Perceiving the fragility of Russian power, governments across the region have begun creating facts on the ground in ways that Russia’s post-imperial power long prevented. Since the start of the “special military operation” against Ukraine, worried neighbors like Kazakhstan have been demonstratively spurning Russia. In the past few weeks, Eurasia has also seen a renewal of conflicts that could be a harbinger of greater instability to come. Regional powers, especially China and Turkey, are more openly pushing back against Russian influence. And now Russia’s mobilization has touched off a flood of migration to other Eurasian states — particularly Armenia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. This is reversing a longstanding pattern of migration to Russia and bringing many ordinary Russians face-to-face with the resentment still felt in many post-colonial societies.
These developments are the first signs of what is likely to be one of the war’s more enduring outcomes: a diminution of Russian influence throughout post-Soviet Eurasia and the emergence of a more dynamic, if complex, regional order. In other words, it is exactly the opposite outcome that Moscow hoped to achieve with its invasion of Ukraine and effective occupation of Belarus. As the resurgence of fighting in both the South Caucasus and Central Asia suggests, the retreat of Russian influence could allow simmering disputes to boil over and create new suffering for people in the region. Over the longer term though, it could contribute to the emergence of stronger, more effective states — especially if the United States and its European allies can provide a more liberal alternative to the growing influence of countries like China and Turkey.
New Conflicts, Old Problems
Coverage of Russia’s military setbacks and recent mobilization has obscured significant developments elsewhere around the periphery of the old Soviet empire. Renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, suggests that as Moscow bleeds in Ukraine, it is losing the ability to manipulate the other post-imperial conflicts that litter its borderlands. Indeed, Russia has been forced to withdraw troops from these regions to replenish its losses in Ukraine. This has allowed other regional powers to take advantage of Russia’s preoccupation to pursue their own objectives in Moscow’s self-proclaimed sphere of “privileged interests.”
As Russian forces were being routed from Kharkiv, fighting broke out on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, countries that have been locked in a struggle for the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1980s. Not long after, Tajik forces began firing into Kyrgyzstan, raising the stakes in a conflict that has simmered for several years over their convoluted border. While local civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting, Russia’s reputation as a regional hegemon capable of maintaining — or imposing — order around its periphery has suffered as well.
Russia was instrumental in securing the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan that ended the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in late 2020, and deployed its own forces as peacekeepers to monitor and implement the deal. Notably, Moscow stepped in to broker the ceasefire after Azerbaijani forces struck outside of Nagorno-Karabakh and into Armenia proper, which the Kremlin affirmed was covered by the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s security umbrella.
This time, when Azerbaijan renewed its offensive, Yerevan’s appeals to the Russian-led treaty organization for support went unanswered. Bogged down in Ukraine, Moscow had withdrawn around 800 troops as well as numerous peacekeepers from Armenia in March. Compared to 2020, Russia is also now warier of provoking tensions with Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey, given Ankara’s role as a conduit for Russian trade and investment amid Western sanctions. If Azerbaijan has concluded it can act without regard for Russian preferences, Armenia is left with the realization that the security guarantee it nominally enjoys from the Collective Security Treaty has little value. Meanwhile the United States and European Union have taken the lead on efforts to negotiate a durable peace deal between Baku and Yerevan.
Like Armenia, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and have long hosted significant contingents of Russian forces. While the Russian presence in Central Asia was largely aimed at checking the spread of instability, jihadism, drug trafficking, and other transnational challenges, it also helped to keep a lid on territorial disputes resulting from the Soviet Union’s messy division of the Ferghana Valley among Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. When clashes along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border escalated in April 2021, for instance, Russia played a largely constructive role, encouraging the two sides to implement and respect a ceasefire.
Kyrgyz-Tajik hostilities resumed, however, in September 2022. Driven by nationalist politicians on both sides, the fighting killed over 100 people and drove tens of thousands to flee. With Tajik President Emomali Rahmon one of the few post-Soviet leaders not expressing reservations over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow appears to be tilting toward Tajikistan at the expense of its ability to mediate. In early October, Kyrgyzstan called off planned Collective Security Treaty Organization exercises on its territory, while both Bishkek and Dushanbe have ignored the organization’s efforts at mediation. In another sign of Russia’s weakening influence, Kyrgyz officials have suggested that foreign fighters from Afghanistan, whom Moscow long sought to exclude from Central Asia, had participated in the Tajik offensive. As in the South Caucasus, leaders in both countries recognize that Russia is not in a position to impose any kind of settlement, having already had to re-deploy more than 1,500 troops to make up for losses in Ukraine.
Geopolitical Competition Returns to Eurasia
Local actors in the South Caucasus and Central Asia are not the only ones to be emboldened by Russia’s difficulties. Other regional powers have also taken advantage of Russia’s distraction and demoralization to advance their own agendas. China and Turkey, two erstwhile Russian partners with longstanding interests in Eurasia, have been the most active.
From the beginning, neither Ankara nor Beijing was fully on board with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. NATO ally Turkey has been providing military assistance to Ukraine, most notably Bayraktar TB2 armed drones. In a recent Public Broadcasting Service interview, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that Turkey would not recognize any territorial changes and called on Russia to end the war, repeating offers of Turkish mediation. Though Xi Jinping’s China has rhetorically supported Russia by blaming NATO for sparking the war, Beijing has refused to provide military assistance or to assist Russia in evading Western sanctions. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent in mid-September, Xi expressed “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine.
Along with other players like India, the United Arab Emirates, and the European Union, China and Turkey have significantly expanded their footprints in post-Soviet Eurasia. While Turkey continues backing Azerbaijan, it has also been pushing to open its border and normalize relations with Armenia. Though this may prove more difficult than Erdogan hopes, Ankara sees an opportunity to reshape the region’s economic geography. Plugging Armenia into east-west transit corridors across the Caucasus would facilitate greater connectivity with Central Asia while reducing Yerevan’s dependence on Russia (and Iran). Meanwhile, Turkey is also stepping up its engagement with the states of Central Asia, pushing to reorganize and strengthen the Organization of Turkic States, pursuing membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and signing new economic and military cooperation agreements with putative Russian allies like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The expansion of China’s footprint has been even more dramatic. Though Chinese trade and investment, especially in Central Asia, were growing long before Russia’s launched its full-scale invasion, sanctions and the broader decline of the Russian economy will accelerate Eurasia’s economic pivot to China. With foreign companies fleeing Russia because of sanctions, China has also turned increasingly to transit routes through Central Asia and the Caucasus to reach markets in Europe. A regional trade association predicts that the volume of goods transiting Central Asia and the Caucasus this year will be six times greater than the volume shipped across the region in 2021. Central Asian governments have also been turning more to China for security assistance, included weapons, training, and joint exercises. Questions about the availability and effectiveness of Russian forces in the region will only reinforce that trend. Meanwhile, China is taking advantage of warming relations to press Central Asian governments to go along with its brutal crackdown on Uyghurs in neighboring Xinjiang.
Near Abroad No More?
Russia has long been the main security guarantor in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, attempting at once to manipulate rivalries between its smaller neighbors to secure its own influence while keeping a lid on regional disputes. Since the Soviet collapse, elites in much of post-Soviet Eurasia have regarded Russia as an immovable force. They looked to Moscow to sort out their internal disputes and to provide a security umbrella through both bilateral arrangements and the multilateral Collective Security Treaty Organization. Meanwhile, both Russian officials and outside observers have viewed the post-Soviet states of eastern Europe (including Ukraine), the South Caucasus, and Central Asia as part of what Dmitri Trenin once called a Russian “sphere of interests.” With Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine, that perspective is becoming increasingly untenable.
The Armenia-Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan conflicts suggest how the erosion of Russian influence could bring further violence and suffering to both the South Caucasus and Central Asia. In the longer run, though, the retreat of Russian power could set the stage for the emergence of stronger, more stable states in these regions, as regional elites will have to take greater responsibility for managing their own problems. The region’s emerging geopolitical pluralism will also allow the smaller Eurasian states greater agency, since they will be able to choose between multiple outside partners. They will benefit from being able to capture a higher share of trade and transit revenue, and from possible investments in their energy sectors.
The growing influence China and Turkey is not likely to be particularly liberal, and by itself will do little to address the region’s multiple governance challenges. However, Russia’s weakness also creates an opening that more liberal players like the United States and European Union can exploit, especially as the post-Soviet generation of elites slowly passes from the stage. Even as the United States and its allies focus on helping Ukraine defeat the Russian invasion, they should also be thinking about how to further encourage the smaller Eurasian states’ no-longer-gradual escape from Russia’s shadow. Continuing investment, civil society partnerships, and the cultivation of regional cooperation mechanisms can all play a vital role in ensuring that Central Asia emerges more democratic and secure from Russia’s defeat.
Jeffrey Mankoff is a Distinguished Research Fellow at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, and a Non-Resident Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).