Russian president Vladimir Putin’s increasingly explicit imperial ambitions to reconstitute a Russian empire from the ashes of the Soviet Union has raised considerable fears among former members.
The only former USSR state that has fully endorsed and supported the Russian campaign against Ukraine is Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko remains in power due to support from Russia. Belarus has become a conduit for Russian forces and their logistics in the Ukraine conflict.
Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Japarov has informally lent some support to Russia, recognising the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. But even there the government is seeking to avoid domestic unrest in the face of significant protests both for and against Russia which may grow due to economic fallout from the Ukraine conflict.
For most of the former Soviet territories, the Ukraine conflict has had the opposite effect of the one Russia was hoping for. It has accelerated their desire to reduce dependence on Russia and to give up any pretence of loyalty to Putin. Instead, many are now pursuing measures to ensure that they do not become victims of Russian aggression themselves. Not one central Asian country supported Russia on the United Nations General Assembly resolutions condemning the invasion. Notably, Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who in January 2022 invited Russian troops to restore order in the capital Nur-Sultan, refused to provide troops for the Ukraine war. A Kazakhstani government spokesman stated that if there were to be a new iron curtain, Kazakhstan would not want to be behind it. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are also rerouting their energy exports so that they do not pass through Russian territory.
Moldova and Georgia feel particularly threatened by Russia as part of their territories have already been occupied by Russian forces. In 1990 “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” forces, supported by the Russian 14th Army, started a conflict which resulted in the de facto creation of Transnistria, a breakaway republic from Moldova consisting of territory on the east bank of the Dniester River bordering Ukraine. The republic is not internationally recognised and currently has Russian forces based in its territory. In addition to worrying about a possible new threat from the Russian military, Moldova is also dealing with a large influx of Ukrainian refugees, about 95,000 people.
The Russian-Georgian war of 2008 involved a Russian military invasion of separatist regions of Georgia, apparently to support the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that time Russia’s goal was clearly regime change in Georgia as well as the independence of these two territories, but in the end Russia recognised the two breakaway regions and ended the armed conflict. South Ossetia and Abkhazia were subsequently closely integrated with Russia.
Georgia claimed that Russia’s tactic of “creeping annexation”, now being used in Ukraine, started here and “includes the incorporation of local, so-called institutions into the Russian federal structures and also attempting to eradicate any Georgian heritage in the occupied region”. While similar to the experience of Ukraine, Georgia’s efforts to join Nato were not given enough support. Georgia is now looking towards the European Union for its protection. Georgia already has an association agreement with the European Union that started in 2016. An association agreement provides a framwork for wide-ranging cooperation and is the first step towards accession to the EU. The Ukraine conflict has intensified Georgia’s desire to become a full member of the EU as soon as possible.
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On June 20 there were demonstrations in the capital Tbilisi with some 60,000 demonstrating enthusiastic support for Georgia to join the EU. However, at a crucial summit of European leaders in Brussels, Ukraine and Moldova were formally given the status of candidate countries for accession to the EU, whereas Georgia was left in the lurch.
While the country’s “European perspective” was acknowledged as a small step forward towards “candidacy”, the EU leaders agreed that there were still major political and economic issues to be addressed including “reducing political polarization, implementing reforms to strengthen the independence of the judicial system,” and “deoligarchization”.
Russia’s dwindling influence was already apparent prior to the invasion of Ukraine. Only four former Soviet countries joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Only five other states joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan. All the former Soviet states who have not required direct military support from Russia have either refused to join or have since left. Uzbekistan has seen the CSTO as an unwelcome effort by Russia to exert its dominance, and the former Uzbek foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov publicly supported the territorial integrity of all of Ukraine including the support of Ukraine in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea.
While some former USSR states are seeking closer relations with the west, and the European Union in particular, others are looking elsewhere for partners. Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan are looking towards Turkey, Iran and China, with China’s “belt and road initiative” a promising source of capital investment. All of these developments completely oppose the strategic goals of the Russian Federation.
For those countries who consider themselves potential targets of Russian aggression, the processes of western integration, be it Nato or the European Union, are now very cumbersome because the threat they are facing could be more imminent. Moreover, extending protection to these countries also extends the risk of armed conflict for EU member states. Despite the political pressure to accelerate the process of accession to the EU, this may be insufficient to address the pressures that countries seeking membership are currently facing.
Christoph Bluth received funding from the Volkswagen Foundation on challenges of security in the former Soviet Union.