According to the Kremlin, Russia is on a roll.
In Slovakia, the Russia-leaning Robert Fico has bounced back in the most recent elections to get another chance to form a coalition government. In contrast to the previous Slovak government, which was a generous supporter of Kyiv, Fico has pledged not to send a single bullet to Ukraine.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in a last-minute bill to avert a U.S. government shutdown, assistance to Ukraine was pointedly axed. The Biden administration insists that it will follow through on its promises of military assistance. But critics of this aid see the stopgap funding bill as a sign that Congress will no longer authorize blank-check assistance to Kyiv.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Russia has managed to thwart any major Ukrainian military breakthrough in the south of the country. Although Ukraine has made some incremental progress in regaining territory, especially in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian fortifications have so far prevented a dramatic surge to the sea that would split occupation forces down the middle. Winter is not far off, and with it comes a pause in any offensives involving hardware like tanks, along with an intensification of Russian efforts, via aerial bombing, to take out Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
It might seem odd at this moment to discuss Russia’s declining geopolitical power. But in the larger context, regardless of political vicissitudes and something approximating stalemate on the ground in Ukraine, Russia is losing influence and position. Even if it ultimately prevails in Ukraine—in the sense of holding on to the territory it currently occupies—it will have done so at the expense of its global power.
To use a chess analogy, Russia is attempting to protect a few pawns while putting its queen at risk.
Shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, voters in the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh passed a referendum calling for independence. Given that Nagorno-Karabakh was completely surrounded by Azerbaijan, the newly proclaimed Republic of Artsakh enjoyed a de facto but fragile existence. The break-up of the Soviet Union and subsequent wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan did little to boost Artsakh’s legitimacy. Although it received considerable support from Armenia, Artsakh obtained diplomatic recognition from only three states, none of them UN members: South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria.
These three entities resulted from Russia’s other frozen conflicts—in Georgia and Moldova—and they survive largely because of Kremlin support. So, too, has Russia sided with the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh and its primary backer, Armenia. Russian peacekeeping in the region focused until recently on maintaining the status quo of a largely Armenian island in the sea of Azerbaijan.
What might look like a religious standoff—with Muslim Azerbaijan and Turkey on one side, Christian Armenia and Russia on the other—is more about the geopolitical ambitions of the principal parties to the conflict. From the Kremlin’s point of view, frozen conflicts keep its neighbors preoccupied, unlikely to merit too much attention from the European Union, and dependent on Russian peacekeeping services.
But this frozen conflict is no more.
In 2020, Azerbaijan launched a successful effort to push back Armenian forces in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s use of Turkish drones proved highly effective in the 44-day conflict. Russia brokered a ceasefire with unfavorable terms for Armenia, but the deal at least preserved some measure of autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Then, last month, in a lightening attack that lasted only 24 hours, Azerbaijan took complete control of Nagorno-Karabakh. The president of the Republic of Artsakh decreed that all state institutions will cease to exist at the beginning of next year. Over 100,000 ethnic Armenians fled the enclave rather than come under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan.
Two Russian peacekeepers were killed accidentally in the most recent fighting. Otherwise, Russia was noticeably absent from the conflict, which marked a significant departure from previous outbreaks of violence in the region. Armenian president Nikol Pashinyan went so far as to complain about Russia’s failure to come to the defense of Nagorno-Karabakh. Disillusioned about Russia’s non-actions, Armenia withdrew from the Russian-led CSTO military alliance and invited U.S. soldiers to participate in joint drills in the country.
But even before the latest turn of events, Armenia was distancing itself from Russia. “We are not Russia’s ally in the war with Ukraine,” Pashinyan declared this summer. The Armenian leader could see the writing on the wall in terms of Russia’s waning commitment to its allies in the region. The Kremlin, meanwhile, saw less value in assisting a wavering ally.
This downward spiral of waning Russian interest and wavering Russian allies is visible elsewhere in the former Soviet space. Back in January 2022, before it invaded Ukraine proper, Russia helped the Kazakh government suppress an outbreak of protests over the cost of living. A mere six months later, Kazakhstan was also distancing itself from the Kremlin as it began to reach out to the West and welcome Russians fleeing forced conscription. When clashes erupted last year between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, two close allies of the Kremlin, Russia didn’t step in to mediate the conflict.
All is not lost for Russia in its relations with its neighbors. Its ties with Georgia have improved. The bond between Putin and Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko remains tight, with the latter even proposing three-way cooperation with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
However, prior to last year’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia had much greater influence in its “near abroad,” from the Caucasus to Central Asia. Putin thought that he could “kill the chicken to scare the monkey” by invading Ukraine and putting the fear of intervention into all the other neighboring countries. Instead, with the exception of Belarus and maybe Georgia, the former Soviet republics can easily see that not only has Russia failed to kill the chicken but it has sustained some significant scratches in return.
Worse, from the Kremlin perspective, Russia might have lost even more influence further from home.
The Far Abroad
To continue its fight in Ukraine, Russia doesn’t have a lot of places to turn for the military hardware it needs. It has received some drones and surface-to-surface missiles from Iran. China provides gear like hundreds of thousands of bullet-proof vests and helmets that are non-lethal but obviously useful on the battlefield. The Kremlin has approached countries like Myanmar and India to buy back military exports that it now needs for its occupation army. It is even cannibalizing military hardware from the Wagner Group, now that the private security service is being absorbed into the official military.
The need for basic supplies like artillery rounds has forced Russia to bring its tin can to Pyongyang’s door. Ordinarily, it’s North Korea that has relied on Russian military supplies. The reversal of this relationship speaks volumes about Russia’s vulnerability. It also suggests that Russia just doesn’t have a lot of other places to go for what it needs.
Under Putin, Russia made a bid in the 2000s to become a great power that could, like China, compete against and also cooperate with the West. As part of that “great power” strategy, Putin strengthened relations with China to become part of the Belt and Road Initiative, to expand regional military cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and build up institutions in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) pact. He sought to divide NATO against itself by forging working relationships with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He solidified ties with key Middle East allies like Syria and Egypt. Numerous countries in Africa have relied on Russia for military assistance and, through the services of the Wagner Group, security personnel as well. In Latin America, Putin relied on allies in Cuba and Nicaragua while in Asia, North Korea and Myanmar could be counted on in a pinch.
What remains of this robust geopolitical position? The most authoritarian of Russia’s supporters have certainly closed ranks with the Kremlin, as Kim Jong Un’s eagerness to supply weaponry suggests. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega has doubled down on his support of Russia and its war in Ukraine. Myanmar has solicited help from the Kremlin for its next elections (!). Bashar al-Assad has parroted Russian talking points about the fight against “Nazis” in Ukraine.
But the consolidation of this authoritarian axis comes as Russian influence has declined among more powerful countries. Saudi Arabia pointedly didn’t invite Russia to a meeting organized with Ukraine on finding solutions to the conflict. India’s Narendra Modi openly rebuked Putin about the war, and Russian-Indian relations have eroded over the last year. African leaders have been similarly angry over rising food and energy prices as a result of Russian actions in Ukraine, not to mention the patronizing scolding that Putin delivered to a visiting delegation led by South Africa in June. The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the break-up of the Wagner Group is also jeopardizing the more informal ties that Russia has forged with several African countries.
Obviously, too, Russia has lost whatever fringe influence it once had in Europe through its alliances with far-right political parties in Italy, Austria, and other countries. Today Russia is toxic, even for his former allies. In Italy, for instance, far-right leader Georgia Meloni has turned her back on Putin to move closer to Ukraine, NATO, and the United States. Elections in Austria this month might bring the far-right Freedom Party to power again. Although it remains quietly connected to the Kremlin, the party might very well pull a Meloni and jettison its ties to Putin once in power. Putin and Russia more generally are held in almost universal suspicion throughout Europe.
Economic sanctions have blunted Russia’s participation in the global economy. The invasion of Ukraine nipped in the bud Putin’s modest efforts to reduce Russia’s carbon footprint and play some kind of role in climate negotiations. Russia withdrew from the International Criminal Court in 2016 after the ICC criticized the annexation of Crimea, and Putin himself must now be careful when he travels abroad because of the outstanding ICC warrant for his arrest on charges of war crimes.
Instead of being more like China, a powerful global actor despite some conflicts with the United States and Europe, Russia is increasingly like North Korea: an isolated, inward-looking nuclear power with little influence beyond its borders.
Will the Ripples Spread Inward?
The big question is whether Putin’s obsession with Ukraine will put at risk not just his country’s global power but the very territorial integrity of Russia itself. Ukraine has launched attacks on Russian cities and military installations. But they don’t pose much of a long-term risk, for Ukraine doesn’t covet any territory in Russia proper.
More destabilizing would be a campaign by a restive province to seek greater autonomy or even independence. The apparent popularity of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny in the southern realms around Rostov suggests that the greatest threat to Putin’s position comes not from within the Kremlin but from the provinces.
The most obvious threat comes from Chechnya. Current leader Ramzan Kadyrov is a close Putin loyalist who has sent thousands of his countrymen to fight in Ukraine. Despite this loyalty—or perhaps because of it—Chechnya operates like an autonomous state, with its own laws. In a recent video, Kadyrov praised his son for beating up a Russian prisoner accused of burning a Koran. Even a majority of Chechens, according to one poll, condemned the beating. The deal with Kadyrov keeps Chechnya within the Russian Federation but with such a degree of autonomy that It’s practically an independent state.
It’s a potentially volatile situation. Kadyrov could die (by natural causes or assassination). He could abruptly change his mind about his allegiance to Putin. It’s hard to gauge the popularity of independence in Chechnya, but even many of the soldiers fighting on Russia’s behalf in Ukraine are preparing for their next battle, a third war against the Kremlin. In the event of a political vacuum in the country, an exiled warlord could return, in an echo of Lenin’s arrival via sealed train car in St. Petersburg on the eve of the Russian revolution, and lead a third attempt at independence in 30-plus years.
Last September, protests broke out in another Muslim-majority area of Russia—Dagestan—where residents were furious at the disproportionate number of their children being recruited to fight in Ukraine. Like Chechnya, Dagestan has a history of separatist struggles. So do Ingushetia, Tatarstan, Mordovia, Kalmykia, and Bashkiria. Putin attempted to quash these movements by replacing the federalism that Yeltsin instituted when Russia became independent from the Soviet Union with a centralized structure that has in turn created a great deal of resentment in the regions.
What precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union was not so much the failures of economic reform or the opening up of debate within the intelligentsia via glasnost. It was the surge of nationalism in all the Soviet republics, as one after another challenged the federal center. Even the Russian republic, led by Boris Yeltsin, ultimately broke from the Soviet federation.
It would be a supreme irony if Vladimir Putin, who declared the dissolution of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” were to preside over a similar unravelling of Russia—and all because he tried to recolonize Ukraine.
FPIF, October 4, 2023