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One By One, The Former Soviet Republics Are Abandoning Putin

From Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Tajikistan, countries in Russia's orbit have refused to help him turn the tide in the Ukraine war. All (maybe even Belarus?) is coming to understand that his next step would be a complete restoration of the Soviet empire.

Leaders of CSTO member states

Leaders of Armenia, Russia, Tajikistan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan attend a summit marking the 30th anniversary of signing the Collective Security Treaty in Moscow on May 16.

Oleksandr Demchenko


KYIV — Virtually all of Vladimir Putin's last remaining partner countries in the region are gone from his grip. Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan have refused to help him turn the tide in the Ukraine war, because they've all come to understand that his next step would be a complete restoration of the empire, where their own sovereignty is lost.

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Before zooming in on the current state of relations in the region, and what it means for Ukraine's destiny, it's worth briefly reviewing the last 30 years of post-Soviet history.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was first created in 1992 by the Kremlin to keep former republics from fully seceding from the former Soviet sphere of influence. The plan was simple: to destroy the local Communist elite, to replace them with "their" people in the former colonies, and then return these territories — never truly considered as independent states by any Russian leadership — into its orbit.

In a word - to restore the USSR.

In 1999, Georgia and Azerbaijan left the CSTO. Each had its stated reasons: Georgia did so because Moscow supported separatism in Abkhazia and Ossetia; Azerbaijan, because Russia flirted with Armenia. Though in retrospect, the leaders of these states also understood that then reformist President Boris Yeltsin was weakening, and the old guard Kremlin power apparatus would take over. As Putin took over, Georgia and Azerbaijan began looking for allies outside Russia.

Nazarbayev, Lukashenko outmaneuver the Kremlin 

Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the organization in 2012 after having turned to the United States and NATO to contain the Afghan Taliban.

None of the member states wanted to share their sovereignty, which Moscow tried to force them to do. Even Belarus, which today is probably still Putin's closest ally in the region, often blocked the creation of security units based on the CSTO. The country's long-ruling strongman Alexander Lukashenko was afraid that Moscow would try to destroy his regime, so he strengthened only the internal Belarusian security apparatus. In 2020, this helped him to stay in power, although he had to concede to Putin.

Xi Jinping made it clear that he would not allow Russia to seize Kazakh territory.

In January 2022, Moscow deployed CSTO "peacekeepers" to Kazakhstan, probably assuming they'd stay there and be able to monitor the arrival in power of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who'd taken over in 2019 from dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. Yet Tokayev would wind up outsmarting Kremlin officials by enlisting the support of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who made it clear that he would not allow Russia to seize Kazakh territory. Tokayev took advantage of the vacuum and destroyed both popular resistance and the influence of the Nazarbayev clan.

Defence Ministers for Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

Defense Ministers for Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan attend the opening of the Army 2022 International Military and Technical Forum in the Moscow region on Aug. 15, 2022.

Sergei Bobylev/TASS via ZUMA

Double game with Armenia

Armenians asked Moscow to intervene in 2020 in the ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet the Kremlin had very different plans: it was trying to weaken Armenia's President Nikol Pashinyan, who had been seeking better relations with the United States and talking about the need to shut down Russian military bases.

Moscow turned a blind eye to the advance of Azerbaijani troops, and the CSTO did not intervene, after which Armenians came out to mass protests - the chair under Pashinyan shook. The security of the Armenian border began to depend on Russian "peacekeepers."

Uzbekistan again started talking about renewing its membership in the CSTO because, after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia did everything possible to fill the security vacuum in the region. Having deep relations with the Taliban, Moscow forced many Central Asian states to move away from the United States.

CSTO is bursting at the seams

Thus for Russia, the situation had been evolving quite well within the CSTO, as the Kremlin steadily strengthening its influence. However, February's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and especially the significant losses of the Russian army, changed everything. Most organization members began to do everything possible to distance themselves from Moscow.

They realized that after Ukraine, Russia could come after them.

Against the backdrop of Azerbaijan's increasingly active troops, Pashinyan enlisted the support of the United States. The arrival of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Armenia after her visit to Taiwan demonstrated that the Americans are ready to support the current Armenian government if it does not make concessions to the Kremlin and remains neutral, and does not send troops to Ukraine.

Tokayev has publicly stated that he does not recognize the occupation of Ukrainian territories.

Tokayev has publicly stated that he does not recognize the occupation of Ukrainian territories and their forced annexation into the Russian Federation. After the Kremlin's not-so-subtle references that no Kazakhstan existed and the start of trade wars, the Kazakh leader has turned towards Azerbaijan, Turkey, and China.

Kazakhstan, and with it Kyrgyzstan, introduced criminal liability for the participation of their citizens in Russia's war against Ukraine. The same happened in Uzbekistan, which until recently was thinking of returning to the CSTO.

Seeing Moscow's weakness, Tajikistan is trying to resolve its territorial claims by organizing a campaign against Kyrgyzstan. The Kremlin can do little because these are two members of the CSTO on the territory where Russian military bases operate.

The CSTO is unraveling. Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine has changed everything. It is now clear to all that there can be no integration. Occupation is the only choice, even Belarus understands this. And as such, Russia is left with no friends in the neighborhood.

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