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 5123 times Last modified on Thursday, 12 May 2022 21:10





  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...

  • CACI director Svante Cornell's interviewed on the 'John Batchelor Show' podcast regarding Turkey's 2023 presidential election
    Friday, 19 May 2023 00:00

    Listen to CACI director Svante Cornell's recent interview on the 'John Batchelor Show' podcast regarding Turkey's 2023 presidential election. Click here!

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