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Russia's long-held influence over former Soviet republics is starting to fade

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Russia's war in Ukraine has led to vast destruction and the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians. It has also had some effects in other parts of the former Soviet Union. For the past three decades, Russia has tried to mediate a border conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yet on a recent visit to Armenia, NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes found the Kremlin's influence is beginning to wane.

A note to listeners. This story includes the sound of gunfire.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: It's been nearly three years since the most recent full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MAYNES: Six weeks of bitter fighting in 2020 saw Azerbaijan seize back most of Nagorno-Karabakh, the majority ethnically Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan that's been the source of tensions between the countries for decades. Some argue Armenia's defeat fundamentally upended life and long-held geopolitical assumptions in the south Caucasus.

TIGRAN KHZMALYAN: The 44 days' war changed this country a lot.

MAYNES: Tigran Khzmalyan is the head of Armenia's pro-European integration party. He says the war shattered Armenians' long-held illusion they could rely on protection from Russia.

KHZMALYAN: Because it became crystal clear that we have no future as a Russian proxy.

MAYNES: Khzmalyan argues a majority of Armenians feel Russia failed to live up to its obligations to the country and, by extension, ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh under a shared regional security pact akin to NATO's Article 5. Instead, Moscow played mediator and settled into a peacekeeping role, one that's only grown more complicated in the past year.

TIGRAN GRIGORYAN: The war in Ukraine changed everything.

MAYNES: Tigran Grigoryan is a political analyst with the Regional Center for Democracy and Security in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. He says with the Kremlin distracted and militarily bogged down in Ukraine, the authorities in Azerbaijan are pushing to lock in additional gains at Armenia's expense.

GRIGORYAN: They perfectly understand that Russia will do its utmost not to get involved in another crisis somewhere else because they need to concentrate all their resources.

MAYNES: Grigoryan points to a confluence of events now working in Azerbaijan's favor, most critically, Russia's growing economic dependence on Azerbaijan and its closest ally, Turkey, as the Kremlin seeks to lessen the impact of Western sanctions. That's allowed Azerbaijan to press its leverage, most notably with the military blockade of the lone corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers.

GRIGORYAN: Azerbaijan sees a unique window of opportunity to actually exert military pressure on Armenia and to extort concessions that could be impossible to extort in different circumstances.

MAYNES: All of this has put Russia in a difficult spot, looking ineffectual in a region it's historically dominated and once again refusing aid to an Armenian ally it swore to defend. This week, Armenia's prime minister publicly threatened to abandon his country's security pact with Russia altogether, a once unthinkable affront to the Kremlin, says Vladimir Sotnikov of Russia's Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

VLADIMIR SOTNIKOV: At the end of the day, yes, we can say that Russia's influence in this Azeri-Armenian conflict, in Nagorno-Karabakh in particular and in the Caucasus in general somehow is waning.

MAYNES: Amid the growing power vacuum, notes Sotnikov, the U.S. and Europe are pushing their own peace initiatives and economic agendas.

SOTNIKOV: If Russia will be somehow excluded from this process - will be a big irritation. So we need just guarantees that the United States and the European Union wouldn't be finding themselves in the Caucasus.

MAYNES: Russian President Vladimir Putin seems aware of the danger, is looking to restore Russian influence, even as some Armenians say they've moved on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VOMA: Bakh, bakh, bakh, ba-bakh (ph), bakh.

MAYNES: In this video posted online, a civilian defense group known as VOMA, an Armenian abbreviation for the art of survival, holds military trainings in anticipation of the next war with Azerbaijan.

ARSHAK VARTYANOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Arshak Vartyanov, an instructor with VOMA, tells me he's not putting his faith in either Russia or the West. The defeat in 2020, he says, taught Armenians a hard lesson to count on themselves.

VARTYANOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: In fact, in Armenia's current struggles, Vartyanov sees parallels with Ukraine's fight against its larger and more powerful neighbor.

VARTYANOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "The Ukrainians received outside help only once they proved they could defend themselves, that they could fight," says Vartyanov. "Why," he adds, "should it be any different here?" Charles Maynes, NPR News, Yerevan, Armenia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.