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 4447 times Last modified on Thursday, 12 May 2022 21:10





  • 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


  • 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.