Russia’s Fragile Grasp at Empire

Kyrgyzstan is collapsing.

No one in particular in the West has noticed this other than the odd NGO, but riots have spread into the north and south of the country, due not only to the increased tensions between the two competing regions, but to the traditional litany of shortcomings of virtually every failed state. While the country will continue in name for some time — Moscow dares not allow otherwise and the various political factions inside the country are too weak and too disorganized to change this — Bishkek will control less and less of its territory as its border conflicts with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will only increase.

Yet while this situation endangers many of Moscow’s vassal states by proximity, the situation as it exists is exactly as Russia needs it — even as it is trapped in the morass.

To re-create the Russian Empire, Moscow needs several things, some of which it has, some of which it does not. It has willing allies and subjects to its East. Not only has Bishkek formally asked the U.S. to close the Manas Transit Center airbase, long a Russian priority, but Kazakhstan and the other -stans are being drawn inexorably closer to Moscow’s orbit, through the Eurasian Customs Union and otherwise.

However, to assure the diplomatic, personnel, material, and financial resources needed to hold down the East, Russia needs the West as well. It is here that Russia is struggling, and its window limited.

Despite hard and soft pressure, Ukraine remains defiantly outside of Moscow’s fold. Whatever else may be said of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, he has played a skillful game of drifting Kyiv toward Europe while placating Russia. It is a dangerous game, and Kyiv cannot play it forever, but for now, Russia’s biggest prize eludes her.

Georgia, weakened by the South Ossetia war, is sliding closer to Moscow through its current prime minister, and its outgoing, pro-Western president leaves a weakened party behind him. Armenia is Moscow’s client state, so much so that the giant to the north does not particularly care if Armenia draws closer to the EU. Azerbaijan remains proudly defiant, but its increasing knocks on Gazprom will be answered sooner or later. Moldova lurches from one crisis to the next as Russia attempts to saw off its territory.

All of this means that the Kremlin cannot turn its attention solidly to the East just yet — and its demographic problems, faltering economy, and decreasing soft power mean that its opportunity is vanishing.

This means that Moscow will begin ratcheting up the pressure over the next few years, a dangerous time as so many of the Western countries face elections with pro-Russian parties challenging the government status quo.

It will fall to those peoples to once again resist Moscow’s shaky but determined grasp. It will fall to Europe, and to a lesser extent the U.S., to help them.

Erika Chen contributed to this report.

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