Even Putin’s allies are turning against him

·4 min read
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin has announced that Russian tactical nuclear weapons will be stationed in Belarus. This new sabre-rattling was clearly intended to intimidate the West, and the free states of eastern Europe in particular; once deployed, these weapons systems would threaten a swathe of the continent from the Baltic States in the north, to Romania and Moldova in the south east. But there is also another motivation behind the decision. As even his old allies lose faith in the Kremlin’s power, Putin is becoming deeply paranoid.

It’s no coincidence that the announcement coincided with Belarus Freedom Day, an event which the Belarusian opposition, which is hounded and suppressed by President Alexander Lukashenko, marks each year. It was, after all, a thinly veiled threat.

The Kremlin was sending a clear and unambiguous message: with its nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus, it would feel entitled to crush any serious pro-western rebellion against Lukashenko. As the secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council Oleksiy Danilov put it, Belarus has become Putin’s “nuclear hostage.”

This muscle-flexing reflects a changed geopolitical landscape, with the Kremlin breaking one of the core tenets of its long-term political posturing against the US. Putin has always maintained that Russia’s withdrawal of nuclear weapons from the territory of ex-Soviet states in the 1990s demonstrated a good faith approach in contrast with America’s continued stationing of weapons in Europe.

But there’s no longer much point maintaining the pretence that it is Russia, not the US, that respects the sovereignty of eastern European nations. The nature of the Kremlin’s respect is all too plain to see in the horror unleashed daily in Ukraine. It’s no wonder that those states still aligned with Russia are beginning to rethink their position.

Mass unrest in Georgia will have seriously spooked the Kremlin. The Georgian government pursues a cynical balancing act between Russia and the West, aiming for EU membership while simultaneously ramping up economic cooperation with Moscow. Russian links among the nation’s powerful oligarchs contrast sharply with the public’s pro-western leanings.

Earlier this month, the Georgian government dropped a proposed law affecting foreign-funded entities that was seen as an attempt to bring Georgia closer to Russia. Febrile protests met with a harsh police response, and western diplomats I spoke to wondered whether the unrest may give rise to a revolutionary pro-western movement similar to Ukraine’s Maidan uprising.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Black Sea, Russia has lost the influence it had within the EU before the invasion began. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the EU leader keenest to keep up relations with Putin, said in recent weeks that shifting geopolitical realities may necessitate a change in attitude. And other countries wanting to join the EU despite long-term friendly relations with Moscow increasingly see ties with Russia as a hindrance.

Serbia, the Kremlin’s strongest ideological ally in Europe, may be another country at a tipping point in casting off Russian influence. Popular support for Russia remains strong, but the nation’s political establishment is coming to realise that in light of the invasion of Ukraine, a hoped-for EU future holds no place for close ties with Putin.

A western-brokered agreement between Serbia and Kosovo – the breakaway nation which Serbia and Russia do not recognise – appears all but agreed, potentially removing a major stumbling block in Belgrade’s slow pivot away from Moscow. Serbia’s government may also be subtly bracing the public for the potential imposition of sanctions on Russia in line with western demands; Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić on Sunday admitted that Serbia may end up sanctioning Russia if the consequences of not doing so become sufficiently serious.

Russia’s power in eastern Europe has been ebbing away for years, but the invasion of Ukraine has rapidly accelerated the process – even with regimes that Putin previously saw as close allies. The longer the war goes on without victory for the Kremlin, the stronger the political and public impetus will become for countries like Serbia and Georgia to cast off what’s left of suffocating Russian influence.

The enormity of Putin’s strategic mistake in invading Ukraine encompasses more than just NATO expansion and the destruction of his vital energy stranglehold on Europe. It is also, slowly but surely, costing him his few remaining European friends. Putting nuclear weapons in Belarus is a desperate attempt to safeguard his closest alliance.