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War at the door: former Soviet countries react to Russia’s invasion

As Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February, reactions across the former Soviet Union (FSU) ranged from anxiety to terror. FSU countries once again feel exposed to the Russian, imperial powers that suppressed them during the...

As Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February, reactions across the former Soviet Union (FSU) ranged from anxiety to terror. FSU countries once again feel exposed to the Russian, imperial powers that suppressed them during the 20th century—via histories of dependence, geographic proximity to Russia, or the presence of Russian-speaking minorities.

The Baltic States were lucky enough to escape Russia’s grip in the early 1990s. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are members of both EU and NATO. Therefore, they have more reasons to feel protected. Countries engaged in territorial disputes with Russian-backed proxies, like Moldova and Georgia, have rushed to make their own EU accession bids, dreading the potential for wider, direct conflict with Russia.

With the notable exception of Belarus, FSU countries have unanimously worked to distance themselves from Russia, conscious of their economic and energy-related vulnerabilities.

The dilemma of post-Soviet neutrality

A UN resolution demanding Russia “withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders” was adopted on 2 March 2022 by 141 votes in favour and 5 votes against, among the latter Russia and Belarus. Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltic States, and Georgia voted in favour of the resolution. Other post-Soviet states avoided any clear position. Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan abstained, while Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were absent.

Apart from an overwhelming global condemnation of Russia’s aggression, the voting revealed dilemmas faced by the countries of the former USSR. Various factors—such as economic and energy dependence, participation in regional Russian-led economic and military alliances, geographic proximity to Russia, the presence of ethnically Russian minorities, and the influence of Russian media—narrow the space for diplomatic manoeuvre for FSU, non-EU member countries.

The Belarusian regime has long relied on Russian loans, subsidies, and other forms of support to remain in power. In 2020, during the mass protests against rigged presidential elections and police brutality, Russia fully backed the long-serving Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka. Now, the time has come for the Lukashenka regime to repay its debt. So far, the regime has worked to avoid direct, Belarusian involvement in Russia’s invasion. But Moscow continues to pressure Minsk to join the war. 

In response to the Russia’s actions, Belarusian volunteers have created the Kastus Kalinouski Battalion, which fights against the Russian military in Ukraine. The battalion reportedly has about 200 active soldiers, along with several hundred others undergoing military training.

Striking a balance

A statue of Lenin, adorned in Ukrainian colours, at a rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Source: Twitter @joannalillis.

Kazakhstan is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Slightly more than two months ago, events in Kazakhstan made international headlines as protests erupted across the country. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev received Russian military assistance to suppress the unrest and, ultimately, to keep his regime in power. Just weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. In response, Kazakhstan has cautiously distanced itself from the invasion.

Kazakhstan’s attempts at neutrality resemble a balancing act, rather than sincere support for Ukraine. Fearing sanctions might not only target Moscow but its allies, too, Kazakh authorities let an anti-war rally go ahead on 6 March. Hundreds of protesters with pro-Ukraine slogans attended the rally. Not only collecting humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, Kazakhstan also abstained on the UN General Assembly vote for a resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On the other hand, Kazakhstan does not want to antagonise Moscow. For instance, on 18 March, it decided to use Russian rubles for customs fees in bilateral trade, because the use of foreign currency had become impossible due to Western sanctions. And Kazakh authorities forbade a second anti-war rally on 19 March.

A few days earlier, two Kazakh bloggers, who have criticized Russian policies in the past and the recent invasion of Ukraine, were handed down lengthy prison terms. According to BEROC economic analyst Leu Lvouski, in the future, Kazakstan (along with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan) might seek to circumvent Western sanctions and facilitate access the Russian market, despite the increasing toxicity of such a connection.

Kyrgyzstan, another CSTO and EAEU member, reacted with concern over the economic impact of sanctions. Its authorities supported a “peaceful resolution” to the war in Ukraine. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ruslan Kazakbaev announced his country was willing to serve as a negotiation platform if need be.

Azerbaijan’s situation resembles that of Kazakhstan, as it also recently benefited from Russian support. In 2020, open hostilities resumed in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian region with Azerbaijani territorial claims. Russia helped negotiate a ceasefire and deployed peacekeepers to the region. Now, Azerbaijan prefers to keep a low profile in its response to the war with Ukraine, especially as Russia supports Azerbaijan’s territorial claims in the region.

The EU hopes of Georgia and Moldova

Following the Ukrainian request to join the EU on 28 February, Moldova and Georgia rushed to submit their own applications for EU candidate status on 3 March. The ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party chair, Irakli Kobakhidze, remarked that Georgia’s EU bid could have been improved by reforms planned for 2024, but “given the general political context and the new reality […], Georgian Dream’s political team made a political decision to apply for EU membership immediately.”

Frozen conflicts within and near Ukraine prior to 2022.

Despite Georgia’s domestic political polarisation and increased economic ties with Russia in recent years, the war in Ukraine has reminded Georgians of the war in 2008, when Russia backed the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia used military force against an independent state for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, manifesting a clear turn in its policies towards neighbours.

Moldova has declared a 60-day situation of emergency due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Moldovan Ministry of Defence stated the republic did not have a reason to participate in the armed conflict, taking pains to reiterate Moldova’s neutral status. With a heavy dependence on Russian gas and with an unresolved situation in the separatist region of Transnistria, Moldova is in a precarious situation. This situation is being further pressured by Moldova’s immediate vicinity to on-going military actions and an influx of refugees.

On 16 March, in a move to demonstrate solidarity with Moldova, the Council of Europe recognised Transnistria as “Russian occupied territory.” This is a departure from the council’s earlier definition of the territory as being “under the effective control of the Russian Federation.”

Turning to the future, the EU needs to develop new and effective approaches in its foreign affairs. Not only must a new approach be taken towards Russia, but also towards FSU states, whose reactions to the war in Ukraine demonstrate high levels of insecurity. FSU countries are aware of the vulnerabilities, economic dependencies, and unstable political systems, which make them into easy targets for Russian imperial ambitions. Although evident as early as the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, these existential issues have largely been ignored by the EU and the rest of the world.

At Belarus Digest, we think it is very important to explain to the world in English the role of Belarus in Russia’s war against Ukraine and the role of Belarusians. We want to help distinguish between the people of Belarus and the authorities of Belarus. We aim to shed more light on this and need your help. At the moment Belarus Digest does not have any stable funding and depends only on the generosity of its readers. Please donate or get in touch with us for more options to read more articles like this.  

Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach
Lizaveta Kasmach holds a PhD in History from the University of Alberta, Canada.
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