How Ukraine is crashing Putin’s regional project | Russia–Ukraine War

Chinese President Xi Jinping had familiar words for his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was waiting for him at Samarkand airport in central Uzbekistan on Wednesday.

“There is nothing better than living in friendship,” Xi said upon arrival, quoting medieval poet Alisher Navoi, whose works are deeply revered in Uzbekistan. Mirziyoyev seemed to appreciate the reference.

Shortly after, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plane also landed at the former Silk Road focal point – but Mirziyoyev was not there to greet it, sending his Prime Minister Abdulla Oripov instead .

Xi and Putin traveled to Samarkand for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an eight-member security bloc dominated by China and Russia that also hosted Iran as a separate member entire this week.

But Mirziyoyev’s breach of diplomatic protocol signals a tectonic shift in Russia’s old backyard, observers said, as the war in Ukraine lasts more than 200 days and is marred by allegations of war crimes and of a litany of military setbacks.

“Putin is treated as a liability, not an asset. A loser is just tolerated,” Alisher Ilkhamov, the Uzbekistan-born director of Central Asia Due Diligence, a London think tank, told Al Jazeera.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Eastern Economic Forum [File: Sputnik/Sergey Bobylev via Reuters]

Putin’s heyday

Just before invading Ukraine in late February, Putin appeared to have reached the peak of his influence over the former Soviet Union (USSR).

In January, a popular revolt in Kazakhstan forced its president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to “invite” hundreds of soldiers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) led by Russia to “suppress the terrorist threat”.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 has, meanwhile, helped Russia strengthen its influence in the rest of ex-Soviet Central Asia.

The previous year, Russia brokered a peace deal between Armenia and CTSO member Azerbaijan and deployed thousands of peacekeepers to the region after a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated. turned into a week-long war that saw Azerbaijani forces gain large swaths of territory.

With other Russian bases already present in Armenia and two Georgian breakaway regions, the development meant that Russia had gained a foothold militarily in the three countries of the South Caucasus region that borders Iran and Turkey.

The military presence has helped Moscow regain some of its Soviet-era influence in the Middle East, where Russian bombers have played a crucial role in supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the country’s long war. .

The Kremlin took advantage of the Syrian war to promote its new weapons – and increase its sales.

And then Ukraine arrived.

A paper tiger?

Analysts said Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine, coupled with international ostracism and crippling sanctions, had opened a political Pandora’s box – as this week’s renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrated.

“Weakened in Ukraine and uninterested in alienating Baku, Moscow has notably been reluctant to intervene directly beyond its peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Kevork Oskanian, chief of staff, told Al Jazeera. lectures at the British University of Exeter.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.[Sputnik/Sergey Bobylev/Pool via Reuters]

Tokayev angered many in the Kremlin by declaring in June, while sitting next to Putin, that his country would not recognize two small pro-Russian breakaway states in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, analysts said Moscow’s reported recent deals to buy Iranian-made drones and North Korean weapons show how its military-industrial complex is exhausted and desperately dependent on Western microchips.

Western pressure tilts Moscow close to Beijing

“Even before the war, Russia needed China more than China needed Russia. After the war started, that addiction only got stronger,” Temur Umarov, a sinologist and expert at Carnegie Politika, a Moscow-based think tank, told Al Jazeera.

Dependency mainly involves the frustrating and difficult redirection of energy exports from Europe to China. And as Western sanctions on technology imports take effect, Russia is increasingly dependent on Chinese know-how.

“Russia is completely cut off from the global technology market, and only China remains,” Umarov said.

But the bigger problem is that other ex-Soviet nations are also leaning towards China – particularly in Central Asia, Russia’s “soft underbelly” in the words of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

“We will see the formation of a new bloc to counterbalance the United States, but not a ‘Russia-centric’ bloc, as the Kremlin is trying to present it, but in the format of ‘Beijing and its comrades'”, said Kyiv-based analyst Igar. Tyshkevich wrote on Facebook.

Welcome Xi

On the first day of the SCO summit, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov made Putin wait before issuing a joint statement – even though Kyrgyzstan is home to a Russian military base and at least a million of its citizens work as migrant workers in Russia.

Hours before arriving in Samarkand, Xi had held talks with Japarov in Kazakhstan – and hinted that Beijing would be monitoring Moscow’s assertiveness in Central Asia.

“No matter how the international conjecture develops, we will decisively support Kazakhstan in defending its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and … we will categorically oppose the interference of any power in the affairs of your country,” Xi told Tokayev.

His comments were seen as a reference to recent statements by Russian politicians on the state and borders of Kazakhstan.

In early August, former Russian president and top security official Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his vkontakte page, a Russian social network, that Kazakhstan was “an artificial state”, and accused its leaders of “genocide of ethnic Russians”. “. Similar Kremlin allegations preceded the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. Medvedev’s news service later said his page had been “hacked” and deleted the post.

In June, a Russian lawmaker hinted that Moscow might annex northern Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population.

“There are a lot of cities with a predominantly Russian population that don’t have much to do with what used to be called ‘Kazakhstan’,” Konstantin Zatulin said.

Some observers believe Russia’s struggles in Ukraine have only amplified the eclipse of Russian influence in the former Soviet republics, which had already begun to wane.

“The process started earlier and became more visible. They felt that Russia is not an indisputable leader in their regions and shape their policies according to reality,” Sergey Bizyukin, an exiled opposition activist from the city of Ryazan, told Al Jazeera. western Russia.

Others have compared the war in Ukraine to the Soviet-Afghan conflict of 1979-89 and the role it played in the demise of the former Soviet Union.

“All this shows that centrifugal forces are at work as they were after the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan,” Nigara Khidouytova, an exiled opposition leader from Uzbekistan, told Al Jazeera.

Russia’s weakness in Ukraine triggered processes similar to those that caused the collapse of the USSR, she said.

“I think the same fate awaits Russia,” Khidouytova said.

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