By Nicole Jackson, Associate Professor of International Studies, Simon Fraser University
The war in Ukraine is dividing the former Soviet region, making it poorer and less secure. Russia will take advantage of this.
As a student three decades ago, I watched the Soviet Union collapse and 15 new states, including Ukraine, escape its grip. Now, three months into Vladimir Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine, the other post-Soviet countries are being transformed in three ways that will change the course of the region’s future. Here is how.
The war is changing the geopolitics of the region. The Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — are already members of NATO and the European Union, and have solidified their anti-Putin stance and bolstered their national identities.
Georgia and Moldova are now more interested in fully joining western organizations but are treading carefully to avoid provoking Russia. Russia’s only strong ally, Belarus, has enabled Russia’s invasion and effectively lost its sovereignty to Moscow.
The other former Soviet regimes — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have remained mostly silent, neither supporting the war nor vigorously condemning Putin. Like much of the non-western world, they abstained or did not vote on the UN votes condemning Russia.
They have not recognized the two eastern Ukrainian republics, nor have they sent Putin troops or military equipment. Tellingly, none of the region’s presidents were at Putin’s Victory Day parade.
However, because they’re adept at walking a balancing act between the West and Russia, they neither support nor evade western sanctions and are sometimes weary of NATO’s military role in eastern Europe. The longer the war goes on, the more pressure some will face to take sides.
The post-Soviet states are becoming poorer. The war is harming the region’s interlinked economies. Ukraine has lost 45 per cent of its GDP. Trade has halted; infrastructure is crippled and Ukraine’s Black Sea ports are blocked.
Destroyed agricultural production has regional and global implications due to dependence on Ukrainian grains and sunflower oil. If Russia remains in the eastern Donbas region, future production and investment in hydrocarbons and mineral exploitation are at risk.
Western sanctions and countermeasures don’t just hurt Russia and Russians. Throughout the region, inflation is rising, and food and fuel costs are soaring. Those most dependent upon Russia, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, may suffer dramatically from decreasing remittances — money sent back home from those who work in Russia.
China’s One Belt One Road regional infrastructure projects, such as railway lines, are on hold. A negative impact on trade, tourism and investment is anticipated.
The war is exacerbating societal and political challenges. Protesters in Georgia and Kazakhstan are calling for their governments to take stronger pro-Ukraine stances.
Throughout the region, civil society has rallied to send humanitarian aid. Volunteers and mercenaries from Georgia and elsewhere have gone to Ukraine to fight.
Large numbers of Ukrainian refugees have fled for Moldova, but also Belarus and Georgia. Smaller numbers of Russians are fleeing Russia to Georgia, Tajikistan and elsewhere due to their opposition to the war, the negative effects of sanctions and growing repression.
Repercussions for Russia
What do these changes mean for Russia’s role in the region? It depends on when and how the war ends and sanctions are lifted, but current events indicate likely trends.
Firstly, Russia’s battered economy will be oriented eastward. Russia will have less influence on its western periphery. Putin’s dream of creating a regional economic organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, is no longer as viable if it can’t generate growth.
Countries facing economic and societal challenges, and dependent on Russian trade and transit routes, may retain ties with Russia. Central Asian states will continue to pursue multi-vectored policies — in other words, equal and pragmatic relations with European and Asian states.
Russia will look further east, to China and India, for trade partners and markets for its energy resources. In the long term, a weakened Russia, detached from the West, will likely be more dependent upon China.
Russia will also turn to non-western political regional alignments. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization includes Russia, four central Asian states, China, India and Pakistan. Iran is also seeking membership.
These countries are reluctant to condemn Putin. They support multipolarity — a geopolitical landscape that involves several powerful nations balancing each other out — and criticize U.S. unilateralism, calling out double standards.
China wants stability for its economy and generally avoids controversy, but does not want to see Russia collapse. India is democratic but reliant on Russian arms, discounted oil, gas and fertilizer.
Russian military presence
Russia will also remain the key provider of security — and insecurity — in a more volatile and divided region. Russia’s military vulnerabilities are exposed, but its troops remain stationed in frozen conflicts inside Moldova and Georgia — countries that have expressed a desire to embrace western ideals. Russia also has peacekeepers between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Putin’s war in Ukraine has shown the dangers that these troops may pose. To the east, Russia maintains bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, near the Taliban-controlled, famine-stricken Afghanistan recently abandoned by the U.S.
The worst violence since Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s recently erupted in eastern Tajikistan.
Putin could also use Russia’s regional security organization, the Cooperative Security Treaty Organization, to legitimize actions in other states. Russia is acting unilaterally in Ukraine, but a month before the invasion, the organization responded to calls from the Kazakh government to control protests, casting a chilling effect on civil society there.
The war is a seismic event. A weakened Russia will try to take advantage of a poorer, more divided and less secure post-Soviet region.