Oct 8, 2020 - World

Russia is surrounded by crises

Illustration of a map of Russia with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan highlighted.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Russia’s sphere of influence appears to be spinning out of control, with war in the Caucasus, revolution in Kyrgyzstan and an uprising in Belarus.

The big picture: The three crises are very different, but their roots all stretch back to the former Soviet Union — and all three are testing Russia’s influence today.

1. The fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has featured prominent interventions from a different regional power: Turkey, which has provided Azerbaijan with encouragement, arms and reportedly even mercenaries.

Russia’s position is more delicate. While Armenia is a military and economic ally, Russia has carefully maintained ties with Azerbaijan and has large populations of both Armenians and Azeris within its borders.

  • To intervene on either side would be to sacrifice Russia’s role as the mediating regional heavyweight, while also courting backlash domestically.
  • But while Russia is calling for peace — joined by its Minsk Group co-chairs, France and the U.S. — Turkey is attempting to set terms of any ceasefire.
  • While Russia will have a role to play in the endgame, “the question is whether it will have a commanding role, as it has up to now," says Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow.
  • “It’s one thing to do a deal with Turkey over Syria,” he says. "It’s another thing to do a deal over what used to be Soviet territory just three decades ago.”

2. Aleksandr Lukashenko has led Belarus for nearly all of those three decades. He remains in power two months after a rigged election thanks to the loyalty of the security services and backing from Moscow.

Breaking it down: The post-election crackdown has made Lukashenko a pariah in the West, and he's retreated into the less-than-warm embrace of Vladimir Putin.

  • Putin has made a show of support to his longtime counterpart, but "has realized that in order to control a country, it is better to have the political class loyal to you than to invest everything in one figure,” Trenin says.
  • Amid ongoing protests, Lukashenko has floated constitutional changes that would involve ceding some powers from the presidency but not the office itself.
  • What to watch: Putin could live with either a weakened Lukashenko or a more pliant successor. But if things spin out of Russia’s control, Trenin says, it could result in “a more intense crisis than the one in Ukraine for Russia strategically.”

3. The current power struggle in Kyrgyzstan is not such an existential prospect for the Kremlin, though the image of a flawed election being overturned through popular anger is likely an uncomfortable one for Putin.

Driving the news: Protesters have taken control of parliament, freed jailed politicians and rejected the official results of Sunday’s elections (which have now been annulled). The whereabouts of President Sooronbay Jeyenbekov are unknown, and it’s unclear who’s currently in charge.

  • This is the third such uprising in 15 years in Kyrgyzstan, where politics are democratic by the low standards of Central Asia but remain corrupt and driven by the interests of a few powerful families.
  • Moscow doesn't seem to be trying to shape the outcome, confident it will be able to do business with whoever emerges from the power struggle.

The simultaneous eruptions in Russia’s “near abroad” have led to claims in pro-Kremlin media of a Western conspiracy, the NYT’s Anton Troianovski notes.

  • Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, three of the five post-Soviet republics that retain formal alliances with Russia, are now in crisis (the others are Kazakhstan and Tajikistan).
  • Protests also continue in Khabarovsk, in Russia’s far east, three months after the controversial arrest of a local politician there.
  • Further unrest is possible in two more former Soviet republics, Georgia and Moldova, which will hold elections on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, respectively. In both cases, Russian influence is a hotly debated issue.

The other side: While Putin’s hands-off approach to the pandemic had fueled discontent, approval ratings have now rebounded to their pre-pandemic level of 69%, per the Levada Center.

  • Putin, who turned 68 on Wednesday, also cleared a major hurdle this summer with a successful bid to change Russia's constitution. That referendum shifted his presidential end date from 2024 to as late as 2036.
  • While his job isn't getting any easier after 20 years in office, he's long preferred the role of geopolitical power player to domestic problem-solver.

The bottom line: Putin has burnished Russia’s great power status with interventions in global hotspots like Syria. Now, his influence is being tested closer to home.

Go deeper: 20 years of Putin

Go deeper