By Bruce Mabley
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is having important consequences around the world. Eurasia, a zone where vital Russian economic and security interests are present, is no exception. Eurasian actors are watching carefully the impact of Russian progress or lack thereof in Ukraine. After more than 6 months of invasion, Russian military power is being questioned in the face of Ukrainian resolve and the weapons they are being supplied by Western powers.
Some of the member countries of the Russian led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) depend on timely Russian economic and security support for defense against external and internal threats. These include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Armenia. The Ukrainian adventure has put these member countries in serious difficulty and left Russian diplomatic and political influence in jeopardy.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has developed into a Russian disaster doomed to defeat in advance given the porous western border of Europe and the active support of European NATO members of the US position. Sanctions and subsequent partial mobilization are undermining the Russian economy and tearing away at the social fabric. In turn, allies and non-allies of Russia are watching closely the Russian imbroglio in Ukraine and fragile geopolitical allies of Russia are no exception to this. Doubts about Russia’s military and logistical ability to serve and further its interests abroad now abound. Of the seven countries forming the economic and political alliance of CSTO, four are former Soviet republics most of whom have border disputes, the origin of which take us back to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and or the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Putin’s Ukrainian adventure may well encourage opposition movements in Eurasia and empower them to take a more activist role in challenging the Kremlin’s authority. Moreover, one of the main arguments advanced by Russia for the Ukraine adventure is to supposedly reunite the pockets of Russian cultural and linguistic residues in other Eurasian nations. This development is common in the history of Eurasia, which has a history of mass migration stretching back to the Russian Czars and Genghis Khan. Russian power is in jeopardy due to Russian incompetence and incoherence in Ukraine.
Three Key Regional Actors
The Russian advance into Ukraine was supposed to be overwhelming and rapid. Putin and his advisors believed incorrectly that the Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops and their mercenaries as liberators. The reverse happened and the goal of capturing Kiev has proved illusory. Initial Russian gains in the east and south are being rolled back by a Ukrainian military with conventional Western weapons and high morale. Even Crimea appears under threat as are the gains made by Russia during the prior 2014 chapter of the Ukraine caper.
Political developments in Russia have also created serious border and ethnic splits ranging from Uzbek against Tadjik to the explosive Nagorno-Karabakh border dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. These newly formed Eurasian countries are far from stable as evidenced by the urgent Kazakhstan request for elite Russian troops to quell street disturbances threatening to destabilize the Kazak regime in January 2022.
China’s neighborhood is Eurasia and it has created an economic and political counterweight to the Russian-led CTSO. For example, the Silk Road or Belt and Road initiative has proved successful when China made landlocked Kazakhstan a maritime power with access to the sea. So far, Beijing has given lukewarm support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. China likes winners and does not tolerate losers. The third term of Communist Party First Secretary, Xi Jinping, depends on wise management of relations with Russia, sometimes an ally, sometimes a competitor especially for the China Silk Road initiative in Eurasia.
Beijing may be fearful of a Russian coup d’état or complete meltdown in Ukraine followed by armed clashes in Eurasia. This might incite some to complain further about Chinese treatment of minorities and increase anti-Chinese sentiment globally. The Ukraine invasion has confused the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy and brought into question the future of Sino-Russian relations. Worse from Beijing’s perspective, Ukraine’s ability to challenge militarily the Russians has also emboldened Taiwan. If Ukraine can resist effectively against the odds, perhaps Taiwan could resist a Chinese invasion.
Xi Jinping is presently attempting to make history and obtain a third mandate from the Politburo after having changed the constitution to allow for his candidacy. Just how likely is it that, on the eve of election to a third five-year mandate, Xi Jinping is willing to risk managing the thorny Russian file and support Putin instead of Ukraine.
Other factors such as the COVID 19 pandemic and the dynamism of the Chinese economy compete for Xi’s focus and XI’s leadership. Worse still, Russian weakness in Eurasia has already attracted US attention as they seek to challenge Russian influence especially in Uzbekistan. For Beijing, Eurasia is better off without the presence or interference of American economic and military might. Has Xi brought the Americans to the region by supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Turkey’s rise in Eurasia is based on its fraternal links with Turkic peoples spread throughout Eurasia. Many continue to speak Turkish. From Tartars in Crimea to Turkic speaking pockets in Azerbaijan, President Erdogan of Turkey has thrust his country into the international limelight. Its support of ethnic Turks in Eurasia is a powerful political motive, one which the Gulen movement, so reviled by the AK Party in Ankara, painstakingly put in place in the early days of 2000. Turkey’s Russian relations does not signify approval for the Ukraine invasion. With control over maritime traffic in the Turkish Straits in the Black Sea based on its international obligations under the 1937 Montreux Convention, Turkey’s Bosporus straits remains a key strategic point for Russia’s navy and its ability to move into the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.
Powered in part by use of the Turkish language, these Eurasian Turks are also majority Sunni Muslim like those in Russian allied states and oblasts in Eurasia.
For all three partners the worst may be yet to come. When the United States and its allies were fighting a war in Afghanistan, the Eurasian states were valuable as logistical transit stops to Afghanistan. Supplies transited through American bases in Kyrgyzstan. Since the departure of Western troops from Kabul, American interests have become less important. However, given the looming lack of political stability and the need to counter any Russian moves at opening a base in Kyrgyzstan near the Chinese border in Osh, US interests are now again on the table. Their ability to economically influence countries like Uzbekistan has grown.
The Taliban victory in Afghanistan has seen numerous clashes between two Islamist factions – Taliban and ISIL. As the Taliban push ISIL out of the country in the name of national and sectarian security, Islamist activists are being displaced into the fragile Eurasian states where fear of political Islam is rife amongst the political class. Recent bombings in Kabul bear the mark of ISIL and their hatred of Shia Muslims and secularists.
As fighting in the Ukraine continues tous azimuts, further tension and crises in Eurasia amongst countries in the Russian economic cooperation zone – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia is likely.
The West is not prepared for a Russian meltdown in Eurasia involving future crises in Chechnya and Dagestan promoting regional instability. Soft European public opinion indicates a willingness to have the Ukrainians sue for peace and end the costly war. At this time, it is unlikely and understandable that Ukraine does not want to provide any concessions to the Russian invader despite European fears of an energy crisis this winter in the absence of Russian gas.