Top Russian weakness that West can exploit: Russia’s Declining Influence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

This essay series identifies 10 of the most critical vulnerabilities in today’s Russia across the defense, economic, and diplomatic and political domains. 

10 essays analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian Federation were released by the Center for New American Security (CNAS): “Identifying Russian Vulnerabilities and How to Leverage Them”

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Vulnerability 5: Russia’s Reliance on Oil and Gas

Vulnerability 6: Ukraine As Russia’s Soft Underbelly

Russia’s war in Ukraine has alienated broad swathes of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, causing some of Russia’s closest allies to start putting distance between themselves and Moscow. Russia’s unexpectedly subpar military performance in Ukraine and distraction from other regional crises is pushing Russia’s neighbors to look elsewhere for diplomatic and security partners.

By Paul Stronski

Vulnerability 7: Russia’s Declining Influence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

If Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped his war in Ukraine would shore up the Kremlin’s “privileged sphere of influence” in Eurasia, as Dmitriy Medvedev once labeled the region, Russia’s subpar military performance, brutality against Ukrainian civilians, and threats of escalation instead have weakened Russia’s position across Eurasia, from Moldova to Kazakhstan, creating space for other regional powers—China, India, Iran, and Turkey—to step in. This new reality is a remarkable turnaround from early 2022, when Russia’s regional influence appeared supreme. Just over a year before, the Kremlin had brokered a cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, realizing its long-standing goal of inserting troops (peacekeepers) into the latter. The Kremlin also activated the Russian-sponsored Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for the first time in January 2022, helping to secure the Kazakhstani presidency for Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. 

Russia’s preoccupation with and difficulties in Ukraine have led some of Russia’s allies and neighbors to rethink their reliance on Moscow as an arms supplier and security partner. Border clashes in both Central Asia and the South Caucasus in 2022 and 2023, to which Moscow struggled to respond, revealed Moscow’s limited capabilities to react to regional crises, particularly as it wages war in Ukraine. 

Furthermore, with the exception of Belarus, Turkmenistan, and elements of the current Georgian ruling elite, Russia’s neighbors are trying to distance themselves from Moscow. Tokayev, for instance, has yet to repay his debt to Putin; instead, he has publicly criticized Russia’s war and permitted Kazakhstani charitable organizations’ humanitarian relief shipments to Ukraine. Despite signals in 2021 that Uzbekistan would join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU), Tashkent rejected membership in 2022 and existing EEAU members have started questioning the body. And Russia’s cultivation of the Georgian Dream government in Tbilisi has not translated into a rapprochement with Georgian society at large. With Russian-sponsored regional integration projects weakened, global and regional powers now find more receptive audiences and opportunities in Central Asia and the South Caucuses. 

Financial flows and trade turnover between Russia and its neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus rose dramatically in 2022, helping reinvigorate economies across the regions. However, these inflows of money reflected large-scale capital flight from Russia and Moscow’s use of neighboring countries for sanctions evasion rather than traditional investment. This burst of economic ties may not prove sustainable in the long term because most of the Russians who recognized the need to move either themselves or their money out of the country have done so.  Washington, Brussels, and London all now signal a clampdown on sanctions evasion is coming.  

Furthermore, while the West warily watches the region’s role in evading sanctions, this trend ironically highlights the shifting power dynamics between Moscow and its immediate neighbors. Moscow now depends on its former Soviet neighbors more than ever for economic survival and to demonstrate that it is not fully isolated on the diplomatic sphere. Sensing newfound Russian weakness, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan enjoy more leverage in their relationships with Moscow than before. Each to some extent has sought to buttress diplomatic and trade ties with the United States or EU since February 2022. Even Armenia, which is highly dependent on Russia, is showing an independent streak, reportedly pushing back at Russian pressure to join the Russia-Belarus Union State; publicly questioning the Russian-Armenian security alliance; and trying to enhance relations with the West, Middle East, and India.  

For example, the dynamics between Moscow and Baku have shifted significantly over the past two years as Russia become more reliant on Azerbaijani interlocutors, among others, to help it get around sanctions and continue energy exports. Azerbaijan essentially ripped up the Russian Brokered 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire in December 2022 when it launched its 9-month blockade against the ethnically Armenian-enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that Russian peacekeepers could not or would not break. Moscow also stood aside during, and possibly even assented to, Azerbaijan’s successful September 2023 attack that killed several Russian peacekeepers and quickly defeated the separatist entity. Baku apparently no longer sees Russia’s formal alliance with Armenia or its presence on Azerbaijani territory as deterrents and is challenging Moscow in the region. 

In Armenian eyes, Russia’s lack of assistance to the country in the 2020 war, combined with the increased Azerbaijani coercive diplomacy and incursions into Armenia proper to which Russia failed to respond, are cause to question the country’s traditional political, economic, and security reliance on Russia and begin to look elsewhere, with anti-Russian anger spiking visibly after Nagorno-Karabakh’s defeat.

Russian Efforts to Mitigate the Vulnerability 

Although Central Asia and Armenia are entrenched in the Russian security sphere through arms sales, bilateral security agreements, and the CSTO, Russia’s military difficulties in Ukraine, subpar performance of Russian defense equipment, and supply problems are pushing Russia’s allies to reassess their reliance on Moscow. With troops on the ground in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Tajikistan, Moscow is not going anywhere, but it reportedly has been forced to reassign some personnel from Central Asia, Armenia, and Georgia’s breakaway territories to Ukraine. 

Due to Russian and CSTO lukewarm support during regional border crises in 2022 and 2023, two Russian allies, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, canceled alliance-wide training exercises in their territories over the past year. In May 2023 the Armenian Prime Minister even publicly broached the idea of leaving the CSTO, exposing tensions and fissures in the block. In a possible effort to placate both countries, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a Putin proxy for engaging the region, admitted in June 2023 that both capitals have legitimate grievances with the Russian-backed multilateral alliance and that the CSTO should address these grievances to remain a relevant regional actor. 

With the Russian armament burn rate high in Ukraine, NATO member Turkey is seen as an increasingly attractive partner by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Uncertain about the future of the Russian defense industry, they have signed agreements to purchase Turkish drones or launch joint production facilities. Russia today contends with a Turkish military presence in the Caucasus and a robust Turkish-Azerbaijani security alliance. It also faces an Ankara-dominated Organization of Turkic States in which even neutral Turkmenistan participates as an observer. 

Farsi-speaking Tajikistan turned to Iran for drones and the United Arab Emirates for military vehicles. India is now an attractive security and arms supplier to Central Asia and Armenia. Yerevan is struggling to rebuild its military capabilities after its defeat in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, particularly because Moscow can no longer deliver those weapons. Given sanctions and its own military-industrial production bottlenecks, there is little Russia can do to address this problem. 

Russian soft power has taken hits too. Rising ethnic nationalism across Central Asia and the Caucasus in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed local leaders to accelerate derussification in the cultural sphere and sparked public discussion of the need to “fully decolonize” both regions from Russia. The mass arrival of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens to the region may stall this decolonization trend and the steady decline in Russian-language use across Eurasia. However, that too may not be guaranteed. Many of these new residents see the Caucasus and Central Asia as places to wait out the war or temporary stops toward their final destinations. Some have already moved elsewhere. 

The Kremlin’s denial of Ukrainian identity and that country’s right to exist as a sovereign state are unwelcome precedents across the region. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have been on the receiving end of Russian propagandists’ questioning of their historical legitimacy or sovereignty decision-making since February 2022. In response, several states have suffered from periodic Russian threats of kinetic action, not-so-veiled calls for the removal of the Armenian leadership, or outright economic punishment for domestic policies with which Moscow disagrees. 

Despite these fissures between Russia and its neighbors, the Kremlin certainly retains tools of coercive power and threatens to use them, particularly when it perceives one of its allies as being disloyal to Moscow. The Kremlin imposed dairy bans on both Armenia and Kyrgyzstan in protest of domestic policies the countries have taken. The former concerned Yerevan’s willingness to ratify the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court—a body that issued an arrest warrant for Putin on war crimes allegations. The latter was in response to the Kyrgyzstani parliament’s decision to enhance the status of the Kyrgyz language in the country at the expense of Russian. These asymmetrical punishments from Moscow, however, often prove to be self-defeating and cause further damage to Russian soft power in the Caucasus and Central Asia. 

On the energy front, Russia still holds many cards it can deploy against its neighbors, as its periodic 2022 stoppages of Kazakhstani oil through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium indicate. Given large-scale gas shortages in Central Asia, Uzbekistan in 2023 agreed to buy reverse-flow gas from Russia, although it and Kazakhstan pushed back on Putin’s proposal for a formal “gas union.” Yet, the shock of the invasion, combined with concerns about Russia’s use of energy as a tool of coercion, is pushing some Central Asian countries to begin thinking beyond hydrocarbons toward renewable energy. They have found partners in China, Europe, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States in developing wind, solar, and hydropower projects in the region. Armenia is in discussions with the United States about building modular nuclear reactors with U.S. technology. These shifts are welcome stepping stones to greater energy independence and enhanced engagement with outside powers that have money and the technological prowess Russia now lacks. 

Russia needs friends in Central Asia and the South Caucasus to demonstrate to domestic and international audiences that it is not fully isolated.

Russian senior leaders are engaging their Eurasian counterparts in bilateral, multilateral, and virtual meetings with greater frequency than in recent memory. These interactions, however, are not bringing Putin substantive results, as his interlocutors increasingly prefer the path of symbolic diplomacy whenever possible to minimize the reputational risks and substance of any meeting with Putin. Eurasian leaders today can play harder to get, and Putin reportedly had to personally plead with several Central Asian leaders at the last minute to get them to attend his annual May 9 Victory Day celebration in Moscow— something a Russian leader would not have had to do in years past.

Finally, given the growing lack of interest in Russiandominated regional organizations, Moscow recognizes the potential that China or another state could fill a growing vacuum of Russian power in the Caucasus or Central Asia. Moscow has doubled down in its engagement with Beijing, as well as New Delhi and Ankara, on regional issues. Moscow also sees expanding the regional organizations, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) format, with additional members or observers to dilute the power of these potential competitors on the regional and global states.

Opportunities for the U.S. and its Allies to Exploit the Vulnerability

Moscow’s war of choice is undermining its image as a reliable partner in Eurasia and over time is creating potential to create vacuums that others, such as China or Iran, could fill. China already is keen to take advantage of Russia’s weakened position in the region, as the May 2023 China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an, China, suggests. Beijing and Tehran both show interest in expanding their influence in the Caucasus as well. Yet, Central Asians and residents of the South Caucasus have been mistrustful of Chinese and Iranian ambitions in the region; regional elites likewise are hesitant to put all their eggs in the China basket and are wary of aligning with Iran.  Thus, it is important for the United States and its like-minded partners to help shape the new order that is emerging in Eurasia, making sure Central Asia and the South Caucasus are not dominated by an adversarial power and forcing Moscow (and Beijing) to expend more time and resources in the region that otherwise could be used against the West in Europe or East Asia. 

The resources needed by the United States to help shape this order need not be extensive, particularly if Washington leans on those like-minded states. U.S. policymakers should refrain from unrealistic transformative agendas, like an elusive promise of NATO membership or broad ambitions to promote democracy. Instead, it should focus on a more finite agenda— enhancing regional governance and investment climates, supporting initiatives for economic growth, providing security assistance, and collaborating with locals to promote human and health security. Both Central Asia and the South Caucasus border highly unstable regions; the potential for internal stability remains high in both. Making sure Eurasian states remain sovereign and stable is in the United States’ best interests. 

However, cognizant of the limited attention span of Washington to the region, the governments of Central Asia and the South Caucasus are aware the United States alone cannot and will not solve their problems. Today they seek a more diverse array of diplomatic, trade, and security interlocutors and are looking for ways to engage the EU, wealthy Gulf states, Japan, India, Pakistan, and Turkey, among others. Russia’s drive to weaken the Western-dominated unipolar world and push the United States out of Eurasia instead created opportunities for others in Russia’s backyard and enhanced the motivation for regional leaders to hedge. Washington need not fear this growing multipolarity in Eurasia. It instead should work with these regional powers—most of which are U.S. allies or partners—to shape the new landscape to its advantage. Stepping up efforts to foster greater regional cooperation among Eurasian states, which Europe, Japan, India, Turkey, and the United States already do, could help enhance the resiliency of the region and its ability to resolve regional problems without Russia. 

The United States should take advantage of the presence of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens in Eurasia who fled Russia either out of disenchantment with Putin or the war. Their arrival in neighboring states to some extent has undermined Moscow’s propaganda narrative of its Ukraine invasion as a “just war.”  They provide new opportunities to enhance U.S. public diplomacy outreach to the Russian-speaking world. Through a variety of assistance efforts, the United States should try to enhance the economic resilience of the region, particularly as it prepares to ramp up sanctions enforcement. The United States can also help relieve the strain Russian exiles have put on local societies and foster development in promising economic sectors, such as IT. 

The recent spike in Russian-Eurasian trade turnover will not subside unless the US and Europe step up sanctions enforcement in Eurasia. 

Russian sanctions evasion is a complex process involving transshipment between multiple Eurasian states and major transportation hubs, including the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.  It is time for greater enforcement, although these efforts should not just target Eurasian states and intermediaries. The U.S. government and the EU also should clamp down on international companies, exporters, cargo facilitators, and insurers that participate in transporting sanctioned goods from Europe or Asia to Eurasia for reexport to Russia. The West must offer financial relief to lessen the economic blow of greater enforcement on Eurasian economies and to foster development of new sectors to reduce the need for residents and Russian migrants to engage in transshipment.

 Finally, providing Western training, military supplies, and armaments to the region, where and when appropriate, could further highlight Russia’s reduced military capabilities and encourage greater cooperation with outside powers. It would buttress the recent push by Central Asian and Caucasus governments to find new suppliers in Europe, India, Iran, Turkey, or the United Arab Emirates. It would also enhance the region’s ability to shore up its own security amid unstable neighbors. Aware that any formal break with Russia could prove dangerous to its neighbors, Western countries should neither expect nor demand Eurasian states formally leave the CSTO or EEAU but encourage local states to take advantage of the slow decline of both organizations to diversify their diplomatic, economic, and security interlocutors. 

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