Russian President Vladimir Putin, famed for causing mischief far from home, is struggling to maintain control over his own backyard.
Political meltdowns, mass protests and wars are roiling five former Soviet republics, posing simultaneous strategic challenges for the Kremlin on its western, southern and Central Asian borders.
Chaos unfolding in Kyrgyzstan, a tiny but strategic nation nestled in the mountainous Caucasus region between Russia and China, has been the latest in a wave of unrest that has brought Belarus to its knees, triggered a widening military clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan and exacerbated the deadly political stalemate in Ukraine.
Other regional powers, most notably China and Turkey, have been increasingly eager to exploit the situation. Beijing has been expanding economic ties with several of the former Soviet Central Asian states, and Turkey openly backs longtime ally Azerbaijan in its hot war with Moscow-supported Armenia.
Some regional experts say the Kremlin deserves credit for successfully managing the periodic instability known to churn through the former republics and at times even accepting democratic reform movements as long as they don’t challenge Russian interests. But with the recent cascade of events, many are questioning whether Moscow’s influence on its “near abroad” has begun to wane.
“The instability around Russia’s periphery is showing that the Putin government’s nuanced approach to conflicts in the former republics has fallen short in the past few years,” said Donald Jensen, head of the Russia and Strategic Stability project at the United States Institute of Peace.
“It’s just not working well, and that has created an opening for China and Turkey,” Mr. Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat and longtime specialist on Russian domestic politics, said in an interview.
Political factions in Kyrgyzstan are clashing amid intensified geopolitical competition between Moscow and Beijing. Both are vying for influence over Central Asia’s economies and energy markets.
Kyrgyzstan, located on China’s far western border, plunged into chaos a week ago with mass protests over a disputed parliamentary election. Opposition party demonstrators stormed and seized government buildings, and the country’s Central Election Commission responded by nullifying the vote.
With calls for a new government or new elections, it remains unclear how the meltdown will be resolved. Outside observers are watching closely for signs of expanded Chinese influence over what was previously seen to be a mainly pro-Putin regime in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.
An analysis published this year by the Australian think tank Future Directions International noted that Kyrgyzstan’s roughly 6.5 million people are caught in a wider battle between Moscow and Beijing after decades of Russian attempts to remain the region’s predominant military and economic power.
“Central Asia’s proximity and economic and cultural ties to China have led Beijing to view Central Asian policy and security as supplementary to, and even an extension of, China’s domestic security agenda,” said the analysis, which noted the region’s “significant energy importance … as a bridge between Europe and Asia.”
China is pushing to convince its neighbors “that there is greater benefit to be had by aligning with, rather than opposing, Beijing,” the analysis said. “To that end, China has invested in Kyrgyzstan’s modest oil industry, attempting in a similar manner to Russia to create a dependence upon Beijing and to increase China’s influence in the country.”
A hot war on the border
A bigger concern for Kremlin strategists may be the war that has broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the long-running dispute over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which is within Azerbaijan’s borders but has been controlled since the breakup of the Soviet Union by ethnic Armenians backed by Yerevan.
Russia has long backed Christian Armenia, and Ankara has openly supported largely Muslim Azerbaijan. Regional analysts say the situation has grown more complex and dangerous with escalating Ankara-Moscow tension on other fronts, including Syria and Libya, and the resource race in the wider eastern Mediterranean.
The conflict has also become increasingly tied to Moscow-Ankara friction over oil and gas pipelines running through the area. With the U.S. and the European Union also struggling to wield influence, concerns are swirling over the prospect of an all-out regional war.
Direct Russian military involvement would be taxing for the Putin government. While the Kremlin maintains military bases across Central Asia, Mr. Putin has risked overextending his forces with high-profile deployments over the past decade that have included support for Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and pro-Russian separatists battling the Kyiv government in Ukraine.
Russia is also backing Libyan rebel forces commanded by Gen. Khalifa Haftar while commanding a cybertroll army suspected of interfering with democratic campaigns in the U.S. and Western Europe.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain hot, and Washington and its European allies maintain economic sanctions on a range of Russian firms and individuals in response to Moscow’s meddling in the former republic.
Then there is the situation in Belarus, where a popular uprising after a badly tainted election has lasted nearly two months and left Moscow off guard. The Kremlin has given no clear indication whether it supports the protesters in Minsk or is standing by longtime strongman and sometime ally President Alexander Lukashenko.
Analysts say the Belarus uprising has added to unease that the Kremlin was feeling over large-scale anti-Moscow demonstrations that took hold over the summer in Russia’s far eastern city of Khabarovsk.
“The last thing Putin wants is a popular uprising on his border,” Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA officer and Moscow station chief, told The Washington Times in late August (Mr. Hoffman writes a column for The Times). “The protests in Minsk may not necessarily be anti-Russian, but they are anti-dictator, and that makes Putin nervous.”
Not all are ready to write off Mr. Putin’s foreign policy skills.
Mr. Jensen said the Russian leader has grown accustomed since taking power more than 20 years ago to dealing with instability on the country’s vast periphery, which includes land borders with 14 countries.
Recent events underscore the “continued slow-motion breakup of the Soviet empire and its aftereffects,” Mr. Jensen said. “A lot of these places around the Russian periphery have not really defined themselves as anything other than imperfect regimes, with some being more authoritarian than others, and this process is sort of an ongoing feature of Eurasia around the former Soviet Union.”
That does not make it any less challenging for the Kremlin, which has a history calibrating its level of intervention to the level of threat to Russia’s core interests.
“Russia’s approach does not always involve aggression or military intervention, but it does seek to uphold stable, pro-Russian regimes in the former republics and it is designed to maintain Moscow’s position as a dominant Eurasian power,” Mr. Jensen said.
The question now is whether the Putin government’s hold on that position is slipping.