Can Russia Still Be a Dependable ‘Sheriff’ for Eurasia?

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Can Russia Still Be a Dependable ‘Sheriff’ for Eurasia?

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its role as a security guarantor for Central Asia and the Caucasus is in serious doubt.

Can Russia Still Be a Dependable ‘Sheriff’ for Eurasia?

The summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization takes place at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 16, 2022.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has brought unthinkable death, displacement, and destruction to a sovereign country, shaken the stability of Europe, disrupted global food supplies, and sent energy prices to highs not seen in decades. The war has also led to widespread condemnations of Russia, the imposition of tough sanctions, and the country’s de facto banishment from Europe and the wider West. While the pushback against Russia has not been universal, and several countries have kept an appearance of ambivalent neutrality vis-à-vis the conflict, there have been growing reputational and practical costs of association with and reliance on Russia.

In the long term, Russia’s gamble in Ukraine could also have planted the seeds of a rapid decline of its influence over Eurasia. The Russian army’s poor performance in Ukraine and the recent successes of Ukrainian forces in reclaiming lost lands cast doubts on its prowess as a powerful military power or as a sheriff of Eurasia.

Russia once boldly declared that it considered the territories of the former USSR to be “regions of privileged interests.” However, considering its dwindling fortunes in the war and stated determination to pursue the conflict against all odds (which is visible in the recent announcement of a partial mobilization of 300,000 Russian reservists), can Russia still be a reliable sheriff in Eurasia?

A More Crowded Neighborhood

To be sure, Russia’s sway over the considerable parts of the former Soviet Union is still strong. It has essential and longstanding bilateral and multilateral political, economic, and military ties with many Central Asian states. The citizens of some of these nations, especially the poorer states like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, rely on access to the Russian market for trade and employment. Moscow also has military bases and facilities in several ex-Soviet states, including Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Belarus.

At the same time, Russia’s broader influence has been on a steady downward trajectory for years. The notion that Russia enjoyed exclusive influence over Central Asia stopped being a reality many years ago. Over the last two decades, China has expanded its economic presence (first bilaterally and then via the Belt and Road Initiative) and its political influence (bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) in most Central Asian capitals.

Also, although it withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, the United States, according to its most recent strategy report for 2019-2025), remains interested in the Central Asian region and its states, whose sovereignty and independence Washington openly supports. This makes it an appealing partner for regional states interested in diversifying their strategic options.

Other actors, like Turkey, have used Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine to upgrade their growing relations with Central Asia, particularly by boosting ties with Moscow’s close ally Kazakhstan to the level of a strategic partnership. Turkey has also signed agreements on economic and military cooperation with Uzbekistan.

Russia’s war on Ukraine is believed to have exacerbated these trends and opened the door to other great powers that seek to expand their clout.

As I have argued elsewhere, Russia has labored to reverse the trend of its shrinking Central Asian influence for many years. While bilateral relations with individual states have remained essential, regional organizations are another centerpiece of its strategy. These helped Russia establish a form of “cooperative hegemony” over parts of Eurasia. This arrangement worked in security and economic spheres through two critical regional organizations: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and, since 2015, the Eurasian Economic Union. While never very efficient or seriously tested (especially in the case of the CSTO), these regional bodies provided important services and nominal guarantees to their members.

One of the critical preconditions for this to work is the willing participation of smaller states, for which Russia had to be seen as non-threatening. There was also an important provision of side payments to “encourage” others’ participation, which meant that Russia had to foot most of the bills for these organizations. Hence, in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has seriously jeopardized its standing as the region’s nominal (and privileged) security provider. It has also disrupted the internal unity of the CSTO by engaging in yet another blatant intervention against a sovereign state. Indeed, Russia’s CSTO partners were previously alarmed by its war against Georgia in 2008 and later the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and destabilization of eastern Ukraine in 2014. The launch of the full-scale military intervention against Ukraine has further exacerbated these sovereignty-related concerns.

At the same time, apart from Russia-dependent Belarus, which has been complicit in the invasion, other CSTO members – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Tajikistan – have not signaled a change in attitude and have decided to stand on the sidelines. Also, none of its members has officially recognized the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk Republics, which Russia recognized in February of this year and formally annexed on September 30. Their unease and disquiet over Russia’s actions were visible during the economic forum in St. Petersburg in July, when Kazak leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (whose government was assisted by the CSTO months earlier) openly stated that for his country, the question of the supposed sovereignty of the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk republics was similar to that of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Which is to say, the Kazakh government would not recognize them.

Hence, Russia had become unhappily accustomed to a lack of support from the CSTO for its most controversial policies. There were even further worrying signs, such as rumors about Kazakhstan’s intention to suspend its membership, although these were later dismissed.

Apart from these challenges to political unity, the conflict in Ukraine raises other concerns. Russia-led bodies, especially the CSTO, have struggled for years to satisfy some of their members’ basic security needs. When the CSTO has chosen to act, it has been selective in where to intervene, which has bitterly disappointed allies, including Armenia during its recent clashes with Azerbaijan. Given its near total preoccupation with its war on Ukraine, can Moscow muster enough internal unity for the CSTO to act in time of need, find the resources to support its allies, and live up to its role as Eurasia’s self-appointed gendarme?

The CSTO Falters Again

This year was supposed to be a big year for the Collective Security Treaty Organization. 2022 marks its 20th anniversary, a fact that it proudly advertises this on the new official website. The year started quite well, with the CSTO conducting its first “successful” “peacekeeping operation” in January in Kazakhstan. There are legitimate questions about the real motivation behind Kazakhstan’s request for CSTO assistance and whether the government inflated the threat. However, the organization’s service members did not overstay their welcome and withdrew in a timely and orderly manner.

At the same time, the CSTO continues to frustrate its members with inconsistency and inaction. Before the operation in Kazakhstan, the CSTO had been on the radar for negative reasons. As early as 2010, some advocated for its reform after the failure to respond to the Kyrgyz government’s request for aid during that year’s inter-ethnic riots. In 2020, I argued in these pages that the CSTO missed an opportunity to become involved in providing peacekeepers during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Rather than allowing the organization to showcase its relevance (and reassure a threatened ally), Russia took matters into its own hands and, together with Turkey, brokered a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

2022 was supposed to be a turning point. Instead, except for the operation in Kazakhstan, the year has brought more challenges and disappointments. Two ongoing crises – one between Armenia and Azerbaijan and one between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – have further discredited the CSTO and complicated Russia’s position as the region’s nominal sheriff.

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan emphasized this during the  anniversary meeting of the CSTO Council of Heads of State in May. He criticized the organization for not responding to his country’s pleas for assistance in 2020 and also in 2021, when, according to the Armenians, Azerbaijani troops encroached into Armenian territory. Hence, the Armenian government felt that the CSTO did not react “the way the Republic of Armenia expected.”

The most recent clashes between Yerevan and Baku occurred on September 12 and have since ceased and renewed every few days. Each side continues to blame the other for the escalation and violation of the ceasefire. The CSTO’s reaction to Pashinyan’s call for assistance to his country was lukewarm. While Armenia has formally requested CSTO assistance on the grounds of alleged Azeri intrusion into its territory, the organization proceeded cautiously and decided first to send a “fact-finding” mission and ruled out sending peacekeepers, relying instead on diplomatic efforts – by Russia again – to establish a ceasefire. Some believe Azeris, who scored a major victory in 2020 by recapturing large swathes of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, are challenging Russia’s resolve to intervene on behalf of its ally and want to prove that the CSTO is a paper tiger.

Moscow might be too distracted and preoccupied with its war on Ukraine to be prepared for another delicate multinational CSTO deployment in Armenia. Even if it were possible to gain all the members’ support for sending peacekeepers – which Kazakhstan rejected outright – Putin seems to prefer to rely on personal diplomacy with both leaders. In contrast, the CSTO will be used in a symbolic role to fulfill the minimum demands.

Moscow may also feel confident that Azerbaijan will not launch a full-scale war against Armenia, where Russia has an air base. This attitude certainly sends the wrong message to the frustrated Armenians, some of whom have asked their government to suspend their membership in the CSTO. At the same time, despite its defense arrangements with Armenia, Moscow is also walking a fine line between the two, given its longstanding relations with Azerbaijan, a member of another Russia-led regional body – the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Russia has also been unable or uninterested in resolving the longstanding Kyrgyz-Tajik border issue, which has been flaring on and off for many years. According to one study, unresolved border demarcation and other factors including disputed resource management, produced 172 incidents between 2010 and 2020. More serious incidents occurred in late April 2021 when border troops joined civilian scuffles, which left over 50 people dead and displaced 58,000. In September 2022, the clashes became deadlier, leaving at least 100 people dead and displacing 130,000.

All the while, the CSTO was proving itself just as ineffective as in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh. It limited itself to calling for the cessation of violence and sending condolences to the affected families. The CSTO cannot decide on sending peacekeepers given that the conflict is between two member states, either of which can block any resolution.

On the other hand, its nominal leader, Russia, seems to prefer, as one scholar pointed out, to minimize the conflict’s visibility and work silently via personal diplomacy to stop the fighting. Russia is a close partner of both countries, which depend on it to access the Russian market for their migrant workers and provide military and economic assistance. In return, Russia receives basing rights for its troops in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Hence, Moscow is mainly uninterested in resolving the conflict by imposing a solution that would alienate one of the countries. Nonetheless, the unresolved issue remains a blemish on the CSTO’s image and Russia’s alleged status as the region’s “police officer.”

Wither Russia’s Nominal “Hegemony”?

Moscow’s failures undermine its standing, but they have not yet opened a door for a replacement of Russia as a security provider. Other regional bodies have not taken a stance on either of these conflicts. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (of which Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members) held a summit in Uzbekistan during the skirmishes, but the conflict was not mentioned during official deliberations.

In the case of Azerbaijan and Armenia, there have been more diplomatic efforts by the United States and the European Union. The U.S. Department of State urged an immediate cessation of hostilities. This message was reiterated in a trilateral meeting bringing together the top diplomats of Armenia and Azerbaijan with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Notably, other prominent figures – for instance, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi – blamed Azerbaijan for the escalation (an accusation Baku rejected). Pelosi extended warm support for Armenia during her visit to the country.

On the other hand, the European Union actively seeks long-term peace between the two nations. Four trilateral meetings with both sides have taken place since the end of the 2020 war. The most recent one was in late August, between European Council President Charles Michel and the Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, and Armenia’s Pashinyan.

It remains to be seen if the flurry of diplomatic overtures will bring a more lasting solution to both conflicts. Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine has opened more widely the door to others. At the same time, Moscow, although weakened, is not completely sidelined. Even Russia’s rivals recognize Moscow’s ties with the belligerents and its ability to influence them to “calm the waters” – as Blinken himself noted.

The region’s complexities also mean that few outsiders would rush to step in and shoulder the burden of security provision. For some, it may be the lack of capacity or even legitimacy. In contrast, for others, it could be the fatigue from involvement in solving complicated inter-state conflicts in other parts of the world. Hence, Moscow’s diminishing standing does not usher in an immediate replacement of it as the region’s nominal “sheriff.”

Over the long term, the SCO’s growth (unlike the CSTO, which has not added a new member in over a decade and a half) suggests its future potential to play a more significant role. However, it is far too early for such speculation, not to mention the implausibility of getting Russia – one of SCO’s full members and founders – on board to sanction an expansion of the organization’s functions that would supplant CSTO’s regional role. In the short term, it is more likely that personal diplomacy from the leading regional and extra-regional capitals will pave the way for the de-escalation of present conflicts between Central Asian and Caucasian belligerents, while an updated broader security framework needs to be worked on soon.