This is a shortened, significantly revised article based on the authors’ chapter “Shifting balances – the war and Russia’s neighbours,” published in the report “Russia’s War Against Ukraine and the West: The First Year”, edited by Maria Engqvist and Emil Wannheden, Stockholm: Swedish Defence Research Agency, June 2023, FOI-R—5479—SE.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, represents a watershed moment, an event producing a new geopolitical landscape. The full magnitudes of the changes unleashed by the war remain to be seen, but there are already signs of Russia losing ground in countries beyond Ukraine that it sees as part of its sphere of interest. The war and its consequences have confirmed that the notion of a unified “post-Soviet” region, based on a shared identity and Russia as center of gravity, no longer holds relevance for describing states with widely different identities and interests. This article analyzes how Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan view their security policy and Russia’s role in it after the first year of full-scale war in Ukraine. How have they adjusted their foreign and security policy?
Moscow’s influence among the countries that used to be part of the Soviet empire has relied on its role as dominant security actor, where military presence and security cooperation have been important tools. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has served as a vessel for Russian influence as well as provided participant countries with preferential conditions for arms sales and training, and defense commitments. But Russia has also resorted to coercion and aggression to promote its interests, not least when countries have opted for a Western course. Russia’s military and political support to irredentist provinces in the region has provided Moscow with a security footprint, which these countries have had to consider when pursuing their foreign policy choices. As softer tools, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have been key to promote economic and political integration – but predominantly on Russian terms. Russia’s goal has been to create a buffer zone of friendly or dependent states, to ensure its own security and identity as a great power.
|Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO)
|Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)
|Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)
|Member (suspended participation)
Mapping the different reactions of the countries, it is evident that the “near abroad,” as the region is often called in Russian strategic documents, is far from as integrated and tied to Russia as Moscow would prefer. Each country has its distinct security and foreign policy interests, and relations with Russia. It is also clear that Russia’s influence in the neighborhood is waning, albeit with important differences and some exceptions.
Belarus in Russia’s corner, Moldova turning West
Belarus and Moldova have reacted differently to Russia’s war in Ukraine. In Belarus, the war is accompanied by an accelerated political, economic and military integration within the framework of the Union State between Belarus and Russia. The Belarusian leadership has largely echoed Russian rhetoric on the war and the West. Notably, President Aleksandr Lukashenko has recognized Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk as “de facto” Russian. Both official rhetoric and doctrine have come to emphasize an acute threat to Belarus from NATO, and that security can only be ensured in cooperation with Russia. The pivot to Moscow, enabled by Lukashenko’s heavy dependence on the Kremlin following the 2020 political crisis in Belarus, stands in sharp contrast to Belarus’s earlier balanced approach in foreign relations, which premiered ties with both the West and Russia.
The war has demonstrated that Belarus is at Russia’s military disposal. Russia has been able to use Belarusian territory at will to launch missile strikes, and for ground and air operations, including the Kyiv offensive along with the targeted drone strike campaign against critical Ukrainian infrastructure launched in October 2022. Belarus has likewise provided the war effort with vital logistical support, such as repair, medical services, transport, and extensive training. Thousands of Russian mobilized personnel have undergone training in Belarus. The announced deployment of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons to Belarus, formally at Minsk’s request but under Russian control, will tie Belarus even closer to Moscow and its confrontation with the West. Following the aborted armed mutiny in Russia in June 2023, thousands of Wagner mercenaries relocated to Belarus as Minsk established a partnership with the Russian mercenary group. But Wagner’s presence in Belarus appears uncertain following the death of its senior leadership.
Lukashenko has, however, expressed assurances that Belarus will not join the war with its own troops in Ukraine unless attacked first. While Belarusians remain divided on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, an overwhelming majority of the population would oppose direct involvement. There has been significant partisan activity directed at existing war contributions. The risks to regime stability in Belarus are likely a restraining factor in Moscow’s calculus on whether to pressure the Belarusian regime to commit troops. Overall, Belarus’s approximation to Russia’s position stands in sharp contrast to Moldova but also departs from the general trend in the region.
The war has significantly accelerated Moldova’s trajectory out of Russia’s orbit. For Moldovan authorities, initial fears revolved around Russia extending its invasion of Ukraine into Moldova through the breakaway region of Transnistria, where Russia maintains an operational military foothold. Concerns later centered on Russian attempts to destabilize Moldova, including with widespread disinformation campaigns, energy extortion, and plans for a coup d’état. While the pro-Western government was initially reluctant to take a strong stance against Moscow due to security concerns, it has since condemned the Russian invasion and joined Western sanctions. By autumn 2022, President Maia Sandu asserted that Moldova faced a Russian “hybrid war” aimed at halting the country’s accelerating European integration.
Moldova’s application for EU membership, in March 2022, and subsequent candidate status, in June, were part of a long-standing objective of the current government. But embarking on EU integration was also a strategic response to the war to ensure national security. Simultaneously moving further from Russia, Moldova has suspended its participation in the CIS. To strengthen resilience, Moldova has begun to rid the country of its hitherto almost exclusive dependency on Russian energy and has imposed a temporary ban of several Russian propaganda news outlets. The government has also taken a tougher stance on Russia-backed separatist Transnistria, underscoring that Moldova’s EU integration will apply to its entire sovereign territory, with no special status envisaged for the breakaway region of Transnistria. Moscow has issued threatening statements to the Moldovan authorities, emphasizing its commitment to protect the interests of Moldova’s Russian-speaking population.
The war has underlined the need for Moldova to cooperate with Western partners to address its substandard defense capabilities, not least air defense since Moldovan airspace has been repeatedly violated by Russian missiles launched against Ukraine. By May 2023, the EU’s support to the Moldovan Armed Forces under the European Peace Facility stood at more than double the amount of Moldova’s 2022 military expenditure. Ties with NATO have deepened. While a discussion on Moldova’s constitutional neutrality is brewing, the government has ruled out NATO membership for now. Cooperation with Western partners is at unprecedented levels, but the Western path is strongly tied to the current government’s policy. Other political factions retain close ties with Russia and have reportedly been involved in organizing anti-government protests in the capital Chisinau, exploiting divisions in Moldovan society. A change of government in the next elections could therefore hold far-reaching consequences for Moldova’s Western orientation.
Realignment and vulnerability in the South Caucasus
The war has changed the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus, a region at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Regional rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to be preoccupied with one another and their conflict over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The second Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended on November 9, 2020 with a Russian-brokered trilateral ceasefire statement, which established a Russian peacekeeping mission of some 2,000 soldiers along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh and in the Lachin corridor, connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. The peacekeepers however failed to deter Azerbaijan from making further territorial advances in September 2022, and from enacting a partial blockage of the Lachin corridor in December 2022.
While Armenia is allied with and heavily dependent on Russia for its security, relations have soured over Russia’s inaction against Azerbaijan’s advances. The Armenian government has accused Moscow of not fulfilling its commitments under the trilateral statement. Indeed, Russia has reportedly decreased its peacekeeping force, transferring some of it to fight in Ukraine. As a member of the CSTO, Armenia is also frustrated with the military organization’s refusal to take its side in the conflict with non-member Azerbaijan, arguing that CSTO passivity incentivizes Azerbaijani aggression and creates a security threat for Armenia. Moscow appears unwilling to jeopardize its relationship with Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani ally Turkey and is unable to divert military resources to the area. As Russia concentrates its efforts on Ukraine, Armenia is left to fend for itself.
Increasingly disenchanted, the Armenian government rejected a CSTO mission to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in late 2022, opting for an EU mission instead. The EU Mission Armenia (EUMA) was established in January 2023. The small and unarmed EUMA does not enjoy the cooperation of Azerbaijan, limiting its ability to play an increased role in the conflict. All said and done, the question remains whether any viable alternatives to Russia really exist for Armenia: Which other regional actor would find it worthwhile taking on both Russia’s ire at being pushed out, and the Azerbaijani and Turkish challenge?
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is becoming a more important partner for Russia, despite the two states’ lingering disagreements, particularly on Nagorno-Karabakh. On February 22, 2022, just before Russia commenced its invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a wide-ranging agreement with his Russian counterpart that brought, in Aliyev’s words, Russian-Azerbaijani relations “to the level of an alliance.” Nonetheless, Azerbaijan has not offered any support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, maintaining a balanced approach in foreign relations with close relations to both Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, there is sympathy between Azerbaijan and Ukraine: both see parallels between the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory and Armenian action in Nagorno-Karabakh.
As the stronger party in the conflict, Azerbaijan has reaped the rewards of Russia’s distraction and unwillingness to act in Armenia’s defense. Buoyed by an EU-Azerbaijan gas agreement, increasingly unconstrained by Russia and with Turkey’s military backing, Azerbaijan is pursuing a more independent course of action and seizing the opportunity to strengthen its hand in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In September 2022, Azerbaijani troops seized control of strategic lands across the Armenian border and is increasingly challenging the Russian peacekeeping mission, which it perceives as an unjust constraint, or even a form of occupation. This emboldened stance is developing in tandem with Moscow’s increasing need to maintain close relations to Turkey and sustain trade routes through Azerbaijan’s territory. Indeed, Moscow is constricted by Turkey’s strengthened role in the region and its defense pact with Azerbaijan, as codified in the 2021 Shusha Declaration. In short, with Armenia weak, Azerbaijan emboldened, and Russia looking away, there is a high risk of renewed fighting.
In the middle of the changing South Caucasian security landscape is Georgia, which for long has had the most acrimonious relationship with Moscow. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has evoked painful memories of the five-day Russian-Georgian war, in 2008, when Russia seized parts of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory and acknowledged the independence of the breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia holds a military presence in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia and has reportedly redeployed troops from its military base in South Ossetia to Ukraine. The invasion raised domestic fears that Georgia could be next, should Russia succeed in achieving its goals in Ukraine. Georgia applied for EU membership after Russia had launched its invasion. However, unlike Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia failed to receive immediate candidate status. The European Commission did give Georgia a European perspective, but listed 12 recommendations that Georgia must fulfil to qualify for candidate status.
Since then, Georgia’s government has become increasingly skeptical of the West, adopting a hostile anti-western rhetoric, and pushing policies that contradicts its European and Euro-Atlantic ambitions. The attempt to push through a Russian-influenced law on “agents of foreign influence” in March 2023 is but the most striking example. Georgia’s government – under de facto control of the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili who amassed his fortune in Russia during the 1990s – is using a transactional foreign-policy approach partly reminiscent of how former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych extracted benefits from both the EU and Russia during his presidency. There is, however, an inherent incompatibility between the Tbilisi’s stated goals of progressing towards EU and NATO integration while maintaining good relations with Russia. Thus, while the war has renewed Georgian threat perception concerning Russia, it has not resulted in a clear turning point. More than anything, it has revealed the lingering presence of post-Soviet oligarchic rule and a lack of domestic reforms. The alienation between state and society, which has manifested itself in several mass protests against the government’s ambivalent stance on Russia coupled with its lackluster commitment to Western integration, makes Georgia’s future path uncertain.
Central Asia at a crossroads
While the Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have tried to distance themselves from Russia’s war in Ukraine, they are at the same time exposed to Russian pressure and therefore cautious about openly criticizing Moscow’s actions. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, all members of the CSTO, have tried to steer the alliance away from potential involvement in Ukraine, arguing instead for the need of securing the unstable southern border with Afghanistan. In reality, however, Russia has reportedly redirected resources from its military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Ukraine, further eroding its military posture in the region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thus confirmed that Moscow’s primary security interests lie elsewhere than in Central Asia.
The effectiveness of the CSTO as a military alliance guaranteeing the collective security of its members is increasingly questioned in the region. The violent clashes between the militaries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both CSTO members with Russian military bases on their territories, along the contested border in September 2022, which left at least 134 people dead, did not provoke a response from Russia. For both states, Russia’s image as the main guarantor of security in the region rings hollower now than ever before. Now viewing the Russian-led CSTO as a collective insecurity alliance, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are looking beyond Russia to protect themselves against one another. Kyrgyzstan is buying military drones from Turkey, while Tajikistan’s closer security cooperation with Iran includes a newly inaugurated Iranian drone factory in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
The other countries have also declared that they need to strengthen their military capabilities in response to the deteriorating security environment. Uzbekistan’s President Mirziyoyev, in a speech on August 31, 2022, Independence Day, pledged that strengthening the country’s armed forces would now receive the highest priority. In Turkmenistan, new President Serdar Berdimuhamedov has called for increasing investments in defense, and China has pledged to help equip and train the Turkmen armed forces. Most significantly, Kazakhstan decided to increase its defense spending and has updated its military doctrine to handle “new threats and risks” with a particular emphasis on the need to protect the nation’s borders with modern military equipment. Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity is especially precarious with 3.5 million ethnic Russians, approximately 20 per cent of its population, living mainly near the vast border with Russia. Even after the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan in January 2022, which helped President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev secure his hold on power amidst large-scale unrest, the Kazakh government has shown greater resistance to Moscow than expected. As a result, Kazakhstan has been the target of aggressive Russian media campaigns with senior Russian officials, journalists and other public figures, dissatisfied with Astana’s refusal to support Russia in Ukraine, attacking Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and national identity.
To mitigate their insecurities, political incumbents in Central Asia are seeking closer ties to China. In mid-September 2022, President Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan in his first foreign state visit since the COVID-19 pandemic pledging China’s unwavering support for Kazakhstan’s sovereignty. Beijing has officially backed all the Central Asian states’ sovereignty and national independence. As a weakened Russia becomes ever more dependent on China’s support, this leverage enables Beijing to further expand its role in Central Asia. China’s economic role in Central Asia, which already surpasses Russia’s, has only grown in the past year. According to Chinese customs statistics, trade between China and Central Asia hit a record high in 2022, exceeding USD 70 billion. Year-on-year, trade turnover between China and the five Central Asian countries increased by 45 per cent.
Besides turning to China, political incumbents in the four Turkic-speaking countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, seek closer ties with Turkey, whose geopolitical significance is growing in Central Asia. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have elevated their relationships with Turkey to the level of “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” with agreements to develop military cooperation, including education, exercises and intelligence-sharing. Turkey’s defense industry is rapidly gaining a foothold in the Central Asian arms market. Turkey and Kazakhstan have agreed to produce the Anka drone in Kazakhstan, while Turkmenistan, as well as Kyrgyzstan, have purchased Bayraktar TB2 combat drones.
Amidst the turbulence, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are pushing to further strengthen regional collaboration. The two countries have signed a treaty on allied relations – the first of its kind in Central Asia. The rapprochement between Kazakhstan, the largest economy in the region, and Uzbekistan, the most populous country, could have far-reaching implications if it lays a foundation for building security from within the region instead of depending on the whims of external powers.
Claiming the “near abroad” as its own is becoming ever more important for Russia’s political leadership in its confrontation with the West. But barring Belarus, after a year and a half of war, Russia’s influence in the neighborhood is increasingly challenged. Many of Russia’s neighbors are bolstering national defense and seeking security cooperation with other actors, such as China, Turkey, Iran, and the EU. In parallel, the foundation of Russia’s regional power, its military might, is being undermined in Ukraine. The neighbors’ reduced appetite for Russia stands in stark contrast to the Kremlin’s enduring hegemonical claims. It will be a source of tension going forward.
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s role as a security provider in Eurasia has diminished. The CSTO’s defense commitments have come under question, and CSTO members are far from united in their views on the war in Ukraine. Indeed, apart from Belarus, Russia is unable to shore up the support of its CSTO allies, despite claiming to be fighting a defensive war. A reduced Russian military presence, both at its regional bases and in the Nagorno-Karabakh peacekeeping mission, has shown allies that Moscow’s main security focus lies elsewhere. In the South Caucasus, this appears to be devastating for Armenia, a CSTO member, while beneficial for Azerbaijan, a non-CSTO member. Both parties’ dissatisfaction with the Russian peacekeeping mission, albeit for different reasons, raises doubts as to whether the peacekeeping mandate will be prolonged beyond its expiration, in 2025.
The observed changes in foreign and security policy are often not new developments, but rather continuations of existing trends that have come to a head, or been accelerated, through the war. For those already viewing Russia as a threat, their concerns have been reinforced. For those invested in a multi-vector foreign policy, balancing their relations has become more important. For the Moldovan government, and for large parts of Georgian society, the Western course has become even more urgent. In Central Asia, ties with China continue to strengthen. And Belarus has fallen further under Russia’s sway. The war has also exposed tensions in societies: between people and their government, as in Georgia and to some extent in Belarus, and between diverting views on Russia, as in Moldova. It reminds us that these countries remain vulnerable to Russian influence as Russia continues to contest any Westward movement.The standoff between Russia and the West will likely present the countries with security dilemmas. Will Armenia be able to host a fully active EU mission on the border with Azerbaijan while Russian peacekeepers operate in Nagorno-Karabakh? Can Kazakhstan remain a committed security partner to Russia while refusing to support Moscow’s actions in Ukraine? Can Georgia continue its rapprochement with Russia while simultaneously pursuing a policy of Euro-Atlantic integration? At the same time, countries will likely resist a binary choice between Russia and the West and further diversify relations, leveraging the role of China, Turkey, Iran, and others.The different reactions of Russia’s neighbors to the war have unequivocally revealed the diversity of what is too-often reduced to a “post-Soviet” space. Instead of deferring to Moscow’s priorities, the neighboring countries navigate a shifting security landscape in pursuit of greater agency for themselves. To grasp events unfolding in these countries, we must leave the idea of a coherent post-Soviet region behind and recognize the multifaceted geopolitical landscape now emerging. There are opportunities for diversifying relations, but also risks of new dependencies, insecurities and conflicts. Importantly, much remains contingent on the further development and outcome of the war.
Johan Engvall, Ph.D., works at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) and is a former deputy research director at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). His specialisation is domestic, foreign and security policy in Central Asia. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Uppsala University.
Ismail Khan is an Analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). Ismail analyses developments within the Russian military & security establishment as well as politico-security related developments in Ukraine. He holds an M.Sc. in Oriental Studies with focus on security studies.
Kristina Melin is an Analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). Kristina focuses on security policy in Russia and in Russia’s neighbouring countries, in particular Belarus, as well as Russian nuclear policy. She holds an M.A. from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.
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