Vladimir putin went to extraordinary lengths to secure a sphere of influence in the former soviet union, invading georgia and ukraine to try to bring them to heel. so the trouble mr putin is suddenly facing in his own neighbourhood is all the more remarkable. rarely has the russian president had to contend with so many fires in his backyard all at once.
In the space of two months, three of moscows closest allies among the former soviet republics have been thrown into turmoil, albeit for different reasons. in each instance, the kremlin has been in the uncomfortable position of responding to events rather than instigating them.
In the caucasus, armenia is again at war with azerbaijan over the disputed region of nagorno-karabakh. moscow was once able to contain the periodic hostilities between the two, but turkeys support for azerbaijan has challenged russias role as arbiter though mr putin, with frances emmanuel macron, secured a patchily-observed weekend truce.
In belarus and now kyrgyzstan, people have revolted against their leaders after disputed elections. despite a police crackdown, belarusians have continued to protest en masse against alexander lukashenko, their dictator of 26 years, who has stolen a sixth term in office. in kyrgyzstan, protesters are trying to push out their president for the third time in 15 years.
Belarus, kyrgyzstan and armenia are all members of the eurasian economic union and the collective security treaty organization, the moscow-led trade and military blocs. mr putin has pushed hard to expand and deepen the trade bloc but there have been few takers. the fighting in the south caucasus will test the credibility of his security club. it is ironic that after all russias efforts to weaken western multilateralism, its own structures look so brittle.
It would be premature to assume mr putin has lost his grip on the neighbourhood. he has faced bigger setbacks before. the kremlin feared fatal democratic contagion from the so-called coloured revolutions in georgia and ukraine. it twice failed to install or prop up a pro-russian leader in kyiv. it instead carved up the country, gaining territory but losing many ukrainian hearts and minds.
Mr putin has tended to exert less control over his allies than he might like. mr lukashenko resisted closer union with russia and toyed with warmer ties with the west. armenians turfed out their leader in 2018 after a decade of economic stagnation and authoritarian drift. kyrgyzstan has shown the limits of the russian model of so-called managed democracy.
Anti-russian sentiment has played little part so far in these upheavals. but it is becoming increasingly difficult for russia to preserve its hegemony in the ex-soviet space. other powers are increasing their gravitational pull on moscows satellites china in central asia, turkey in the caucasus and the eu for belarusians tired of autocracy and underdevelopment.
In the short term, turmoil in these countries gives mr putin an opportunity to tighten his grip. mr lukashenko is now wholly dependent on moscow for his political survival. armenia needs russian military help. but russias soft power appeal is thin. it can ill-afford to finance allies at the expense of its own people. the model of crony authoritarianism adopted by the former soviet republics is inherently unstable and increasingly liable to implode when public anger over corruption or denied rights boils over. as a leader already in power for 20 years and possibly another 16, this will weigh ever heavier on mr putins mind.