The Russian empire is crumbling before Putin’s eyes

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

It is not just in Ukraine that Vladimir Putin’s dream of restoring Russia’s imperial greatness is collapsing before his eyes. The violence this week in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus provides yet further proof of Moscow’s inability to provide even a modicum of influence over a region that once formed a key part of the Soviet Union.

During the two decades that he has dominated Moscow’s political arena, Putin has committed himself to restoring Russia to something approaching the immense power it was in the Soviet era. From his perspective, Moscow reserves the right to exercise its influence over Russia’s so-called near abroad, the independent republics that emerged following the dissolution of the Soviet Union – an event he maintains was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Yet, despite maintaining a relentless campaign to persuade them to return to Moscow’s fold, Putin’s bully boy tactics have achieved the opposite effect. His ill-judged decision to invade Ukraine has merely strengthened the resolve of former Soviet republics, especially in the Baltics and eastern Europe, to protect themselves from any future threat of Russian encroachment.

If the Ukraine conflict has greatly diminished the Kremlin’s hopes of re-establishing its influence on its western flank, its waning powers are also evident in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the south Caucasus, as the resumption of hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh graphically illustrates.

The rival claims of Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh have been a constant source of concern for Moscow since they achieved independence in 1991.

A mountainous region located at the southern end of the Karabakh mountain range, the enclave is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan, despite the fact that most of its 120,000 inhabitants are ethnic Armenians, who have their own government with links to Armenia. Tensions, which have seen Armenia and Azerbaijan fight two wars over the enclave in the past three decades, have been exacerbated by claims from the Armenian minority, who are Christian, that they are at risk of persecution by Azerbaijan’s Turkic Muslims.

Ideally, Moscow would like to distance itself from the dispute and remain on good terms with both Baku and Yerevan. It was with this in mind that, after Azerbaijan initiated the Second Karabakh War in 2020 in which at least 6,500 people were killed, Moscow negotiated a ceasefire. Under the terms of the deal, Russia, which has a defence treaty with Armenia, agreed to deploy 1,960 Russian peacekeepers to protect the Lachin Corridor, the main humanitarian supply route linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

By the end of last year, with Moscow desperately seeking reinforcements for its faltering military offensive in Ukraine, its inability to fulfil its commitments to protect the Lachin Corridor resulted in Azerbaijani paramilitary groups establishing roadblocks. This prevented aid supplies from reaching the Armenians, effectively placing the enclave under siege.

This week, Azerbaijan went further. It insists that it was forced to launch its “anti-terrorist operations” because the supply route was being used to smuggle arms by Armenian separatists. These are concerns that should now be allayed after leaders of the Armenian separatists agreed to dissolve their army and hand over their weapons as part of a fresh ceasefire deal agreed yesterday.

Russia’s failure, though, to avert another flare-up in the dispute between two former Soviet republics underlines its growing inability to influence events in areas it used to dominate.

During the Soviet era, the so-called “stans” of central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – made a significant contribution to the Soviet economy, providing energy for its industry and manpower for the military. Since 2002, Moscow has sought to maintain its historic ties with the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military and political alliance comprising Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Whether Moscow can maintain its ties with these rapidly developing regions must now be open to question after its failure to keep the peace in the south Caucasus. It will certainly not have escaped the attention of capitals ranging from Tashkent to Dushanbe that Moscow’s defence pact with Armenia amounted to very little when facing aggression from Azerbaijan.

This may well lead them to conclude that their long-term interests are far better served by moving closer to China, another major power that covets the region’s vast mineral wealth. This trend was already evident earlier this year when Beijing hosted the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an, a city located on the Silk Road. While all the “stans” were represented, Russia was the one notable absentee, a reflection of Moscow’s diminishing role in a region it once regarded as its own backyard. With Putin preoccupied by Ukraine, Beijing was able to conclude investment deals worth $50 billion.

Putin may dream of rebuilding the Russian empire, but the brutal reality is that Moscow no longer has the strength or influence to do so.

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