Is Russia’s Post-Soviet Sphere of Influence in Jeopardy?

Unruly crowd: Vladimir Putin with leaders from CSTO member states at the recent summit in Yerevan. Image: / CC BY 4.0

As Russia’s isolation due to the invasion of Ukraine grows, Moscow is struggling to assert itself over its regional partners.

On 23 November, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Yerevan, Armenia for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Summit. During the gathering of leaders from the Russia-led security bloc, Putin extolled the ‘common history’ of its member states and their shared triumph in the Great Patriotic War. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko urged CSTO countries to rally around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, warning emphatically that ‘If Russia wins, the CSTO will live; if God forbid, it does not win, the CSTO will not exist’. These expressions of solidarity were tempered by overt displays of disunity at the CSTO Summit. Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan refused to sign a CSTO declaration on assistance measures to his country, stating that the document ‘has not been sufficiently finalised’. Putin’s admission that problems exist between CSTO member states, which would be privately discussed, underscored the alliance’s growing vulnerabilities.

The CSTO Summit’s discordant mood underscored the organisation’s marked reversal of fortunes over the past year. In January 2022, the CSTO deployed 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan in its first-ever peacekeeping intervention and helped President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev repress mass demonstrations. This high watermark of CSTO solidarity was dashed by Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. In UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russian conduct in Ukraine, only Belarus has consistently sided with Russia, while other CSTO countries have refused to defend Moscow’s actions. These cautious displays of dissent are not entirely new – only Belarus and Armenia defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the March 2014 UN General Assembly Resolution 68/26 – but they have nevertheless prompted fears that Moscow’s sphere of influence is eroding. On 1 April, Russian International Affairs Council Director General Andrei Kortunov contended that Russia became a global power ‘without becoming a fully legitimate regional leader’, and in an oblique reference to the Ukraine War, he conceded that ‘Today, for obvious reasons, it will be much more difficult to solve this problem’.

Due to concerns about secondary sanctions and latent mistrust of Russia as a partner, Moscow’s relationships with all of its treaty allies have experienced significant tensions over the past nine months. These strains are especially apparent in Russia’s relations with Armenia and Kazakhstan, where they have periodically entered the public sphere. To mitigate the impact of these frictions, Russia has extended olive branches to non-treaty allies in the post-Soviet space, pursued targeted areas of intra-regional cooperation via multilateral institutions, and diversified its alliance with Belarus.

The Erosion of Russia’s Partnerships with its Treaty Allies

Due to Armenia’s frustrations with Russia’s repeated rejections of CSTO involvement on its behalf in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Moscow–Yerevan relations were tense heading into the Ukraine War. After the war began, Armenia did not support Russia’s invasion, but also opposed efforts to isolate Russia. Armenia was the sole opponent of Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe, and recorded a 49% increase in bilateral trade with Russia, which prompted fears that it was helping Russia circumvent sanctions. After the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict reignited on 12 September, Russia inflamed tensions with Armenia by presenting itself as a neutral voice of de-escalation. Armenia’s request for French mediation after the CSTO Summit reflects its diminishing faith in Russian diplomacy on Nagorno-Karabakh.

In UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russian conduct in Ukraine, only Belarus has consistently sided with Russia, while other CSTO countries have refused to defend Moscow’s actions

Pashinyan’s feting of a US delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on 18 September and acceptance of thousands of Russians fleeing mobilisation soured relations further. Armenia banned Putin allies, such as RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan and State Duma Deputy Konstantin Zatulin, from entering the country. State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Federov called Armenia an ‘illegal state entity’ that unlawfully seceded from the Soviet Union, and claimed that Pashinyan took power through a US-backed Orange Revolution. These tensions spilt over to the CSTO summit, as Armenian opposition groups called for a CSTO withdrawal and Rossiya-1 commentator Igor Korotchenko accused Armenia of creating provocations by firing at Azerbaijani positions.

The escalation of Russia–Kazakhstan tensions has been equally striking. The Kazakh authorities allowed 5,000 pro-Ukraine demonstrators to congregate in Almaty on 6 March and cancelled their 9 May Victory Day celebrations, which commemorate the 600,000 Kazakhs who perished in the Second World War. At the St Petersburg Economic Forum on 17 June, Tokayev insisted that Kazakhstan would not recognise the ‘quasi-state’ Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, and warned that if Russia’s precedent of recognising ‘quasi-state entities’ based on self-determination was followed, chaos would ensue. Kazakhstan also became a haven for Russians escaping mobilisation, with 200,000 Russians crossing its border by early October, and pledged to only extradite Russians on ‘international wanted lists’.

Russian commentators have responded to Kazakhstan’s independent course on the Ukraine War with derision. Tigran Keosayan’s taunt – ‘Kazakhs, brothers. What is with the non-gratitude? Look at Ukraine carefully, think seriously’ – and Dmitry Drobnitsky’s warning that Kazakhstan was vulnerable to Ukraine-style Nazism exemplify this trend. Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov has insisted that Kazakhstan’s efforts to capitalise on sanctions against Russia are ‘absolutely normal’, and indirectly criticised the above commentators for their 'awkward' rhetoric. Nevertheless, Russia has carried out targeted retaliations, such as the July 2022 closure of the Novorossiysk oil terminal that Kazakhstan uses to export oil to the EU.

Aside from Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s emphatic call for ‘respect’ from Putin in a viral 15 October video, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have remained largely silent on the Ukraine War. Kyrgyzstan’s silence likely stems from the war’s unpopularity, with 70% of Kyrgyz believing that it is having an adverse economic impact on their country. The Ukraine War is more popular in Tajikistan: an estimated 65–70% of Tajiks support Russia’s actions, and the number of Tajiks receiving Russian passports has increased from 44,700 in 2019 to 103,000 in 2022. However, a groundswell of dissent from opposition figures who have compared the Ukraine invasion to the 1992–97 Tajik Civil War could explain Rahmon’s caution.

How Russia Plans to Counter the Growing Backlash in the Post-Soviet Space

As Russia’s relations with its treaty allies fray, it has devised a three-pronged strategy to maintain influence in the post-Soviet space. First, Russia is strengthening its relations with non-treaty allies, such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, as a hedge against its wayward CSTO partners. Ahead of the CSTO Summit, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Baku, leading to discussions about strengthening the western route of the North-South Transport Corridor. Russia is also coordinating with Uzbekistan on engaging with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan about security challenges. Difficulties remain in these relationships, such as Azerbaijan’s efforts to supplant Russian gas exports to Europe and Uzbekistan’s refusal to deport Russians fleeing mobilisation, but Moscow’s regional influence increasingly hinges on its non-treaty allies.

Russia is strengthening its relations with non-treaty allies, such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, as a hedge against its wayward CSTO partners

Second, Russia is trying to add new vitality to flailing multilateral institutions for intra-regional cooperation. After Kazakhstan stated on 3 October that the CSTO will not be a party to the Ukraine War, as it favours ‘territorial integrity and the sovereign equality of states’, Russian state media overtly mocked the CSTO’s inefficacies. After the Kherson withdrawal, Rossiya-1 propagandist Vladimir Solovyov lambasted the CSTO’s inaction as ‘enemy Nazi troops’ entered Russian territory. During the CSTO Summit, Putin highlighted member state coordination on mitigating threats from Afghanistan as proof of the security bloc’s continued utility. Russia’s active support for the creation of a common energy market for Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) countries – given that 72% of intra-regional trade is conducted in roubles – underscores its desire to leverage the customs union as a bulwark against sanctions.

Third, Russia has diversified its economic and security partnership with Belarus to hedge against strains in its other regional alliances. Russia’s August 2022 announcement of 20 import-substitution projects with Belarus – valued at $2 billion – and its support for the construction of Belarusian ports in St Petersburg and Murmansk signify an effort to offset the EAEU’s weaknesses. The 10 October Russia–Belarus regional grouping, which resulted in the deployment of an additional 9,000 Russian troops and MiG-31 jets on Belarusian territory, mitigates Russia’s inability to secure CSTO-level cooperation. As Belarus has appeared like a Russian client state since the 2020 election protests against Lukashenko’s regime, the 1997 Russia–Belarus Union State Treaty has gained renewed significance.

Nine months after Putin launched a neo-imperial war to subordinate Ukraine, Russia is on the verge of seeing its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space atrophy. The growing risk of secondary sanctions, continued weaknesses of intra-regional institutions, and Russia’s eroding soft power point to a continuation of this trajectory. As we enter 2023, it remains to be seen whether Russia can reassert itself as a mediator in disputes involving its treaty allies, such as Nagorno-Karabakh and the recent Kyrgyzstan–Tajikistan tensions, or if its strategy in the post-Soviet space will lean more heavily on an increasingly isolated Belarus.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Samuel Ramani

Associate Fellow; Tutor of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford

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