A distracted Russia is losing its grip on its former Soviet sphere

As the Kremlin is distracted by its simmering war more than 2,500 kilometers away in Ukraine, Russia’s dominance over its former Soviet empire shows signs of unraveling. Moscow has lost its aura and its grip, creating a messy void that previously obedient former Soviet satraps, as well as China, are scrambling to fill.

In the mountainside steppes of southwestern Kyrgyzstan, the result in a single remote village has been devastating: houses reduced to rubble, a school burned down and a heart-rending stench emanating from the rotting carcasses of 24,000 dead chickens.

All were victims last month of the worst violence to hit the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – a brief but bloody border dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both members of a military alliance led by Russia dedicated to preserving peace but which has done nothing to stop the chaos.

“Of course they are distracted by Ukraine,” Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov lamented in an interview in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital.

Before President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, Russia was playing an outsized role in Central Asian affairs and also in the volatile Caucasus region, in what had passed for a distant Pax Russica. In January, he sent troops to Kazakhstan to help the government quell a wave of violent domestic unrest. In 2020, he sent around 2,000 armed “blue helmets” to the Caucasus to enforce a Moscow-brokered truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Today, Armenia fulminates. Its president, Nikol Pashinyan, who has been a close ally, unsuccessfully appealed to Moscow last month for help in stopping further attacks from Azerbaijan. Furious at Russia’s inaction, Armenia is now threatening to quit Moscow’s military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

The Kazakh government that Putin helped back in January is moving away from the Kremlin script on Ukraine and looking to China to help secure its own territory, parts of which are largely inhabited by Russians from strain, and which Russian nationalists consider to belong in Russia.

And here, along the mountainous border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, long-running disputes between farmers over land, water and the smuggling of contraband escalated last month into a large-scale conflict scale involving tanks, helicopters and rockets, as the armies of the two countries fought each other. stopped.

According to Kyrgyz officials, the conflict has killed dozens of civilians and driven more than 140,000 people from their homes. It also left many local residents and officials in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, wondering why Moscow – long seen as a watchful guardian of stability on the flaming fringes of the former Soviet empire – had barely lifted a finger. .

“Russia could have stopped all of this in a second. But that didn’t do anything. Why did he let this happen? asked Zaynaddin Dubanaev, a 75-year-old Russian language teacher at the burnt-out school in Ak-Sai, a Kyrgyz village next to a fenced plot in Tajik territory.

Moscow’s security alliance has long been touted by Putin as Russia’s answer to NATO and an anchor of its role as the dominant (and often dominating) force over large swathes of the former Union. Soviet. But now the block barely works. Five of its six members – Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – have been embroiled in wars this year, while the sixth, Kazakhstan, has experienced violent internal conflict.

In response, China is asserting itself again, while the United States also sees an opening, urging Kyrgyzstan to sign a new bilateral cooperation agreement. It would replace one scrapped in 2014 after Russian pressure forced the closure of a US airbase outside Bishkek that had been set up to supply fighter jets flying over Afghanistan.

“Until now, Ukraine, China and Russia were not interested in open competition in Central Asia,” said Asel Doolotkeldieva, senior lecturer at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, a center graduate studies focused on security issues. “There was an unspoken division of labour: security for Russia, economy for China. But Russia is no longer doing its job. He has shown that he is unable or unwilling to protect the region.

Russia still has enormous leverage in Central Asia. Its largest foreign military base is in Tajikistan and it has a small air base in Kyrgyzstan, a poor and isolated country that remains heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies and remittances from over a million Kyrgyz migrant workers. in Russia.

Japarov, aware of his country’s vulnerability, hesitated to sign the new agreement with the United States. Doing so would be seen in Moscow as a “stab in the back and they would be right”, he said.

“Russia is obviously focused on other things right now, not Central Asia, but the moment they want to enact the law, they just have to hint that it will make life difficult for migrant workers. in Russia,” said Peter Leonard, Central Asia. editor-in-chief of Eurasianet, a media outlet that reports on the region.

But the recent border war between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has upended long-held assumptions about Russian power. It erupted just as Putin was in neighboring Uzbekistan for a summit meeting of a Chinese-sponsored regional grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, attended by President Xi Jinping of China, as well as leaders India, Turkey, Azerbaijan and four Central Asian countries. countries.

Overshadowed by the Chinese leader, Putin endured a series of humiliating protocol snafus that left him waiting awkwardly in front of the cameras as other leaders, including Japarov, showed up late to meet him.

“It was of course not deliberate,” Japarov said. “No affront was intended.”

But widely circulated videos of a Putin looking uncomfortable; a public rebuke from the Prime Minister of India, who declared that “the era of today is not one of war”; and the Russian leader’s acknowledgment that China had “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine all reinforced the image of diminished influence and appeal.

“Putin is no longer the big, invincible leader everyone wants to meet,” said Emil Dzhuraev, a researcher in Bishkek with Crossroads Central Asia, a research group. “He lost his aura.

In contrast, Xi has become more assertive. During a visit to Kazakhstan last month, he pledged to “resolutely support Kazakhstan in defending its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”, a remark widely interpreted as a warning to Moscow not to try nothing.

Days later, after Tajik forces advanced, China issued a similar pledge to Kyrgyzstan, recalling Russia’s longstanding role as guardian of Central Asia’s borders.

Some officials in Bishkek wonder if Russia has given a nod to military action by Tajikistan, a tightly controlled dictatorship ruled by the same leader since 1994, even longer than Putin has controlled the Kremlin. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, is considered the only country in Central Asia with a modicum of real democracy and a relatively free press.

The view that Putin is siding with Tajikistan – rather than being an impartial arbiter between two members of his military alliance – gained traction last week when the Kremlin said it was granting the veteran Tajik dictator , Emomali Rahmon, a prestigious state award for his contribution to “regional stability and security”.

Kyrgyzstan’s foreign ministry said the reward, announced by Moscow “while the blood of the innocent victims has not yet cooled on Kyrgyz soil”, had caused “perplexity”.

“The perverse aspect of all this is that both sides are members of the same military alliance for which Russia is responsible,” said Leonard, the publisher of Eurasianet. “The days of Russia dictating the military posture of these countries are clearly out the window.”

The head of the district administration, Jorobaev Imamalievich, said he was appalled.

“Russia was silent. He is busy in Ukraine and does not pay attention to it,” he said. “It’s just not here anymore.”

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