In the former Soviet states, tug of war between East and West

In Georgia, protesters waving European Union flags rallied against what they see as their pro-Russian leaders. Moldova's government is pushing to join the bloc, infuriating citizens hoping for closer relations with Moscow. Armenia has also reached out to Europe, angered that longtime ally Moscow is courting its enemy Azerbaijan.

Fueled in part by the war in Ukraine, tensions have risen in some of the former Soviet Union's territories, pitting those who favor closer relations with Russia against those who are more European-oriented.

Many of these tensions predate the war, rooted in long-standing internal struggles over power, money and other issues, but have been amplified by geopolitics, with both Russia and the West pushing countries to choose sides to stay.

In the former Soviet Union, “the whole context is now shaped by how the war in Ukraine has radicalized the competition between Russia and the West,” said Gerard Toal, author of “Near Abroad,” a study of Russia's relations with the territories former Soviets.

Fearful of losing influence, Moscow issued a clear warning to countries like Georgia and Moldova: remember what happened in Ukraine. Without threatening to invade either country, he highlighted the turmoil and bloodshed that followed Ukraine's tilt toward the West after a popular uprising in 2014 ousted its pro-Russian president.

Russia also hopes that recent battlefield successes in eastern Ukraine can help reverse the numerous setbacks to its prestige and influence in a number of former Soviet states early in the war.

“Russian information campaigns have fueled the idea that closer alignment with the West threatens a war that only Russia can win,” said Nicu Popescu, Moldova's former foreign minister. “It all depends on Ukraine.”

With the war's outcome looking increasingly uncertain, “Russia is enjoying the West's discomfort,” said Thomas de Waal, an expert on the former Soviet Union at the Carnegie Europe research group.

Russia has a lot of ground to regain, and some of its losses may be irreversible.

Distracted by war and determined to expand relations with Azerbaijan, a rising energy power, Moscow last year alienated one of its closest allies, Armenia, by ordering Russian peacekeepers to stand aside when troops Azerbaijanis have taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed mountainous enclave. Armenia later said it was considering joining the European Union and leaving a security pact led by Moscow.

Moldova has stepped up its efforts to join the European Union, which granted it candidate status in 2022. Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Moldova to show American support for Ukraine and neighboring countries that could potentially be at risk.

But even in Georgia – which was invaded by Russia in 2008, has lost 20% of its territory to Moscow-backed separatists and harbors deep anti-Russian sentiments – a substantial minority still wants to at least improve economic ties with Russia .

“This is not because they like Russia, but because they are afraid of Russia,” said Koba Turmanidze, director of the Caucasus Research Resource Center, a research group in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

Carnegie Europe's Mr. de Waal said that while Georgia wants to stay out of the conflict in Ukraine, “it sees the war blowing more in Russia's direction. He is leaning more towards Russia as he tries to remain non-aligned.”

The Georgian government, while officially aspiring to join the European Union, a goal widely supported by the population, has used the fear of Russian retaliation to justify its refusal to join the European sanctions against Moscow.

The ruling Georgian Dream party, Turmanidze said, would never say it was siding with Russia against Ukraine because “it would be political suicide,” given public hostility towards Moscow. But he has adopted measures, particularly a controversial foreign influence law that sparked weeks of street protests, that “are Russian-style,” he added.

Maintaining influence over the territories of the former Soviet Union has been a goal of Moscow since the early 1990s, but it was given new prominence in the revised “foreign policy concept” signed by President Vladimir V. Putin last year.

The document committed Russia to prevent “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 counter hostile actions of foreign states.” .

Viewing the recent street protests in Georgia as a repeat of what Moscow says was a 2014 CIA-orchestrated coup in Ukraine, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned last week that the demonstrations in Tbilisi were “precisely like what happened in Ukraine.”

And “look at how the situation is evolving in Moldova”, added the ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, referring to tensions ahead of the October referendum on membership of the European Union. In Moldova, opinions are divided between those in favor of closer integration with Europe and those looking towards Russia.

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

The 2014 street protests in Kiev that toppled Ukraine's president-elect, Viktor F. Yanukovych, were sparked by public outrage over his rejection of a trade and political deal with the European Union that he had pledged to sign.

“Russia's overall narrative is that there is a geopolitical conspiracy by the West to subvert the sovereignty of independent states,” Toal said.

The West also has its own Ukraine-centric story, the one Blinken played out last week in Moldova.

“Moldavians are acutely aware that what happens in Ukraine is not only important for Ukrainians, but also for Moldovans,” Blinken said at a news conference with Moldova's president, Maia Sandu. If left unchallenged, she said, Russia “would not stop at Ukraine.”

A few weeks earlier, customs officers at Moldova's international airport had found more than $1 million in cash in the luggage of pro-Russian politicians returning from Moscow.

Popescu, who resigned as Moldova's foreign minister in January and is now a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the money was to finance political activities ahead of October's referendum and presidential elections at the same time.

“You can do politics, but you can't bring bags of cash from Russia,” he said.

He said the danger of direct military intervention in Moldova by Moscow, which was a serious fear at the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has receded. But the recent progress of Russian troops “is worrying,” he added. “They are still far from us, but everything depends on the outcome of the war.”

War has become the organizing principle around which even the narrowest internal disputes now revolve, transforming internal squabbles into high-stakes geopolitical clashes.

The recent turmoil in Georgia over the foreign influence law was in many ways “a local power struggle between different political networks,” Toal said, but the war has turned it into a “battle shaped by geopolitics.”

But what protesters see as evidence of their government's shift away from the West and toward Russia is, some analysts say, a sign of narrower concerns ahead of October's elections — such as convincing a Swiss bank to release billions of dollars belonging to the village. the most powerful oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the Georgian Dream party.

Mr. Ivanishvili has been involved in a long-running dispute with the Credit Suisse bank over his money. After winning several lawsuits and recovering some of the money, the war in Ukraine has added a new hurdle with $2.7 billion frozen in 2022 due to concerns over its potential Russian origin.

His party believes Washington forced the money freeze to try to get Georgia to side with the West against Russia.

Whatever the truth, the financial blow has made him more determined to confront his perceived domestic enemies at any cost, de Waal said.

“He is paranoid and thinks this is part of a worldwide conspiracy against him,” she said.

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