For more than twenty years the foreign policy of the Russia strongly pursues two main objectives. The first – as explained by Aldo Ferrari, head of the ISPI Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Program and professor at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice – is constituted by the desire to maintain a fundamental role in the post-Soviet space, the so-called close”, in particular by avoiding the further expansion of NATO internally after the one that took place in 2004, which also included the three Baltic republics. The second objective, Ferrari continues in his analysis, was first indicated by Evgenij Primakov, foreign minister and prime minister under Yeltsin, and then at least partially achieved by Vladimir Putin since the beginning of his rise to power: «It is a matter of building a new international political scenario based on a multipolar balance, which therefore rejects US hegemonism and more generally the Western claim to a primacy not only political, economic and military but also in the sphere of values”.
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But with Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the scenario has changed and relations between the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia have become increasingly complex and turbulent. In fact, the Kremlin has to face the hostility of once loyal countries, which after having noted the great difficulties faced by the Russian army in Ukraine have sympathized, in a more or less veiled way, with Volodymyr Zelensky. Also suggesting that they are ready for a change in front, given the evolution of the situation. Officials from the former Soviet states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, Bloomberg writes in an in-depth study, say the war has prompted their governments to seek solutions to reduce dependence on Moscow, turning to rival powers including Turkey, the European and Middle Eastern countries. Moscow is reacting nervously, and also with firmness, as it sees its ability to assert its influence gradually crumbling. For decades, Russia was “a guardian in northern Eurasia, where nothing could happen that did not please the Kremlin,” underlines Ekaterina Schulmann, an expert on Russian politics. “Now it seems that things are changing, Russia is unlikely to emerge stronger from the war in Ukraine and this makes it difficult to say the least to impose its will on its neighbors”.
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The invasion has also prompted traditional allies such as Kazakhstan and Armenia to actively build ties with powers Moscow has long sought to keep at bay in the region. Armenia has suffered heavy attacks in Nagorno Karabakh by Azerbaijan and so far Moscow has always protected the Armenians from the aims of the neighboring state, much more powerful thanks to the huge energy resources it has. After the attack, Armenia made a desperate appeal to Putin asking him to intervene, a request that fell on deaf ears for the obvious reason that Russian troops are engaged in Ukraine. Another restless republic is Kazakhstan, whose strong point is its enormous mineral and energy reserves: President Qasim-Jomart Tokayev is constantly looking for autonomy and does not hesitate to openly criticize the Russian Federation. He did not approve of the invasion of Ukraine or the request for independence of Donetsk and Lugansk, on the contrary he favored the installation in Bucha, a Ukrainian town where massacres were carried out by Russian troops, of some yurts, the typical homes of Kazakh nomads. Here Ukrainian soldiers are welcomed who need to rest and refresh themselves after the fighting.
Announcing his invasion on February 24, 2022, Putin at the time cited Kazakhstan as an ideal model of relationship with the states of the former Soviet Union. In January he sent troops to help the president put down bloody riots, yet Tokayev openly disagreed with the Kremlin’s war, allowing hundreds of thousands of Russians to flee to Kazakhstan. “Russia is becoming increasingly toxic,” attacks Beibit Apsenbetov, a former board member of Kazakhstan’s main bank, Kazkommertsbank JSC. “What to do when your neighbor is inconsiderate and you can’t leave?” The pipeline through which Kazakhstan sends about 80 percent of its oil exports runs through Russia to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, less than 100 miles from occupied Crimea. In November, Kazakhstan said it would increase oil exports via the Caspian Sea by 1.5 million tonnes by pumping oil into the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline which runs from Azerbaijan to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Tokayev has announced that flows along the route, which bypasses Russia, could rise to 20 million tonnes and the president has forged defensive ties with Turkey over the past year, also traveling to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE to strengthen trade and investment cooperation.
As for neighboring Uzbekistan, heavily dependent on trade with Russia, it was trying to open up to new alliances even before the war. In July it signed an enhanced cooperation agreement with the EU. In December, following the second meeting under a new strategic partnership dialogue with the United States, a joint statement welcomed the “nation’s willingness to establish new trade routes and diversify its import and export markets.” As a result of international sanctions in response to the war blocking Russia’s westward trade routes, Moscow’s ex-Soviet neighbors have become even more important as conduits for trade. Exports to Russia from other members of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union – Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – have soared, and Turkish exports to Russia are also growing.
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Putin alone, even the former Soviet states are disengaging from Russia and looking for new allies
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