast and politically active diaspora.
Turkey has thrown its full support behind Azerbaijan in the conflict. Turkish involvement also threatens Russia’s main interests in the region: the arrival of Syrian mercenaries to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan, something Russia’s foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, has warned could become a launchpad for Islamist militants to enter Russia.
Russia and Turkey are already on opposite sides of two other proxy wars, in Syria and Libya.
Trenin rejected the notion that the Kremlin might have stretched itself thin with its ambitious foreign policy agenda, but “it certainly has to pay more attention to its neighborhood now, more attention to its alliances.”
In an op-ed for Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote that “Putin wanted to play the role of peacemaker” with Nagorno-Karabakh and “also demonstrate weight and influence in the post-Soviet space.”
“It didn’t work out very well,” Felgenhauer continued.
There are few places more locked into Moscow’s orbit than Belarus.
Putin has publicly backed the embattled Lukashenko, probably seeing the longtime ruler as a more secure way to keep Minsk looking toward Moscow.
At the same time, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is building ties with Western leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
Mass protests continue to decry Lukashenko’s official landslide victory as rigged. Putin has left the door open for Russian intervention if, he said in late August, the “situation gets out of control.”
The reason goes beyond the alliance with Lukashenko. Russia does not want to see another revolution succeed so close to Moscow — already stung by a 2014 political uprising in Ukraine that ousted pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych.
In Russia’s Far East region of Khabarovsk, the scene of ongoing protests over the arrest of a popular governor, demonstrators have often expressed solidarity with the Belarusian opposition. According to a poll from the independent Levada Center this month, 63 percent of Russians said that they were aware of the protests in Belarus and 28 percent responded that they were playing close attention to them.
“The people in Belarus are very close to the people in Russia — basically you have the same language and very much the same culture,” Carnegie’s Trenin said.
“So I think that on that score, people in the Kremlin are looking very closely at the techniques used by the organizers of those demonstrations,” he added. “They’re studying it very, very closely because they believe something like that could be used, will be used, in Russia when the situation is appropriate.”
On Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya issued what she said was a “people’s ultimatum,” releasing a statement demanding that Lukashenko resign by Oct. 25 or else “a nationwide strike will begin at all enterprises, all roads will be blocked, and sales at state stores will collapse.”
Kyrgyzstan was cleaved into rival political sides after disputed Oct. 9 parliamentary elections. Opposition forces broke into the parliamentary building in the capital, Bishkek, and seized several other government buildings, leaving the country in a duel for leadership. The election results were annulled.
The Kremlin described the situation as “chaotic” last week. But Moscow’s attempts to help stabilize the upheaval in Kyrgyzstan also fell short.
Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, spoke with Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Omurbek Suvanaliyev by phone last week. But the next day, Suvanaliyev was removed from the post.
Then on Thursday, pro-Russian president Sooronbay Jeenbekov announced his resignation, creating even more confusion for Moscow. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, quickly arranged a call with Kyrgyzstan’s new foreign minister, Ruslan Kazakbayev.
Lavrov “voiced his concern about the development of the domestic political situation” and said Russia is willing to work with “legitimate Kyrgyz government bodies,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Kyrgyzstan, which has the highest percentage of Russian speakers among Central Asian countries, hosts a Russian military base but is also heavily reliant on Chinese investment.
Arkady Dubnov, a political analyst and expert on Central Asia, said that “Russia’s influence there remains extremely high.” But Russia has suspended providing financial support to Bishkek until the situation stabilizes, according to Russian news outlet RBC, citing an unnamed official in Russia’s Finance Ministry.
“The new post-Soviet generation does not suffer from nostalgia for the Soviet times and does not consider Moscow a political trendsetter,” Dubnov said.