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Putin's power base in Central Asia growing gun shy

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Only a few leaders, whose countries are dependent on Russia, support Putin's war on Ukraine (Image via Pixabay)

Post-Soviet states are seeking ties with other powers, fearing Putin's aggressive imperialism in his bid to dominate the states that were under Moscow's control as part of the USSR, writes Susan Bothmann.

AN UNEXPECTED consequence of Putin’s abortive war in Ukraine may be that the Kremlin takes its "eyes off the ball" in relation to its power base in Central Asia. This could lead to a serious weakening of its power and influence. China, India, Pakistan and Turkey would be happy to take up any resulting slack.

Focusing on overcoming Ukraine – and possibly other ex-Soviet countries to its west – could leave the Kremlin vulnerable to anti-Russian, or at least independence-inspired action by ex-Soviet countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia and internal groupings in the Russian Federation.

The consequences of such a shift in the balance of power on Russia and the world could be significant.

ABC reporter Lucia Stein declared:

'With Putin’s forces in trouble in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s ability to exert influence over post-Soviet states is being put to the test, driving some allies to seek other powerful relationships in the region.'

Dina R Spechler and Martin C Spechler writing extensively in 2019, before the 2022 invasion suggest that Putin had four main objectives:

  • preventing radical democratic political changes which might undermine his autocratic regime in the Russian Federation; 
  • excluding NATO from countries near Russia’s borders;
  • interdicting flows of terrorists, arms and drugs; and
  • providing generous incomes for Putin’s closest associates and supporters.

The authors believe Putin has been fairly successful in relation to all four.

However accurate their pre-war analysis, others believe the invasion of Ukraine has changed the landscape permanently.

Asian powers have recently shown increasing interest in the South Caucasus. Pakistan has a long-standing alliance with Azerbaijan. China views the South Caucasus as the gateway to European markets and the region has been included in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China has developed very close relations with Georgia. Azerbaijan has managed to establish itself as China’s main economic and trade partner in the South Caucasus.

Post-Soviet states are seeking ties with other powers. Beijing sees Kazakhstan as a ‘friend’ and indicated Russia should not do anything to hurt Beijing’s friend.

Yet Beijing’s seeming support for Russia has left some Asian neighbours wary of Chinese intentions. As the Russian war effort falters, China may choose to distance itself further from a "loser".

Meanwhile, Turkey is promoting itself as a fraternal alternative to Russia.

Another front that might open is pushback by Russian republics of non-Russian peoples. There are 120 ethnic groups in the Russian Federation and 21 federated states. They are paying a high price in the war as their populations are mobilised and conscripted. Of particular interest are Chechnya and Dagestan.  

Putin wants to dominate the states that were under Moscow’s control as part of the USSR.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed “unique relations” with the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) based on “civilisational unity.”

That unity is expressed in the phrase “near abroad,” which the Russian media has used from the moment the USSR collapsed. The term refers to newly independent states. This concept regards the countries of the USSR and before that, the Russian Empire, as being of "special interest", and the Russians who reside there as a special concern to Russia.

The usage of “near abroad” asserts Russia's right to maintain significant influence in the region. Putin has declared the region part of Russia's "sphere of influence" and strategically vital to Russian interests.

But in the past 30 years, many of these states have learned to organise their own sovereign foreign policy and rediscover their national identities.

Twelve republics joined CIS and most also joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Currently, the CIS consists of ten former Soviet Republics. Nine are full members – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – with Turkmenistan as an associate member.

The Kremlin has tried to stop countries from leaving its framed "near abroad" — by force, in Georgia and Ukraine, but elsewhere using the "carrot and stick" method. It failed completely with the Baltic states.

Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union of 2015 has not lived up to Moscow’s hopes. The project’s focus was narrowed due to resistance from member states concerning their sovereignty.

The Kremlin seems to have been unable to find a new satisfactory overarching role for Russia in the region. The impact of sanctions since February 2022 has continued to have a negative effect on the Russian economy, which was heavily dependent on the sale of weapons and energy.

If this winter proves to be the last one in which Russia can weaponise its power supplies to Europe and if its failures on the battlefield call the quality of its military hardware into question, its states and its allies will take notice.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes China, India and Pakistan, and four of the five Central Asian states, may have the most potential of all the neighbourhood alliances for enhancing Russian power on the world stage.

Its purpose is to promote economic and security cooperation, with the potential security threats defined as “terrorism, separatism and extremism.” Since being pressured by Western sanctions, Russia has turned to the SCO for support. It was at a recent meeting in Kazakhstan that Putin acknowledged that China had "concerns" about the war.

The responses to Putin’s war are illustrative. Only a handful of leaders, whose countries are highly dependent on Russia, issued statements of support.

In March, 141 countries voted in favour of the decision 'Aggression against Ukraine: resolution adopted by the General Assembly ES.11/1' that condemned the invasion. Five voted against and 35 abstained (including 18 African countries).

In relation to post-soviet republics in the East, the abstentions included Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — which have strong ties to Russia and belong to the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan just avoided the vote.

Even though trust in Russia has declined dramatically in Armenia since 2020, the country still sees the Kremlin as its only remaining ally.

According to the director of the wider European programme of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Marie Dumoulin:

Armenia, which has heavily relied on Russia for its own security since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, generally has little choice but to side with Russia in international forums.

 

Azerbaijan avoided the need to take a stance on a clear violation of the territorial integrity of a sovereign state — a principle that it adamantly defended until it regained control of Nagorno-Karabakh... Azerbaijan signed a series of bilateral agreements that President Ilham Aliyev described as an “alliance” with Russia.

Stated Dumoulin:

'The only national leader from the region who openly supported Russia is Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov... A few days later, Japarov expressed the need for Kyrgyzstan as "a small republic", to remain neutral. He appeared to be hinting that the country would have adopted a tougher stance on the war if it was less dependent on Russia.'

In Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s policy balanced Russian, Chinese and American influences. In January 2022 in response to mass demonstrations, the authorities invited Russia in, and Nazarbayev was removed. It may seem Kazakhstan is firmly in Russian hands, but not uncritically.

Kazakhstan adopted a more nuanced position, despite having received Russian support in January 2022. It has refused to engage actively in the war, despite Russia’s demands.

As Marie Dumoulin said:

'President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev did not criticise the war but mentioned the critical need to ensure the “safety, sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country” as the core element of Kazakhstan’s position. Like Japarov, he seemed to be implying that he has concerns about Russia’s behaviour.'

ABC reporter Lucia Stein said 'Kazakhstan looks to Russia as the region’s “policeman”' within CSTO, which, in January... 'stepped in with Russian paratroopers to help “stabilise the country"'.

Said Stein:

'Kazakhstan also snubbed a demand from Russia to expel Ukraine’s ambassador... Kazakhstan rejected what they called Russia's inappropriate tone between "equal strategic partners"'.

The Kazakh President avoided bilateral talks with Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in October.

The consequences of war are being felt there. After mobilisation, more than 200,000 Russians descended on the country.

According to Stein:

'The influx has also ignited tensions... and memories of an unresolved colonial past...'

Kazakhstan had a sizeable ethnic Russian population already. Stein says there is some 'concern Putin may turn his attention to “liberating” these citizens too'. Kazakhstan’s authorities organised a protest against the war in March. Hundreds of people, including local Russians, took part. Kazakhs had similar experiences as Ukrainians under Soviet rule so the war generates fear in many citizens markedly adding to a volatile atmosphere.

Stein explained that on 13 October within SCO:

'... the leader of Tajikistan, one of the region's smallest and poorest countries, complained that Moscow’s attitude had not improved since the Soviet era. “We want respect. Nothing else. Respect,” Emomali Rahmon said.'

From the Library of Congress, research titled 'Country Profile: Turkmenistan — February 2007' states:

'Throughout the post-Soviet era, Turkmenistan has taken a neutral position on almost all international issues. Niyazov eschewed membership in regional organizations such as the SCO...'

Niyazov died suddenly at the end of 2006. Human Rights Watch claims 'Turkmenistan continued to be one of the world's most repressive and closed countries'. Russian–Turkmenistan relations involve Russia's efforts to secure natural gas export deals from Turkmenistan.

Russia is competing with China, the EU and the USA for access. Russia and Turkmenistan often conflict over price negotiations.

According to Wikipedia:

'When Turkmenistan became a permanent neutral country, former Russian CIS troops withdrew. The two countries still maintain some defence cooperation.'

In 2009 a natural gas pipeline linked Turkmenistan with China completely circumventing Russia. 

Since 1993, Uzbekistan has moved politically away from the Russian Federation. Good relations with Uzbekistan are important for Russian great power politics.  

Uzbekistan follows a "multi-vector policy", hence good relations with Russia, China, the United States and other states. In 2012, Uzbekistan opted to withdraw from CSTO; it remains a part of SCO.  

An article by Paolo Sorbello states that in 2014, Putin forgave the majority of Uzbek debt towards Moscow:

'“... Uzbekistan is one of Russia’s priority partners in the region,” Putin said, while referencing the leading role of his country in trade and economic relations with the Central Asian nation.'

Security was central to this meeting to pursue sales of arms and military technology.

ECFR maintain while:

'... not targeted by sanctions, many countries in the region are already experiencing the economic effects of the war... Post-Soviet countries that rely heavily on remittances from migrant workers in Russia could experience a significant decline in growth and a rise in unemployment as these workers return home.'

Putin describes Ukraine as a creation of the Soviet Union. As all other post-Soviet republics were established in their current form by Soviet leaders, this may be grounds for disquiet among these now sovereign states.

Explains ECFR:

'As the war grinds on and the Ukrainian resistance endures, the myth of Russian military might will decline. Yet countries in the region may come under growing pressure to choose a side.'

As reported by ECFR, according to senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program Paul Stronski:

"Russia has long wanted what it calls a 'multipolar world,' where it's not just a western-dominated international system, but rising powers have an equal say... Well, they kind of have a multipolar world [now], which is not the one that they wanted. It's right in their backyard."

The war has also exacerbated tensions between Moscow and non-Russians. Many see Putin’s aggressive imperialism abroad as an indication that his imperialism at home could intensify.

On 18 October 2022, Ukraine’s Parliament recognised the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as “temporarily occupied” land. This may increase the likelihood that many in non-Russian regions who believed achieving independence was impossible may now change their minds.

Euromaiden Press reveals: 

... for example, a psychologist has created a chat room to support those who are against the war or at least worried about its consequences. In Karelia, an opposition deputy has introduced a resolution calling for an end to the war. And in Udmurtia, the local movement against corruption has refocused its activism to oppose the war... two non-Russian organisations based abroad have adopted more radical positions. The Free Idel-Ural movement, which is headquartered in Kyiv... And the Tatar Government in Exile...

On Putin's standing in Central Asia, ABC reporter Lucia Stein stated:

'With his reliable allies beginning to challenge his influence and internal regions flexing some muscle, Putin has been delivered another blow to assert Russia as a global power... [Said Paul Stronski] “I really think Russia is losing some of its clout in the region”.'

Susan Bothmann is the holder of Master of Laws and Master of Fine Arts degrees. She is a Human Rights lawyer and Appeals Tribunals Member (retired) and has a long career in public law practice and Legal Aid.

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