Vladimir Putin’s vision of resurrecting Russia’s imperial might is unraveling not only in Ukraine but also in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus. This recent violence serves as yet another reminder of Moscow’s dwindling influence in a region that once constituted a significant part of the Soviet Union.
For the past two decades, Putin has been dedicated to restoring Russia’s former glory, akin to its Soviet-era dominance. He believes that Moscow has the right to exert influence over the independent republics that emerged after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, an event he has famously called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
However, despite his relentless efforts to bring these republics back under Moscow’s control, Putin’s aggressive tactics have had the opposite effect. His ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine only bolstered the determination of former Soviet republics, particularly those in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, to defend themselves against potential Russian encroachment.
The Ukraine conflict not only diminished the Kremlin’s hopes of regaining influence in the west but also exposed its waning power in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, as the recent hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh vividly demonstrate.
The enduring dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has been a perpetual concern for Moscow since these nations gained independence in 1991. Despite international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, most of its 120,000 inhabitants are ethnic Armenians with their own government aligned with Armenia. Tensions have flared due to the claims of persecution by the Armenian Christian minority at the hands of Azerbaijan’s Turkic Muslims, leading to two wars in three decades.
Ideally, Moscow would prefer to remain neutral in this dispute, maintaining good relations with both Baku and Yerevan. In 2020, after Azerbaijan initiated the Second Karabakh War resulting in over 6,500 casualties, Moscow brokered a ceasefire. Russia, bound by a defense treaty with Armenia, deployed 1,960 peacekeepers to safeguard the Lachin Corridor, the primary humanitarian route connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.
By the end of the following year, Moscow’s inability to fulfill its commitments to protect the Lachin Corridor led to Azerbaijani paramilitary groups establishing roadblocks, effectively imposing a siege on the enclave by blocking aid supplies. This week, Azerbaijan escalated its actions, claiming that it launched “anti-terrorist operations” because the supply route was used to smuggle arms by Armenian separatists. However, these concerns seem to have been addressed as Armenian separatist leaders recently agreed to dissolve their army and surrender their weapons as part of a new ceasefire deal.
Russia’s failure to prevent another escalation in the conflict between these two former Soviet republics underscores its diminishing influence in regions it once controlled. During the Soviet era, the Central Asian “stans” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) played a pivotal role in the Soviet economy, providing energy and manpower. Since 2002, Moscow has sought to maintain ties with the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military and political alliance. However, Moscow’s inability to keep the peace in the South Caucasus now raises doubts about its capacity to sustain these relationships.
Central Asian nations may consider moving closer to China, a major power eyeing the region’s abundant mineral resources. This shift was already evident when Beijing hosted the China-Central Asia Summit, with Russia notably absent. With Putin’s focus on Ukraine, China was able to secure investment deals worth $50 billion.
Putin’s dream of resurrecting the Russian empire faces a harsh reality—Moscow no longer possesses the strength or influence to achieve it.