Most of the American bandwidth for developments in the former Soviet Union is being taken up these days by events in Ukraine. But in late February, something very interesting happened in Washington that had to do with Georgia.
The Russian-Ukrainian crisis over Crimea is forcing Turkey into a delicate balancing act: Ankara feels a need to be seen as a protector of the peninsula’s Tatar minority, yet it does not want to vex Russia’s paramount leader Vladimir Putin in a way that complicates Turkish-Russian economic arrangements.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis is putting the South Caucasus country of Georgia on a faster track toward closer ties with the European Union; less clear are the implications of the Crimean standoff for Georgia’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
After offering a coldly efficient example in Ukraine of the use of hard power, Russia’s paramount leader Vladimir Putin is turning his attention to shoring up Moscow’s soft power capabilities, namely keeping his vision for Eurasian unification on track. There are signs, however, that his Eurasian aspirations will be more difficult to fulfill than his Crimean land-grab.
Reaction in the South Caucasus to Russia’s armed occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula is conforming to a predictable pattern: the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan are staying silent, while officials in Georgia are offering full-throated criticism of Kremlin behavior.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis is having a profoundly unsettling effect on authoritarian-minded governments in Central Asia. On the one hand, they are keen to keep the forces unleashed by the Euromaidan movement at bay; on the other, they appear unnerved by the Kremlin’s power play.
Scenes of Russian troops taking control of Crimea might well lead one to believe that Russian leader Vladimir Putin holds most, if not all the cards in the unfolding Russian-Ukrainian crisis. Yet the Russian leader’s Crimea gambit should be seen as a reflection not of his strength, but of his feelings of insecurity.
At its easternmost tip, the border between the Crimean peninsula and Russia runs through a channel, where a forty-minute ferry ride connects the Ukrainian city of Kerch to the Russian side. In recent days, travelers to Kerch have been met by soldiers toting automatic weapons who don’t seem inclined to leave anytime soon.