In Other News – Post-Soviet States Wary of Aligning with Putin – 3/9/2023

March 9, 2023

Recent events demonstrate that post-Soviet states are wary of fully aligning with Putin. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a widespread impact on global food, energy, and geopolitics, but it’s also directly impacted the stature and political strategy of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors. These countries are now grappling with how to navigate and reshape their historic, political, and economic ties to Russia given the increasingly threatening and unstable regional operating environment. Some countries have decided to fully turn their back on Putin, while others are striving to balance the demands and needs of multiple global powers to their strategic advantage.

The struggle was visible this week in Tbilisi, Georgia where citizens took to the streets to protest a new Putin-esque legislative proposal. The proposed bill would have required Georgian organizations to register as “foreign agents” if they received more than 20% of their funding from abroad. The bill smacks of similar legislation that’s been active for years in Russia to curb internal dissent. Fortunately, the Georgian government responded to the sizable opposition of its citizens, and advice from EU leaders, and announced on Thursday that it will be dropping the proposed bill.

One of the primary concerns of the bill, in addition to the anti-democratic implications of such legislation, comes from Western-facing Georgians who want to join the European Union. To do so, Georgia can’t be viewed as a corrupt, authoritarian state operating under Putin’s shadow. Likewise, over the past few years, Moldova’s President Sandu has been leading her nation on a track to EU membership. But it’s complicated, because there are influential factions of society within these post-Soviet states that are still more inclined to side with Russia. What’s notable right now, however, is that other post-Soviet nations that aren’t even vying to be closer to the EU or NATO still don’t want to fully align with Putin.

Indeed, conditions have shifted for Central Asian countries that have previously relied heavily on Russia for security and economic opportunities. Russia can’t be everywhere at once, and its military presence in Central Asia has declined over the past year. Further, many of these nations physically move their goods through Russia and are nervous about the continued impact of sanctions on their exports. Central Asian leaders have also noted Putin’s diminished role as a regional mediator. At the Munich Security Council meeting a few weeks ago, it was US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who met on the sidelines with the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to discuss peace prospects for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Previously, Putin brokered the most recent peace deal.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and in other areas of regional strife, Washington is presenting itself as a partner, not necessarily a mediator. This is a strategic play, because picking sides between Washington and Moscow is a risky proposition for many post-Soviet states who are more inclined to seek balanced relations between major powers. Further complicating their strategies, Central Asian countries also need to carefully manage their relations with Beijing. Balancing the needs and impact of these global heavyweights is going to be important for the economic and physical security of Central Asian states moving forward, and they don’t want to put all of their eggs in Putin’s basket.

Indeed, Russia’s Ukraine invasion has disrupted the paradigm and the United States has a chance to play an increased role as a partner in the region. This opportunity, while not a clear win for Washington, is still a loss for Putin who has been trying to exclusively dominate the area for decades. Just less than two weeks ago, Secretary Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and attended the first ministerial-level engagement in the region of the C5+1 Diplomatic Platform – including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, since 2015. Blinken’s visit signals a change in how Washington is approaching the region. Instead of focusing on how these states can help US efforts in Afghanistan, the focus will now be on empowering these nations to avoid being coopted by aggressive neighbors.