Members of Moscow-led military and economic alliances move to diversify ties, turning to China and the West
By Yaroslav Trofimov
November 3, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
When domestic turmoil engulfed Kazakhstan in January last year, Russian airborne troops quickly swooped in to help restore order. Moscow’s sway in much of the former Soviet Union—areas that Russians refer to as “near-abroad”—seemed to be at its peak. The invasion of Ukraine, launched the following month, bared the stark limits of Russian power in what Moscow considered its own backyard. Spooked by the bloodshed in Ukraine and by the international sanctions imposed on Russia, its neighbors and allies now are busy diversifying their relationships, hedging against Moscow by deepening ties with China and the West. “The fear of Russia has increased with the war. It has turned out that Russia’s policies are much more unhinged than what we were used to, and that the principle of recognizing borders has been broken,” said Kazakh political scientist Nargis Kassenova, a senior fellow at the Harvard Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. “On one hand, because you fear, you may try to accommodate them. But on the other hand, the fear makes you want to rely on someone else, to find other protectors.”
Showcasing their desire for warmer ties with the U.S., the leaders of the five Central Asian nations—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan—in September held in New York their first ever joint summit with an American president. President Biden pointedly spoke at the time about a “shared commitment to sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity.” The five Central Asian presidents also trekked to Xi’an, China, for a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in May, nine days after attending World War II victory celebrations alongside President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
The dynamics aren’t uniform across Russia’s periphery. Belarus, used as a launchpad for the invasion of Ukraine, has turned for all practical purposes into a Russian vassal state as President Alexander Lukashenko abandoned his previous overtures to the West. The government of Georgia, a country that had fought its own war with Russia in 2008, remains friendly to Moscow. It has refused to join Western sanctions, even as popular sympathies aligned with Ukraine and virtually every street in central Tbilisi is bedecked with Ukrainian flags.
In most other countries across Moscow’s former empire, Russian influence has declined markedly as both its economy and military reputation were damaged by the failure to win in Ukraine, where a grinding war has now lasted 20 months. The shift away from Russia is most marked in Moldova, which has severed its dependence on Russian energy, and in Armenia, disillusioned with Russia’s unwillingness—or inability—to protect ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan, home to 19 million people, is the biggest and most economically significant member of the two Russian-led blocs, the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance and the Eurasian Economic Union. In that country, disapproval of Russia’s leadership surged to 50% from 20% in 2021, according to a Gallup poll released in April. Kazakhstan has banned the display of “Z” symbols, used to express support for Russian troops, and says it has blacklisted the export of military-use goods and technologies to Russia.
In August, Yevgeni Bobrov, the Russian consul-general in Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty, complained in an interview with Russia’s Tass news agency about “social concern” over the decline in the teaching of the Russian language in the country. Three days later, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said the Russian consul was no longer serving in the country, without providing explanations.
Like other Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan can distance itself only so much. Its main source of revenue is the export of oil via a pipeline that runs to the Russian port of Novorossiysk. Signaling its displeasure, Russia last year temporarily halted the use of the Novorossiysk export terminal. In September, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sparked renewed Russian ire by declaring on a visit to Germany that he intends to observe sanctions against Russia.
The following day, amid outrage in Russian media, Tokayev had to make a new statement to assuage Russian concerns. “Kazakhstan is not an ‘anti-Russia,’ we firmly follow the path of all-encompassing cooperation with Russia, with which we are united by the world’s longest border,” Tokayev said at the time.
The issue of sanctions-busting is a particularly sensitive one. Kazakhstan and other members of the EEU have seen their exports to Russia surge since the start of the war in Ukraine, in large part as a result of parallel imports of Western goods—from refrigerators to designer handbags to electronic circuit boards—that are no longer directly sold to Russia due to the sanctions. The European Union and the U.S. have called for tighter enforcement to make sure Russia’s military industries don’t use these countries to import valuable components. “The leaders of Central Asia try to do all they can to appear as loyal allies in the eyes of Russia. But they also understand that the global pressure on Russia is so strong, the resistance to Russian aggression is so widespread, that it would be very dangerous for them to be associated with Putin’s regime,” said Uzbek political analyst Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “All the diplomatic efforts since the beginning of the war have focused on avoiding secondary sanctions, on making sure that the countries of Central Asia are not seen as really secretly supporting Putin.”
None of the former Soviet states formally recognized Russia’s annexation last year of four Ukrainian regions. With the exception of Belarus, Russia’s post-Soviet partners and allies in the CSTO and EEU abstain in United Nations votes on Ukraine. Georgia and Moldova have voted alongside the majority of U.N. members to condemn Russia.
The political shift is most notable in faraway Moldova, which has made a clear break with Russia under President Maia Sandu. After a dispute with Russian state-run gas giant Gazprom,
the country stopped buying Russian gas, which is now only supplied to a Russian-protected separatist enclave in Transnistria. Moldova’s constitutional court has outlawed a Russian-sponsored party led by fugitive Israeli-Moldovan tycoon Ilan Shor, who is under U.S. sanctions, and authorities have banned the broadcasting of Russian TV news. “The relationship with Russia changed dramatically since the invasion of Ukraine began,” said Radu Marian, a member of parliament from Moldova’s ruling party. “Russia is much weaker now because they have lost their main weapon, the energy weapon. They cannot blackmail us with gas anymore because, for the first time ever since independence, we do not use Russian gas.”
The mood has also turned in Armenia, where resentment has surged at Moscow’s failure to help a nominal ally after Azerbaijan seized the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, forcing out nearly all of its 100,000 ethnic Armenian residents, in September. The military operation to capture Nagorno-Karabakh and detain its leaders followed a monthslong Azerbaijani blockade of the enclave. Russian peacekeepers who were supposed to enforce a cease-fire reached in late 2020 didn’t intervene. Russia also didn’t react significantly when Azerbaijani forces killed several Russian soldiers, including the deputy commander of its peacekeeping group. Azerbaijan apologized and said the Russians had been killed by mistake.
In 2021, many ethnic Armenians had returned to Nagorno-Karabakh because they believed Russian assurances of protection, said former Armenian lawmaker Vahe Hovhannisyan. “Russia promised them peace. They were told, ‘The Russian flag is flying, the Russian contingent is in your hometown, you are safe,’ ” he said. “And then, on Sept. 19, as they sent their children to school, Azerbaijani missiles started falling down.”
Russia’s failure to live up to its obligations was “disappointing to the Armenian government and the Armenian people,” the country’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He added that he didn’t see any benefit in Russian troops remaining on Armenian soil, or in the country retaining membership in the Moscow-led military alliance, the CSTO. Armenia, he said, is now seeking to diversify its security relationships. In October, the country signed a deal to purchase air defenses from France.
The distancing from Moscow is much more subtle in Central Asia—in part because the region’s states, especially weaker ones like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are terrified of Russia’s continuing ability to cause trouble. They also have problems of their own: Despite belonging to the same military alliance, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan fought a brief war over disputed border areas in September 2022. “There is more and more suspicion. People have started to understand what Russia is capable of, seeing what it’s doing with a people that is so close to them” in Ukraine, said Kadyr Toktogulov, Kyrgyzstan’s former ambassador to Washington. “But it’s not like there is a solution. We can’t run far away from Russia.”
Yaroslav Trofimov is the chief foreign-affairs correspondent of The Wall Street Journal. He has covered the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 and has been working out of Ukraine since January 2022. He joined the Journal in 1999 and previously served as Rome, Middle East and Singapore-based Asia correspondent, as bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as Dubai-based columnist on the greater Middle East. He is the author of two books, Faith at War (2005) and Siege of Mecca (2007).