A wave of destabilization from the Caucasus to Central Asia – Vs

By Vicken Cheterian

In September of this year, violence in the security situation in the Caucasus and Central Asia increased sharply. [1]. On September 12, the Azerbaijani armed forces launched a mass attack from six different directions within the territories of neighboring Armenia. After 48 hours of fierce fighting, about 300 people died (207 Armenians and 80 Azerbaijanis were officially declared dead) [2]. During the same period, from September 14 to 20, and about 3,000 km to the east, in the southeastern Ferghana Valley, violent clashes took place on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The death toll is disputed, but official figures exceed 100, with 140,000 civilians evacuated on the Kyrgyz side of the border alone. [3].

Many analysts attribute the rise in violence in the Caucasus and Central Asia to the weakening of Russia due to the war in Ukraine. Although Putin’s original plan was to invade Ukraine and strengthen Russian influence in the post-Soviet space, one commentator writes that “Moscow is actively accelerating the process of diminishing its influence throughout Eurasia, including the former Soviet countries in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. ‘ [4]. In an article published by Marlene Laurelle Foreign affairswent further: not only is Russia losing its influence in the post-Soviet space, but “Russia no longer seems capable of serving as a guarantor of regional security for regional regimes. […] and a number of powers, especially China and Turkey, have everything to gain from it.” [5].

The weakening of Russia’s position in the Caucasus and Central Asia has been accompanied by reports that Russia is withdrawing troops from its bases in these post-Soviet republics to redeploy in Ukraine. For example, in September, new reports claimed that Russia had withdrawn nearly 1,500 military personnel from Tajikistan alone. [6]. That is, due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Russian army has weakened and has much less influence on land than before.

Two points should be clarified. First, the conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia have a history that goes back long before Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The latest clashes in the Caucasus are the aftershocks of the Second Karabakh War of 2020, when Azerbaijan started a new war against Armenian forces in Karabakh and Armenia. In addition, the Karabakh conflict has a pre-history dating back to the collapse of the USSR, as this conflict arose in 1988 when the Armenian population of the region demanded a change of status to an “Autonomous Oblast”. After Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence (1992-94), it turned into an all-out war. Likewise, border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took place in the spring of 2021, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, causing dozens of casualties. In addition, the Ferghana Valley has become an arena of competition for natural resources such as land and water, which has led to inter-ethnic tensions due to the creation of international borders that coincided with the last years of the USSR. [7].

The second necessary clarification is this: Russia was neither a peacemaker nor a party to help resolve the conflict. In fact, as in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia tried to maintain its influence by trying to create a balance between the parties to the conflict. Russia’s military presence in Armenia did not prevent Azerbaijan from starting the second Karabakh war. When this balancing act is not possible, Russia prefers direct military intervention, as it did in Georgia in 2008. Nor should Russia’s role in post-Soviet conflicts be overly demonized. Local actors have played a role and are responsible for turning political tensions and issues into armed conflict.

The war in Ukraine and the end of Putin’s authoritarian model

By invading Ukraine, Putin violated two foundations of his authoritarian rule. The first was the projection of power, often associated with military power. Putin has promised to make Russia a world power again and win back the “respect” of the West, especially the United States. Russian state propaganda has been directed in this direction, with images of new combat vehicles, military parades on the Red Square, and Russian military (especially air) campaigns in Syria. However, Russian leaders were also aware of their shortcomings compared to American military power, so the doctrine of “hybrid warfare” was given special attention. By invading Ukraine, Putin weakened the foundations of his authoritarian regime.

Any authoritarian system is actually based on tacit agreement with the population. In Putin’s case, it was about bringing “stability” in exchange for the confiscation of the public sphere. Years of instability under the two previous rulers – Mikhail Gorbachev with his “Reconstruction” and Boris Yeltsin’s endless transition – had made the Russian people weary of change. Putin promised that there would be no more change, but stability, including an end to much-needed domestic reforms, and in return the people would be out of politics. With his war in Ukraine and, above all, his mass mobilization, Putin is undermining the second foundation of his authoritarianism.

Finally, the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is qualitatively different from Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014. During the 2014 invasion, Putin was able to create a wave of nationalist fervor that served to shape “public opinion.” Forget the 2012 presidential election, when the Putin-Medvedev “musical chairs” upset a large part of the electorate.

After two decades of seriously cultivating an official image of power and conservatism, Putin has already lost his war against Ukraine. At a time when civil opposition is banned and severely repressed within Russia, Russians are voting with their feet: more than 700,000 Russians have left the country since the “special operation” began. [8].

Regional conflicts and competition between great powers

Defeat in Ukraine will undoubtedly reduce Russia’s influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. For comparison, let’s note that in January of this year, Kazakhstan’s elite called for Russia’s military intervention to end the internal rebellion. After the invasion of Ukraine, the Kazakh elite distanced itself from Putin and his expansionist project, which calls into question the sovereignty not only of Ukraine, but also of the post-Soviet countries.

The invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s failure are already sketching the contours of the post-Putin succession. From there, Russia will become much weaker, its army will weaken, and its international influence will decrease. In addition, the money-making machine on which Putin’s stability depends – oil and gas exports – will be significantly reduced due to Western sanctions. The Russian military may try to redeploy after the Ukraine failure, while the political elite may seek an increasingly isolationist approach. After Putin, Russia will have to catch up with two decades of reforms that Putin refused to implement.

A weaker and more isolated Russia does not mean that conflicts in the Caucasus, Central Asia or the Middle East will be resolved any easier. We are already seeing an increase in the competition of great powers in the Caucasus, which continues to grow in strategic importance as a corridor between Asian economies and European markets. Also, we should not think that Russia’s influence will disappear in these regions. Even a weaker Russia will remain an important player in areas geographically adjacent to Russia itself. (Article retrieved November 14, 2022; editorial translation against)


[1] An earlier version of this document was submitted on 27c Webster University Geneva International Humanitarian and Security Conference, November 1, 2022.

[2] https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/caucasus/armenia-azerbaijan-nagorno-karabakh-conflict/upholding-ceasefire

[3] https://www.reuters.com/world/kyrgyzstan-says-death-toll-border-conflict-rises-36-2022-09-18/

[4] https://warontherocks.com/2022/10/as-russia-reels-eurasia-roils/

[5] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/central-asia/end-post-soviet-order

[6] https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-troops-tajik-base-redeployed-ukraine/32033791.html

[7] https://www.opendemocracy.net/az/kyrgyzstan-arc-of-crisis/

[8] https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/10/russia-men-fled-women-left-behind.html

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