Friday, 06 May 2022 00:00

Russia's Southern Neighbors Take a Stand


The Hill
May 6, 2022

On April 29, Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, became the first post-Soviet leader to publicly distance himself from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is the most recent and clearest example of how Russia’s southern neighbors gradually are carving out a more independent stance on the current war.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, most countries have made their positions fairly clear. Western nations have unanimously condemned Russia and pledged financial and military support to Ukraine. Japan and South Korea have done the same. By contrast, China has remained aloof, while signaling that it won’t let the war harm its relations with Moscow.

By contrast, the states on Russia’s southern border have been more ambivalent. Exposed to Russian pressure and fearful of being next in line if Russia succeeds in its efforts to dominate Ukraine, they have gone out of their way to maintain subdued rhetoric regarding the war. This has naturally led to criticism from some corners, but it’s necessary to understand in the context of their precarious positions: These states lack any real protections for their security, and they fear that no one would come to their assistance if they become Moscow’s next targets.

The resulting silence should not be taken as support for Russia, however. Quite to the contrary, it reflects widespread fears of their former colonial overlord. Clues to the real stances among Russia’s southern neighbors can be found in what they have been doing, rather than what they have been saying. For, in spite of their connections to Russian economic and security institutions, none has followed the example of Belarus and provided support to Russia’s war effort.

In fact, whatever support has been provided by those governments has been for Ukraine. The stronger states — Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan — have taken the lead. All three have sent planeloads of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, with Azerbaijan also dispatching aid to Moldova to deal with refugee flows there, while providing Ukraine with petroleum assistance to help its agricultural sector from collapsing.

Furthermore, while regional states have not joined Western sanctions on Russia, all have made clear they will comply with them. Moreover, in recent weeks, they have also begun to articulate a clearer stance on the war.

Uzbekistan was the first country to articulate a critical position. Already in mid-March, long-time Uzbek foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov told the country’s parliament that the government supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and would reject any notion of recognizing the Russia-supported Donetsk and Luhansk republics in eastern Ukraine. Soon after, however, Kamilov was reported to have fallen ill and to be receiving treatment abroad, before being transferred to the National Security Council (which some have taken to be some sort of reprimand). But Uzbekistan’s government has not rescinded his statement, indicating that Kamilov’s words stand.

Kazakhstan, too, has carved out a significant position. Just this January, the country was forced to call upon the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to help quell serious domestic unrest. But, to Moscow’s dismay, this earlier aid did not cause Kazakhstan to fall in line with Russia with regard to the war. Quite the opposite, in fact; an assistant to Kazakhstan’s president made it clear that Kazakhstan does not “want to be placed in the same basket as Russia,” while a deputy foreign minister stated that the country wants to avoid being behind a new iron curtain. Kazakhstan also announced it would not hold the annual celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany this year, a clear indication it does not want to be associated with Putin’s planned military parade for the occasion.

Azerbaijan, on the other side of the Caspian Sea, has relied on Moscow as a peacekeeper in the wake of its 2020 war with Armenia, in which it liberated large territories that Armenia had occupied in the 1990s. And while Azerbaijan signed a treaty of cooperation with Russia just days before the invasion of Ukraine, it has been unequivocal in its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. On April 29, Azerbaijan’s President, in response to a question from a Ukrainian lawmaker during an international conference in Baku, did not mince words. After reiterating Azerbaijan’s support for Ukraine’s integrity, Aliyev urged his Ukrainian counterparts “never to agree to the violation of your territorial integrity.” He further urged Ukraine to “rely on your own resources,” and cautioned against depending on the resolutions of international organizations, which “have no value.”

It is perhaps natural that Azerbaijan was first to express a critical position. Its own painful experience of occupation and ethnic cleansing clearly predisposed the country to side with Ukraine. More important, perhaps, is the fact that Azerbaijan is the only regional state with some security protection, having signed a mutual defense treaty with NATO ally Turkey last June.

Looking ahead, the United States and its allies will need to figure out a strategy for the long-term containment of Russia.

The states of Central Asia and the Caucasus will, along with Turkey, be a critical southern bulwark in any such effort. These states are understandably cautious, and (especially after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan) unsure to what extent they can rely on America. But they are clearly rattled by Russia’s aggression, and looking for ways to protect themselves against the same in the future. For Washington, their worries provide an opportunity for reassurance — and to rebuild ties that have been badly frayed by recent policy.

Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

Read 3943 times Last modified on Thursday, 12 May 2022 21:10





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.