Putin has become tangled in his own web

The problem with freezing conflicts in a defective fridge is that after a while they start to stink. That’s what happened to the nasty ancestral feud between the Armenians and Azeris in the rugged mountain terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh. Vladimir Putin slammed them into the freezer drawer marked “Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, Transnistria and miscellaneous other territories — to be consumed at leisure” and forgot. Now he is faced with a full-scale war on the southern borders of Russia that could soon turn into a geopolitical flashpoint.

That’s how imperial power unravels: the centre neglects the periphery, blood is spilt and strength ebbs away from the leader. When he came to power 20 years ago Putin had two aims. The first was to replace the imploding Soviet Union with a web of influence across the old empire. It was spun with crafty diplomacy, targeted arms sales and energy supplies; its goal was to stave off Russian decline. Having created a strong, stable state he would then project the Kremlin’s authority around the world, seizing opportunities where he could. The intelligence services reported back when they detected signs of American withdrawal in every continent. Cybertroops probed the chinks in western firewalls.

Putin began his time in the Kremlin with a blunderbuss military operation against Chechnya in the northern Caucasus. After the flattening of Grozny and largely unpunished atrocities against civilians, he handed over the running of this low-intensity war to the GRU and the pro-Russian Chechens of the thuggish Ramzan Kadyrov, who remains a loyal vassal. Chechnya fell silent, was deemed “stable” and was placed in Putin’s deep-freeze.

To the west, he prodded Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus towards a formal union with Russia. He snatched Crimea from Ukraine and stirred unrest in the Donbas, thus ensuring Ukraine would be written off as too unstable to become a full member of Nato. To the east, he encouraged central Asian dictators to enrich themselves in return for fealty to the Kremlin.

Now that system of delegation to loyalist henchmen, the founding principle of Putinism, is falling apart. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian territory which Azerbaijan says is rightfully its own, perhaps 1,500 have died since fighting began in late September. Ceasefires have collapsed because Putin can no longer be trusted as an honest broker. He supplies weapons to both Armenia, with whom he has a mutual security pact, and Azerbaijan. If the war spreads across the border to Iran, Putin will have an even deeper conflict of interest since he is counting on selling bumper deliveries of weapons to Tehran now that the arms embargo against the regime has been lifted.

Turkey meanwhile is supplying surveillance and armed suicide drones to Azerbaijan. They are ripping Armenian tanks open like tin cans. Otherwise it is chiefly a kind of trench warfare. Azerbaijan wants to use its Turkish high tech to take the ethnic Armenian territory which the Azeris say is rightfully theirs. Nagorno-Karabakh has been effectively independent since Armenia won the last war in the 1990s and displaced hundreds of thousands of Azeris.

Soon the Armenians will turn to Putin for more weapons and he will be put on the spot. He can’t escalate a war, tip it in Armenia’s favour, while trying to patch up a quarrel that threatens the stability of his southern borders. It would, for one thing, push Azerbaijan into a permanent axis with Turkey, which is already at loggerheads with Moscow in northern Syria and Libya.

Perhaps Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought this was going to be the first major drone-led blitzkrieg; instead its involvement will certainly ensure a long war. Armenians are bound together by the collective memory of the 1915 “great catastrophe” — the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. In the First World War Armenian volunteers joined the Tsar’s Caucasian army against the Turks. Their hope was to win their own independent homeland under Russian protection after the war. That’s not something that will be easily shaken off.

This is part of the broader paralysis of Vladimir Putin. He is surrounded by seemingly unwinnable conflicts on his doorstep. He finds Lukashenko embarrassing and ducked out of at least one meeting with him in Moscow, yet under pressure from Minsk he has put the Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, exiled in Lithuania, on the Russian wanted list. If he wants quiet on Russia’s western front, he has decided, Lukashenko has to be propped up.

In Kyrgyzstan, popular anti-corruption protests have toppled the third president since 2005. Neighbouring China is wooing potential new leaders with promises of Covid-19 vaccines. Suddenly, to secure the east, Putin has to compete more actively with China for influence in his own backyard.

Is he sleeping soundly in the Kremlin, I wonder? Technically he can hang on to power until 2036. In fact, a new generation is pushing its way up. In Khabarovsk, in Siberia and physically close to China, there have been months of street protests on behalf of a popular governor who the demonstrators say has been framed for murder.

One plausible theory is that the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned to stop him bringing his ingenious protest methods to Siberian townships. If that’s true it’s a measure of how far the Putin circle has failed to hear the rumble of discontent in provincial cities from those frustrated by the deep problems that have been put on ice by the former KGB spy who never quite came in from the cold.

Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.

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