From Eastern Europe to the oil fields of Central Asia, President Vladimir Putin is striving to impose a sphere of influence that attempts to keep the forces of history in check.
The Russian leader’s allies, sitting at the pinnacle of power in the former Soviet republics, are either aging in office or facing growing discontent in their societies. The bulwarks they have erected against the spread of democracy and Western military might seem increasingly shaky.
However, Putin relies on brute force to preserve cohesion so he is preparing a possible invasion of Ukraine in order to keep it out of NATO, he is also sending troops to Kazakhstan to suppress the protests and threatens to do the same in Belarus. .
Coercing allies is not unusual for major regional powers. The Soviet Union — which Putin misses and often laments over its disintegration — sent tanks to Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. However, he united his empire through communism, which instilled a common mission and a sense of existential conflict with the capitalist West.
Now that capitalism and pretensions to democracy are the norm on both sides of the former Iron Curtain, there is little to justify allegiance to Moscow beyond the desire of post-Soviet strongmen to help each other stay in power.
“There is no real ideological glue holding this motley alliance of people with very different interests together,” said Timothy M. Frye, a political scientist at Columbia University.
Putin’s sphere of influence, for all the trouble he causes the West, is increasingly a cage of his own making. The more he relies on force to support the aging and unpopular autocrats on Russia’s periphery, the more his alliance begins to find itself hemmed in, both by domestic dissent and Western pressure abroad.
As a result, the threats that Putin tries to avoid are increasing. Ukraine rushes into the arms of the West. Provocations from Belarus, sparked by the government’s crackdown on growing dissent, have caused Europe to unite against its Moscow-friendly political leader. And protesters in Kazakhstan have long been demanding change.
Putin has sought to turn his reactive escalations into internal strength, portraying his interventions in those countries’ problems as a recapture of Soviet greatness.
But low public support, as well as the Kremlin’s recent crackdown on civil society and its political rivals, indicate that “the usual narratives that Putin uses to prop up his rule are not working so well,” Frye explains.
Putin’s fear of democratic encroachment dates back to the democratic upheavals of the Color Revolutions that wiped out several Soviet republics in the first decade of the 21st century. He and his collaborators still talk about those events, often portraying them as Western plots to subvert Russian power.
But Putin’s response was not implemented until 2012, when he violently cracked down on protests against him. Many of the protesters were from the Russian middle class who once widely supported him. This elevated hard-line officials within his government and, at the same time, caused him to change his strategy of influencing the security services.
The Kremlin, increasingly aggressive and nationalistic, even paranoid, has decided to support neighboring leaders who control dissent and oppose the West.
As a result, Putin came to believe that only leaders who looked like him (autocratic strongmen) could be trusted to keep the dangers of democracy and Western influence at bay.
Any other leadership would have to be forced into loyalty.
After Ukrainian protesters ousted the Moscow-friendly president in 2014, Putin made no attempt to persuade Ukrainian voters to side with Russia. Rather, hoping to force Ukrainian leaders to comply, Putin invaded and annexed one part of Ukraine and sponsored separatists in another.
So far, this strategy has largely failed. Western powers increased their support for Ukraine, and Ukrainian voters, once divided on relations with Russia, turned resoundingly against it. But Putin, who probably cannot see a neighboring democracy as anything other than a threat, has only stepped up his efforts and is now threatening a major invasion of Ukraine.
This could prevent public support from Ukraine and the West, or even force Washington to recognize Russian interests in the region. But it also poses a risk to Putin because it may not work forever, and when it fails, he could see another former Soviet republic join the European institutions he says are a threat.
A smaller and smaller circle
Putin’s reliance on other strongmen has proven very risky.
Countries governed by warlords, which concentrate power in the hands of a single person at the expense of government institutions, tend to be more unstable, more corrupt and less economically effective, all of which deepens public dissatisfaction.
The dangers of that situation can be seen in Kazakhstan, where a carefully planned leadership transition ended in violent unrest.
Understand the Protests in Kazakhstan
Putin sent a force of 2,500 soldiers to Kazakhstan to help put down the uprising, at a time when tensions with Ukraine and Belarus were already beginning to manifest. That shows the dangerous pact that holds Putin and his allies together, in which they are essentially forced to guarantee their stay in government by force.
Authoritarian leaders are also more likely to start conflicts and are more likely to lose them, said Erica Frantz, a Michigan State University scholar who specializes in authoritarianism.
“Personalists don’t have to negotiate on policy, and lack of accountability leads to riskier behavior,” he said.
Although their fear of democracy makes them useful allies for Putin, their governments’ handicaps increasingly affect that informal alliance.
“The provocations were predictable. It would also be normal for some of their strategies to be poor decisions,” Frantz said.
Despite the global tribulations of democracy, since the end of the Cold War it has remained a widely accepted system of government -beyond what happens in countries like China or Cuba- which has made even the most powerful dictators shameless are forced to pretend that they rule democratically.
That has spawned a circle of pro-Moscow warlords who often struggle to persuade their citizens of the need to accept fewer freedoms than their neighboring countries.
Belarus exemplifies those dangers. Last year, as dissent grew over government failures to tackle the pandemic, the escalating crackdown became a source of diplomatic conflict with the rest of Europe, taking a toll on Putin.
Some Belarusian opposition activists, aware of Russia’s influence, expressed their willingness to work with Moscow. But, in what may be a reflection of the Kremlin’s strong support for autocrats, for all their mistakes, that has been ignored.
As with Ukraine, in the cases of Belarus or Kazakhstan, Putin could implement an increasingly coercive strategy, although it would be carried out through his allies.
These cycles, which seek to shore up a sphere of influence built on mistrust and intimidation, can take on a logic of their own. Therefore, the same strategy continues to be applied, although it could produce the opposite results to what Putin expects: because it could generate more interest in the threats he fears and erode the alliance in which he has pinned his hopes for the future.
“That will lead to further militarization of the alliance’s eastern flank,” wrote Emma Ashford, an expert with the Atlantic Council’s research group, on NATO’s likely response to Russia’s threats against Ukraine. “Just because we think it’s a stupid and counterproductive strategy on Russia’s part doesn’t mean they won’t apply it.”