Trouble in Putin's Neighborhood

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Oct. 14.

Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Associated Press

Changes to the Russian constitution approved earlier this year allow Vladimir Putin to remain president well into his 80s. While he has consolidated power at home, one of the little-remarked events of the year has been the authoritarian’s inability to stop disorder in Russia’s near-abroad.

In 2005 Mr. Putin said “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” More than a decade later, the former KGB officer mused that if he could go back in time he would prevent the 1991 collapse. The USSR isn’t coming back, but the Russian Federation still tries to maintain stability on its periphery through deep economic, military and cultural ties with former Soviet Republics.

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This project hasn’t been going well, even in countries that generally view Moscow favorably. The latest headache comes from Russian ally Kyrgyzstan. Opposition parties accused ruling elites of voter fraud after Oct. 4 parliamentary elections, and chaos continued even after the results were annulled last week.

President Sooronbai Jeenbekov announced his resignation Thursday. The nationalist Sadyr Japarov, newly sprung from prison, has become prime minister and acting president. But a Kremlin spokesman said Thursday that Russia would pause economic support for Bishkek because “there is no government as such, as far as we see.” Mr. Putin has reason to worry about instability in the resource-rich country, which hosts a strategically important Russian air base.

Russia also has seen its traditional role diminish in the conflict between former Soviet states Azerbaijan and Armenia. Hundreds have been killed since the countries resumed fighting on Sept. 27. Russia has declined to defend Armenia outright and wants to see an end to the fighting, but Turkey is driving events. Ankara’s support has encouraged Azerbaijan to push until it reclaims the Nagorno-Karabakh region by force.

Recent events in Belarus also show the limits of Russian power. Moscow had moved fitfully toward deeper ties with Minsk for years but backed off after President Alexander Lukashenko stole this summer’s presidential election. Despite a brutal crackdown, antigovernment protests are into their third month and Mr. Lukashenko is far from secure. The Kremlin—which fears too close an association with Mr. Lukashenko risks turning Belarusians against Russia—has been cautiously supportive while keeping its options open.

The outlook is grimmer in countries that already have turned against Moscow. Russia’s military intervention transformed Ukraine into a dedicated enemy. Mr. Putin has failed to cut a peace deal with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to end the costly war in the Eastern Ukraine. And pro-Western political parties could make big gains in Georgian elections later this month.

Mr. Putin has himself to blame for this waning influence. His repressive and corrupt rule has hindered economic growth. This makes China a more appealing economic partner, particularly in Central Asia. And even Turkey with its struggling economy can afford to compete with Russia militarily. Moscow’s ability to project power will grow more difficult as it cuts military spending 5% next year.

Sanctions don’t get immediate results, but Russia’s economic isolation since its 2014 invasion of Ukraine has had an effect. The U.S. Congress has little appetite for easing pressure on Russia. President Trump’s Russia policy is better than his obsequious rhetoric, and even may find it difficult to go soft. The European Union last week announced some sanctions over the Russian government’s poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and an EU official said this month that Ukraine-related sanctions would remain through 2021.

Yet talk of bringing Russia back into the fold persists. German Chancellor wants deeper economic ties through the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and could ask a President Biden for neutrality, while French President Emmanuel Macron still thinks he can make Moscow a partner. Mr. Putin would court Mr. Biden as he did Barack Obama, but Mr. Biden shouldn’t fall for the same gambit.

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