Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in part to establish Russia's regional dominance once and for all. Almost a year after the start of the full-scale war, the head of the Kremlin achieved the opposite — and not only in Kyiv. Bloomberg writes about it.
Officials from the former Soviet states of Central Asia and the Caucasus say the war has prompted their governments to seek ways to reduce dependence on Moscow, turning to rival states including Turkey, the EU and Middle Eastern countries. They all spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid confrontation with the Kremlin.
Current and former Russian officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told Bloomberg that Moscow is reacting nervously, even harshly, as the Kremlin grows less confident in its ability to maintain influence in its own backyard.
For decades, Russia was "a veto player, a watchdog in northern Eurasia, where nothing could happen if the Kremlin didn't like it," said Yekaterina Shulman, a Russian political scientist who now lives in Berlin.
"Now the situation seems to be changing, as Russia is unlikely to become stronger after the war against Ukraine, and this makes dictating its will to its neighbors, to put it mildly, problematic," she added.
While the failure of the Kremlin's key war objective is most evident in Ukraine and Moldova, which applied for EU membership and received candidate status after the aggression began, the invasion has forced even Moscow's traditional friends, such as Kazakhstan and Armenia, to actively forge ties with states that The Russian Federation has long sought to keep the region at a distance. This allowed Turkey, in particular, to fill the void.
In announcing his invasion on February 24, Putin called Kazakhstan a model of the kind of relationship he would like to see Russia have with former Soviet countries. He sent troops to help President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev quell the unrest.
But Tokayev has since openly disagreed with Putin's justification for the war, and allowed hundreds of thousands of Russians to flee to Central Asia's biggest oil exporter after Russia announced mobilization last September.
"Russia is becoming more and more toxic. What to do when your neighbor is a drunkard and a rowdy, and you can't move out?" said Beybit Apsenbetov, a former member of the board of the largest bank in Kazakhstan, Kazkommertsbank.
Russia appears to be showing its displeasure with Kazakhstan by repeatedly interrupting flows through the 1,500km Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPPC), citing technical or regulatory issues. The pipeline through which Kazakhstan sends about 80% of its oil exports crosses the territory of Russia to the port of Novorossiysk.
Last November, Kazakhstan said it would increase oil exports through the Caspian Sea by 1.5 million tons by adding oil to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which runs from Azerbaijan to Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Tokayev said flows along this route, which bypasses Russia, could eventually grow to 20 million tons. In 2021, Kazakhstan shipped more than 50 million tons through the CPC.
The route complements the so-called "Middle Corridor" for rail freight China-Europe, which passes through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, and for which there is a sharp increase in demand; the war reduced traffic on China's less complicated rail link to Europe, which passes through Russia and Belarus.
Last year, Tokayev also promoted defense ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and made trips to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to boost trade and investment cooperation.
Neighboring Uzbekistan, heavily dependent on trade with Russia, sought openness even before the war. Last July, he signed the Agreement on Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation with the EU. In December, after the second meeting as part of the new Strategic Partnership Dialogue with the US, a joint statement welcomed "the country's readiness to establish new trade routes and diversify import and export markets."
Of course, Russia remains a powerful force in the region. As international sanctions in response to the war blocked Russia's western trade routes, Moscow's former Soviet neighbors became even more important to it as trade channels. Exports to Russia from the other members of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union - Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan - have risen sharply as goods are diverted from Europe. Turkish exports to Russia also increased.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are doing their best to "diversify" their relationship while Moscow is preoccupied with Ukraine, but "you can't change the geography, there are deep ties and long borders," said Annette Bohr of the British think tank Chatham House.
However, the war and sanctions have highlighted the risks of over-reliance on Moscow, and nowhere is this more evident than in Armenia, the Kremlin's close ally in the Caucasus and home to its military base.
There is growing frustration in Armenia with Russia's unwillingness or inability to intervene in a long-running territorial conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, which enjoys strong Turkish defense support. Officials in the country are expressing outrage at the seven-week de facto blockade of the Lachin Corridor, a vital road link to Armenians living in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, while Russian peacekeepers in the region monitor the process.
Protests took place three times this month near the Russian military base in Gyumri, with slogans such as "Russian occupation forces out of Armenia." Demonstrations against a traditional ally and defender of the country were few, but unprecedented. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced this month that his country would not host planned CSTO military exercises, after the alliance failed to respond to Armenia's request for help during border clashes with Azerbaijan last year.
The EU announced on January 23 that it was sending a monitoring mission to patrol the border in response to Armenia's request, which the bloc's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called a "new phase" of EU involvement in the Caucasus.
The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the mission, calling the EU "an appendage of the US and NATO," warning that EU involvement in the region "can only lead to geopolitical confrontation."
Azerbaijan has also moved closer to the EU, signing a deal to double gas exports to the bloc by 2027, as Brussels seeks to replace Russian fossil fuels in response to Russia's war on Ukraine. Last month, the EU said it would also help finance the laying of a direct power cable from Azerbaijan and neighboring Georgia to EU countries across the Black Sea, with the potential to further connect Ukraine and Moldova.
But so far, Turkey has benefited the most from the hesitation of the Russian Federation. Since Armenia no longer has guarantees of protection from Russia, Pashinyan and Erdogan last October held the first talks between the leaders of the two countries in 13 years amid efforts to establish diplomatic ties and open borders.
"Putin has lost his monopoly in the Caucasus. Now Erdogan is the main actor in the game," said analyst Hryhoriy Shvedov, who heads the Caucasus Knot research service.