December 21, 2022

IntelBrief: Russia’s Influence on its Southern Flank Eroding Sharply

Alexander Nemenov/Pool Photo via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused many of the states in Central Asia and the Caucasus to distance themselves from President Vladimir Putin.
  • Although wary of Putin’s intentions, the region’s leaders remain engaged with him and some of them continue to depend on Russian military forces.
  • Several regional leaders blame the Ukraine invasion for causing the Kremlin to abrogate or mismanage its security commitments to them.
  • The regional shift away from Moscow is benefitting China, Turkiye, European powers, and the United States.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated a pre-existing policy shift by countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus – states on Russia’s southern border that, with the exception of mostly Christian Armenia and Georgia, are Muslim-inhabited and Turkic-speaking. (Tajikistan is mostly Persian speaking.) No matter their ethnic or religious composition, countries in the region are still struggling to emerge from the legacy of the former Soviet Union. Many of these former Soviet republics remain integrated into Moscow-dominated security structures and still depend on the Kremlin to mediate disputes among them or to protect them from external threats - such as those resulting from the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Russia provides protection, while also exercising leverage, by maintaining military bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia. In January 2022, Moscow sent troops to help Kazakhstan’s government suppress a significant domestic uprising spawned by surging fuel prices and longstanding grievances against corruption and government favoritism. Despite their continuing security linkages to Moscow, many of the region’s leaders have long sought to diversify their foreign relationships away from the evident failures of Russia’s corrupt oligarch-dominated economy and toward more dynamic economic models demonstrated by China, the United States, and European Union countries.

The Ukraine invasion has sharply eroded Moscow’s influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus by inflaming regional fears of Russian intent while exposing the Kremlin’s military weaknesses. The net effect of the invasion has been to expand opportunities for nearby and outside powers, particularly China and Turkiye, to expand their influence in the region. Russia justified its Ukraine invasion, in part, as an effort to protect pro-Russian and Russian-speaking citizens in Ukraine and unify an ahistorical version of the Russian Orthodox church. Like Ukraine, the Central Asian and Caucasian countries have significant populations of Russian-origin citizens that Putin could use as justification to invade their countries. Officials in Georgia note parallels to the Ukrainian experience; in 2008, Russian forces helped pro-Russian separatists seize the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (roughly 20% of Georgian territory). Moreover, historic migration patterns have reversed: after Putin’s decision to mobilize additional forces for the faltering war effort in Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians have emigrated to Central Asia and the Caucasus (as well as to Europe, Turkiye, and the United States.) Such demographic shifts continue to inflame, and perhaps worsen, fears in the region of Moscow’s intentions, and push countries to deepen ties with other powers.

Some regional leaders have cited Moscow’s failing intervention in Ukraine as distracting the Kremlin from fulfilling its security commitments. Leaders of Armenia, a close Russia ally, assert that Azerbaijan, backed by Turkiye and armed with Ankara’s armed drones, took advantage of Russian military involvement in Ukraine to escalate attacks on Armenian border forces as part of the longstanding dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Reflecting Yerevan’s view that Moscow failed to come to its defense, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s refused to sign the final declaration of the annual meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led security bloc, in late November. Putin’s presence at the CSTO meeting was met with anti-war protests by both Armenian citizens and emigrants from Russia. At an earlier security-related multilateral meeting in September – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand – some regional leaders left Putin waiting for their scheduled meetings with him. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is leading a process of cautious political reforms that allow ethnic and religious identities greater space in civil society, appeared to snub Putin by sending his prime minister to the airport to greet the Russian leader. Some experts hold Russia’s overriding focus on Ukraine responsible for a renewal of Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border clashes in September, during which nearly 100 people were killed and thousands displaced. Despite Moscow’s opposition to a U.S. military presence in Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan held discussions this year with U.S. officials about resuming hosting U.S. forces on their territory to compensate for the loss of a U.S. presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Regional leaders have also spurned new economic partnerships with Moscow, reflecting the erosion of Russia’s viability as an economic partner. The Ukraine war has resulted in sweeping Western secondary sanctions on Moscow, and regional leaders do not want to risk Western economic punishment by helping Moscow gain access to banned goods. The region’s leaders have long enthusiastically embraced Beijing’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which has seen billions of dollars of infrastructure investment flow into Central Asia. Thus, their economic realignment toward China is likely to accelerate. The leaders of Turkmenistan, where former President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov yielded power to his son, Sardar, following an orchestrated, non-competitive snap-election in March 2022, have increasingly engaged economically with Beijing. During the elder Berdymukhamedov’s rule, China replaced Russia as the main buyer for Turkmenistan’s vast gas reserves, and his son is expected to continue the reorientation toward China and other major powers. During his November 28 meeting with Putin in Russia, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev did not commit to a proposal for a natural gas union between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Tokayev’s visit – despite openly opposing Russia’s “annexation” of eastern Ukrainian provinces – nonetheless represented an effort by both leaders to mend their rift. Reflecting Tashkent’s view that the gas union proposal represents an attempt to preserve Moscow’s economic writ in Central Asia, Uzbekistan rejected the proposal outright. Its Energy Minister, Jorabek Mirzamahmudov, said on December 7 that: "Even if we [agree to receive natural gas from Russia], we will proceed via commercial sales contracts. We will not allow any political conditions to be imposed in return." The day after his meeting with Putin, Tokayev met with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss expanding trade relations, including French assistance to build nuclear power plants in Kazakhstan. Putin reportedly made little progress either on the gas union proposal or other initiatives at the December 9 summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) trade bloc. The EAEU includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Many experts assess that, even if Moscow were to immediately and unconditionally withdraw from Ukraine, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Russia to regain the economic, political, or military influence it has lost in Central Asia and the Caucasus.