On April 29, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev became the first post-Soviet leader to publicly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is the most recent and visible example of Russia’s southern neighbors gradually establishing a more independent stance on the current conflict.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most countries’ positions have been fairly clear. Western nations have united in condemning Russia and pledging financial and military aid to Ukraine. Japan and South Korea have followed suit. China, on the other hand, has remained silent while signaling that it will not let the war harm its relations with Moscow.
The states on Russia’s southern border, on the other hand, have been more ambiguous. They have gone out of their way to maintain subdued rhetoric about the war, fearful of being next in line if Russia succeeds in its efforts to dominate Ukraine. This has naturally resulted in criticism from some quarters, but it’s important to understand in light of their precarious positions: These states lack any real security safeguards, and they fear that no one will come to their aid if they become Moscow’s next targets.
However, the resulting silence should not be interpreted as support for Russia. On the contrary, it reflects widespread apprehension about their former colonial overlord. What Russia’s southern neighbors have done, rather than what they have said, provides clues to their true positions. Despite their ties to Russian economic and security institutions, none has followed Belarus’ lead and provided assistance to Russia’s war effort.
In fact, whatever assistance those governments have provided has been for Ukraine. The more powerful states — Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan — have taken the initiative. All three have sent planeloads of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, with Azerbaijan also sending aid to Moldova to deal with refugee flows there, and Ukraine receiving petroleum aid to keep its agricultural sector from collapsing.
Furthermore, while regional states have not joined Western sanctions against Russia, they have all stated that they will abide by them. Furthermore, in recent weeks, they have begun to articulate a clearer position on the war.
Uzbekistan was the first country to express a critical stance. Long-serving Uzbek foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov told the country’s parliament in mid-March that the government supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and would reject any recognition of the Russia-backed Donetsk and Luhansk republics in eastern Ukraine. However, Kamilov was soon reported to have become ill and to be receiving treatment in another country before being transferred to the National Security Council. However, the government of Uzbekistan has not rescinded his statement, indicating that Kamilov’s words are still valid.
Kazakhstan has carved out a significant position as well. In January, the country was forced to request assistance from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to quell serious domestic unrest. However, much to Moscow’s chagrin, this earlier assistance did not persuade Kazakhstan to support Russia in the war. In fact, an assistant to Kazakhstan’s president stated unequivocally that the country does not “want to be placed in the same basket as Russia,” while a deputy foreign minister stated that the country does not want to be behind a new iron curtain. Kazakhstan also announced it would not hold the annual celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany this year, a clear indication it does not want to be associated with Putin’s planned military parade for the occasion.
In the future, the United States and its allies will need to devise a strategy for long-term containment of Russia.
Central Asian and Caucasus states, along with Turkey, will form a critical southern bulwark in any such effort. These states are understandably wary, especially after the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, and are unsure to what extent they can rely on America. However, they are clearly shaken by Russia’s aggression and are looking for ways to protect themselves in the future. For Washington, their concerns provide an opportunity for reassurance — and to repair ties that have been severely strained as a result of recent policy.