Home News The tug-of-war between the Middle East and the West in the former...

The tug-of-war between the Middle East and the West in the former Soviet Union


In Georgia, Protesters Armenians waving EU flags have rallied against what they see as pro-Russian leaders. The Moldovan government is working to join the European Union, angering citizens who want closer ties with Moscow. Armenia has also reached out to Europe, angered by long-time ally Moscow’s overtures to its enemy Azerbaijan.

In part because of the war in Ukraine, tensions are rising in some former Soviet countries, pitting those that favor closer ties with Russia against those that lean toward Europe.

Many of the tensions existed long before the war, rooted in long-standing struggles over power, money and other issues, but have been exacerbated by geopolitical factors, with both Russia and the West pressuring countries to choose sides.

Gerard Toll, author of Near Neighbors, a study of Russia’s relations with former Soviet territories, said that in the former Soviet Union, “how the war in Ukraine intensified the competition between Russia and the West, and now this context shapes the whole of Russia.”

Fearing a loss of influence, Moscow has issued blunt warnings to countries like Georgia and Moldova: Remember what happened in Ukraine. Moscow has not threatened to invade either country, but has pointed to the unrest and bloodshed that followed a 2014 popular uprising that toppled a pro-Russian president and Ukraine’s move toward the West.

Russia also hopes that recent victories in eastern Ukraine will help reverse the many setbacks it suffered in prestige and influence in a range of former Soviet states early in the war.

“Russian propaganda has been fuelling the idea that getting closer to the West could lead to a war that only Russia can win,” said Nicu Popescu, a former Moldovan foreign minister. “Everything depends on Ukraine.”

As the outcome of the war becomes increasingly uncertain, “Russia is enjoying the West’s discomfort,” said Thomas de Waal, a former Soviet Union expert at Carnegie Europe.

Russia still has a lot of ground to recover, and some of the losses may be irreversible.

Moscow, bent on expanding ties with rising energy power Azerbaijan because of the war, last year alienated one of its closest allies, Armenia, by ordering Russian peacekeepers to stand aside as Azerbaijani troops took over. Nagorno-Karabakh Armenia later said it was considering applying for EU membership and withdrawing from a Moscow-led security pact.

Moldova is stepping up efforts to join the European Union, which granted it candidate country status in 2022. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Moldova to demonstrate U.S. support for Ukraine and its neighbors that may be at risk.

But even in Georgia — a country invaded by Russia in 2008, where 20 percent of its territory is occupied by Moscow-backed separatists and where anti-Russian sentiment runs high — there is a sizable minority that wants to at least improve economic ties with Russia.

“It’s not because they like Russia, it’s because they’re afraid of Russia,” said Koba Turmanidze, director of the Russian Council on Foreign Relations. Caucasian Studies Resource Center, A research team in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Carnegie Europe’s de Waal said that while Georgia wants to stay out of the Ukrainian conflict, “it sees the tide of the war shifting more and more toward Russia. It’s leaning more and more toward Russia while trying to remain nonaligned.”

Although the Georgian government is officially committed to joining the EU, its goal is Widely supported The country cited fears of Russian retaliation as its reason for refusing to join Europe in sanctions against Moscow.

Tumanidze said the ruling Georgian Dream party would never say it sided with Russia against Ukraine because “that would be political suicide” given public hostility toward Moscow. But it has taken some steps, notably a controversial Foreign Influence Law The move sparked weeks of street protests, which he added was “Russian style”.

Maintaining influence over former Soviet territories has been a goal of Moscow since the early 1990s, but the revised “Foreign Policy Concepts” It was signed by President Vladimir V. Putin last year.

The document commits 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 to “prevent and combat unfriendly foreign actions.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned last week that recent street protests in Georgia were a repeat of the 2014 coup in Ukraine, which Moscow believes was orchestrated by the CIA. The demonstrations in Tbilisi were “exactly like the coup in Ukraine.”

“Let’s see how things develop in Moldova,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova added, referring to tensions ahead of an October referendum on EU membership in a country divided between those who want closer integration with Europe and those who want to align with Russia.

“This looks like a scenario that the Western masters prepared for Ukraine,” Zakharova said.

In 2014, street protests in Kiev toppled Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, over his rejection of the Trade and political agreements He had promised to sign the deal with the EU.

“The overall Russian narrative is that there is a geopolitical conspiracy in the West to subvert the sovereignty of independent nations,” Toll said.

The West has its own Ukraine story, which Mr. Blinken told in Moldova last week.

“Moldovans are well aware that what’s happening in Ukraine concerns not only Ukrainians, but Moldovans as well,” Blinken said at a news conference with Moldovan President Maia Sandu. He said Russia “will not stop with Ukraine” if it is not blocked.

A few weeks ago, customs officials at Moldova’s international airport found more than $1 million in cash in the luggage of some pro-Russian politicians returning from Moscow.

Mr. Popescu, who resigned as Moldova’s foreign minister in January and is now a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the money would be used to finance political activities ahead of October’s referendum and presidential election.

“You can engage in politics, but you can’t bring back large sums of cash from Russia,” he said.

He said the danger of direct military intervention by Moscow in Moldova, which was a serious concern at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, had receded. But he added that recent advances by Russian forces were “worrying.” “They are still far away, but everything depends on the outcome of the war.”

War has become the organizing principle around which even narrow domestic disputes are fought, transforming domestic quarrels into high-stakes geopolitical confrontations.

Toll said the recent unrest in Georgia over the Foreign Influence Act was in many ways a “local power struggle between different political networks,” but the war turned it into a “geopolitically influenced battle.”

But some analysts believe that what protesters see as evidence of the government’s shift away from the West and toward Russia is actually a sign of narrower concerns ahead of October’s elections, like demands that Swiss banks release billions of dollars in assets belonging to Georgia’s most powerful oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream party.

Ivanishvili has a long-standing dispute with Credit Suisse over his funds. After winning several lawsuits and recovering some of his cash, the war in Ukraine has added a new obstacle: a freeze of $2.7 billion in funds in 2022 due to concerns that the funds may have come from Russia.

His party believes that Washington imposed the freeze on the funds in an attempt to get Georgia to side with the West against Russia.

Whatever the truth, De Waal said, the economic blow made him more determined to fight what he saw as domestic enemies at all costs.

“He’s paranoid that this is part of a global conspiracy against him,” he said.

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