Former Soviet states eye opportunities as Russia struggles in Ukraine

Moscow’s influence in the Caucasus and central Asia is being unravelled by its ‘special military operation’

The rout of the Russian army in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region seems likely to be a turning point in Kyiv’s battle to kick Russian troops out of the country, but it may also cause much broader fallout for Moscow in the wider region, as other former Soviet countries witness what appears to be the limits of Moscow’s capabilities.

“The power of the Russian flag has declined considerably, and the security system across the former Soviet space does seem to be broken,” said Laurence Broers, associate fellow at Chatham House.

This week, with attention focused across the Black Sea in Ukraine, fighting on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia killed about 100 troops after Azerbaijan shelled a number of towns in Armenia, with both sides accusing each other of “provocations”.

Analysts said Azerbaijan had decided to test the waters while Russia was struggling in Ukraine. Russia has traditionally supported Armenia in its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over the three decades since the fall of communism.

“Azerbaijan feels quite confident in this geopolitical moment, and particularly right now during the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” said Tom de Waal, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “This seems absolutely aimed at Russia as much as it is at Armenia, testing Russia’s commitment to defend Armenia.”

Russia said it had brokered a ceasefire on Tuesday. Both parties agreed to the deployment of a Russian peacekeeping force as part of a truce to end the full-fledged war in 2020.

Armenia has appealed for military backup from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russia-dominated mutual defence pact, but Moscow is reluctant to intervene directly.

“Russia is clearly equivocating, both because it’s massively overstretched in Ukraine and because it doesn’t want to pick a fight with Azerbaijan at this point,” said de Waal.

Separately, clashes broke out on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on Wednesday morning, killing one border guard and wounding five others in Tajikistan, according to local reports.

While that specific incident is not directly related to the war in Ukraine, and though Russia has traditionally had good relations with both countries, analysts say that the Russian invasion has completely changed the balance of power in a region that for years has been a battleground for Russian, Chinese and western influence, and put Russia on the back foot.

In January this year, when a wave of protests rocked Kazakhstan, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, approved the deployment of a Russian-led CSTO force to the country. The mission was brief and did not engage in any combat, but was enough to shore up the presidency of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

With Kazakhstan’s leader indebted to Moscow for the help, Russian forces keeping the peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Kremlin massing troops on the border with Ukraine, Putin seemed to have more influence than ever in the former Soviet space.

Much of that has unravelled during the course of Putin’s bloody “special military operation” in Ukraine, and particularly in the last week as Ukraine’s rapid advance threw Putin’s war plans into disarray.

“We are seeing the collapse of Russia’s reputation as a security patron, which is happening both at the material level with the massive force concentration on Ukraine, but also on the subjective level of the reputation of Russian security guarantees,” said Broers.

Across the region, the invasion of Ukraine has shocked and worried Russian allies, but also emboldened them to take a tougher stance with Moscow.

Kazakhstan, traditionally a close ally, has infuriated many in Moscow by trying to remain neutral over Ukraine, refusing to recognise the Russian-controlled territories in east Ukraine and promising not to aid Russia’s efforts to circumvent international sanctions.

This led some in Moscow to question Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, including the former Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who called it an “artificial state” in a post he later deleted.

But while Kazakhstan remains wary of the longer-term threats from its bigger neighbour and supposed ally, there are others ready to step in and fill the gap. On Wednesday, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, arrived in Kazakhstan on what is thought to be his first trip abroad since the start of the Covid pandemic.

“We will continue to resolutely support Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said, in a statement that seemed partially designed as a rebuke to the Kremlin.

On Thursday and Friday, Xi and Putin will attend a summit of heads of state from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a loose regional security grouping, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

The leaders of India and Iran are also expected to attend, and the summit will be a chance for Putin to demonstrate that there are still major world powers sympathetic to Russia.

But it is also a chance for countries in the region to highlight that while Russia remains a strong regional player, the power dynamic has shifted.

On Wednesday, Russia designated one of Tajikistan’s opposition parties a terrorist movement, a move which Moscow has long resisted, and which will help the country’s dictatorial government to have any citizen it wants extradited from Russia.

“Many central Asian countries see that Russia needs them more than ever before, and they’re now trying to squeeze as much as they can,” said Temur Umarov, fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Shaun Walker

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

How political leaders in former Soviet states threaten press freedom

Roy Greenslade considers a list of problems faced by media trying to report on what's happening in eastern European and Asian countries

Roy Greenslade

23, Jul, 2012 @11:02 AM

Article image
Post-Soviet world: what you need to know about the 15 states
From Armenia to Uzbekistan, your guide to the countries that rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union

Justin Burke for Eurasianet, part of the New East network

09, Jun, 2014 @4:00 AM

Article image
Edginess and a reluctance to rattle Russia's cage in former Soviet republics
Alec Luhn and Joanna Lillis examine the reaction to Russia's takeover of the Crimean peninsula

Alec Luhn and Joanna Lillis

08, Mar, 2014 @12:05 AM

Article image
From Soviet Union to New East: welcome to our new network
Follow the Guardian and our partners for news and analysis from the 15 countries that rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union

09, Jun, 2014 @3:55 AM

Article image
Ex-Soviet countries on front line of Russia's media war with the west
The Kremlin’s plans for the global expansion of state media have been greeted with suspicion, especially in the countries of the former USSR

Alec Luhn in Moscow

06, Jan, 2015 @9:28 AM

Article image
25 years with the Soviet Union, 25 without. We want to hear your stories
We’re looking for people who have had the unique experience of living at least half their lives under the USSR

Maeve Shearlaw

24, Aug, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
'We want a voice': women fight for their rights in the former USSR
Campaigners have their work cut out in the patriarchal societies that dominate the region, especially where the Kremlin’s family values agenda holds sway

Joanna Lillis in Almaty

08, Mar, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
Back in the USSR: Belarusian leader who helped bury Soviet Union says it is making a comeback
Stanislav Shushkevich hosted the 1991 summit at which Belarus, Ukraine and Russia signed the USSR into obsolescence. Now, he says he believes the Soviet order is returning

Mark Rice-Oxley in Minsk

10, Jun, 2014 @5:00 AM

Article image
Why are migrants fleeing Moscow?
Perhaps the real wonder – with low wages, strict new permits and openly racist apartment listings – is that any of the millions of Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tajiks who power Moscow’s huge economy are staying at all

Alec Luhn in Moscow

08, Jun, 2015 @12:00 PM

Article image
Вас приветствует Сеть «Новый восток»
Читайте в Guardian и на страницах наших партнеров эксклюзивную информацию о 15 государствах, образовавшихся на руинах Советского Союза.

New East network

09, Jun, 2014 @4:00 AM