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The Week In Russia: Limited Leverage In The 'Near Abroad'


Protesters stand in front of Russian peacekeepers on the road outside Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, on December 24, 2022.
Protesters stand in front of Russian peacekeepers on the road outside Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, on December 24, 2022.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Dramatic developments in the South Caucasus underline the limits to Moscow's clout in regions it still seeks to dominate, as does Russia's war on Ukraine. At home, the clampdown on dissent continues with the trial of an advocate of human rights and historical truth.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Debilitated In Multiple Ways'

When Azerbaijan launched a major offensive targeting the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh and what was left of its ethnic Armenian armed forces after a lopsided 2020 war, Russia did nothing to stop it.

That's despite the fact that Russia is the traditional guarantor of Armenia's security, has peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, and is one of the powers, along with the United States and France, that have led long and fruitless efforts to mediate the conflict over the territory.

Moscow's almost pointed inaction led to speculation that, as The Guardian put it, "by forcing Armenia to give up its hold on Nagorno-Karabakh, the Kremlin was looking to weaken or even overthrow" Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

Maybe so. Pashinian's relationship with Russia has been uneasy since his rise to power five years ago in the kind of peaceful, popular uprising that Russian President Vadimir Putin fears and hates, and his government has taken several steps lately that irked Moscow.

And it's not like Russia hasn't plotted -- or, in the case of Ukraine, launched a large-scale invasion -- with the goal of getting a more Moscow-friendly government into office in another country, near or far.

But there's another explanation for Russia's inaction: There's not much it could have done, even if it had wanted to do something.

"In the context of what has happened this week, is Russia the green-lighter that's given the green light permission for this to happen? Or is it a bystander not able to stop this from happening?" said Laurence Broers, a South Caucasus expert and an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

"I would argue that Russia has obviously been debilitated in multiple ways by the course of the Ukraine war. Its material capacity, but moreover, its reputation as a security patron in the South Caucasus has declined dramatically," Broers told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in an interview on September 21.

In addition, Russia's desire to protect Armenia's interests -- or its lack of such a desire -- may be driven not so much by its own aims and intentions as by the limits of its influence.

There have been "very significant shifts as a result of the Ukraine war, in terms of the usefulness of the relationships with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia has become less important. Whereas Azerbaijan has become much more important and is a key actor in post-Ukraine war connectivity for Russia," he added. "And Turkey, of course, is a key country in the Ukraine war for Russia as well. Turkey, of course, being the core ally of Azerbaijan. So, I think we're seeing a Russia that is much more beholden to Turkic interests."

'Russia Can Do Very Little For Its Allies'

In an interview with the YouTube channel Khodorkovsky Live, economic and political analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev suggested Russia was simply not strong enough to stand up for the weaker party.

"Russia could hardly have helped in any serious way, because we all understand the scale of the gap between Azerbaijan and Armenia in terms of the economy and the military and weaponry," Inozemtsev said.

Anger at Pashinian may have been a factor in Russia's decisions on how to respond to Azerbaijan's attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, but it was "far from the primary one," he said. "Russia, on the whole, can do very little for its allies."

Another sign of Russia's limited influence on Baku and curtailed clout in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was Moscow's mild reaction to an incident in which Azerbaijani authorities said that five Russian peacekeepers, including a deputy commander of the force, were killed when Azerbaijani forces opened fire on a vehicle transporting them during the main offensive on September 20.

Russia's inaction in the face of the Azerbaijani offensive was not necessarily unexpected. Other than brokering a cease-fire that effectively recognized the loss of Armenian control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts, Moscow had done little during the war in 2020, and that hands-off conduct added to tensions between Putin and Pashinian.

But if there was any doubt that Russia would stand aside this time, too, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov quickly put it to rest by saying Azerbajian was taking action on its own territory -- a reference to the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh is formally part of Azerbaijan.

That may have been meant as an excuse for inaction, but it also was an echo of Moscow's assertions about Ukraine, where it claims that occupied Crimea and four other Ukrainian regions -- none of which its forces hold in full -- are Russian.

By that token, standing up for Nagorno-Karabakh would potentially undermine Russia's claims on those areas of Ukraine, though in the eyes of much of the world there is nothing to undermine because the claims have zero legitimacy to start with.

Russia has struggled to maintain influence in other former Soviet republics since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Since Putin came to power in 2000, it has used energy ties as well as other economic and diplomatic levers -- and in some cases, military force -- in efforts to achieve its goals and impose its will.

For Armenia at this point, a "dramatic shift away from Russia is not possible," Broers said, because of "the continuing, very deep structural dependency of Armenia on Russia, particularly in the fields of energy and the ownership of key strategic assets in the country."

Ukraine is a different story.

Moscow had already torpedoed ties with Kyiv in 2014 by seizing control of Crimea and fomenting war in the eastern Donbas region, where it encouraged separatism and gave direct military, diplomatic, and financial backing to the anti-Kyiv forces it incited.

The full-scale invasion of February 2022, also unprovoked, has clearly poisoned relations for decades or more. Russian forces have killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians soldiers and civilians, destroyed cities, towns, and villages, committed human rights abuses from rape and torture to what the International Criminal Court, in announcing a warrant for Putin's arrest, said were war crimes: the unlawful deportation and transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.

How much sway Russia may have on Ukraine in the future depends in large part on the outcome of the war.

'Long And Messy'

In some ways, analysts say, Russia has already lost: Its forces failed to seize Kyiv and subjugate Ukraine in the days and weeks following the full-scale invasion and have suffered numerous setbacks since, retreating from large amounts of land they had occupied.

Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the Crisis Group, told RFE/RL on September 18 that "it does look like what we're seeing is Ukraine making real progress now" in the counteroffensive it launched in early June, but that "it's going to be long and messy until and unless it stops being long and messy.'

For now, the results of the counteroffensive are unclear, and the end of the war does not seem to be in sight: Kyiv wants to push all Russian forces out of Ukraine and restore control over the country in its entirety, while Moscow insists that Ukraine cede Crimea and the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson regions -- even the parts its forces do not hold.

Analysts say Putin's main hope now is that support for Ukraine from the West and other parts of the world will flag.

The Russians "may no longer think that they're more committed [to the war] than the Ukrainians, but I believe they still think, in the Kremlin, that they are more committed than Ukraine's backers," Oliker told RFE/RL. "And from their perspective, the best way for this war to end is for the supply of weapons and economic assistance to Ukraine to stop."

Seeking to make sure that doesn't happen, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met with senior officials and lawmakers in the United States and Canada this week, including U.S. President Joe Biden, after delivering an address at the UN General Assembly.

At home, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied by a spiraling clampdown on civil society, independent media, and all forms of dissent, with a particular focus on silencing any manifestation of opposition to the war.

One of the many manifestations of the state campaign against dissent is the ongoing trial of Oleg Orlov, a leader of the Memorial Human Rights Center, which was shut down by court order in December 2021.

A hearing was held in Orlov's trial on September 22. Arrested in March and charged in connection with an article in which he condemned the war, he faces up to three years in prison if convicted, according to Memorial.

When the trial opened in June, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, called it "a travesty of justice."

That's it from me this week.

The next edition of The Week In Russia will appear on October 6.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site, or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).

Yours,

Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

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