Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to have reverberations far beyond the deadly battlefields occupied by Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine. Recent weeks have seen shifting political allegiances and eruptions of violence emerge in Russia’s near-abroad as Vladimir Putin remains preoccupied with regaining the momentum in Ukraine. These developments have forced Moscow to make difficult tradeoffs and steep concessions in other key foreign policy areas. Azerbaijan has renewed attempts to seize more Armenian territory, disrupting the fragile peace brokered by Russia following the 2020 Karabakh War. Likewise, Tajikistan appears to be taking advantage of Moscow’s preoccupation with cross-border incursions of its own into neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
The uptick in violence comes as Russia’s political influence throughout all of Central Asia and the Caucuses looks to be waning. There has been lukewarm support for Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine among its former satellites, with many countries opting to remain silent. Some states, such as Kazakhstan, have openly rejected aiding Russia, refusing military and economic support as Moscow fights through Western sanctions. Commenting on the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting, many observers noted the treatment Vladimir Putin received. Specifically, how some leaders appeared to keep the Russian president waiting – a ploy often used by Putin himself – as a nod to Russia’s diminished standing in the regional grouping.
This and similar incidents show the growing influence rival powers have been gaining in regions Russia has traditionally dominated. China is increasingly competing with Russia in places like Eurasia and Africa, supporting large-scale infrastructure developments and deepening its economic ties. Even regionally, Turkey has increased its infrastructure investments in Central Asia and grown more boisterous in supporting Azerbaijan militarily in the Caucuses. Moscow’s ability to respond is significantly hamstrung by its ongoing struggles in Ukraine. It is increasingly clear that Russia cannot maintain its once unchallenged hegemony in these regions as it loses ground in Ukraine and Western sanctions slowly deteriorate its economy.
Violent Resurgence Along the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan Border
Tajikistan’s recent incursion into Kyrgyz areas of the Fergana Valley reflects the longstanding political turbulence often afflicting Central Asian countries. Border disputes have long characterized the ambiguous border region between the two countries. Clashes over land and water resources have intensified as practices such as irrigated farming, a critical economic sector for both countries, become increasingly difficult. Water scarcity is likely to continue due to glacial melting related to global warming. This has resulted in less water run-off for existing agriculture.
Some have also speculated that the incursion into Kyrgyz territory is the result of internal political shifts in Tajikistan. As the current President Rahmon seeks to transfer authority to his son, Rustam Emomali, domestic clampdowns, and clashes along the border help the regime to consolidate control. That these apparent unresolvable tensions continue between two members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) demonstrates the inherent weakness of the security arrangements meant to underpin the region’s stability.
Tajikistan, for its part, has pointed to the recent agreement between the Kyrgyz Republic and Turkey to house a new plant to produce the Turkish Bayraktar TB-12 aerial drone as a deal that upsets the security balance between the two countries. The popularity of these drones due to their use in Ukraine has many states seeking them out to bolster their own security. The Tajik government has asserted the purchase of these drones along with additional armaments, is among the causes for renewed fighting.
Violence along the border has fluctuated as Russia has been slowly reducing its troop levels in each country to supplement its forces in Ukraine. The lack of available military personnel in the region would certainly limit Russia’s ability to quell any increased violence and provide an opportunity for local leaders to settle territorial scores without fear of intervention from Moscow. This is likely why Russia has looked to solutions that maintain the status quo and quickly reach negotiated ceasefires rather than address the conflict’s root causes.
The effect of Russia’s absence on regional economic organizations should also be concerning for Putin. Stabilizing tensions between Russia’s biggest trading partners such as Kyrgyzstan, a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU), should arguably be an essential consideration for Russia. Although, this would only bolster the theory that Russia is unable to commit additional efforts to additional conflicts where a long-term solution is also elusive.
Renewed Hostilities Between Azerbaijan and Armenia
The resumption of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia has left Russia in a precarious position. In many ways, this conflict represents an even more unambiguous example of the structural and perceived decline of Russian influence in its near abroad. Armenia has relied on its CSTO and EEAU memberships to cement its security ties with Russia. However, Moscow is clearly weighing the costs of intervening on behalf of the weaker Armenia against a valuable economic and security partner in Baku. Azerbaijan’s vital oil resources and significant military capability have likely left Putin with few options other than pushing for a negotiated settlement to be achieved through Armenian concessions. Indeed, this is likely why Russia balked at Armenia’s calls to trigger article four of the CSTO and refusal to engage peacekeeping forces despite Azeri expansion into areas beyond Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia’s absence in the renewed fighting has also opened the door for competing powers in the region to become involved. Early signs of this could be seen at the end of the 2020 Karabakh conflict, as Turkey was able to insert itself among the peacekeeping force with Russia between the two combatants. Azerbaijan has relied heavily on Turkish military resources and expertise as it has grown more assertive in the region. In response, Putin has demurred, referring to Erdogan as a reliable partner in the region. This is a significant departure from the days when Moscow’s word loomed larger than any other in maintaining peace in the region.
Baku has clearly decided now is the time to leverage Russia’s focus on Ukraine to press for objectives it failed to achieve following the 2020 war. One goal President Aliyev may be hoping to seize upon is connecting Azerbaijan to its enclave of Nakhichevan. Aliyev may be looking to achieve this through establishing economic corridors or even outright territorial annexation. However, unlike the Kyrgyz-Tajik hostilities involving two CSTO states, Russia has clear-cut security obligations to its CSTO ally, Armenia. However, it appears these obligations are being sidelined for larger political purposes. With Russia signaling its hesitation to become involved with yet another conflict along its border, this may well be the final straw that demonstrates the CSTO to be an ineffectual organization devoid of the ability to carry out its duties when Russia is not capable of taking on the lion’s share of responsibility.
A Defiant Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan presents possibly one of the most significant long-term geopolitical shifts emerging from the Ukraine invasion. In an op-ed penned by the Kazakh president in September, Tokayev explained, “There is simply no viable alternative to globalization, interdependence and the international rules-based order.” He followed up those comments with a speech at the UN General Assembly that appeared to dismiss many of Moscow’s grievances with the West. This break could be the most severe threat to many of Russia’s international organizations created as an alternative to Western institutions.
As the EEAU’s second-largest economy behind Russia, Kazakhstan is a critical partner for Moscow and one that Putin hoped would help him to blunt Western sanctions. Instead, Tokayev has publicly opposed Russia on a number of issues. Earlier this year, Tokayev offered Kazakh hydrocarbons to help stabilize volatile global energy markets. It has also conspicuously adhered to sanctions levied on Russia, stating that “sanctions are sanctions” on Russian television. Astana has also been quick to disavow many of Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, declaring it would not recognize the breakaway regions in Ukraine claimed by Moscow. Kazakhstan has also implemented laws aimed at curbing outward support of the Russian invasion, forbidding the appearance of the Russian Z symbol along with other public shows of support from civilians in the country.
These actions have left many of those in Russia frustrated with the political leadership in Astana. Several Russian political figures, including former President Dimitry Medvedev, even appeared to be attempting to intimidate Kazakhstan with calls to protect “ethnic Russian” living in Kazakhstan – sentiments similar to those that preceded Russian military action in other countries like Georgia and Ukraine.
What may result from these ongoing shifts in political alliances is still very much up in the air as Russia faces more setbacks in Ukraine. For now, Russia is far too consumed with trying to maintain control over its recent annexations in Ukraine. The resources spent by Russia simply to stave off Ukrainian advances have allowed many of the latent conflicts in its periphery to arise seemingly all at once. Likewise, Russia’s economic woes have forced Putin to prioritize partnerships that maximize his energy leverage over Europe at the expense of the political ties created by Russia’s longstanding international partnerships. The leaders throughout these regions will likely continue to take advantage of the situation to achieve political goals as they see Russia’s situation grow even more tenuous. Russia’s most significant competitors in these situations are also continuing to seize on this opportunity.
While Putin has so far been successful in shifting its energy exports away from Europe, many Asian countries also benefit from the steep discounts they receive for oil and gas. And, unfortunately for Putin, this arrangement only further forces him to accept greater influence from powers such as China in Russia’s periphery. Despite declarations of a strong partnership with Russia, China is becoming further enmeshed in the geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucuses. It is notable that President Xi stopped first in Kazakhstan on his way to the SCO meeting and also declared China would ensure the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan moving forward.
All of these factors are certainly weighing on Putin as he seeks an answer to the quagmire he currently faces in Ukraine. This is likely why he continues to double down on the invasion rather than look for a way to declare some form of victory and consolidate his gains as they are now. The issue with this strategy, however, is that this leaves Putin with progressively worse scenarios as time goes on. Leaders will see continued military failures and economic distresses as a signal that Russia is hobbled for the foreseeable future. At this point, that determination may have already been made. And what is worse for Putin, it may be correct.
[Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
*Nicholas Fegreus is a graduate student at George Washington University in Washington D.C. He is an M.A. candidate majoring in Security Policy Studies with a focus on U.S. National Security. He is also a recent recipient of the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship, where he spent the summer of 2022 studying the Russian language in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.