Caspian Governments on Russian Invasion of Ukraine
Mar 3, 2022
Leaders of the Caspian region have met with top Russian officials amidst the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko spoke with the region’s leaders while condemnation from the international community over Russia’s gross violation of international law mounts.
On February 25, Putin and Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke via telephone to discuss the ongoing bilateral relations between the two countries as well as the current situation in Ukraine. The same day, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Mishustin discussed similar issues in Nur-Sultan. Mishustin traveled to Nur-Sultan to participate in the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council session that still occurred despite the invasion. Matviyenko met with Tajik government officials in Dushanbe and vowed that the Russian government would impose parallel sanctions on the West. Two days prior to the Russian invasion, Putin met with Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev where the two leaders inked an alliance agreement. Despite seemingly warm relations between the Kremlin and its southern Caspian neighbors, the high-level discussions and meetings are not an endorsement for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
In a break from Russia, Kazakhstan announced that it did not intend to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), two breakaway republics in Ukraine that Putin recognized early last week as a pretext for the war. Furthermore, Remstroyservice company – a company dedicated to providing internet and television services in Kazakhstan – blocked Russian programming from its broadcasting. The station released a statement saying, “We are against war and against war propaganda.”
Most likely, there will continue to be growing discontent with Russia’s decision to invade its western neighbor because of the economic impact it will have in the region. A large number of Central Asian migrant workers reside in Russia for employment and send remittances home to support their families. A drop in currency values caused by a barrage of Western-imposed sanctions on Russia will have a severe effect on the smaller Central Asian economies that heavily rely on trade with Russia. Kazakhstan’s tenge, Kyrgyzstan’s som, and Tajikistan’s somoni continue to drop in value. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan are also members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Economic damage to Russia will have ripple effects throughout the region.
However, in general, the leaders of the Caspian have remained wary of criticizing Moscow outright. Georgia announced that it would not join the West in sanctioning Russia. Yet, Tbilisi also plans to submit an application for membership to the EU by March 3. Armenia was the only country (other than Russia) to vote “no” at the February 26 Council of Europe vote to expel Russia from the organization. And on March 2, the United Nations General Assembly held a historic vote to condemn the Russian invasion into Ukraine. While Georgia voted with the majority “yes”, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan abstained. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were not present for the UNGA vote.
These ambiguous statements and suggestions of support to Moscow have led to reprimand from Ukraine. On March 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recalled the Ukrainian ambassadors to Kyrgyzstan and Georgia “because of the justification by [Kyrgyz officials] of Russia's aggression against Ukraine” and for the creation [by Georgian officials] of obstacles for those volunteers who want to help us, and for holding an immoral position regarding sanctions [against Russia].” Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov expressed support for the Russian troops. Meanwhile other Caspian countries are walking the fine line between condoning and condemning the Russian invasion. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev affirmed his country’s neutral position on the matter.
If Russia succeeds and Kyiv falls to Russian forces, it will showcase to the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia that Russia is capable of regime change in their countries, too. Some countries in the region are already embroiled in territorial disputes with Russia and other neighbors that they do not want to inflame by voicing their public opposition to the invasion into Ukraine. In December 2020, Russian State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov said that the “territory of [modern] Kazakhstan was a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union” and falsely claimed that Kazakhstan was unsettled prior to the expansion of the Russian Empire. The Northern Kazakhstan region contains some of the largest proportions of ethnic Russian residents in Kazakhstan along with more than 60 percent of the country’s hydrocarbon resources. There has been some history of tensions between Russian nationalist separatists and Kazakh residents in the region. Similarly, Russia still occupies and maintains a military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after a violent conflict between Moscow and Tbilisi in 2008. The two breakaway regions comprise 20 percent of Georgian territory.
Instead of direct confrontations with Russia, Caspian countries are offering mediation to deescalate the conflict and providing humanitarian assistance and public support. Tokayev offered Kazakhstan as a mediator and called for the two countries to find a solution quickly. Azerbaijan is a member of the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development (GUAM), which also includes Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. The organization is dedicated to strengthening multilateral relations in the face of territorial encroachment and military threats from Russia. Azerbaijan’s ties to Ukraine explains its decision to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including 5 million euros worth of medicine and free fuel for Ukrainian emergency services vehicles. In Azerbaijan and Georgia, thousands of people rallied to demand the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
Being outspoken against Russia – no matter the promises of support from western countries – could bring a similar fate to the Caspian countries. The recent invasion into Ukraine illustrates Russia’s disregard for international laws, civilian casualties, and territorial integrity. The countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia are concerned that any inkling of anti-Russian sentiment from their leadership could push them to a more unfavorable position in Putin’s eyes.