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Former Soviet states eye opportunities as Russia suffers Ukraine rout

The rout of the Russian army in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region seems likely to be a turning point in Kyiv’s battle to kick Russian troops out of the country, but it may also cause much broader fallout for Moscow in the wider region, as other former Soviet countries witness what appears to be the limits of Moscow’s capabilities.

“The power of the Russian flag has declined considerably, and the security system across the former Soviet space does seem to be broken,” said Laurence Broers, associate fellow at Chatham House.

This week, with attention focused across the Black Sea in Ukraine, fighting on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia killed about 100 troops after Azerbaijan shelled a number of towns in Armenia, with both sides accusing each other of “provocations”.

Analysts said Azerbaijan had decided to test the waters while Russia was struggling in Ukraine. Russia has traditionally supported Armenia in its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over the three decades since the fall of communism.

“Azerbaijan feels quite confident in this geopolitical moment, and particularly right now during the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” said Tom de Waal, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “This seems absolutely aimed at Russia as much as it is at Armenia, testing Russia’s commitment to defend Armenia.”

Russia said it had brokered a ceasefire on Tuesday. Both parties agreed to the deployment of a Russian peacekeeping force as part of a truce to end the full-fledged war in 2020.

Armenia has appealed for military backup from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Russia-dominated mutual defence pact, but Moscow is reluctant to intervene directly.

“Russia is clearly equivocating, both because it’s massively overstretched in Ukraine and because it doesn’t want to pick a fight with Azerbaijan at this point,” said de Waal.

Separately, clashes broke out on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on Wednesday morning, killing one border guard and wounding five others in Tajikistan, according to local reports.

While that specific incident is not directly related to the war in Ukraine, and though Russia has traditionally had good relations with both countries, analysts say that the Russian invasion has completely changed the balance of power in a region that for years has been a battleground for Russian, Chinese and western influence, and put Russia on the back foot.

In January this year, when a wave of protests rocked Kazakhstan, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, approved the deployment of a Russian-led CSTO force to the country. The mission was brief and did not engage in any combat, but was enough to shore up the presidency of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

With Kazakhstan’s leader indebted to Moscow for the help, Russian forces keeping the peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Kremlin massing troops on the border with Ukraine, Putin seemed to have more influence than ever in the former Soviet space.

Much of that has unravelled during the course of Putin’s bloody “special military operation” in Ukraine, and particularly in the last week as Ukraine’s rapid advance threw Putin’s war plans into disarray.

“We are seeing the collapse of Russia’s reputation as a security patron, which is happening both at the material level with the massive force concentration on Ukraine, but also on the subjective level of the reputation of Russian security guarantees,” said Broers.

Across the region, the invasion of Ukraine has shocked and worried Russian allies, but also emboldened them to take a tougher stance with Moscow.

Kazakhstan, traditionally a close ally, has infuriated many in Moscow by trying to remain neutral over Ukraine, refusing to recognise the Russian-controlled territories in east Ukraine and promising not to aid Russia’s efforts to circumvent international sanctions.

This led some in Moscow to question Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, including the former Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who called it an “artificial state” in a post he later deleted.

But while Kazakhstan remains wary of the longer-term threats from its bigger neighbour and supposed ally, there are others ready to step in and fill the gap. On Wednesday, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, arrived in Kazakhstan on what is thought to be his first trip abroad since the start of the Covid pandemic.

“We will continue to resolutely support Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said, in a statement that seemed partially designed as a rebuke to the Kremlin.

On Thursday and Friday, Xi and Putin will attend a summit of heads of state from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a loose regional security grouping, in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

The leaders of India and Iran are also expected to attend, and the summit will be a chance for Putin to demonstrate that there are still major world powers sympathetic to Russia.

But it is also a chance for countries in the region to highlight that while Russia remains a strong regional player, the power dynamic has shifted.

On Wednesday, Russia designated one of Tajikistan’s opposition parties a terrorist movement, a move which Moscow has long resisted, and which will help the country’s dictatorial government to have any citizen it wants extradited from Russia.

“Many central Asian countries see that Russia needs them more than ever before, and they’re now trying to squeeze as much as they can,” said Temur Umarov, fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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