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Reactions to the Russian Invasion: A Contextualization of the Former Soviet States

By: J. Bailey Wiggins


As Russia has continued to dedicate resources towards its “special operation” in Ukraine, its ability to maintain dominance over its Soviet counterparts has been called into question. Other former Soviet states have received less international attention since the beginning of the invasion earlier this year, perhaps because they are less frequently discussed in the international security dialogue. To create stronger and sustainable American foreign policy, it is vital to understand the complex collection of former Soviet states and their standing today. This article will begin with a contextualization of the term “post Soviet” and of power dynamics within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, followed by an analysis of the satellite states today, their democratic tendencies, and their recent actions in relation to Ukraine. It will then conclude with areas that should be considered going forward in American foreign policy regarding the region to implement democratic resistance.

Soviet Beginnings

While the term “post Soviet” is useful in referencing this large group of nations, to think of this identity as exclusive and all-encompassing would be consequently detrimental in foreign policy. The U.S.S.R. embodied more than twenty million square kilometers of land condensed into fifteen republics; even after its dissolution, Russia remains to have the largest landmass of any country in the world. Over 100 nationalities existed within the borders of the U.S.S.R., indicating the futility of unilateral policy. To effectively engage with these nations, American policymakers must first understand their various societal cleavages and connected histories.

On December 30, 1922, the Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, and Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republics issued and signed the Declaration and Treaty of Union, formally creating the U.S.S.R. The physical proximity between the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarussian populations is to be noted along with their shared historical ties to medieval Kievan Rus’, the birthplace of proto-Slavic practices and culture. However, many modern claims linked to Kievan Rus’ are weakened interpretations of the multitude of principalities and nationalities that existed within the territory. This shared cultural backing nonetheless provided substantial reason for the Eastern European republics to band together in Soviet supranationalism.

The T.S.F.S.R. holds different roots than its Slavic counterparts. After WWI, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia experienced a brief period of independence, vulnerable and unstable though it may have been. In 1920, the Red Army of the R.S.F.S.R. established a Soviet government in Azerbaijan with little resistance from state officials. Faced with the potential of a Turkish invasion, Armenia agreed to collaboration with the Union the same year. Issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan made this unification difficult in regards to ethnicity, religion, and geography. Regions populated by ethnic Christian Amernians were given to the newly forming Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, inhabited by majority ethnic Muslim Azeri. The Union’s intolerance towards intraregional conflict and its offer of the alternate identity of “Soviet” fostered a sense of solidarity, albeit brittle. Georgia’s proximity to Armenia and Azerbaijan brought it under Soviet control in 1921 through the Red Army’s invasion of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, though it was not officially made a republic until 1936. Though Georgian nationalism remained and the Soviet regime was harsh, economic growth and rapid cultural development found its way into the region. In joining the U.S.S.R., the Caucasus were able to maintain enough stability to grow exponentially.

The Moldavian S.S.R. was initially a part of the Ukrainian S.S.R., but under Stalin Moldavia became its own republic in 1940. Native Moldovan and Romanian populations were exiled or worse as Russian and Ukrainian communities moved in to occupy the new republic. Linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity in the republic cohabitated peacefully under Soviet watch.

From 1795 to the end of World War I, Latvia and Estonia had existed underneath imperial Russian rule. As the monarchy in Russia collapsed to form the new union, nationalism took root in the Baltics, asserting sovereignty that the early U.S.S.R. supported. However, in the throes of World War II and with Germans gaining ground, the Kremlin aggressively appealed to Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian foreign ministers to sign treaties of mutual defense. The Baltics hesitantly conceded in signing the treaties in 1939 and allowed the Soviet military to establish bases within their territories. However, this ultimately resulted in the Soviet annexation and occupation of the region by 1940.

The Great Game assists in explaining the seemingly questionable Central Asian component of the U.S.S.R. These territories held large economic potential, and so the Soviet government set up highly extractive institutions within these areas. The territories of modern Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan are surrounded by large powers, diminishing their capacity throughout history to implement their own goals.

In December of 1991, the Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Russian S.S.R.s consented to the dissolution of the Union. From its ashes arose fifteen newly independent states: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia.

The Baltics - Estonia, Latvia, and Lituania

The Baltic nations are notably the most developed economically and are all members of both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Together they form a cohesive integrated economy marked by country-specific asymmetries. Within the region, Estonia outperforms its Baltic neighbors economically and is the most internationally active.

In September of this year, the Baltic nations closed their borders to Russian citizens. Ukraine has received wide support from the EU and NATO since the invasion, with member states no longer allowing entry to Russian politicians and officials, but the Baltics wanted a more severe ban on Russian nationals.

The Caucasus - Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan

The Caucasian states developed broad economic and cultural ties amongst one another through their time in the U.S.S.R., but historically-rooted conflicts within the region have made opportunities for similar growth scarce in the recent past. Most prominently, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has experienced a resurgence. The most recent militarized dispute between them occurred in September this year and killed nearly 100 combatants.

Domestically, Armenia in recent years has displayed signs of democratic interest. The country gathered together in 2018 in massive protests after exiting President Serzh Sargsyan announced his decision to become Prime Minister. After 11 days of demonstrations, the Armenian Revolution came to an end with Sargsyan resigning peacefully. Shortly thereafter, former journalist Nikol Pashinyan became Prime Minister, but he has been criticized for his handling of the war.

Georgia has observed democratic practices regularly despite recent slippage. Since the invasion, it has supported Ukraine politically and has received over 20,000 Ukrainian refugees. Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has wanted to do more to support the Ukrainian effort against Russia, but staunch criticism and opposition has come from the leading party.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan has shown itself to be a model of authoritarian practice. Since 2003, President Ilham Aliyev has controlled the majority of the power within the state. In 2020, Aliyev dissolved the state’s National Assembly and called for snap elections in parliament, the results of which have been denounced by both domestic and international institutions.

Central Asia - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan

Former Soviet countries within Central Asia, like their Caucasian counterparts, face much intraregional conflict. After the retraction of Soviet power, disputes over borders between states have resurfaced. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are perhaps the most discussed in terms of Central Asian border conflicts. Armed disputes between these states regularly result in civilian casualties, displaced populations, and the destruction of infrastructure. In recent decades, existing conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajik communities has been exacerbated by climate change and the scarcity of water, a scarcity that has been weaponized by Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan also has experienced conflict with Uzbekistan over natural resources and borders, but as of 2021 the states say that they have reached a resolution.

Kazakhstan’s government displays authoritarian practices throughout. Earlier this year in what has come to be referred to as Bloody January, citizens protested against the government’s removal of a price cap on fuel and were met with armed response from the state. Mass arrests, internet blackouts, and violence against journalists ensued. Russia obliged in sending a few thousand soldiers to Kazakhstan during this time. However, since the invasion, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has not voiced any support for the Russians, as well as banned Russian military propaganda.

Uzbekistan gave signals of democratization as President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in 2016, but has since slowed in this process. Speech within the country is still strongly monitored, courts and legislative bodies are not impartial, and police violence is commonplace. Rare protests were met with harsh retaliation from the state in July this year, leaving thousands wounded and five dead. In August, the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Russia issued a press release reminding citizens of Article 154 of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code, which outlaws Uzbek participation in the armed conflict of foreign countries.

Despite several attempts to establish democratic practices, Kyrgyzstan still experiences endemic corruption and political oppression. Nonetheless, it has performed better than its Central Asian counterparts in democratic measures. Though Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov was implicit in spreading propaganda justifying Moscow’s annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk before the official invasion, Japarov has since reiterated during interviews that all countries have the right to self-determination under the UN charter. Like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz citizens face penalties should they involve themselves in the war in Ukraine.

Tajikistan has maintained tight control over civil liberties since gaining independence. It has consistently been under the rule of President Emomali Rahmon since 1992 and has re-elected Rahmon every election since, though the results of these elections have been routinely falsified and discredited. Russia’s increased attention in Ukraine has raised the issue of Tajikistan vying for more power domestically. As the poorest country in Central Asia, it is more dependent upon the Russian economy and ultimately more vulnerable to the sanctions brought against it.

The government of Turkmenistan has upheld its status as a permanently neutral state since 1995 and therefore is not involved in the Ukrainian crisis, but this has not stopped its oppressive practices. In state documents, rights are guaranteed, but in practice they are rarely granted. Despite (or maybe because of) their authoritarian regimes, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan were able to come to an agreement regarding a 30-year old dispute concerning hydrocarbon fields in the Caspian Sea.

Eastern Europe - Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia

After 1991, Belarus and Russia as independent countries have continued to maintain strong relations with one another. Authoritarianism continuously has been the trend in both of these nations since gaining their independence. Changes to their respective constitutions, manipulated elections, and strictly controlled media are customary. Before the invasion in February, Belarus allowed Russian troops into their territory throughout the winter under the internationally proclaimed guise of joint training exercises. This transfer of armed forces proved geographically significant, as Belarus shares almost 700 miles of border with Ukraine. Though President Aleksandr Lukashenko has said that the war is unwanted, the country has all the same chosen the side of the aggressor.

Ukraine began democratic reformations within its government after 2014, but civil liberties are still not routinely protected. After the invasion beginning in February of this year, Ukraine experienced unprecedented international support from the Western community. In response, Ukraine’s efforts to join the EU and NATO have quickened.

Moldavia, upon dissolution of the U.S.S.R., took the name Moldova. Today, it ranks the highest of its Eastern European counterparts on measures of democracy, but it is still dependent upon surrounding states for security and economic stability. Despite its high degree of diversity and the absence of the Soviet eye, Moldova has not experienced an increase of regional conflict. Transdniestria, a region within Moldova whose origins lie in Soviet-era nationalist politics, declared itself to be an independent nation from the U.S.S.R. in 1990 before its formal disbandment. Although Moldova never enjoyed the occupation of Russian soldiers in the separatist region, tensions between Moldova and Transdniestria had remained minimal until the invasion. But the Russian occupation of Eastern Ukraine has caused this sentiment to sharpen and worries of national security to grow.

Policy Going Forward

The complicated mosaic of former Soviet states presents a landscape that cannot be navigated by a unilateral approach. Even within the former republics themselves, a single approach may not be effective in the formation of lasting foreign policy. Policymakers must be willing to accept that approaches to the post Soviet states cannot be static or uniform, but this does not mean that crafting effective policy is impossible. There are facts of which we can be certain that are useful in this task.

The Baltic states are formidable allies in securing a democratic presence on the Soviet front. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are all present in global affairs and provide grounds for the reinforcement of democratic security. Maintaining relations with these states should be continued and, in the light of the invasion, deepened in order to strengthen democratic commitment.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not going to be solved by American foreign policy initiatives. However, nationalist tendencies within the Caucasus may be abated by strengthened economic relations with the United States, as well as their vulnerabilities to Russian influence mitigated.

Conflicts within Central Asia are supported by a lack of access to natural resources. To alleviate this strain, policy aimed towards humanitarian assistance and diplomatic negotiations should be of primary consideration. Further, through economic relations, the U.S. may alleviate Central Asian states’ dependence on authoritarian markets.

Eastern Europe provides the most obvious battlefield for democratic tendencies within former Soviet states. Relations with Belarus should be embarked upon with caution, and policy towards Russia must maintain the primacy of human security and Ukrainian sovereignty. Ties with Moldova should be further developed to establish a democratic foothold in a region with such diversified interests.

The former Soviet states present challenges that are similar and unalike simultaneously. In the most objective effort of planting democratic values within the region, humanitarian aid provides a unique strength. First-aid responders, crisis professionals, and material resources are all necessary components in providing interpersonal relationships between international communities. Further, policy that will prove to be positively impactful on the relationship between democracy and the post Soviet bloc does not necessarily need to engage with the states directly. Particularly, the influence environmental factors have proven to possess in the exacerbation of existing regional conflicts must be kept in mind. Environmental standards set forth by democratic nations should therefore aim to utilize as much clean energy as possible, reduce fossil fuel consumption alongside production, as well as provide assistance towards industrializing nations to construct sustainable economies.


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