Russia loses influence over the post-Soviet space

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Welcome back. The more Russia’s military assault on Ukraine runs into difficulties, the more the Kremlin seems to be losing influence over the entire post-Soviet space, from Moldova to central Asia. This week, let’s dig a little deeper into that. I’m at [email protected].

First, the results of last week’s poll. Some 73 per cent of you thought the issue of German second world war reparations for Poland is closed, 19 per cent wanted Germany to meet Polish demands and 8 per cent were on the fence. Thank you for taking part!

My hero of the week is Richard Randriamandrato. As Madagascar’s foreign minister, he voted at the UN General Assembly to condemn Russia’s attempted annexation of four Ukrainian provinces. This week his bravery earned him the sack from President Andry Rajoelina.

As this incident suggests, quite a few heads of state in the global south prefer not to take sides over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They see it as a European feud, or as a conflict between Moscow and the west.

However, that doesn’t mean they warm to the idea of wars of territorial conquest. The only countries that supported Russia in the UN vote were Belarus, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria.

Discomfort with Vladimir Putin’s aggression is becoming more pronounced among Russia’s post-Soviet neighbours (I exclude Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are EU and Nato members). Only Belarus stands with Putin – and what does that really mean?

Merely that Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus since 1994, is with Putin. The people of Belarus want peace and freedom at home.

Moldova and Georgia contain Moscow-backed breakaway regions that make them vulnerable to Russian pressure. But Moldova has been made a candidate for EU membership, and Georgia aspires to join the club.

What about Armenia and Azerbaijan? Fresh clashes broke out between them last month after wars in the early 1990s and 2020. But since my newsletter two weeks ago on the south Caucasus, some signs have emerged to suggest that the two countries might reach a peace deal before the end of this year.

As explained by Emil Avdaliani in this article for the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, the really interesting point is that any settlement would be arranged not by Russia, the traditional power-broker in the south Caucasus, but with the help of the EU and US. Armenia, in particular, is disillusioned with Moscow and looking for western goodwill.

Last month the Armenians, under Azerbaijani attack, invoked Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Russian-led military bloc mapped below by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The article provides for collective defence of a member state. But Russia, preoccupied with its war in Ukraine, offered no help to Armenia.

It wasn’t the only sign that the CSTO – which, from Moscow’s point of view, is an instrument to exert influence over its neighbours – is in trouble. In this first-class analysis for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Chris Rickleton calls the CSTO “Russia’s unhappy club”, and that sounds right to me.

How different it all looked in January, when the CSTO exercised its collective defence mechanism for the first time since the bloc’s creation in the 1990s. At the request of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, a Russian-led force entered his country in response to political unrest in which more than 200 people were killed.

It seemed at the time as if Tokayev’s reliance on Russian assistance might turn him into a tame junior partner of Putin. In fact, nothing of the sort has happened. Tokayev refuses to support the attack on Ukraine and has “pushed back against Russian officials and public figures threatening Kazakhstan”, says Eilish Hart in an article for The Beet.

Tokayev knows only too well that, in some carefully chosen remarks in 2014, Putin questioned the statehood of Kazakhstan. Some Russian nationalists think Russian-populated areas of northern Kazakhstan should be annexed to Russia, just like chunks of southern and eastern Ukraine.

Tokayev isn’t the only regional leader standing up for his country’s independence. In this remarkable video clip, which has been watched millions of times on social media, you can see President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan criticising Putin for a lack of respect for the former Soviet republics of central Asia.

Because large numbers of central Asian migrants work in Russia, fears have spread across the region that some might be caught up in Putin’s partial mobilisation drive. As Asel Doolotkeldieva writes for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this would be a rash step.

The region has strong memories of an uprising that erupted in 1916 when the tsarist Russian authorities tried to draft local men to fight in the first world war. Some 270,000 Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen and Uzbeks were slaughtered in an episode that was brilliantly described in a 1954 book by Edward Dennis Sokol (well done, Johns Hopkins University Press, for republishing it a few years ago).

In conclusion, I invite you to read this perceptive analysis written by Andrey Kortunov only a month or so after Putin’s invasion in February. He observed that “the Soviet Union did not actually collapse at the end of 1991, but only entered a long, complex and contradictory process of a gradual imperial disintegration”. The attack on Ukraine, he said, may be remembered as “the last act of the 30-years-long drama of Russia struggling with its imperial legacy”.

More on this topic

Ukraine was the world’s largest supplier of sunflower oil last year, but the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion has opened a door for Kazakhstan, where production and exports are rising fast. Joanna Lillis reports for eurasianet

Notable, quotable

“Putin sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter” – former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, who turned 86 last month, describes receiving birthday treats from Russia’s president. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party says the gift-giving happened many years ago.

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Not only South Korean prosecutors but several thousand international investors are on the hunt for Do Kwon, the fugitive entrepreneur behind the $40bn collapse of cryptocurrency operator Terraform Labs. The FT’s Song Jung-a in Seoul has the story

  • The economies of 23 countries in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe are likely to experience a severe downturn next year as inflation, an energy crunch and the war in Ukraine take their toll, according to the latest forecasts from the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies

Britain after Brexit — Keep up to date with the latest developments as the UK economy adjusts to life outside the EU. Sign up here

Working it — Discover the big ideas shaping today’s workplaces with a weekly newsletter from work & careers editor Isabel Berwick. Sign up here

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