Vladimir Putin spent decades modernizing his army and building his empire, ruthlessly asserting control over Russia’s border states through force, intrigue and economic might. Now the cream of his military has been destroyed or is bogged down in Ukraine: hundreds of his once-parade-worthy tanks rusting away as burned-out hulks in wheat fields while thousands of his best soldiers will never return home. Beset by sanctions, his economy survives mainly through energy exports: Putin’s enemies continue to buy hundreds of billions of dollars of gas and oil from Moscow, principle and even self-interest sacrificed to keep the lights on in European cities. The invasion of Ukraine is an increasingly obvious disaster for Russia’s dictator. He simply doesn’t have the bandwidth or resources to deal with another international crisis effectively, and everyone knows it.
“There is a relation between the war in Ukraine and what is happening now… Russia has less capability and less willingness to restrain Azerbaijan,” Tigran Grigoryan, a former staff member of Armenia’s Security Council, tells me.
Azerbaijan sensing an opportunity amidst Russian weakness and taking it, with backing from Turkey, is a microcosm of the ripple effect of instability the war in Ukraine is having on Russia’s sphere of influence. Russian political scientist Greg Yudin described it as a “catastrophic collapse of Russian foreign policy in a hugely important region.”
The Kremlin’s interests in and historic ties to the region are multitude – and it often plays both sides, selling weapons to Azerbaijan and Armenia alike. Russian energy interests and geography ensure its cooperation with Azerbaijan, but it has been Russian boots on the ground that protect Armenia’s borders. But the sound of Russian boots isn’t quite as fearsome as it was before the invasion of Ukraine.
After years of declining importance in the South Caucasus, the vultures are circling: Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are breeding instability throughout the country’s sphere of influence. The survival of Putin’s grand security strategy depends on achieving victory in Ukraine, but there is more than one way for an empire to implode. [Continue reading…]