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Russia’s backyard assesses Putin’s war opportunities and threats

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(Bloomberg) – As President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine stalls, other former Soviet states are weighing the prospects of pulling out of Moscow’s orbit, even as they fear the risks of a potential border conflict.

The war is sending jolts along an arc of instability that stretches from neighboring Moldova to Ukraine across the Caucasus and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Putin’s intentions have become a pressing national security issue in countries with “frozen conflicts” or with large pro-Russian minorities.

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Russia could “open up other fronts in case Putin needs to camouflage his failure in Ukraine in a more serious crisis,” said Alexander Baunov, Russian foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “At the same time, the Russian leadership understands that the resources are not unlimited and they are already not enough in Ukraine.”

It’s a region sandwiched between rival powers jostling for dominance. Turkey seeks to strengthen its influence after helping ally Azerbaijan defeat Armenia in a 2020 war, China is expanding its presence along trade routes to Europe and Iran has an interest in strengthening its position in the Caspian Sea region. Repercussions are being felt as far as the Balkans, with political divisions in Croatia over the war and Serbia facing European pressure to loosen ties with the Kremlin.

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As Ukraine fiercely defends itself, it is unclear whether Russia can achieve its goals there and whether it is keen to expand a conflict that has resulted in huge military casualties and international isolation, for little of earnings. Still, the risk is that Putin escalates what Russian officials call a proxy confrontation with the West in an attempt to further dominate Moscow’s former Soviet empire.

He is due to hold a Kremlin summit on Monday with other Collective Security Treaty Organization leaders from six former Soviet states, including Kazakhstan, Armenia and Belarus. The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment on whether Putin would seek CSTO support for what Russia calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

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Understanding the Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine: QuickTake

Putin demonstrated his supremacy in Russia’s backyard as recently as January by sending troops to Kazakhstan to help President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev crush a violent uprising in the country the size of Europe western.

Tokayev did not support Putin in return, citing “the critical need to ensure the security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of our state” where a fifth of the 19 million inhabitants are Russian, living mainly near their common border.

“Of course, Russia wanted us to be more on their side,” Tokayev’s deputy chief of staff, Timur Suleimenov, said in an interview with EURACTIV on March 29. “But Kazakhstan respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

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Azerbaijan has defied Russian peacekeepers separating its army from Armenian forces as part of a truce that Putin personally brokered to end their war in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The Kremlin’s difficulties in Ukraine “could untie Azerbaijan’s hands”, said Elxan Shahinoglu, director of the Baku-based Atlas Research Center. “Russia may be opposed to the further advance of the Azerbaijani army in Karabakh, but it is not in a position to stop it.”

Azerbaijan signed a defense treaty with Turkey last year, and Armenia hosts Russia’s only permanent military base in the Caucasus. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has started talks since Armenia’s defeat to normalize relations with Turkey, his historic enemy.

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Tokayev signed an “enhanced strategic partnership” agreement that included deepening defense ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 10, during his first state visit to Turkey since becoming leader of the Kazakhstan in 2019. The parties also signed an agreement to produce a Turkish reconnaissance and strike. drones in Kazakhstan.

The Kremlin’s claim to “protect” Russian speakers in Ukraine – even as its army has devastated cities and been accused of war crimes – is ringing alarm bells in Moldova.

President Maia Sandu called for the military to be beefed up after blasts last month rocked his pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, bordering Ukraine, which hosts 1,500 Russian troops. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, pledged to provide military equipment during a visit on May 4 to Moldova, a candidate country for EU membership.

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Putin is likely aiming to seize territory in eastern and southern Ukraine as far as Transnistria in a protracted war, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on May 10. , the Tass news service reported on May 11.

Why Mariupol and the Donbass region are important to Putin: QuickTake

Russian troops have occupied two regions of Georgia since the 2008 war, including South Ossetia, whose outgoing president announced on Friday that he would hold a July 17 referendum on joining Russia. The Kremlin has not indicated whether it supports a vote. The region’s newly elected president did not commit to the date, saying she disagreed with him, although he said he supported integration with Russia, according to Tass .

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The Georgian authorities have reacted cautiously to the separatist region’s referendum campaign and have been careful not to antagonize Moscow over the war in Ukraine, while pursuing the same goals as Kyiv’s membership of the European Union and to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Russia has an interest in tying other members of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, such as Kazakhstan and Armenia, more tightly as it seeks ways for gray imports to weaken unprecedented international sanctions.

Similarly, countries from Central Asia to Turkey are trying to boost trade along a Trans-Caspian route that bypasses Russia via Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Pipelines carry energy from the Caucasus to Europe bypassing Russia.

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Doubts in Kazakhstan about further integration into the Eurasian Economic Union are fueled by sanctions against Russia. Then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to snub a deal with the EU and seek closer ties with the former Soviet bloc initially sparked the Ukraine crisis, leading to its overthrow in 2014 pro-Western revolution, followed by Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

“Any attempt to exit the Eurasian Union will be seen by Russia as hostile,” said Dosym Satpayev, director of the Almaty-based risk assessment group.

Russia’s ally, Belarus, is the cautionary tale for other former Soviet neighbors.

Why Belarus is in tune with Russia on Ukraine: QuickTake

Longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko has allowed Putin to use Belarus as a launching pad to invade Ukraine, although he has not sent troops himself and has been increasingly dependent on the Kremlin since the overwhelming protests against the disputed 2020 elections.

“While Russian troops are in Belarus and Lukashenko is in his seat, Belarus is not free,” said exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tskihanouskaya.

Belarus “may retain some attributes of independence, but it is essentially controlled by the Kremlin,” said Joerg Forbrig, director of the German Marshall Fund for Central and Eastern Europe.

©2022 Bloomberg LP



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