The events taking place there – be it the transfer of power from Nazarbayev to Tokayev in Kazakhstan in 2019, the same process in Kyrgyzstan in 2020, the preparation of an “heir” in Turkmenistan, the 2018 “revolution” in Armenia or periodic unrest in Georgia – would modestly pop up on the Russian agenda, taking a backseat to events in Ukraine, Russia’s activity in the international arena and internal issues.
During this period, however, three local crises developed that did not go unnoticed by Moscow. The first was the presidential elections in Belarus in the summer of 2020. Despite his active maneuvering in the international arena, Lukashenko was facing a lack of legitimacy during another reelection bid. His appeal to Moscow for support and harsh repression against the opposition would roll back the drift toward the West that he had orchestrated after Crimea.
Although Moscow did not directly intervene, the situation teetered on the brink of Russian military involvement in the confrontation between Lukashenko and the opposition. Lukashenko himself lost the relative autonomy from Russia that he sought in 2014-2019, when, while highlighting threats to the country’s security, he avoided specifying where the threat emanates – from the West or from the East.
The second crisis was the 2020 Karabakh war. Despite Russia’s direct military involvement, Moscow did not attract much criticism either within the country or from the West, as the Kremlin sought to stick to its peacekeeping mandate.
The third crisis was the unrest in Kazakhstan in January 2022, followed by the sudden entry of Russian troops into the country. Though at first this was reminiscent of the Prague Spring of 1968 – and it is not entirely clear whether there was a formal request for military assistance from Astana – the situation was resolved within a few days. Russian troops did not play a major role and quickly left Kazakhstan without putting forward any political, territorial or other claims.
It was rumored that one reason for the rapid exit could have been China’s dissatisfaction with the sudden change in the regional balance of power. Within a few weeks, however, it became clear that Moscow had other plans for its military resources – diverting the army to Kazakhstan would have complicated operations in Ukraine. The situation after February 24, 2022
On the surface, little has changed: only the Baltic countries and Moldova took a tough stance toward Russia. Summits of numerous post-Soviet “integration” institutions are still held regularly, although in fact each country is constructing its own political strategy without anticipating a military victory by Moscow. It would be more appropriate to call the “pro-Russia” bloc “isolationist.” These countries have extremely limited opportunities to maneuver in the international arena, though they also have no desire to increase their dependence on Moscow, which many consider “toxic.”
The most striking example of this behavior is Belarus.
Even though it officially subscribes to the Russian worldview and offered its territory for Russian troops to use as a staging ground in February 2022, Belarus still cannot be considered radically “pro-war.” Lukashenko has multiple times skillfully evaded Moscow’s hints about engaging the Belarusian army in Ukraine, and even declared
2023 as a year of peace – which, by the standards of today’s Russia, looks a little provocative. Minsk seeks to maintain a special relationship with Beijing, counting on China to act as a guarantor of Belarusian sovereignty in the event of threats from Russia.
the political regime is simply trying to gain a foothold after another unexpected change of power – thus, it is important for it not to quarrel with Moscow, especially since its reputation as “the most democratic country in Central Asia” has been tarnished and the US air base at Manas, opened in 2001, was closed in 2014 (not without pressure from Moscow, it is believed). Tajikistan
has not been very active in the international arena previously, and it also prefers not to quarrel with Moscow. It is in Dushanbe’s interests to use Russian resources to fuel its economy (including remittances from Tajiks working in Russia) and relations with Moscow to counterbalance China’s influence. In addition, the presence of the Russian 201st Military Base
is useful both in case of internal political risks and given the country’s location next to unstable Afghanistan. Kazakhstan
can be seen as the leader of the neutral bloc. Amid emphatically friendly rhetoric and what might be assistance in circumventing sanctions, Astana is keen to keep channels of communication with the West open, which, among other things, is seen as strengthening the current government inside Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, negative rhetoric toward Kazakhstan by Russian officials – in particular, Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin
and Presidential Council for Human Rights head Valery Fadeev
– has not gone unnoticed. Although there are relatively few Kazakh migrants in Russia, these verbal attacks can be read as a manifestation of nationalism targeting all the peoples of Central Asia and belittling the states of the region.
For some time after the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan
was keen to talk about modernization, but now it is again at a crossroads – should it continue the thaw or “tighten the screws” again? Tashkent has largely refrained from passing judgement on what is happening in Ukraine. Still, like the other four Central Asian countries, it participated in a meeting hosted by US President Biden on September 19 during the UN General Assembly in New York.Armenia,
despite the pro-Western rhetoric, did not receive real support from Western Europe and the US during the latest confrontation with Azerbaijan. The West’s reaction was slow and rather formal. It would be wrong to consider Moscow’s refusal to defend Nagorno-Karabakh solely a consequence of Pashinyan’s pro-Western tilt: