In South Ossetia and Abkhazia (taken from Georgia), and Transnistria (taken from Moldova), an understandable question was asked. If Russia was willing to abandon its ally Armenia in allowing Nagorno-Karabakh to be wiped out and its people exiled, what are its guarantees to them actually worth?
This Kremlin reluctance to shield those relying on its protection has eroded its influence. Beneath the Kremlin’s applause for the humiliation of Armenia’s pro-Western leader, Nikol Pashinyan, more sober Russian politicians and analysts grasped the grave repercussions of the tragedy, even if Vladimir Putin did not.
Transnistria — separated from Russia by hundreds of miles of hostile land and just shy of NATO territory — especially worries some in Russia’s foreign policy establishment. Political scientist Andrei Safonov sounded the warning that Moldova had supposedly initiated influence operations to demoralize Transnistria, and that “the EU and the US are determined that Moldova will gain a qualitative superiority in the military sphere over Transnistria.” He cited a former Moldovan defense minister, who had urged, “We must take our destiny into our own hands and make very tough decisions regarding the reintegration of Transnistria . . . Azerbaijan has shown everyone that problems can be resolved not only during coffee breaks and unending conferences.”
Dmitry Soin, a Transnistrian academic, warned that the secessionist region “will burn” in the aftermath of Artsakh's destruction and that Transnistrian forces are utterly unprepared for conflict.
Across the Black Sea, the pro-Russian government in Tbilisi provided some succor from concerns about an imminent attack on South Ossetia or Abkhazia, but analysts understood those assurances as temporary.
Konstantin Zatulin, a Duma committee chairman and a member of the United Russia party, chided the nonchalance of those viewing the disaster as a rightful comeuppance for the pro-Western Armenian government. “Already in Georgia, they were talking about the need to follow the example of Azerbaijan and reconquer Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he cautioned.
A military correspondent for state broadcaster VGTRK warned that “a ready-made script for [Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia] has already been written and is waiting in the wings.” Both fretted that a potential resurgence of “Saakashvilites,” or pro-Western forces, could lead to a repeat of events in Karabakh.
At the Valdai Conference on October 3, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met the leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to offer reassurance and pledged enhanced military support. However, at the same conference, Putin revealed Russia’s impotence in safeguarding a territory it once in effect controlled. Armenia voluntarily acknowledged Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh in 2022, he explained, “[W]hat should we do? Say: no, we don’t recognize it. This is nonsense, right?” The fact that Russia shirked its treaty obligation to Armenia, despite a series of pleas to act, and the role this played in Yerevan’s acquiescence, was omitted.
Abkhazia is hoping the establishment of a Russian naval base on its territory will tie its protector’s fate more closely to its own, after signing an agreement in early October that had been delayed for 15 years. Even Georgia’s pro-Russian government was upset by the move, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs lambasting the “provocation” and the president calling it a “direct threat to Georgia.”
Without any similar carrot to entice the Kremlin, the chief of South Ossetia offered a public, groveling birthday tribute to his suzerain in Moscow: “Your personality is inextricably linked with . . . the people’s pride in the country and confidence in the future,”
Following the United States’ catastrophic 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan — in response to which Russian politicians began clamoring to “resolve” the Donbas issue — Anne Applebaum wrote the most empty and pointless cliche in the Western diplomat’s canon is “There can be no military solution to this conflict.”
Russia feebly echoed this to the Azeris, and Azerbaijan once again proved Applebaum right. The days when the Kremlin could view the South Caucasus as a Russian-garrisoned backyard have gone. Its influence in other areas is in decline too. It’s a visible trend and Russia’s placemen know it.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which tracks authoritarian influence online.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.