By Eric Vandenbroeck
What Happens to Russia’s Periphery
We don’t know how
this war will end, but we know that Russia will not win. Even if Russian
President Vladimir Putin’s strained
hundreds of thousands of inexperienced new troops leads to some tactical wins,
his invasion of Ukraine is already a strategic loss. Russia is weakened
economically, politically, and militarily. Putin has ensured a bitter winter in
Europe but hastened Europe’s energy diversification and transition. The Russian
military’s failures and resort to widespread atrocities have exposed Moscow’s
conventional military capabilities as a Potemkin force. We can only imagine
what the Chinese are thinking today about their de facto ally—or how the
Turkish general staff is now recalculating Ankara’s strategic options in the
Black Sea region and beyond. If Putin followed through on his threat to use
nuclear weapons in Ukraine, it would only compound his strategic defeat.
Therefore, even as
Western analysts and officials warn against placing too much hope on a quick
Ukrainian victory, Russian power and influence is already visibly weakened.
Russia is not withdrawing so much as it is deflating. Consequently, there is a
kind of giant geopolitical sucking sound all around Russia’s periphery—from
Eastern Europe to Central Asia—as a diminished Russia creates a vacuum that
could unsettle an already fragile status quo.
self-inflicted diminishment is, in many ways, a continuation of a process that
began with the collapse of the Soviet empire. When the Soviet Union ceased to
exist more than three decades ago, the ripple effects of evaporated Soviet
power included wars in the Caucasus, the consolidation of power by strongmen in
Central Asia, and two brutal wars in Chechnya. In essence, these were
postcolonial conflicts, just as Russia attempts to restore imperial control
over Ukraine today. Differently, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the
conflicts that followed were related to the collapse of the Soviet Union—if
less directly. As the Cold War ended, Yugoslavia’s importance on the strategic
chessboard declined. It was, at least in part, this vacuum and resulting lack
of Western interest that allowed Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to
exploit domestic divisions for ethnic conflict.
Since Putin came to
power, his progressively authoritarian regime has attempted to project Russian
power throughout the former Soviet space. His policies have been fueled by a
desire to reassert control over the Soviet Union’s former territories, which he
doesn’t see as legitimate or fully sovereign states, and his deeply held fear
that democratic awakenings in any of them might be contagious. In Georgia,
Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, Russia has created—or maintained—so-called
frozen conflicts to use as leverage points and bargaining chips. Putin’s war
against Ukraine, from its start in 2014 with the invasion of Crimea through its
massive escalation in February, shares many elements of this approach, hypercharged by a genocidal denial that a Ukrainian nation,
language, and culture even exists.
loss in Ukraine may now loosen Russia’s grip. The lost war in Ukraine has
focused on Russia’s future political development and security arrangements.
With the diminishment of Russian prestige and power, the geopolitical landscape
across Eurasia could prove dynamic.
Take Azerbaijan and
Armenia. Putin’s use of natural gas supplies as a political weapon against
Europe has been a boon for Azerbaijan and its authoritarian leader, Ilham
Aliyev. Putin’s war has raised the price of Azerbaijan’s key export even as
European leaders have courted the country in their rush to diversify supplies.
Thus emboldened—and sensing Russia’s distraction with the war in
Ukraine—Azerbaijan attacked Armenia last month in the most
significant outbreak of violence since the two countries’ 2020 war. In late
September, Armenian officials reported more than 200 of its soldiers as killed
and nearly 300 injured.
The 2020 war ended
with a Moscow-brokered agreement and Russian peacekeepers deployed in
Nagorno-Karabakh, the long-contested majority-Armenian territory in Azerbaijan.
The latest fighting, however, didn’t end at a Russian negotiating table, even
though Armenia had appealed to Russia, its traditional patron, to intercede. As
Armenian Security Council chair Armen Grigoryan confirmed
during his visit to Washington on Sept. 26, U.S. diplomacy took the place of
Moscow’s this time. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Grigoryan
said, was “personally involved and on the phone with both sides.” U.S. House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to
Even though much of
the West’s attention has focused on Aliyev seizing the moment, even to the
point of potentially overplaying his hand, that is not remarkable about Russia’s loss of
influence. More significant in the long term is that Armenia seems to have
given up, at least for now, on Russia as a security guarantor and is looking to
the West for political support—and receiving it. That could have profound
influences on the region’s post-Russian future. If it comes to a stable
Armenian-Azerbaijani border deal—as some reports indicate—it will be brokered
at the Western table. Russia, at this point, is in no position to be either a
broker or guarantor.
Or look at Georgia to
calibrate the potential effects of waning Russian influence. After the 2003
Rose Revolution, and especially at the time of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war,
Georgia had the hopes and sympathy of many in the West who saw the small
country on the Black Sea as emblematic of the potential for democratic progress
in the Caucasus—and Russia’s determination to squelch it. In many ways, the
Kremlin’s puppet republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region derived from its Georgia
playbook. Russia has occupied Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions
since the 2008 war. It is adept at using the occupation to exert political
leverage over—and deny progress to—the Georgian government.
Now that Moscow has
wrapped itself around the axle of its disastrous war in Ukraine, Georgia might
have the opportunity to press forward with democratic reforms and further
orient itself toward the West. Unfortunately, the country’s democracy has receded significantly in recent years. The
government is largely controlled by a billionaire with significant ties to
Russia and a moderate view toward Moscow: former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream party has
dominated the political scene since 2012. Virulent polarization has gripped the country, corruption is rising,
and the space for civil society and independent media is shrinking. The
Georgian government has lashed out at the U.S. ambassador despite the United
States’ role as Georgia’s most important security partner. Against this
background, Georgia was not on the list when Ukraine and Moldova
were made European Union candidate countries in June.
recession of Russian power, precipitated by the strategic defeat in Ukraine,
creates space for Georgia to deepen its ties with the West, Georgia’s toxic
political culture makes it more of a political island than it needs to be.
For Moldova, Putin’s
unraveling couldn’t come at a better time. After unexpectedly electing Maia Sandu, a charismatic, young reformer, as president in late
2020, Moldova appears poised for progress. Its new status as an EU candidate
means it has jumped the queue for Western integration despite having one of
Russia’s frozen conflicts on its territory.
For three decades,
Russia has stationed troops and stored weapons in Transnistria, the slice of
Moldova between the Dniester river and the Ukrainian border. There, Moscow has
bankrolled and loosely controlled a puppet government with colorful, clownish
leaders. In recent years, the Moldovan government has sought to remove barriers
for Transnistrians to access the economy on the other side of the river on the
theory that reintegration was more likely to come from engaging them than from
trying to evict the Russians.
If Moldova—with EU
and U.S. support—can progress on the rule of law and economic development, its
attractiveness to residents of Transnistria will be even better. Time will tell
whether those elements of Moldova’s political scene that have historically been
underwritten by Russian corruption will find Moscow’s checkbook as generous as
before the war. In any case, Putin’s focus on salvaging his lost war in Ukraine
could create the space Moldova needs to move forward with less of Russia’s
incessant sabotage. One should always temper optimism—after all, there are
still Russian weapons and soldiers in Transnistria who would need to leave
somehow—but of Russia’s frozen conflicts, Moldova is the most likely to find a
resolution in the coming years. Motivated democratic actors are stepping up,
whereas Putin is on the back foot.
The Balkans, where
Moscow has a long history of stoking conflict, have much to gain from a
pullback of Russian influence. Putin has cultivated a relationship with Serbian
leader Aleksander Vucic, and Russian public diplomacy has engaged a significant
part of the Serbian public. Vucic has played a successful game of balancing
Russian, European, U.S., and Chinese interests in the country, playing them
against one another to advance his agenda. Russia’s decline due to the war may
increase Vucic’s interest in economic ties with Beijing while also making his
government more likely to work constructively with Brussels and Washington.
Still, it’s far from clear that Vucic has the personal inclination or the
political space to resolve Serbia’s outstanding issues related to Kosovo—a
prerequisite for Serbia’s full European integration.
habit of stoking conflict means the West must pay attention to the Balkans even
as Russia is wrapped up in Ukraine. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia’s
longtime support for Bosnian Serb
leader Milorad Dodik could
be the fuse that Putin tries to light as a way of creating problems for Europe.
Dodik recently met with Putin and offered support for the sham referendums that
Russia used to annex four Ukrainian oblasts last month purportedly. Bosnia and
Herzegovina is notoriously politically fragile, partly because the country
failed to adequately adopt a workable long—term constitutional framework and
external partners failed to support—a workable long-term constitutional
framework adequately. In another twist on his frozen conflict playbook, Putin could,
for example, encourage Dodik to declare his intention to formally merge Republika Srpska, the majority-Serbian region within the
country, with Serbia. There is plenty of competition for White House attention,
but a presidential or vice presidential visit to Sarajevo, the capital, could
send a valuable signal.
Which of these or
other dominoes will fall—and when and how? It is too soon to predict the
ultimate fallout of Russia’s inevitable strategic defeat, partly because it is
unclear how severe the defeat will be. And although dominoes certainly fall in
geopolitics, they don’t always fall how one expects. International politics
isn’t physics: The forces bringing about geopolitical outcomes are more varied,
and the rules less reliable.
What seems inevitable,
though, is that a phase of geopolitical plasticity elevates the importance of
diplomacy, which now has a greater opportunity to have an impact on how the
dominoes will fall. Therefore, although the West is primarily focused on its
response to Russia’s war against Ukraine and the war’s impacts on energy
supplies and inflation, the United States and Europe should not miss the chance
to quietly but energetically exploit Russia’s colossal strategic mistake to
work toward a better status quo—and avoid a worse one—in the places where
Russia’s now-receding power projection has proven so nefarious and calcifying
in the past.