‘Russia has lost its soft power’: how war in Ukraine destabilises old Soviet allies

<span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
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As Georgian protesters marched on the country’s parliament against a new “foreign agents” law this week, they bore signs that said “No to Russian law!”, and others decrying the spirit of autocracy and imperialism that is now firmly associated with Moscow’s influence in the region.

By all appearances, the law they opposed was a local initiative to allow the ruling Georgian Dream party to crack down on civil society and win forthcoming elections. But that party’s perceived closeness to Moscow and the similarities to a notorious Russian law against “foreign agents” were a popular rallying cry for Georgians who joined the protests.

“Everybody knows that Russia is not popular here,” said Kornely Kakachia, a professor at Tbilisi State University and director of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Institute of Politics. “And [the protesters] also want to show Georgians what would be the result of this [law]. Just look at what has happened with Russia.”

From Yerevan to Chișinău, and Tbilisi to Astana, the invasion of Ukraine has amplified fears of Russian aggression in some countries and forced others, considered allies, to at least reappraise Moscow’s role as a stable partner. And it has accelerated a trend among young people who were born after the Soviet Union era to take a more vocal stance against Russian influence in the region.

“Russia has lost its soft power,” said Kakachia. “They don’t know how to use it any more with their neighbours. They just use this brutal force.”

Russia’s actions have backfired in many ways. It has seen Ukraine receive unprecedented military aid from a US-led coalition; Finland and Sweden apply for Nato membership; and the west has shown unexpected fortitude in imposing sanctions on Moscow and resisting the use of Russian energy.

Among Moscow’s near neighbours, years of work to cultivate political elites, develop a reliance on Russian security guarantees and instil local nostalgia for the Soviet Union have also been shaken by Russia’s gamble in Ukraine.

How do you live next to this kind of state that is toxic? … It’s difficult because the vulnerabilities are big

Nargis Kassenova, Davis Center, Harvard

“How do you live next to this kind of state that is toxic?” said Nargis Kassenova, director of the programme on central Asia at the Davis centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, speaking about Kazakhstan. “It’s difficult because the vulnerabilities are big and they are across the board. We can’t move out of the region, and we need to live next to Russia for ever. So we need to find some modus vivendi. It’s not easy, but maybe it’s a good chance to build up some sovereignty and decouple partially from Russia.”

In 2020, Vladimir Putin negotiated a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in a war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The settlement gave Moscow a military presence through 2,000 peacekeepers and painted Putin as a deft negotiator.

Now, with Moscow’s attention focused firmly on Ukraine, tensions are rising again in the vacuum left behind, with Azerbaijan now appearing to be emboldened by Russia’s inactivity.

Since December, Azerbaijani proxies have blocked the sole land corridor into the Nagorno-Karabakh region, leading to shortages of food and electricity there. And Russia’s own peacekeeping contingent, sidelined and potentially undersupplied, has not stepped in.

Protesters with flares demonstrate against the ‘foreign agents’ law in Tbilisi last week.
Protests against the ‘foreign agents’ law in Tbilisi last week. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

“Not only is Russia distracted but it is simply overwhelmed by its failed invasion of Ukraine,” said Richard Giragosian, head of the Regional Studies Centre in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. “Russia has lost the diplomatic initiative regarding Armenia-Azerbaijan, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh.”

But Armenia remained heavily dependent on Russia for security, energy and trade, which had almost doubled in the last year. Directly challenging Russian influence in the country would be “suicidal”, Giragosian said. At the same time, the relationship has become far more unpredictable. “For Armenia, Russia has emerged as a much more serious challenge,” said Giragosian. “The challenge is that Russia has become an unreliable so-called partner, and the [Russian-led] Collective Security Treaty Organisation has become meaningless.”

While Russia has appeared distracted from some of its foreign interests, it has increased pressure in other countries in an attempt to blackmail its leaders into loyalty or even provoke a new “Ukraine scenario”.

In Moldova, President Maia Sandu has warned that Russia has been planning a coup d’etat. “The plan included sabotage and militarily-trained people disguised as civilians carrying out violent actions, attacks on government buildings and taking hostages,” Sandu said last month, during a press conference where she called for heightened security measures.

The media in the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transnistria has claimed there has been a thwarted attempt to assassinate its leader, and the US has also warned that “Russian actors, some with current ties to Russian intelligence, are seeking to stage and use protests in Moldova as a basis to foment a manufactured insurrection against the Moldovan government”.

Russia has been marshalling “energy dependency, church dependency, media, using hybrid aggression,” said Iulian Groza of the Institution for European Policies and Reforms in Chișinău. “Since the war started last year, all the security risks coming from Russia have been increasing. Russia’s imperialistic ambitions, apparently, were not only about Ukraine but about increasing its control and expanding its influence, including in Moldova.”

While that was the case before the war, he said, threats of a “Ukraine scenario” were now coming directly from senior Russian officials, rather than just media propagandists.

As he and others noted, Russia’s use of resources has come with costs for Moscow, alienating some of those in the country who were sympathetic to Russia, convincing Moldova to reduce its dependency on Russian gas despite the high costs involved, and increasing law enforcement scrutiny of political forces in the country, such as the fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor, whose political aims appear to align with Moscow’s.


More broadly, the Russian strategy has moved toward strong-arm tactics rather than more subtle ways of spreading influence.

“Russia has had to switch more and more from a strategy of using soft power and leverage … it was never that soft, but they didn’t need to rely on coercion all the time,” said Bob Deen, an expert on the region, and a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute thinktank. “In Moldova, they cultivated links with numerous politicians, they have a massive presence in the media, a lot of Russian content gets rebroadcast, and there was a genuine affinity among a sizeable part of the population.”

“All of that is diminishing really quickly because of the aggression against Ukraine,” he said, as Russia leveraged its control over gas flows and threatened political instability instead.

In central Asia, which includes some of Moscow’s most committed partners, the war had also affected Russia’s image, said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who is based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

“For some people, [Russia] has seemed comparatively stable – now it’s seen more as an unpredictable country that is no longer the kind of role model that everyone wants to follow,” he said. The generational gap in views on Russia was particularly distinct, he said, with younger people “reflecting a lot on the history of their own countries”.

At the same time, he added, the political leadership maintained “a huge element of trust with Russian political elites. I don’t see huge changes in this regard”.

“We see that countries are being very pragmatic and using the current economic changes for their own good,” he said, pointing to growth in exports from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to Russia, and gas cooperation deals with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Related: Moldova president accuses Russia of plotting to oust pro-EU government

“What central Asian countries want is to do just enough not to fall under secondary sanctions, and to extract as many possible bonuses out of the whole economic crisis,” he said.

Leaders of countries that are even more dependent on Moscow, such as Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon, have delivered emotional demands for greater “respect”, including attention from Putin and investment.

Russia has notably stepped up its diplomatic outreach to the region, with Putin visiting all five central Asian nations and holding more than 50 meetings (online and in person) with central Aeian leaders in 2022.

“Because the western direction is closed for Russia, they are more interested in central Asia,” said Kassenova. “We see a lot more attention from Russia, more high-level visits to all central Asian states. Their world shrank – where they can work and what they can do. And central Asia is where they can work,” she said.