Russia’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine is not going unnoticed elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. While Moscow has long regarded the twelve (non-Baltic) successor states as an area of Russian “privileged interests,” President Vladimir Putin’s invocation of a right to protect “Russians and Russian speakers,” as well as “compatriots” abroad, coupled with military support for the rebels in Ukraine appears to mark a new and more dangerous phase in Moscow’s relationship with its former dependencies. Based on my research in all eight of the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) and Central Asian (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) states over the past three months, it is clear that elites in these countries view the annexation of Crimea and insurgency in eastern Ukraine as marking a watershed for their own relations with Russia. Elites across the region feel increasingly susceptible to Russian coercion, and would like to see greater engagement and commitment from the United States to give them more options.
Some post-Soviet countries, like Kazakhstan and Armenia, have been close to Moscow ever since the USSR collapsed in 1991, while others, including Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, have had more confrontational relationships with the former hegemon. Yet across the region, officials and analysts believe that events in Ukraine have the potential to create serious problems. Elites in states with significant Russian minorities (such as Kazakhstan) harbor concern that the Ukraine scenario could be replayed in their countries should relations with Moscow deteriorate in the future. In the short-term, they feel compelled to hew closely to Russia, while in the longer term they are committed to having multiple options. Meanwhile, countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan with a long-history of standing up to Moscow worry that they could face increased pressure, for instance over their desire to deepen ties with the European Union. A common theme throughout the region is the need for more U.S. economic, political, and security engagement, demonstrating a stronger commitment to Washington’s declared policy of supporting the post-Soviet states’ sovereignty and independence. Unfortunately though, as the U.S. pulls its forces from Afghanistan and struggles to manage crises in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere, prospects for enhanced U.S. engagement in Eurasia appear dim.