Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a press conference at the Commonwealth of Independent States Heads of State Meeting on October 13, 2023 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine having been its most pressing geopolitical priority for at least 19 months, Moscow has had neither time nor opportunity to gain so much power and influence over all of its other neighbors – a position it has held since the collapse of the Soviet Union more ago than 30 years.

Russia’s influence in parts of the South Caucasus region – which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – as well as other former Soviet republics such as Belarus and further afield such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan varies from state to state. It also largely depends on the degree of pro-Western or pro-Russian sentiment among the population and leadership, as well as the degree of economic and geopolitical dependence on Moscow.

But one thing is certain, analysts say: The war in Ukraine has created the irony that a distracted Russia has lost a measure of power, control and influence over its own larger hinterland.

Azerbaijani soldiers direct traffic as refugees wait in their cars to leave Karabakh for Armenia at the border in Lachin on September 26, 2023.

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Azerbaijan’s conquest of the Armenian breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in September made it clear that Russia is playing a somewhat weakened or changed role in the region – given the perceived lack of anticipation of the offensive and lack of interference in a long-standing conflict in which the country traditionally acted as an intermediary.

Just a day before Azerbaijan launched its lightning offensive, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh was improving and hoped it was a sign that Russia had been caught off guard by the conflict in its own backyard ” “Normalization” of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.

This pool photo distributed by Russian state agency Sputnik shows Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kyrgyz counterpart Sadyr Japarov attending a welcoming ceremony before their talks in Bishkek on October 12, 2023.

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The Kremlin rejects allegations that it no longer has the leadership status it once held. President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told CNBC that “there is no such possibility” that Moscow’s influence has waned among its neighbors.

“Every area is equally important for Russia. Russia continues to play its role in the Caucasus,” Peskov said in emailed comments.

Russia seen in a new light

Geopolitical analysts are not so clear-cut, saying Russia’s failure to conquer Ukraine within days – as Moscow had expected – when its forces first invaded in February 2022 has shown its neighbors its military capabilities in a new light .

“The question arose about the real combat capability of the Russian army,” Vira Konstantinova, a political scientist and international relations specialist, told CNBC.

Within the first month of fighting, and with the withdrawal of Russian troops from the outskirts of Kiev, Ukrainian forces had managed to debunk a “key myth of Russian propaganda,” she noted: that the Russian army was powerful, well-equipped and capable.

In fact, she said, Kiev’s resistance has made it clear to Russia’s neighbors and partners that “Russian power is a bubble with only a nuclear button in the middle.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall during the Russian-Uzbek talks at the Grand Kremlin Palace on October 6, 2023.

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Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov, who worked under Putin in the early days of his leadership before becoming disillusioned with Russia’s geopolitical direction, agreed that the war in Ukraine ironically made Russia appear weaker compared to its post-Soviet neighbors.

“If you ignore Ukraine, it is really clear that Russia does not control the post-Soviet space because Ukraine is bigger and more important than anything else. So it’s fair to say: If you don’t control Ukraine, you don’t have control.” “Control the post-Soviet space,” he told CNBC.

“When it became clear that Russia was failing to establish dominance over Ukraine, everyone else saw it too and began to behave more independently. People see that they do it.” [Russia] “That ultimate task is not being accomplished, and that means they are weak and have to look elsewhere,” he noted.

Milov said that two decades ago there were two schools of thought in Russia: one was that Moscow needed to reassert its dominance over its post-Soviet neighbors, and another – followed by Milov – was of the view that Russia’s neighbors should be seen as equals and in Russia integrated states should be treated in a larger Western area.

Milov said his school of thought had been wiped out over time – Putin had “supplanted” it, he said.

Opportunity for the West

Geopolitical analysts say Russia’s influence may have been shaken, but it has certainly not disappeared – the country remains a superpower among its neighbors and the possibility of further Russian intervention in Russian-backed breakaway regions such as Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia remains not been discounted.

Igor Semivolos, executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Ukraine, noted that while one could say that the “intensity” of Russia’s interactions in its own backyard has decreased – especially as it “focuses its main efforts there.” “Ukrainian question” – it is not entirely correct to say that “Russia has lost control”.

“In general, the slowdown so far is only seen in the context of the reduction of Russia’s foreign policy initiatives in this region,” he told CNBC in emailed comments, adding that Russia is still “maneuvering and trying to use the resources.” to ensure that the situation is under control.

But if Western nations want to seize the opportunity to break Russia’s increasingly precarious hold on its neighbors, foreign policy initiatives and security guarantees are needed now, he said.

“It is important that other powers begin to invade the region. The USA and Turkey.” [could] Offer countries their own security formulas [guarantees]“And perhaps in the future these security formulas will become more attractive than the Russian one,” he said.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev addresses the nation after the “anti-terror activities” organized by the Azerbaijani army in Karabakh, which led to a ceasefire in Baku, Azerbaijan, on September 20, 2023.

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Analysts say the West should definitely approach such Eurasian countries while the opportunity presents itself and Russia is preoccupied with Ukraine. Azerbaijan’s decision to attack Armenia while Russia turned away metaphorically shows that Moscow’s hands are largely tied, they note.

“Russia’s war against Ukraine has shaken stability in the South Caucasus, and Moscow may seek to regain its influence in the region at the expense of regional peace and security,” said Vasif Huseynov, head of the Western Studies Department at the Center of Analysis of International Relations, a think tank based in Azerbaijan, noted in the analysis.

But greater U.S. engagement with states like Azerbaijan could “strengthen a platform for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia” and help counter “threats to shared interests” from Moscow and Tehran, he noted.

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