Russia’s neighbors seek protection from EU or China

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly explicit imperial ambitions to reconstitute a Russian empire from the ashes of the Soviet Union have sparked considerable fear among former members.

The only state in the former USSR that has fully endorsed and supported the Russian campaign against Ukraine is Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko remains in power thanks to Russian support. Belarus has become a conduit for Russian forces and their logistics in the Ukrainian conflict.

Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov unofficially gave his support to Russia, recognizing the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. But even there, the government is seeking to avoid domestic unrest in the face of major protests both for and against Russia, which could escalate due to the economic fallout from the Ukraine conflict.

For most of the former Soviet territories, the Ukrainian conflict had the opposite effect to that hoped for by Russia. This accelerated their desire to reduce their dependence on Russia and relinquish any pretense of loyalty to Putin.

Instead, many are now taking steps to ensure that they themselves do not become victims of Russian aggression. No Central Asian country supported Russia on UN General Assembly resolutions condemning the invasion.

Notably, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who in January 2022 invited Russian troops to restore order in the capital Nursultan, refused to provide troops for the war in Ukraine. A Kazakh government spokesman said that if there were to be a new Iron Curtain, Kazakhstan would not want to be behind it. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are also redirecting their energy exports so that they do not pass through Russian territory.

Moldova and Georgia feel particularly threatened by Russia because part of their territories have already been occupied by Russian forces. In 1990, the forces of the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”, supported by the Russian 14th Army, started a conflict that resulted in the de facto creation of Transnistria, a breakaway republic of Moldova consisting of territory on the shore east of the Dniester River bordering Ukraine.

The republic is not internationally recognized and currently has Russian forces based on its territory. In addition to worrying about a possible new threat from the Russian military, Moldova is also facing a large influx of Ukrainian refugees, around 95,000 people.

A map of the former USSR. Photo: Pablofdezr/Shutterstock

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War involved a Russian military invasion of breakaway regions of Georgia, ostensibly to support the independence of the self-declared republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

At that time, Russia’s objective was clearly regime change in Georgia as well as the independence of these two territories, but in the end, Russia recognized the two breakaway regions and ended the armed conflict. South Ossetia and Abkhazia were then tightly integrated into Russia.

Georgia claimed that the Russian tactic of “creeping annexation”, currently used in Ukraine, started here and “includes the incorporation of so-called local institutions into Russian federal structures and also tries to eradicate any Georgian heritage in the occupied region. Although similar to Ukraine’s experience, Georgia’s efforts to join NATO have not received sufficient support.

Georgia now turns to the European Union for protection. Georgia already has an Association Agreement with the European Union which started in 2016. An Association Agreement provides a framework for wide-ranging cooperation and is the first step towards EU membership. The conflict in Ukraine has intensified Georgia’s desire to become a full member of the EU as soon as possible.

On June 20, demonstrations took place in the capital Tbilisi with some 60,000 people showing enthusiastic support for Georgia’s EU membership. However, at a crucial summit of European leaders in Brussels, Ukraine and Moldova were officially granted the status of candidate countries for EU membership, while Georgia was left behind.

While the country’s “European perspective” was recognized as a small step towards “candidacy”, EU leaders agreed that there were still major political and economic issues to be resolved, including “the reduction of political polarization, the implementation of reforms to strengthen the independence of the judiciary system” and “deoligarchization”.

The waning influence of Russia was already evident before the invasion of Ukraine. Only four former Soviet countries have joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Only five other states have joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

All former Soviet states that did not need direct military support from Russia either refused to join or have since left. Uzbekistan viewed the CSTO as an unwelcome effort by Russia to exert dominance, and former Uzbek foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov publicly supported the territorial integrity of all of Ukraine, including support for the Ukraine to Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea.

While some states of the former USSR seek closer relations with the West, and the European Union in particular, others seek partners elsewhere. Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan are eyeing Turkey, Iran and China, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative a promising source of investment in capital. All these developments completely contradict the strategic goals of the Russian Federation.

For countries that see themselves as potential targets of Russian aggression, Western integration processes, whether NATO or the European Union, are now very heavy because the threat they face could be more imminent. Moreover, the extension of protection to these countries also increases the risk of armed conflict for EU Member States.

Despite the political pressure to speed up the EU accession process, this may not be enough to deal with the pressures candidate countries currently face.

Christoph Bluth is Professor of International Relations and Security, University of Bradford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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