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In Former Soviet States, a Tug of War Between East and West

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Geopolitical rivalry, intensified by fighting in Ukraine, is amplifying domestic struggles in countries like Georgia and Moldova whose people are split on which side to support.

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Protesters waving flags at a protest.

Pro-Western demonstrators at a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, last month as the government pushed a foreign influence bill.Credit…Natela Grigalashvili

June 3, 2024Updated 5:55 a.m. ET

In Georgia, protesters waving European Union flags have rallied against what they see as their pro-Russia leaders. Moldova’s government is pushing to join the bloc, enraging citizens hoping for closer relations with Moscow. Armenia, too, has reached out to Europe, angered that Moscow, a longtime ally, is courting its enemy, Azerbaijan.

Fueled in part by the Ukraine war, tensions have been mounting within some of the former lands of the Soviet Union, pitting those favoring closer relations with Russia against those orientated more toward Europe.

Many of those tensions predate the war, rooted in longstanding domestic struggles over power, money and other issues, but they have been amplified by geopolitics, with both Russia and the West pushing countries to choose a side.

Across the former Soviet Union “the whole context is now shaped by how the Ukraine war has radicalized competition between Russia and the West,” said Gerard Toal, author of “Near Abroad,” a study of Russia’s relations with former Soviet territories.

Fearful of losing influence, Moscow has issued blunt warnings to countries like Georgia and Moldova: Remember what happened in Ukraine. Without threatening to invade either country, it has pointed to the tumult and bloodshed that followed Ukraine’s tilt toward the West after a popular revolt in 2014 ousted its pro-Russian president.

Russia is also hoping that recent successes on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine can help reverse the many setbacks it suffered to its prestige and influence in a string of former Soviet states earlier in the war.

“Russian information campaigns have been fueling this idea that closer alignment with the West threatens a war that only Russia can win,” said Nicu Popescu, the former foreign minister of Moldova. “Everything depends on Ukraine.”

With the war’s outcome looking increasingly uncertain, “Russia is enjoying the West’s discomfort,” said Thomas de Waal, an expert on the former Soviet Union with Carnegie Europe, a research group.

A Ukrainian soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade in Serebryanka Forest, eastern Ukraine, in February.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Russia has much ground to regain, and some of its losses may be irreversible.

Distracted by the war and determined to expand relations with Azerbaijan, a rising energy power, Moscow last year alienated one of its closest allies, Armenia, by ordering Russian peacekeepers to stand aside when Azeri troops took over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed mountain enclave. Armenia later said it was considering applying to join the European Union and leaving a Moscow-led security pact.

Moldova has ramped up its efforts to join the European Union, which in 2022 granted it candidate status. Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Moldova to show American support for Ukraine and neighbors that could potentially be at risk.

But even in Georgia — which was invaded by Russia in 2008, lost 20 percent of its territory to Moscow-backed separatists and harbors deep anti-Russian sentiments — a substantial minority still want to improve at least economic ties with Russia.

“This is not because they like Russia but because they are afraid of Russia,” said Koba Turmanidze, director of the Caucasus Research Resource Center, a research group in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

A Russian Army truck driving through an Armenian border guard post on the road leading to Nagorno-Karabakh on Friday. Moscow last year alienated one of its closest military allies, Armenia, by ordering Russian peacekeepers to stand aside when Azeri troops took over the region.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Mr. de Waal of Carnegie Europe said that while Georgia wanted to stay out of the Ukraine conflict, “It sees that the war is blowing more in Russia’s direction. It is tilting more toward Russia while trying to stay nonaligned.”

The Georgian government, though officially striving to join the European Union, a goal widely supported by the population, has used fear of Russian retaliation to justify its refusal to join European sanctions against Moscow.

The governing party, Georgian Dream, Mr. Turmanidze said, would never say it is siding with Russia against Ukraine because “that would be political suicide,” given public hostility to Moscow. But it has taken steps, notably a controversial law on foreign influence that set off weeks of street protests, that “are Russian in style,” he added.

Maintaining influence over former Soviet lands, has been a goal of Moscow since the early 1990s but was given new emphasis in a revised “foreign policy concept” signed by President Vladimir V. Putin last year.

The document committed Russia to preventing “color revolutions,” Moscow’s term for popular uprisings “and other attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of Russia’s allies and partners” and “preventing and countering unfriendly action of foreign states.”

Casting recent street protests in Georgia as a replay of what, in Moscow’s view, was a C.I.A.-orchestrated coup in 2014 in Ukraine, the Russian foreign ministry warned last week that the demonstrations in Tbilisi were “just like what happened in Ukraine.”

The Russian foreign ministry warned last week that demonstrations in Tbilisi against the new law on foreign influence were “just like what happened in Ukraine.”Credit…Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters

And “look how the situation is developing in Moldova,” the ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, added, referring to tensions there ahead of an October referendum on joining the European Union. Opinion is divided in Moldova between those who favor closer integration with Europe and those looking to Russia.

“This looks like the very scenario that was prepared by Western masters for Ukraine,” Ms. Zakharova said.

The 2014 street protests in Kyiv that toppled Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, were triggered by public outrage over his rejection of a trade and political deal with the European Union that he had pledged to sign.

“Russia’s general narrative is that there is a geopolitical conspiracy by the West to subvert the sovereignty of independent states,” Mr. Toal said.

The West, too, has its own Ukraine-framed story, one that Mr. Blinken recited last week in Moldova.

“Moldovans are acutely aware that what happens in Ukraine matters not just to Ukrainians, but to Moldovans, too,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference with Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu. Left unchallenged, he said, Russia “would not stop at Ukraine.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, second from left, visited Moldova to show U.S. support for Ukraine and its neighbors who could potentially be at risk. Right of him are Prime Minister Dorin Recean and the U.S. ambassador to Moldova, Kent D. Logsdon.Credit…Pool photo by Vadim Ghirda

A few weeks earlier, customs officers at Moldova’s international airport found more than $1 million in cash in the luggage of some Russia-aligned politicians returning from Moscow.

Mr. Popescu, who stepped down as Moldova’s foreign minister in January and is now a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the money was for financing political activities ahead of the October referendum and a presidential election at the same time.

“You are allowed to do politics, but you cannot bring in bags of cash from Russia,” he said.

He said the danger of a direct military intervention in Moldova by Moscow, a serious fear at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has receded. But recent advances by Russian troops “are a worry,” he added. “They are still a long way from us, but everything hinges on the outcome of the war.”

The war has become the organizing principle around which even narrow domestic disputes now revolve, turning domestic quarrels into high-stakes geopolitical confrontations.

The recent tumult in Georgia over the foreign influence law was in many ways “a local power struggle between different political networks,” Mr. Toal said, but, the war turned it into a “battle shaped by geopolitics.”

But what protesters see as evidence of their government’s shift away from the West toward Russia is, in the view of some analysts, a sign of narrower concerns ahead of an October election — like getting a Swiss bank to unfreeze billions of dollars belonging to the country’s most powerful oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream party.

The 2014 street protests in Kyiv were triggered by public outrage over the president’s rejection of a landmark trade deal with the European Union that he had earlier pledged to sign.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Mr. Ivanishvili has been involved in a long dispute with Credit Suisse bank over his money. After winning several court cases and recovering some cash, the Ukraine war added a new hurdle with the 2022 freezing of $2.7 billion because of concerns over its potential Russian origin.

His party believes that Washington forced the freezing of the money to try to get Georgia to side with the West against Russia.

Whatever the truth, the financial blow made him more determined to confront his perceived domestic enemies whatever the cost, Mr. de Waal said.

“He is paranoid and thinks this is part of a worldwide conspiracy against him,” he said.

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