The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
The Kremlin has struggled to contain the fallout of its invasion of Ukraine. It did not imagine that its war would inspire sustained unity among Western countries, nor that the Ukrainian army would resist so well, nor that it would need to partly mobilize the Russian population, a drastic measure with potentially disastrous domestic consequences. A war intended to restore Russian strength has instead left the country weaker.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as part of Russia’s rightful sphere of influence, but because of his invasion, that sphere of influence is contracting. Russia is losing ground in regions where it has long held sway. Nowhere is this more apparent than among the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Indeed, the broad region to Russia’s south seems to be undergoing a tectonic shift away from Moscow for many interconnected reasons.
Overstretched, Russia no longer seems able to serve as a guarantor of regional security for local regimes. The war and its blatant violation of international norms shocked governments and some segments of publics in the region, rocking their faith in Russia. And the invasion has raised questions about the abiding colonial legacy of Russian power and the need for the countries to its south to shed that imperial baggage. Russia’s debacle in Ukraine has quickened the waning of its primacy in the South Caucasus and Central Asia, and several powers—primarily China and Turkey—stand to benefit. Russia will remain an active and significant player in the region, but it will be in a role much diminished by its war against Ukraine.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia remained a powerful, often guiding presence in the politics of many countries in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. For years, Russia helped keep some conflicts in the region “frozen,” playing the role of a not quite impartial peace broker. Chief among these wars is the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia’s role came into question even before the war against Ukraine, when this frozen conflict flared to life in 2020. In a swift campaign, the revanchist Azerbaijani regime of President Ilham Aliyev wrested control of many parts of Karabakh and some adjacent territories. Defeated, Yerevan was also forced to accept a land corridor across Armenia that connects Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan.
In the wake of these events, Armenians did not hide their displeasure and disappointment at Russia’s lack of support. Russian officials contended that their hands were tied; the security guarantees of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the regional security partnership led by Moscow, covered only Armenia’s officially recognized borders, not the contested territory of Karabakh. But Russia lost influence over, and the faith of, its Armenian client by playing a double game: it had become one of the main providers of military equipment to Azerbaijan and also allowed Turkey—Armenia’s historic enemy and Azerbaijan’s main ally—a seat at the table in regional negotiations about the conflict.
Two years later, the war in Ukraine has further inflamed the situation in the South Caucasus, encouraging Azerbaijan to go on the offensive again. Azerbaijani forces launched attacks in September on the territory of Armenia proper, resulting in more than 200 deaths. A tenuous cease-fire now holds, but the prospects for peace negotiations look dim; the Minsk Group, in charge of peace negotiations under the rubric of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is moribund, as it consisted of representatives from Russia and European countries now at odds over the war in Ukraine. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has lamented Russia’s inability to back Armenia and get involved in its defense, suggesting that Moscow is an unreliable ally. Some protesters have even called for Armenia to leave the CSTO. The Kremlin interpreted as a provocation the recent visit to Yerevan by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Armenians saw it instead as a sign of Russia’s weakness.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may potentially reactivate other conflicts in the South Caucasus. Moscow has been using South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two secessionist regions of Georgia, to pressure Tbilisi into abandoning its pro-Western posture. The current Georgian government has been careful not to take too strident a position on the current war in Ukraine—condemning Russia’s invasion at the UN General Assembly vote in March but abstaining from imposing sanctions. But rumors emanating from Russia that men in South Ossetia and Abkhazia could be mobilized to fight in Ukraine—many residents of the secessionist republics, especially in South Ossetia, hold Russian passports—signal to Tbilisi that local tensions could flare again, and the Georgian authorities will have to decide how to react if their Ossetian and Abkhaz citizens are mobilized to fight for Russia.
The war in Ukraine has hurt Russia in another way. Its soft power has been weakened across much of the post-Soviet space, particularly in Central Asia. Central Asian states have tried to resist Russian pressure to side with the Kremlin over Ukraine, taking the middle of the road position of calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict while abstaining from condemning Russia’s invasion at the UN General Assembly. None of these governments can afford to be too pro-Ukrainian given their heavy security and economic reliance on Russia.
Each took a slightly different stance. Sadyr Japarov, the president of Kyrgyzstan, insisted that Russia was within its rights to secure the “defense of the Donbas population” (a reference to the Russian-backed separatist states in eastern Ukraine), a position that proved unpopular at home. More courageously, Kazakhstan authorized some pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in the spring. And in March, Uzbekistan stood up for Ukraine’s territorial integrity when its foreign minister issued a stern statement refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the separatist Russian states.
The war in Ukraine has dealt a huge blow to Russia’s military prestige.
On Russia’s bid to formally absorb parts of Ukraine, Central Asian regimes have shown no ambiguity: they do not recognize the so-called referendums held in September in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories nor these territories’ annexation. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has taken the firmest stance on this question, in line with his country’s refusal to recognize the putative independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The war in Ukraine has also dealt a blow to another kind of Russian power: the country’s military prestige. Indeed, Russia’s military failures have hugely surprised Central Asia’s authoritarian governments. Even if they have long seen Russia as a tricky partner, they have relied on Moscow as a guarantor of security and a source of regime stability. The war has profoundly shaken that perception. For governments accustomed to receiving Russian military equipment at discounted prices and training for their officers in Russian military academies, recent events have suddenly called into question the future development of their own militaries.
To be sure, governments in the region still lean on Russian military power: in January, Russian troops intervened in Kazakhstan under the rubric of the CSTO to support Tokayev during countrywide riots. They left quickly without significantly undermining Astana’s legitimacy. Now, however, Russia’s partners in the CSTO see Russian forces stretched and strained. Central Asians have, for instance, noted Russia’s disinterest in the border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that left around 100 people dead in September: even if the clashes fell outside the jurisdiction of the CSTO, Moscow’s silence was palpable.
Putin’s expansionist rhetoric and his denial of the existence of a separate, legitimate Ukrainian nation have also cast Russia’s actions in the light of its imperial history. Although Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan built their nationhood by denouncing the Soviet past as colonial, the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik governments did not use such framing. Until recently, only small segments of local public opinion—usually restricted to people with liberal, nationalist, or Islamist views—have demanded that their countries take several measures to grapple with this past, including recognizing their prior domination by imperial Russia and the Soviet Union as an era of colonization, reducing the status of the Russian language, and rewriting history textbooks. But with the war in Ukraine, such opinion has now spread more widely, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
For instance, social media in Central Asia has been abuzz with reports that Russia has conscripted ethnic minorities, often of Muslim background, at higher rates than ethnic Russians—leading to disproportionate death tolls, particularly in the case of soldiers from the North Caucasian republic of Dagestan—and that Russian recruiters are pushing Central Asian migrants to enlist. These facts only buttress the growing perception in the region of Russia as an imperial force using its ethnic minorities as cannon fodder. The Russian government has launched a program offering fast-track citizenship to those migrant laborers interested in joining the army (this is not unique to Russia; the majority of the world’s foreign legions offer the same incentive), which may appeal to some young men looking for a way to climb Russia’s social ladder. But the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek governments have been very clear that their citizens are not permitted to fight in Ukraine and will face penalties, perhaps even imprisonment, for doing so.
The mass arrival in the region of Russian citizens—first in early March, fleeing the outbreak of war, and then at the end of September, fleeing the “partial mobilization” and the risk of conscription—has inspired mixed feelings in Central Asia. Some residents have been happy to help the newcomers, seeing these young and high-skilled Russians as assets for their countries’ development. Others have viewed the arrival of so many Russians as portending the renewed domination of Russian culture and Russian language in their countries, a concern only exacerbated by the colonial attitudes of some refugees and the increase in the cost of daily life that their presence has imposed.
Russia’s weakened status in Central Asia and the Caucasus has benefited other states. The recent Shanghai Cooperation Summit in Samarkand demonstrated that the Russian president is no longer the most influential leader in the region but rather one among many other leaders, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerging as the main heavyweights.
As the Russian economy declines, China will become an even more prominent provider of major infrastructure investments in the region. Turkey has won itself a new status as a potential peace broker in the Caucasus and has been making skillful use of its median position between Moscow and Kyiv to promote itself across the region more broadly. In theory, the EU may earn new legitimacy if it can find a way to reengage Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia and craft new forms of partnership for those three countries destined to remain outside the EU, but much depends on Europe’s own resilience and its ability to sustain a confrontational posture toward Russia. As for the United States, it continues to be perceived, in elite and public opinion alike, as being an unreliable partner sending mixed signals to the South Caucasian and Central Asia countries—local memories of the catastrophic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 remain strong.
But Western countries would be wise not to celebrate Russia’s unwilling abdication of its role as security guarantor for the countries to its south. Although the waning of Russian influence may open new opportunities for these countries to reshape their own destinies, it may also create waves of regional tensions, as evident in Azerbaijan’s proactive efforts to complete its reconquest of Karabakh. Central Asian and South Caucasian countries appear to have suffered a good deal of collateral damage from the decline of the Russian economy and the impact of Western sanctions targeting Russia: the shrinking of remittances, which make up an important part of the economies of Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, risks pauperizing many people across the region. And Western countries should not expect some kind of unequivocal realignment in South Caucasus and Central Asia against the Kremlin. Albeit diminished, Russia remains a significant regional power. Military, economic, and people-to-people links between Russia and the countries of the region will persist and not suddenly disappear. Russian dominance may be crumbling, but no clear order has yet formed to take its place.
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise