The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Setbacks in Ukraine war diminish Russia’s clout with regional allies

French President Emmanuel Macron greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the Elysee Palace on Tuesday. It was the first visit by a Kazakh leader in seven years. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)
7 min

RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s war on Ukraine, and its failure so far to subjugate its smaller neighbor, has exposed President Vladimir Putin’s weakness to other smaller neighbors, including Central Asian nations long viewed by Moscow as part of its rightful sphere of ex-Soviet influence.

The result — polite but obvious snubs in recent months from Kazakhstan to Tajikistan — marks a regional realignment that will only sharpen as international sanctions, a global shift away from fossil fuels, and deepening political isolation erode Russia’s economic power.

Kazakhstan’s shift is the most significant. The sprawling Central Asian oil power has deepened ties to China, Turkey and Europe, and wooed hundreds of Western companies that exited Russia in response to the Kremlin’s toxic war, sending Moscow an unmistakable message. Kazakhstan has also served as a way station for tens of thousands of Russian men fleeing military conscription.

In a powerful symbol of Central Asia’s search for alternative partners in the West, Turkey and Asia, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Tuesday, to discuss deepening economic, energy and educational ties. It was the first visit by a Kazakh leader in seven years.

Tokayev’s trip followed Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s meetings with Macron in Paris last week, as well as an unusually bitter meeting of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which ended with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan expressing anger over a lack of support in his country’s continuing military conflict with Azerbaijan. Pashinyan even appeared to make a concerted effort to distance himself from Putin during a group photo.

Tokayev was reelected Nov. 20 for a seven-year term over five little-known candidates, in a vote that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said was “lacking competitiveness.”

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But with Russia weakened, Europe has been wooing Central Asian nations, in particular Kazakhstan, as an alternative energy source to replace Russian hydrocarbons. European Council President Charles Michel visited Central Asia to meet leaders in October, followed by Europe’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell this month.

And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu visited the region earlier this month, offering $25 million to boost trade routes and attract investment, a trip the State Department said was designed to support their independence and territorial integrity.

Putin, the swaggering big brother who expects his neighbors to play by Moscow’s rules, was notorious as the perennially late, self-important guy who once kept Queen Elizabeth II waiting for 14 minutes.

Video from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan in September revealed Putin as a diminished figure, arriving on time and waiting for leaders of India, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Russian president has taken to warning his Central Asian partners about “outsiders” (code for Westerners) out to ruin the trust between them.

But Putin tarnished his own regional credibility with his brutish invasion, laying bare his view of Russia as a big global power with a right to dominate small peripheral nations. Russia’s poor performance exposed the hollowed-out shell of his army.

Tokayev has repeatedly voiced Kazakhstan’s support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty — a sign that Russia’s other neighbors were deeply unsettled by the invasion.

Russia initially tried to slap down Tokayev when he refused to endorse Putin’s war, to help Russia bypass Western sanctions, or to recognize Moscow’s proxy states in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow responded by temporarily suspending Caspian oil pipeline operations that carry Kazakh oil to the Black Sea last summer, while Russian nationalists warned that Kazakhstan should be next on Moscow’s invasion list.

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Putin meanwhile repeatedly mangled Tokayev’s name in meetings and avoided meeting him at the summit in Uzbekistan.

Putin’s mispronunciations “were not seen as, ‘he’s an old man, who forgets names.’ No, this was seen as a deliberate act by Putin,” said Temur Umarov, Central Asia analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But Tokayev refused to blink. He had a far more powerful guest in September when Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit outside China since the pandemic to meet Tokayev in Astana, where he pointedly promised to support Kazakh territorial integrity. A similar pledge was issued by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a visit in October.

“It was very important for Kazakhstan that Xi Jinping came and announced that China will continue to support Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Umarov said, adding that it sent a message to Russia “that all the hawkish rhetoric coming out of Moscow right now, also toward Kazakhstan, is not acceptable.”

Tokayev ordered Kazakhstan to diversify its oil routes, froze a number of projects with Russia due to sanctions, and opened the gates to young Russian men fleeing Putin’s mobilization drive.

Many Kazakhs sympathize with Ukraine in the war, as Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, is home to a large ethnic Russian population in the north, said analyst Dimash Alzhanov, founder of pro-democracy organization Erkin Qazaqstan.

“Basically, we can say that the society is on the side of Ukraine,” Alzhanov said. “After all these insults against Kazakhstan from Russian officials, against the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan, people are very cautious about Russia,” he said. “The violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine is also connected to the Kazakh society because they are afraid that the same thing could happen with Kazakhstan, particularly in the northern territory of Kazakhstan.”

Tokayev is not the only regional leader to defy Putin.

Last week Pashinyan accused the Russian-led CSTO of failing his country, and refused to sign a summit declaration, as Putin tossed his pen on the table.

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In October, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov snubbed Putin’s 70th birthday, as well as a Commonwealth of Independent States summit in St. Petersburg. Japarov, who was furious about skirmishes in September when Tajik forces pushed into Kyrgyz territory, also canceled CSTO military exercises.

The most astonishing public rebuke came from Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, a close Putin ally from the poorest of the post-Soviet nations, who at an October summit in Astana, the Kazakh capital, warned Putin against ignoring small countries.

Saying Tajikistan had always respected Russia, Rahmon added, “We want to be respected in return.”

“I ask you not to pursue a policy toward the Central Asian countries as [if they are] the former Soviet Union,” he said.

Russia’s neighbors have individual, often divergent interests, and Moscow remains the dominant regional power. But the war has exposed the risks of relying mainly on Russia for security or trade, given its likely economic decline due to sanctions.

Umarov said China had not yet edged Russia aside in the influence game in Central Asia, but Beijing’s trade and investment in railways and pipelines was growing. “In the long term, I think Russia’s position in Central Asia is inevitable decline,” he said.

The West may never outflank neighbors like Russia and China, yet Western outreach in the region has alarmed Moscow.

When Borrell, Europe’s foreign policy chief, visited Kazakhstan, he warned of the dangers of relying too heavily on one partner, “regardless of history or geography.” Earlier in November the E.U. signed a memorandum of understanding with Kazakhstan on the supply of green hydrogen and rare-earth metals.

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Shunned and isolated by Western leaders and forced to explain his brutal war to the disapproving leaders of China and India, Putin displayed his paranoia about the West at a summit of the 27-member Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia, in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in October. There, the Russian leader spouted his favorite conspiracy theory about a shadowy “golden billion” elite plotting to enslave Russia and gobble up its resources.

“Russia needs Central Asia much more than ever before, because Russia is so isolated, and every single country that continues to have allied relationship with Russia has become so much more valuable,” Umarov said

Inviting Tokayev to stop in Moscow on his way to Paris, Putin seemed keen to demonstrate Russia’s continuing importance to Kazakhstan, and he enthusiastically congratulated his fellow authoritarian leader on his reelection on Monday.

Putin hesitated slightly before pronouncing Tokayev’s name but, this time, he managed to get it right.