J. Bailey Wiggins
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russian foreign policy has regarded other post-Soviet nations as extensions of the Russian state, particularly in the regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia. This narrative justifies Russian actions of the past, through Russian occupation of its Soviet counterparts and economic coercion, but also of the present, as is evident from the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the anniversary of this “special military operation” has come and gone, the end of the conflict itself does not appear as imminent.
However, Russian dominance over the area has exhibited vulnerability in the campaign against Ukraine. Combat statistics present a different picture than Russian leaders expected; recent estimates of losses on the Russian side have risen to nearly 200,000, while Ukrainian losses are just approaching 180,000. Notably, the Russian Ministry of Defense has only released two official casualty counts, with the most recent being in September of last year and only acknowledging 5,937 Russian losses. The inability of the Russian military to produce swift results has weakened the notion of its might. In tandem, with Russian attention focused elsewhere, other regional leaders have taken advantage of newfound leverage to pursue the interests of their own nations as intraregional conflict resparks.
This article will analyze how Soviet power dynamics have changed over the duration of Russia’s invasion by examining their status pre- and intra-conflict. This will be evaluated through their relationships with other post-Soviet states as well as the presence of foreign interference in domestic politics. The article will then conclude with policy recommendations aimed at discouraging the regeneration of Russian dominance in the former Soviet sphere and supporting regional alliances in order to maintain multilateral relationships.
Prior to February 2022, while there was no active international conflict, there were “frozen conflicts” within Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. In order to keep these conflicts from thawing, and new ones from appearing, Russian politics maintained quite the penetrative relationship with its former comrades.
This relationship has been particularly evident with Belaus, as their military, economic, and political ties to one another have only strengthened since these respective countries emerged from the remains of the Soviet Union. Their formation of the Union State of Russia and Belarus is exemplary of the strength of their association. The Union State, signed on December 8, 1999, is a treaty between the two states declaring their respective dedication to the buttressing of their economic and social communion, as well as encouraging singularity in the states’ foreign policies. The introduction of the Union State, along with the creation of its Supreme State Council, Council of Ministers, and Union Parliament, began a process that had intended to “lead to the creation of a single economic area and market, a monetary union with a common currency, a common system of taxation, a common customs policy, a common defense procurement policy, and ultimately a common foreign and defense policy – and, eventually, an economic, political, and military union.”
However, the stark differences in population size, demographics, and resource availability have made this union difficult. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has refused to take a position proportionate to Belarus’s contribution to the Union State, while Russian President Vladimir Putin is unwilling to accept agreements on others’ terms. This has stunted their economic, monetary, and financial integration, but the Union State seems to have succeeded in the aim of a united military force. Every four years, the Russian and Belarusian armies conduct joint military exercises termed “Zapad” (“West” in Russian), a continuation of Soviet military exercises under the same name, in the Western Military District of Russia. These exercises have been described as thinly-veiled attempts to “undermine regional stability and peace and… to mask impending aggression.” The latest installment, Zapad-2021, involved close to 200,000 soldiers, an amount unseen since Zapad-1981, in which between 100,000 and 150,000 troops took part. For comparison, Zapad-2013 and Zapad-2017 are estimated to have involved 90,000 and between 60,000 and 70,000 soldiers, respectively.
However, Belarus is not the only former Soviet state involved in these exercises. A few member states of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization – Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan – also sent several hundred troops to take part. Established through the signing of the Collective Security Treaty in 1992, the CSTO is an intergovernmental military alliance of six states, all post-Soviet – Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – and was envisioned to be an Eastern resistance to the established North Atlantic Treaty Organization. However, the CSTO also exemplifies the steady Russian gaze that is kept upon its compatriots.
Yet, this gaze has not been enough to cease intraregional conflict. Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan have hosted a slew of intraregional conflicts just this century. Neither the Kyrgyz revolutions of 2005, 2010, and 2020, the ongoing Armenian-Azeri Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, nor the border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2021 received assistance in the form of CSTO soldiers. In fact, until the domestic uprisings in Kazakhstan in 2022 over raised fuel prices, the CSTO remained unresponsive to the requests of member states to send troops for peacekeeping efforts.
This may seem perplexing, as Article 4 of the CSTO Charter pledges military support to any member state “whose territory of sovereignty is threatened by an external force.” Under Russian discretion, none of the conflicts previously mentioned were deemed to be involving external forces. Additionally, none of the previously mentioned conflicts were in countries sharing a sizable border with Russia. This, in combination with the careful phrasing of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev that international terrorists were involved in the protests, were ample enough reason to involve CSTO troops.
Turkmenistan is the only other former Soviet Central Asian nation that is not a member of the CSTO, though this is not necessarily alarming. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is renowned for his adamant international neutrality, even as he maintains a repressive authoritarian regime at home. Turkmenistan is not part of any other regional organizations and is thus the most isolated and the most authoritarian of all the post-Soviet republics. Former President Saparmurat Niyazov, the last Soviet and first post-Soviet ruler, built Turkmenistan’s economy around hydrocarbons and natural gas, in which the country holds vast reserves. These reserves have afforded relative independence to the Turkmen economy from Russian influence. In turn, Niyazov experienced much success in his campaigns against the reduction of Russian-language instruction, reading materials, and exposure in schools. Niyazov’s administration further sought to distance Turkmen from Russians through the dismissal of ethnic Russians from workplaces and giving citizens holding Russian-Turkmen citizenship three months to denounce their Russian association.
However, this independence from Russian markets has been supplemented through the building of relations with China since 2006. Turkmen natural gas exports hold much weight in Turkmen-Chinese trade relations, which has allowed the Turkmen economy a reprieve from Russian hindrance at the cost of potential vulnerability to Chinese interests. Combating this vulnerability is Turkmenistan’s status as a member state of the Central Asian-led Ashgabat Agreement, named for the Turkmen capital. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Oman are parties to the agreement, of which the main goal is to establish a multimodal transport and transit corridor from Central Asia into the Persian Gulf.
The Eurasian Economic Union is further indicative of the injection of Russian oversight into the dealings of former Soviet nations. The EEU is an agreement based on the integration of the economies of its member states – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia – and intended to be “as apolitical as possible.” Though formed in 2015, the machinations of the agreement had been negotiated for several years, and the original cast of member states included the nation of Ukraine, with which Russian foreign policy is fascinated like no other.
Ultimately, it is the tense nature of Russian-Ukrainian relations that defines the ongoing war. The invasion beginning on February 24, 2022 was not the first act of hostility nor even the first incident involving bloodshed between Russian and Ukrainian nationals since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In February of 2014, Russian forces were deployed on the Crimean Peninsula of the Black Sea and took control of major transportation routes and government buildings along the eastern coast. By early March, Russian soldiers had managed to take control of the entire peninsula and held an internationally criticized referendum in which 96.7% of locals voted for Crimea to rejoin Russia. The region is still largely recognized as Ukrainian.
At the same time of the seizure of Crimea, Russian troops also took control of broad areas of the Donbas, the eastern region of Ukraine bordering Russia. Pro-Russian paramilitary groups have been fighting against Ukrainian forces in the republics of Luhansk and Donetsk for over eight years now. The region holds significant Ukrainian coal reserves and access to the port city Mariupol. After the annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in 2014, Ukrainian cooperation in the forming of the EEU disappeared.
Georgia is also familiar with Russian aggression. In 2008, Georgia was invaded by Russian troops and hit by airstrikes, resulting in a battle that lasted five days. Threatened by Georgia’s growing resistance to Russian interests, Russian President Putin sought to re-secure his leverage in the Caucasus, particularly after the 2004 election of former pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili. The conflict has resulted in the annexation of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia on the eastern coast and Abkhazia on the northwestern coast. Together these territories comprise a fifth of Georgia’s total area.
The country of Moldova has received much Russian interference since gaining its independence. Sandwiched between Ukraine to the north, east, and south and Romania to the west, Moldova has been subjected to a variety of tactics in the efforts of ramping up pro-Russia sentiments, whether it be in the form of pro-Russia political parties, media, or social-media. Furthermore, the eastern territory of Transdniestria has been occupied by pro-Russia separatists since the breakup of the Soviet Union and has remained occupied by Russian troops ever since, declaring quasi-independence.
Together, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova constitute a delegation that the European Union refers to as the Associated Trio, indicating their interest in Western cooperation. This trilateral agreement is based upon a commitment towards European integration. The Western connections held by each member state of the Associated Trio leave much to be desired within the European market, particularly in the way of an absence of authoritarian leadership. As smaller geographic players, this union provides a combined strength in a regional organization lacking Russian membership.
Russian membership is much more common than not. Another notable regional organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, was formed in 1996 “as a confidence-building forum to demilitarize borders.” Member states include China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan (though Iran has become a full member as of 2023). With member states’ far-reaching relations with European nations, the SCO has been referred to as having the potential to become “an anti-Western bloc dominated by China and Russia.” This position puts much of the region at the vulnerability of established major powers.
Belarusian President Lukashenko, though declaring no plans to take part in the Russian invasion, has provided much secondary support to the Russian military, including acting as a conduit through which the majority of Russian troops have entered Ukraine and allowing Russian forces to use Belarusian land as a launch point for airstrikes. Further, Russian soldiers have been given permission to “enter, leave, and return to Belarusian territory whenever they want, without the permission of local authorities.” Belarusian medical services have also been utilized, and numerous Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have reported being held in Belarus.
However, Lukashenko has maintained his claim of non-combatant status. This is likely due to the unpopular reception the Russian invasion has received from Belarusian nationals. In addition to this opposition, it has been reported that Belarusian military chiefs have refused direct orders to invade and that Belarusian citizens have engaged in the sabotage of Russian military equipment and transportation. After the internationally contested 2020 Belarusian presidential election of which Lukashenko declared himself the victor, he has relied increasingly on Russian support in order to quell pro-democracy movements within the state. Lukashenko is therefore in the precarious position of appeasing Putin, on whom the stability of his government and economy is dependent, while maintaining no direct participation in the war effort.
In Central Asia, ongoing conflicts have no incentive to cease, particularly without an overseer. As the Russian military withdraws troops stationed elsewhere to better bolster their invasion of Ukraine, border clashes have continued without hesitation. Exemplary of this is the eruption of such a conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that left more than 100 people dead in September, from which “Moscow was conspicuously absent,” despite the involvement of tanks, aircrafts, and artillery.
The Caucasus is not exempt from this trend. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan is similarly experiencing a resurgence. Previous clashes had happened within state lines, but engagements since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been occurring closer to the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, escalating concerns of a new war. Armenia, as can be seen from its eager involvement in “Kremlin-led neo-imperial projects” the EEU and CSTO, is the only Russian ally within the Caucasus region. The warmth of Armenia-Russia relations can be seen from the two Russian military bases and more than 3,000 Russian soldiers stationed within Armenia, signifying the role of security Russian troops play for Armenian borders. The Armenian economy is also dependent upon Russian interest for trade and business, putting Armenia in a position of being “essentially Russia’s geopolitical hostage,” particularly due to its landlocked nature. This claim is bolstered by recent events. As Russian oversight has become less direct, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan have begun discussing a newfound openness in the signing of a sustainable Armenian-Azeri peace agreement.
While peace had been brokered previously through Russian forces, the potential peace agreement in question is not likely to be shaped keeping Russia in mind. Instead, it is originating from the nations involved themselves, even if not equitably. Azeri President Aliyev has been prodding steadily at the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the wake of Russian troop withdrawal. The lack of Armenia’s military forces is a weak point, especially given geopolitical alignments. Armenia is bordered by Azerbaijan on one side and Turkey on the other, an Azeri ally and a nation with whom Armenia holds no diplomatic relations. Thus, there exists pressure upon Armenian politicians to concede to Azeri demands within the region under threat of continued conflict.
Interestingly, while Armenian policies traditionally have supported Russian initiatives, this bond is beginning to wane as relations with Azerbaijan have begun to warm. Part of this can be explained through Russian President Putin’s distaste for the fashion in which Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan rose to power. After leading peaceful protests earlier in the year, Pashinyan was able to secure office through a snap election in 2018. Azeri President Aliyev, however, has maintained loyalty to authoritarian practices and has won every election since coming to power in 2003 after the death of his father. These elections, while allowing for opponents, are well-known to be fixed; in 2013, the Azeri government prematurely announced Aliyev’s victory before voting had even begun.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, historically has supported Ukraine and vice versa. Because of this, Armenian politicians have been less than eager to support Ukraine in the ongoing invasion, as it potentially may come back to bite them. As Armenian appeals for CSTO troops went unanswered during the most recent border conflict, Armenian sentiments are beginning to question the usefulness of being under Russia’s thumb. Without military support, Armenia’s allegiance to Russian interests is enduring significant pressure, placing other prospective diplomatic partners in a more gratifying position.
The Caucasus also has the interesting position of being a region that exports energy without needing to route through Russia, though such routes must go through Georgia. Despite the history of aggression between Georgia and Russia and the context of the 2008 invasion, Georgia’s trade with Russia has increased by 50% since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. This does not mean that the Georgian government is unanimous in their Russian support. Current President Salome Zourabichvilli said in an interview that “Russia has to learn where its borders are.” Zourabichvilli is pushing for the removal of the Russian occupation from South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as the Donbas in Ukraine, but this is in opposition with her administration, which has been cautious in their communications with the Kremlin so as to minimize potential provocation.
Earlier this month, Moldovan Prime Minister Natalie Gavrilita announced that she would be resigning as a result of inadequate support for the turbulent changes her government is undergoing as a result of the Russian invasion. Since the beginning of the conflict, Ukrainian refugees have sought asylum in Moldova. This swell in population was only hindered by the severing of Russian gas and electric supplies, which multiplied inflation within the country and devastated the economy. Moldova, like Ukraine, was made a candidate for EU membership in June of last year; however, with Russian-backed movements still live, securing the same support domestically has proven a difficult task. Moldovan President Maia Sandu claims to have unearthed a Russian plot to destabilize her country and install an illegitimate Russian-controlled administration in order to prevent Moldovan integration into Europe. The potential of Russian troops located in Transdniestria to become involved in the conflict remains at the forefront of Moldovan policymakers’ minds, indicating just how far the Russian reach stretches across the former Soviet Union.
Initially after the invasion, Uzbekistan was hesitant to outwardly condemn the Russian invasion, particularly considering the comparable abilities of these nations. However, the power Uzbekistan holds regionally has come into play. Along with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan provides much support in the development of Central Asia. The two nations are the largest within this area of the world, and their proximity to one another allows for intimate cooperation. With Uzbekistan’s vast human capital and Kazakhstan’s access to international markets, Uzbek-Kazakh partnership has manifested in the forms of industrial, economic, and political agreements. In December, after Kazakh President Tokayev’s visit to the capital of Tashkent, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said that, “Together [Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan] solve pressing issues.”
For the time being, the EEU and CSTO are almost certain to see growing pressure from Russia in the time to come as Russian interests attempt to double down on their position and prevent the loss of regional leverage. But if recent meetings of the SCO are an indicator for how this will bode, the chances of this pressure being effective are questionable. At the 2022 SCO Summit, one of Russian President Putin’s main concerns was to stress the continued influence Russia holds internationally and maintain the image of power. But these efforts seem to have fallen flat, as Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov reportedly kept Putin waiting at their bilateral meeting. The leaders of China and India as well conveyed concerns over the Russian invasion. The Russian position within the SCO has been described as a phase of “maintenance,” during which “Russia needs to tolerate such humiliation as being made to wait by less powerful leaders, or rebuke, or silence from equally powerful countries.” Therefore it appears that Russian representatives must bide their time until global events turn in their favor.
As a result of the resources Russian politicians have delegated towards the invasion of Ukraine, the current power dynamics within the former Soviet bloc are more multilateral than they have ever been. This growing collapse of Russian-led integration of post-Soviet republics has resulted in less foreign oversight from Russian as well as Belarusian and Ukrainian interests. While the Big Three are occupied, nations, especially within the Caucasus and Central Asia, have become more comfortably situated to influence international events than previously before. The time is ripe for the strengthening of existing and the formation of new diplomatic relations within the region.
Particularly vulnerable at this time are the nations within the Associated Trio – most obviously Ukraine, but Georgia and Moldova, as well. Because of the unique position within the Caucasus, it would be in American policymakers best interest to work on the strengthening of American-Georgian relationships so as to reinforce resistance to Russian coercion. More refined economic ties to the United States and Western partners could alleviate the pressure currently felt by Georgian representatives to keep out of Russian President Putin’s radar. Moldova, in a tense position since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is promising in its democratic potential and is pushing for a more liberal system. Because of its small size, the integration of Moldova into European and Western systems is crucial for its continued independence. It is therefore necessary for American representatives to begin taking steps towards a renewed relationship with Moldova, so as to indicate that the country is viewed as a valuable ally.
Within Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are the most resolute in their resistance to Russian interference. Though in Turkmenistan this is as a result of their isolationist policy, this does not mean that it is impossible to form friendly associations with the Turkmen state. Indeed, American and Turkmen diplomats have described their relationship as a “long-term positive experience.” Policy between the two nations should move to reinforce not only familiarity with one another, but to reinforce trade and investment in Turkmen infrastructure. In the building of support for Turkmen economic initiatives, American policymakers not only assist in the cushioning of Turkmenistan against Russian influence, but also from Chinese.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are more open to diplomatic relations than their Turkmen counterparts. Through the blossoming of Uzbek-Kazakh interdependence, there comes a more united front against foreign intervention. Thus it is in the interest of the international community as well as regional stability for U.S. policy to support the bilateral growth of this partnership. As a whole, it would be beneficial for the U.S. to support Central Asian leaders in banding more tightly together in order to support one another in their orbit away from Russian influence.
In the Caucasus, the ongoing tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a situation that likely will not be solved by American diplomats, but the emerging willingness to come to the table from Azeri and Armenian leaders indicates that it may not be as difficult as once thought. Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan has indicated strong interest in the enhancement of U.S.-Armenia cooperation, and his victory through democratic practices should not be ignored. As a traditional ally of Russia, Armenia has much ground to cover in the building of a stable state and economy. U.S. diplomats must not underscore the economic and political potential within Armenian allyship.
As Russian policy pivots to view Azerbaijan more favorably, neither Azeri humanitarian aid sent to Ukraine nor the past of Azerbaijan-Ukraine relations should be overlooked. Though this has provided a great opportunity to get closer to Armenia, Azerbaijan should not be considered a lost hope. U.S. policymakers must therefore consider the value of supporting bilateral relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, so as to ease existing tension, and trilateral relations between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, in order to sweeten the existing historical bitterness and create stronger regional alliances.
As Russian influence within the former Soviet sphere wanes, traditionally Russian-domineered nations are looking for partners to fill the economic and political holes left behind. American foreign policy must be willing to engage with the needs of the region in order to implement sustainable international cooperation before the chance is wasted.