The Tsar’s throne trembles – as the consequences of Putin’s war haunt Russia in the Caucasus

It is not too much to say that Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations over Ukraine have birthed a new era. At the strategic level, the Russian President is guilty of three seminal errors.

First, his battle plan for invading Ukraine was far too byzantine – a fussy three-pronged assault that quickly bogged down partly as a result of this very complexity.

Second, he didn’t believe that Ukraine was truly a nation, that the country (particularly its Russian-speaking eastern portion) would rally around its beleaguered government in Kiev, let alone heroically fight for it.

Third, the Kremlin didn’t count on quick and decisive Western support for Ukraine, embodied in the crippling sanctions imposed on a shocked Russia. These three dramatic miscalculations led to the failure of the Russian blitzkrieg.

But the war, far from making little geostrategic sense as much as the British commentariat presently opines – the very same people who blithely assured us that the invasion wouldn’t happen in the first place – is eminently explicable in realist terms.

Like his hero, Peter the Great, the present Russian Tsar wants to restore Russian prestige by resurrecting a very old, organic geo-political concept that has protected ‘Mother Russia’ for centuries, that of strategic depth.

When Russia has been successful in the past, it has arrayed a series of satellite countries in front of it, providing itself with geographic space as invaders have come on. In traversing the great distances from their homelands through the satellites and then, at last, entering the vast Russian steppes, the invaders have been swallowed up by the immensity of the country itself.

Indeed, Russian defenders have three times (against Charles XII of Sweden in the eighteenth century, Napoleon in the nineteenth century, and Hitler in the twentieth century) traded land for time, and then let the Russian winter do its fearful work. It is neither odd nor anachronistic of Putin to wish to re-establish either Russia’s great power status, or the strategic depth paradigm that underwrites it.

Again, looking historically, the invasion of Ukraine is not an isolated event. Instead, Putin has been setting about this plan for the entirety of his time in power. He has restored traditional Russian influence in the Balkans. In saving the dictator Alexander Lukashenko from his people last year, he has made Belarus a firm satrapy of Moscow. Following his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and after successfully brokering an end to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war of last year, the Kremlin was back as the dominant force in the Caucasus region.

Even the old naval base at Tartus has been reclaimed, following Russia’s successful intervention in the bloody Syrian Civil War. But the final piece of the puzzle, the jewel in the crown of any strategic depth strategy, must leave Moscow with a pliant Ukrainian client state next door, rather than the pro-western regime which presently exists there. That is why Putin raised the sword and rolled the dice; but in failing in his initial blitzkrieg, he has greatly endangered his other quasi-imperial gains.

In settling the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 2021, Putin emerged as the kingmaker of the Caucasus. Its recent slide back to tension reflects the waning of Russian influence over the region.

The six-week war of last year over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh—an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan that has been dominated for a generation by Yerevan—resulted in a surprising Azerbaijani victory. The bloody conflict (up to 6600 were killed) was dominated by Baku’s use of new technology, specifically Israeli- and Turkish-manufactured drones, which routed the antiquated Armenian forces. Much of Nagorno-Karabakh, de facto in Armenian hands since the 1990s, reverted to Azerbaijani control.

Before its traditional ally, Armenia, was wholly militarily humiliated, Putin jumped into the fray, organising a ceasefire, which was secured by Russia placing 2000 soldiers along the line of contact between the two sides during a cooling off period.

Further, Putin has cleverly managed the diplomacy so that both sides are beholden to Moscow, with the Kremlin emerging as the steadfast friend of Yerevan, and the newfound friend of Baku, traditionally the ally of Turkey.

However, with the Russian cat away, the local mice will play. Clashes on March 24th-25th occurred along the line of control, with Moscow accusing Azerbaijan of violating the truce. While both Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, and Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, agreed to peace talks brokered by Charles Michel, the EU Council President, in Brussels this week, it is likely the old great game in the region is afoot, as Russia’s increasing weakness is palpably clear to all.

Given their substantial losses in Ukraine, Putin has been forced to transfer troops away from its two sponsored, separatist enclaves in the nearby country of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for use as reinforcements in the current war. Surely Azerbaijan is watching like a hawk as to whether the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh will be the next to go.

Traditionally allied to Turkey, perpetually wary of Moscow’s influence in the Caucasus, and supremely confident after their military victory of last year, it is clear that Azerbaijan is probing Russia’s commitment to the region, given the dumpster fire in Ukraine. With the modern-day Tsar’s powers ebbing, the rest of his satellite strategy for retaining its great power status is increasingly in peril as Baku clearly aspires to finish the job, taking the rest of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Even in quiescent Georgia, which Putin dismembered following a short war in 2008, recent political tremors are indicative of Russia’s increasing weakness. South Ossetia, a small enclave in the north of the country of only 50,000 people, plans to take steps to formally join next-door Russia itself, to the strenuous objections of Georgia.

Anatoly Bibilov, the President of the breakaway republic, recently announced his intention to hold a referendum ‘linked to the window of opportunity opened in the current situation,’ meaning the Ukraine war. Given that the Russian-speaking enclave has strong historical ties to North Ossetia, already formally a part of Russia, a successful referendum outcome would be a foregone conclusion.

However, it is another symbol of Russian weakness, not strength. In essence, Moscow is engineering this gambit to bank its winnings from 2008, even as it is being forced to withdraw some of the 10,000 troops it put in place in both separatist enclaves following Russia’s successful prosecution of the 2008 war. As its power in the Caucasus wanes, today’s Tsar is trying to salvage what he can from Russia’s strategic depth strategy.

War always brings a myriad of unintended consequences. The strategic irony is that, in this case, even as Putin strove with a successful lightning invasion of Ukraine to complete his life’s work of restoring strategic depth for Russia’s defense, in failing he has imperiled the other satellites he has already managed to dominate. It is not just a pliant Ukraine Putin has lost. Indeed, as events in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia show, the whole Tsarist edifice Putin has painstakingly put in place is now in the greatest of danger.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home

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