Russia in the Caucasus and Central Asia after the invasion of Ukraine

Russia in the Caucasus and Central Asia after the invasion of Ukraine

Carol Saivetz, Senior Advisor at MIT Security Studies Program, examines how leaders in Central Asia and the Caucasus have responded to Russia’s current weakness and assesses how this may play out in the years to come. This article was originally published here in Lawfare.

January 29, 2023 | Lawfare | Carol R Saivetz
Carol R Saivetz
January 29, 2023

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the most recent and most egregious example of Russia’s determination to use force to ensure that its periphery bows to its wishes. But over the past year, Russia’s reverses in Ukraine have echoed throughout the former post-Soviet space and are now jeopardizing Putin’s aspirations for a Russian-dominated “Eurasian order.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Last September, as Russian forces were being pushed back in Ukraine, fighting erupted (again) between Armenia and Azerbaijan and border skirmishes occurred between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. There are two possible explanations: On the one hand, observers speculated that the outbreak of hostilities indicated that states were taking advantage of Moscow’s preoccupation with Ukraine to loosen the Kremlin’s grip. On the other hand, regional specialists, like Marlene LaRuelle, argued that Russia can no longer serve as a guarantor of regional security because of the war. Both may be true, with the cumulative effect of Russia’s adventurism in Ukraine weakening its hold on the post-Soviet space and opening the door to other countries interested in asserting their own influence.

From Peacemakers to “Occupiers” in the Caucasus

Hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan have marked the whole post-Soviet era. Until the most recent outbreak of hostilities in 2020, Russia maintained its role in the region in large measure by selling arms to both countries. Yet, in the fall of 2020, Azerbaijan, heavily armed by Turkey, attacked the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in order to reclaim territory lost in 1994. That round of clashes ended in a November 2020 agreement that deployed Russian peacekeepers to the Lachin Corridor, which connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia proper, but other issues, including the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, remained unresolved. In September 2022, Baku seemingly took advantage of the lack of a final settlement to attack Armenian positions and targeted cities within Armenia itself. Armenian Prime Minister Nicol Pashinyan appealed to Moscow and to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for assistance in repelling the Azeri attacks.

The United States, United Nations, and Russia all called for a cessation of hostilities. Indeed, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, told the Security Council, “We are in close contact with both countries so as to arrive at a sustainable cease-fire and the return of Azerbaijani and Armenian military to their positions of origin.” Yet it was only when a tentative cease-fire collapsed that Putin summoned Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan to Sochi for a meeting on Oct. 31, 2022. Putin’s mediation attempt foundered, and he was forced to concede that Russia had failed to broker an agreement. The Russian president called the meeting useful but conceded that the two sides had to “remove” points of disagreement from the prepared statement.

A week later, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined efforts to secure a permanent cease-fire when he hosted the Azeri and Armenian foreign ministers in Washington, DC. Russia was left on the sidelines. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov could do no more than call on Baku and Yerevan to “refrain from the actions and steps that could lead to an escalation of tensions.” The United States made no real progress, and clashes broke out again toward the end of the year, but the meeting was a further indication that Russia’s grip on the situation was slipping.

Russia’s inability to negotiate and enforce a cease-fire and apparent unwillingness to come to Armenia’s aid was then made plain at a November meeting of the CSTO—somewhat ironically held in Yerevan. At the summit, Pashinyan publicly questioned the usefulness of the organization, which did nothing more than send its secretary general and offer to establish a working group. In front of Putin, Pashinyan said that it was “depressing that Armenia’s membership in the CSTO has failed to contain Azerbaijani aggression.”

The stand-off got even worse at the end of 2022 and remains unresolved. Azerbaijani activists, claiming to be environmentalists, have blocked the Lachin Corridor and completely isolated Nagorno-Karabakh. Amid serious hardships for the residents, Azeri officials have intimated that unless the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh accepts Azerbaijani citizenship, nothing will change. Armenian expectations that Russian troops would reopen the road remain unfulfilled, and, in early January, Armenians demonstrated at a Russian base demanding action. On the other side of the conflict, the Azeris, who were initially pleased with the deployment of Russian troops in 2020 because it implicitly secured Baku’s victory, now call the peacekeepers “occupiers.” It would seem that Azerbaijan, well-armed by Turkey and Russia, is taking advantage of the Kremlin’s focus on Ukraine, and Yerevan is lamenting its increasing isolation. Public opinion in both countries is turning against Moscow.

Distance and Disorder in Central Asia

Any assessment of Russia’s influence in Central Asia must begin with an analysis of Kazakhstan, where just prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow, for the first time ever, agreed to deploy CSTO troops to support the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. In January 2022, what began as demonstrations against rising fuel prices became violent protests that the Kazakh government claimed were infiltrated by foreign terrorists. By blaming outsiders, Tokayev provided a legal basis for Kazakhstan’s CSTO allies to intervene. At the time, observers speculated that Tokayev had ceded Kazakhstan’s sovereignty in order to remain in power.

With hindsight, it seems plausible that Putin agreed to the limited deployment to establish calm on Russia’s borders prior to the launch of the Ukraine invasion. Whether or not the Kremlin wanted to save Tokayev, it was clear that Moscow expected gratitude for the intervention. Instead, with the two-week deployment over and with Tokayev firmly in power, the Kazakh president moved to create distance from the Kremlin. He initially called upon both Russia and Ukraine to pursue dialogue, and when the UN Security Council voted to condemn the Russian invasion, Kazakhstan abstained. Later, Tokayev refused a request to supply troops to the Kremlin’s war effort.

Then, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, the Kazakh president—on a stage with Putin—said that he would not recognize “quasi-state formations” in the Donbas. Russia retaliated by closing Novorossiysk to shipments of Kazakh oil. And in return, Kazakhstan blocked 1,700 Russian coal wagons on its territory. Kazakhstan’s cautious declaration of independence demonstrates that the longer the Ukraine war goes on, the further the attenuation of the Central Asian states from Moscow.

If Kazakhstan is an example of how the Ukraine war is roiling Moscow’s relations with its supposed allies, the outbreak of hostilities between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan underscores how distracted and diminished the Kremlin has become in the region. Although the Central Asian clashes did not receive the same kind of international attention as the war in the Caucasus, the fighting is estimated to have left close to 100 people dead and to have displaced over 120,000 people. When clashes erupted on Sept. 14, 2022, along an undemarcated part of the border, Putin, as he did in the almost concurrent case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, called upon the leaders to resolve the situation “exclusively by peaceful, political and diplomatic means as soon as possible.”

The ways in which the conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia have strained Russia’s role in the post-Soviet space were on display at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), hosted in Samarkand, Uzbekistan—in mid-September, just as fighting got underway. First, in meetings with Putin at the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticized the Ukraine war. Second, even though there was a brief cessation of hostilities as the presidents of both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan attended the SCO meeting, the fighting resumed as soon as the two left. Third, Xi chose to visit Kazakhstan first and staked out a Chinese policy at odds with Putin’s. While hardliners in Moscow were threatening Kazakhstan by warning that it could be the next Ukraine, Xi reiterated China’s support for Kazakh sovereignty, saying, “No matter how the international situation changes, we will continue to resolutely support Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity … and categorically oppose the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country.” Finally, Turkey’s presence at the summit may also be notable. Given President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push for a Turkic peoples’ organization and his support for Azerbaijan, his attendance would seem to indicate that Ankara is also prepared to take advantage of Russia’s Ukraine war.

Further signs of erosion were evident when the Kyrgyz leadership canceled CSTO military exercises scheduled for October and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon publicly berated Putin for treating the Central Asian states as if they were still “part of the former Soviet Union.” Both leaders have apparently been frustrated by the redeployment of Russian troops from their countries to Ukraine. In particular, the long-standing Russian presence in Tajikistan, originally designed to protect the mountainous country from the political turmoil and drug trade in Afghanistan, has been depleted and only a limited number of troops from other places have been relocated to the border.

While not involved in any fighting, Uzbekistan has also taken steps to distance itself from Russia. As Moscow tries to cope with sanctions, particularly on energy, Putin recently proposed a “natural gas union” as a mechanism to ship natural gas to China. Tashkent declined to participate in the nascent union.

Patterns and Prospects

It is now 32 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and each of the post-Soviet states has chosen its own path forward. Until the war in Ukraine, some were closely aligned with Moscow, and it appeared as if the Kremlin’s “Eurasian order” had at least a fragile base. Having said that, there were signs toward the end of 2020 of a further deterioration of that base. The war has clearly exacerbated these tendencies and reduced the likelihood of Putin’s new “order” in the post-Soviet space.

Azerbaijan, despite what until fall 2022 seemed like growing ties with Russia, has been emboldened to redress perceived grievances against Armenia and to regain what from Baku’s perspective are occupied territories. Not only does Baku have new Turkish-supplied weapons, but it has successfully marginalized the Russian peacekeepers who were part of the 2020 cease-fire agreement. Elsewhere, Kazakh President Tokayev successfully used the CSTO to secure his regime, but once Russia invaded Ukraine, he created distance between Nur-Sultan and Moscow.

The choices for the weaker and smaller states are more difficult. In each of the two conflicts, at least one of the combatants called on Putin and Russia for help but received only rhetorical support. When Armenia and Kyrgyzstan appealed to the CSTO for military support, again, none was offered. The bankruptcy of the Russian-created multilateral institutions designed to underpin Moscow’s influence is now evident, including to these institutions’ members.

It’s now fair to ask whether or not Moscow will retain an interest in these far-flung areas of the former Soviet empire when and if the Ukraine war ends. Has the Kremlin given up, or will pre-Ukraine war policy ambitions prevail once again? For now, Russia’s responses seem to indicate that, despite what the Kremlin may ideally want, it will do no more than to proclaim its interest in peace. Those pronouncements are inherently ambiguous: On the one hand, they imply that Russia still has an abiding interest in the events in the several regions of the former Soviet Union. On the other hand, they broadcast that Russia is unable to do anything more.

Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan all have reason to question whether or not Russia will resume its role as the security guarantor of their sovereignty—or whether they would even want Moscow to play that role. As countries bracing to protect their territorial integrity, their sympathies are misaligned with Russia’s policies. “As a group of small former Soviet republics,” Eric McGlinchey and Shairbek Dzhuraev wrote of the Central Asian states (though it could just as well apply to Armenia), “it is Ukraine’s troubles, not Russia’s grievances, the Central Asians feel and share.”

To be clear, the events in the Caucasus and Central Asia are not a clean break from Russia. Some states have permitted the transshipment of sanctioned goods to Moscow, even as they have openly criticized Russian policy and sought distance. By the same token, these post-Soviet states are taking tentative steps to accommodate the realities of a post-Ukraine war era. Some of that adjustment will require acknowledging the other players waiting in the wings: Turkey seems to be stepping into the Caucasus, and there is tremendous speculation as to what future role China will play in Central Asia. These new potential relationships will further weaken whatever is left of Putin’s dreams for a “Eurasian order.”

Carol R Saivetz is a senior adviser in the MIT Security Studies Program. She is also a research associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.