How the war in Ukraine opened a political Pandora’s box for Putin

Chinese President Xi Jinping had some familiar words for his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was waiting to greet him at the airport in Uzbekistan’s central city of Samarkand on Wednesday.

“There’s 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 jet also landed in the Silk Road’s former focal point – but Mirziyoyev was not there to welcome him, sending his Prime Minister Abdulla Oripov instead.

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

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

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

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

Putin’s peak

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

In January, a popular revolt in Kazakhstan had forced its President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to “invite” hundreds of servicemen from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to “quell the terrorist threat”.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, meanwhile, helped Russia boost its clout in the rest of ex-Soviet Central Asia.

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

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

The military presence helped Moscow regain some of its Soviet-era clout in the Middle East, where Russian bombers were crucial in propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the country’s long-running war.

The Kremlin used the Syrian war to promote its new weaponry – and boost its sales.

And then Ukraine happened.

A paper tiger?

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

“Weakened in Ukraine and not interested in alienating Baku, Moscow has notably shown itself reluctant to intervene directly beyond its peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Kevork Oskanian, a lecturer at the UK’s University of Exeter, told Al Jazeera.

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

Tokayev enraged many in the Kremlin by stating in June, while sitting next to Putin, that his nation would not recognise two pro-Russian separatist statelets in Ukraine.

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

Western pressure makes Moscow tilt close to Beijing

“Even before the war, Russia needed China more than China needed Russia. After the war began, this dependence only got stronger,” Temur Umarov, a Sinologist and expert with Carnegie Politika, a Moscow-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

The dependence mostly involves the frustratingly difficult redirection of energy exports from Europe to China. And as Western sanctions on technology imports are kicking in, Russia increasingly depends on Chinese know-how.

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

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

“We will witness the formation of a new bloc to counterweight the US, but not a ‘Russia-centric’ one, as the Kremlin tries to present in, but in the format of ‘Beijing and its comrade’s,” Kyiv-based analyst Igar Tyshkevich wrote on Facebook.

Welcoming Xi

On the SCO summit’s first day, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov made Putin wait for him before issuing a joint statement – even though Kyrgyzstan hosts a Russian military base, and at least one million of its citizens work as labour migrants in Russia.

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

“No matter how the international conjecture changes, we will decisively support Kazakhstan in the defence of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and … will categorically stand against the interference of any powers in your country’s domestic affairs,” Xi told Tokayev.

His comments were viewed as a reference to recent statements of Russian politicians about Kazakhstan’s statehood and borders.

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

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

“There are many towns with a predominantly Russian population that have little to do with what was called, ‘Kazakhstan’,” Konstantin Zatulin said.

Some observers believed Russia’s struggles in Ukraine have only magnified the eclipse of Russia’s clout in former Soviet republics, which had already begun to wane.

“The process began earlier and just became more visible. They felt that Russia is not an indisputable leader in their regions, and are shaping their policies in accordance with reality,” Sergey Bizyukin, an exiled opposition activist from the western Russian city of Ryazan, told Al Jazeera.

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

“All of this shows centrifugal forces at work the way it was after the USSR’s defeat in Afghanistan,” Nigara Khidouytova, an exiled opposition leader from Uzbekistan, told Al Jazeera.

Russia’s weakness in Ukraine has jump-started processes similar to the ones that made the USSR collapse, she said.

“I think the same destiny awaits Russia,” Khidouytova argued.

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