The rout of the Russian military in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region appears to be a turning point in Kyiv’s battle to expel Russian troops from the country, but it could also lead to much bigger fallout for Moscow in the wider region, as evidenced by other former Soviet countries. what seems to be the limits of Moscow’s capabilities.
“The power of the Russian flag has diminished considerably, and the security system in the former Soviet space seems to be broken,” said Laurence Broers, associate researcher at Chatham House.
This week, as attention focused across the Black Sea in Ukraine, fighting on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border killed around 100 troops after Azerbaijan shelled a number of number of towns in Armenia, with both sides accusing each other of “provocations”.
Analysts said Azerbaijan decided to test the waters as Russia struggled in Ukraine. Russia has traditionally supported Armenia in its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan in the three decades since the fall of communism.
“Azerbaijan feels quite confident in this geopolitical moment, and particularly right now during the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” said Tom de Waal, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “It absolutely seems to be targeting Russia as much as Armenia, testing Russia’s commitment to defending Armenia.”
Russia said it negotiated a ceasefire on Tuesday. The two sides agreed to deploy a Russian peacekeeping force as part of a truce to end the full-fledged war in 2020.
Armenia has appealed for military support from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-dominated mutual defense pact, but Moscow is reluctant to intervene directly.
“Russia is clearly equivocal, both because they are massively overwhelmed in Ukraine and because they don’t want to fight with Azerbaijan at this stage,” de Waal said.
Separately, clashes erupted Wednesday morning at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, killing one border guard and injuring five others in Tajikistan, according to local reports.
Although this specific incident is not directly related to the war in Ukraine, and although Russia has traditionally enjoyed good relations with both countries, analysts say the Russian invasion has completely changed the balance of power in a region. which for years has been a battleground for Russian, Chinese and Western influence, and put Russia on the defensive.
In January this year, when a wave of protests rocked Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the deployment of a Russian-led CSTO force in the country. The mission was brief and involved no combat, but was enough to consolidate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s presidency.
With the leader of Kazakhstan indebted to Moscow for his help, Russian forces maintaining peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Kremlin massing troops on the border with Ukraine, Putin seemed to have more influence than ever in the former Soviet space.
Much of this unfolded during Putin’s bloody “special military operation” in Ukraine, and particularly last week as Ukraine’s rapid advance upended Putin’s war plans.
“We are witnessing the collapse of Russia’s reputation as a security boss, which is happening both at the material level with the massive concentration of forces on Ukraine, but also at the subjective level of the reputation of the Russian security guarantees,” Broers said.
Across the region, the invasion of Ukraine shocked and worried Russian allies, but also encouraged them to take a tougher stance with Moscow.
Kazakhstan, traditionally a close ally, has infuriated many in Moscow by trying to remain neutral towards Ukraine, refusing to recognize Russian-held territories in eastern Ukraine and promising not to help Russia’s efforts to circumvent international sanctions.
This has led some in Moscow to question Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, including former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who called it an “artificial state” in a post which he later deleted.
But as Kazakhstan remains wary of longer-term threats from its biggest neighbor and supposed ally, others are ready to step in and fill the void. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Kazakhstan on Wednesday for what is believed to be his first trip abroad since the start of the Covid pandemic.
“We will continue to resolutely support Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said, in a statement that seemed partly intended as a rebuke to the Kremlin.
On Thursday and Friday, Xi and Putin will attend a summit of heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a loose regional security grouping, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
The leaders of India and Iran are also expected, and the summit will be an opportunity for Putin to demonstrate that there are still major world powers sympathetic to Russia.
But it is also a chance for countries in the region to point out that while Russia remains a strong regional player, the power dynamics have changed.
Russia on Wednesday designated one of Tajikistan’s opposition parties as a terrorist movement, a move Moscow has long resisted and which will help the country’s dictatorial government extradite any citizen it wishes from Russia.
“Many Central Asian countries see that Russia needs them more than ever, and they are now trying to squeeze as many as they can,” said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.