Russia is not at the center of the Caucasus and Central Asian conflicts

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Western analysts and policymakers have long viewed security in the post-Soviet sphere through the prism of Moscow’s political calculation, a trend that has accelerated since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. However, recent developments – mainly the resurgence of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia – show the limits of this framework. Focusing on Russia does not explain conflicts where both sides have a close relationship with Moscow and, perhaps more worryingly, it neglects the leaders’ own strategic agency.

Russia presents itself as a guarantor of security in post-Soviet states, first through formal institutions such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Backed by the CSTO, around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region at the center of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict; Russia has a five-year mandate to maintain stability there. Besides its formal involvement in the conflicts, Moscow also asserts its influence through rhetoric. For example, Russian experts have called the previous conflict on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan an escalation in the “southern border regions” of Russia.

Although Russia is involved in both the Caucasus and Central Asia, it does not play a truly decisive role in the two ongoing conflicts. In both cases, governments on either side of the border established diplomatic, economic, and military ties with Russia in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interpreting recent territorial incursions through a Russian lens or as part of a so-called new big game offers limited insight – and it could jeopardize potential conflict resolution.

Western analysts and policymakers have long viewed security in the post-Soviet sphere through the prism of Moscow’s political calculation, a trend that has accelerated since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. However, recent developments – mainly the resurgence of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia – show the limits of this framework. Focusing on Russia does not explain conflicts where both sides have a close relationship with Moscow and, perhaps more worryingly, it neglects the leaders’ own strategic agency.

Russia presents itself as a guarantor of security in post-Soviet states, first through formal institutions such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Backed by the CSTO, around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region at the center of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict; Russia has a five-year mandate to maintain stability there. Besides its formal involvement in the conflicts, Moscow also asserts its influence through rhetoric. For example, Russian experts have called the previous conflict on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan an escalation in the “southern border regions” of Russia.

Although Russia is involved in both the Caucasus and Central Asia, it does not play a truly decisive role in the two ongoing conflicts. In both cases, governments on either side of the border established diplomatic, economic, and military ties with Russia in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interpreting recent territorial incursions through a Russian lens or as part of a so-called new big game offers limited insight – and it could jeopardize potential conflict resolution.

The acts of aggression by Azerbaijan and Tajikistan must be interpreted on their own terms. On September 12, the Armenian Defense Ministry reported fire from the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. But unlike the 44-day war between the countries in 2020, this incursion took place not in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh but along their border. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said Armenia was behind the provocations and any firing was defensive. Russia brokered a ceasefire that was breached minutes after it came into effect on September 13. The two sides reached a new agreement the following day, after which US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke about the importance of resolving crisis.

As fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan resumed, entire villages were evacuated in Batken, Kyrgyzstan’s southernmost province, for the second time this year amid conflict with neighboring Tajikistan. The intensity of the latest fighting marked a break with the frequent clashes along the border. The violence began on September 14, with forces clashing for two days before a ceasefire was called. Within hours, Tajik forces violated the ceasefire and pushed past border villages, striking schools and government buildings in Batken. National security chiefs from the two countries met at the border on September 19 to sign a peace protocol calling for an end to hostilities and the withdrawal of troops.

Several analysts have focused on the timing of the border disputes, both of which coincided with Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. From this perspective, Russia has been bogged down by its battlefield losses, supposedly creating an opportunity for Azerbaijan’s aggression, and the distraction caused by its disastrous campaign in Ukraine will also lead to more instability in Central Asia. Although Russia has lost its influence in the post-Soviet space because of its war in Ukraine, there has not been enough of a significant shift in the regional distribution of power to point to Russia as the cause of the fighting. more recent. Armenia and Azerbaijan were at war for 44 days in 2020, and Tajikistan’s last deep incursion into Kyrgyz territory was in April 2021.

Diplomatic relations with Russia do not explain the dynamics of either conflict. In its ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenia is often seen as the Russian-aligned state due to its membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO. But Azerbaijan is also close to Russia: just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, the two countries signed an agreement to deepen diplomatic and military cooperation. Moreover, the institutional entanglement with Russia did not guarantee Armenia’s security. Russia ignored Armenia’s invocation of the CSTO’s collective defense provision in September, despite its treaty obligation to protect.

Determining the relative proximity to Russia in the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan conflict is even more difficult. Russia has military bases in both countries, and both are members of the CSTO. Their economies depend heavily on remittances from migrant workers in Russia. Like Armenia, Kyrgyzstan is part of the Eurasian Economic Union. Although Tajikistan is not a member, its trade with member states in the first half of the year amounted to some $1.2 billion, largely driven by trade with Russia and Belarus. Dushanbe has remained silent on Moscow’s war in Ukraine, but informal public polls suggest a broad base of support for Russia. Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has officially remained neutral while punishing anti-war protesters and echoing Kremlin arguments to justify recognizing the Russian-backed breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Relying on Russia to intervene in these conflicts, let alone serve as the primary guarantor of the security of any former colonies, is problematic: Eurasia is not just Russia’s backyard. Other powers have expressed interest in the security dynamics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Throughout 2022, the European Council brokered talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Iran and Turkey have contributed to an arms race between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan in 2013, so it is fitting that he embarked on his first overseas trip since January 2020 to the country, where he expressed his support for “safeguarding national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Merely emphasizing the engagement of Russia – and other regional powers – in Eurasia ignores the fact that the leaders of the countries involved in the conflicts are also strategic players. Armenia and Azerbaijan have courted economic investment and geopolitical support far beyond Moscow. Both countries leverage their claims to Nagorno-Karabakh to cultivate diplomatic relations with other states. Armenia has vocally supported Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, while Azerbaijan has always received arms and intelligence support from Israel. Although Pelosi expressed support for Armenia during his recent visit, Azerbaijan has also requested US military assistance.

In September, Azerbaijan did not target Nagorno-Karabakh but instead attacked areas on the southern border with Armenia that block access to the Nakhchivan enclave; establishing a corridor to the enclave would give Azerbaijan access to key trade links and a more direct route to Turkey. Tajikistan is facing an economic crisis and is struggling to contain repression in the autonomous region of Gorno-Badakhshan. Also, Tajikistan’s aging president is reportedly preparing to hand over power to his son. A quick military victory, even if created out of thin air, is a predictable tactic in the dictator’s toolbox to bolster his legitimacy.

Meanwhile, Central Asian states have traditionally practiced so-called multi-vector diplomacy, playing off strong states against each other to bolster their own domestic stability. The states best placed to manage the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are in fact others in the region. The infrastructure for multilateral conflict resolution is lacking, but Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have signaled their willingness and readiness to negotiate peace between neighbours. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev answered calls with Japarov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on September 20, the day after the first peace protocol was signed.

Analyzing the conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan only through the prism of Russia’s own strategy overlooks these important sub-regional dynamics. But it also perpetuates a narrative about Russia’s natural position as a “guarantor of security” in independent countries for more than 30 years. In a test of AtlanticCasey Michel calls on the West to “decolonize Russia”, arguing that the world will not be safe until “the Moscow empire is overthrown”.

The first step is certainly not to dissolve Russia but to decolonize the analysis of Eurasian politics. Ultimately, references to Central Asia and the Caucasus as Russia’s backyard serve the same linguistic purpose as Moscow calling post-Soviet states its “southern borders.” Instead of looking first to Russia for explanatory power, scholars and analysts must approach these conflicts in terms of the leaders’ strategic calculations.

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