President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to keep Russia’s immediate neighbors close are unraveling, with the citizens of Moldova joining those of Kyrgyzstan and Belarus in signaling in recent days and months that they have lost patience with discredited Moscow-backed leaders.
The aftermath of elections in all three countries indicates that Putin’s policy of backing allied regimes in Russia’s historical sphere of influence is failing. Emerging democratic forces in slow-to-reform former communist states are pushing back against the Russian leader’s favored political system of managed democracy—a system comprising democratic elements (parliaments, multiple parties, and elections) that mask de facto autocracy, with the same authoritarian leaders and their parties elected to office time after time, through ballot and media manipulation.
Putin’s diminishing ability to influence events on Russia’s fringe was further underlined by the recent resumption of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, during which he was reluctant to support close ally Armenia against Azerbaijan—only managing to secure a cease-fire under which the former was forced to make territorial concessions. Putin was wary not only of confronting Azerbaijan’s backer Turkey but also of buttressing Armenian Premier Nikol Pashinyan whose grassroots Velvet Revolution saw off the pro-Moscow Republican Party.
It is all a far cry from the power and confidence Putin exuded when in 2014 he brazenly annexed Crimea and facilitated his local proxies’ seizure of much of eastern Ukraine, less than a decade after a similar Russian intervention in Georgia. He casually dismissed Western outrage over both military campaigns, presenting himself to his domestic audience as a bold defender of Russian interests in the near abroad.
Now, struggling to halt economic decline and control a rampant pandemic, and facing falling approval ratings, Putin does not appear to be as self-assured as he once was. Moldova’s election result earlier this month will give the Kremlin one more reason to examine why and where his long-held, but increasingly frustrated, neo-imperial ambitions are going wrong.
His closest aides were apparently convinced that Igor Dodon—their man in small yet strategically important Moldova—would coast to victory in presidential elections, after all the financial and administrative support that came his way over the course of campaigning. Moscow likely assumed that the poll would be a rerun of the 2016 presidential ballot, when Russia is believed to have helped Dodon to victory.
But the divisive, pro-Moscow Dodon was defeated by West-leaning Maia Sandu, an ardent reformer keen to expedite her country’s integration into the European Union. Putin congratulated her, but he is likely stunned by her success, which seems to reflect an important shift in the public mood. In a country where politicians frequently exploit geopolitical tensions, it suggests that many Moldovans have tired not only of anti-Western scaremongering but also of Russia-bashing.
Moreover, Moldovans have begun to appreciate the West for the good things it represents—such as a decent education, fair elections, and low tolerance for corruption—rather than a hedge against Russian tanks. This apparent shift in perception will worry Putin, yet Moldovans with Russian sympathies still constitute a substantial electoral force that he can mobilize when needed.
So while Sandu’s victory confirms a weakening of Russia’s hold, it nonetheless continues to cast a shadow over the country, part of which, the breakaway republic of Transnistria, has been occupied by Russian troops ever since independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
The Russian troops initially deployed there as peacekeepers, and Moscow has continued to be Transnistria’s main financial backer. Shortly after the annexation of Crimea, Transnistrian officials called for the Kremlin either to integrate the entity into Russia or recognize it as a sovereign state. These calls were “acknowledged” by Moscow, with the territory clearly remaining a strategic card that can be played whenever the Kremlin needs it.
The Russian setback in Moldova came just months after another Putin ally, fellow strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko, triumphed in what was widely believed to be a rigged presidential election in Belarus, triggering mass protests by Belarusians no longer prepared to put up with political corruption and authoritarian rule.
Prior to the ballot, relations between Putin and Lukashenko had cooled, largely over Belarusian concerns about the Russian leader’s apparent determination to integrate their country into the Russian Federation. It prompted Lukashenko to start courting the West, a rapprochement nixed by the conduct of the election and subsequent crackdown on protesters, which has prompted a flurry of international sanctions.
Russia warned against sanctions and, reportedly at Lukashenko’s request, formed a special law enforcement unit to be deployed in Belarus if needed. But that was the extent of his support for the Belarusian leader. Putin may have calculated that a weakened, vulnerable Lukashenko might move closer to Moscow. Yet it’s clear that Belarus’s resurgent opposition, which has refused to be cowed by the state’s heavy-handed attempts to crush their protests, will not rest until Lukashenko is gone.
On Russia’s southern flank, Putin’s political fortunes have fared little better. Moscow has a military base in Kyrgyzstan, so maintaining a pliant government in Bishkek is of utmost importance. The trouble is that the country has proved to be very politically volatile, with three presidents toppled in the last 15 years. The most recent uprising in October over suspected fraud in parliamentary elections led to the resignation of pro-Moscow President Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
Prior to stepping down to contest presidential elections in January, Jeenbekov’s replacement, the staunch nationalist acting President Sadyr Japarov, said the revolt will not change Kyrgyzstan’s strategic relations with Moscow. And this is probably the case—the two previous uprisings did not result in a shift in allegiances—given Kyrgyzstan’s economic dependence on Russia.
For its part, the Kremlin, likely confident that Kyrgyzstan will remain reliant on Russia, is probably more concerned about sudden, unpredictable political turmoil in the country. When Putin met Jeenbekov recently, he told him, “The Russian side is interested in stability in [Kyrgyzstan] and particularly in the postelection period.”
Moscow was clearly rattled by events in Kyrgyzstan, describing them as chaotic and reportedly suspending financial assistance until political stability has been restored, even suggesting that it might intervene if the situation deteriorated. Putin must realize, though, that doing so would only inflame tensions, as would the imposition of economic sanctions on a country considered to be one of the poorest in the former Soviet Union. Some say Moscow, while unsettled by Japarov’s emergence, may have no objections to him being in power, though it will want him to keep the country on an even keel.
The color revolutions of the 2000s were seen by the Kremlin as a direct challenge as they were not part of the post-Soviet playbook for the near abroad. Putin wanted to see either authoritarian regimes, albeit economically liberal, or managed democracies, enabling him to pursue his neo-imperial ambitions and keep NATO and other Western organizations at bay.
But the overthrow of corrupt, autocratic governments in Ukraine and Georgia strengthened an emerging post-Soviet democratic dynamic that has spread across a number of Russia’s satellites, as once quiescent citizens understood that the foundations of the regimes that had ruled over them since independence from the Soviet Union were weak and shiftable. Putin, at first, tried to stem the dynamic through direct intervention and economic coercion, notably in Ukraine and Georgia, but this has not succeeded.
While he now seems reluctant to use military force to bring neighbors to heel, he is unlikely to change his policy of relying on friendly politicians and officials in these countries to do his bidding, even though the tactic could potentially push them further away from Moscow.
In this regard, Sandu’s victory in Moldova is particularly significant. It is far more than an impressive electoral triumph. The outcome will resonate across the region, likely encouraging other reform-minded politicians and their supporters. Sandu overcame not only a pro-Russia incumbent but also the heavy burden of Russian expectation. The Kremlin reportedly invested so much in getting the preferred result—by way of a media support, advice, and campaign funding—yet still failed to deliver a win for its ally. Dodon’s spokespeople denied receiving any such backing from Moscow.
Just as significantly, many observers imagined that the pro-Dodon camp would have tried to rig the election if it was clear he would lose, yet they did not. This suggests a degree of political maturity. But it is not quite an outlier. In last year’s trouble-free presidential election in Ukraine, pro-Western Volodymyr Zelensky won an absolute majority despite pro-Russia factions capable of wielding considerable influence.
Sandu was magnanimous in victory. In her first speech after the polls closed, she spoke in Romanian and Russian, pledging to work in the interest of the people of Moldova, which would include, naturally, pursuing good relations with Russia.
This is what Putin needs to understand. The countries on Russia’s fringe want to maintain ties with Moscow, as their economies remain so dependent on Russia and they continue to have strong cultural and linguistic links with Russia. And that means that if there are more peaceful elections bringing true democrats to power in other countries across the near abroad, Putin may end up having to become more of a good neighbor than a playground bully, in order to keep them close.