Who will fill the Russian power vacuum in Eurasia? – Foreign and security policy

In a text published on her ministry’s website to mark German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbach’s visit to Central Asia in early November, one can read: ‘After Russia launched its war on Ukraine, Central Asian states caught themselves. Between many tables, Russia on one side and China on the other are in danger of playing an instrument.’

For the states of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, Russia’s war on Ukraine is changing the regional balance of power. Russia’s influence is waning while China’s is growing, and new players like Turkey are becoming more relevant. What does this mean for Germany and the EU? How can the resulting power vacuum be filled, and what can these countries offer in the context of their own values-based foreign policies?

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the region has attracted more attention. Also, because crises are increasing. In the summer and fall, conflict flared between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and border skirmishes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were renewed. In January, an uprising in Kazakhstan was brutally suppressed.

In terms of security policy, these events are only related to the weakening of Russia. Long-term border issues along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, socioeconomic disparities in Kazakhstan, and the negative consequences for the region of withdrawal from Afghanistan have been acute for some time. But the severity and duration of these crises, as well as the possibilities of controlling them, are closely related to the reduction of the power of Russian projects politically, economically and militarily.

Old dependencies and regional security

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia continued to act as a guarantor of regional security for local regimes in Central Asia and partly in the Caucasus (Armenia): on the one hand, by maintaining the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO) with military bases in the region (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia) and on the other, military- By balancing technical cooperation bilaterally.

It is true that Russia maintains military bases in Armenia and Central Asia even after the start of the war in Ukraine. At the same time, controlling the access of Central Asian guest workers to the Russian labor market is an important lever for influencing its neighbors. But this combination of tools is increasingly losing its effectiveness in light of the comprehensive sanctions that are slowly leaving their mark on the Russian economy.

Economic cooperation with Russia has lost its long-term appeal.

Russia’s neighbors are already suffering collateral damage from the country’s economic downturn. Added to this are mobility restrictions and disruptions to supply chains as a result of the pandemic. Remittances from migrants working in Russia, which is vital to the economies of many Central Asian countries and Armenia, are correspondingly lower. Migration movement is currently in the opposite direction: after the decision on partial assimilation in Russia, hundreds of thousands migrated to Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

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In the future, Russia will have fewer resources to financially support its neighbors. Old dependencies are becoming a risk factor. Economic cooperation with Russia has lost its long-term appeal. But this context does not automatically make the West an attractive alternative partner to the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Countries in the region are aware of the risks of cooperation with the West due to an unprecedented sanctions regime and Russia’s disengagement.

New players emerge

By comparison, China appears to be a more attractive partner. China’s economic influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus includes infrastructure investments and Belt and Road Initiative. A look at the trade statistics reveals a constant change in trade flows. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and a distant second, the EU, have been the region’s most important trading partners. However, over the past decade, the EU’s share of the trade volume of countries in the region has fallen everywhere (except Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan), especially in Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan.

In contrast, China’s share of trade volume across the region, including Russia, has increased. Despite its near absorption and relative loss of influence in Ukraine, Russia remains an important player in the South Caucasus and Central Asian regions. For Germany and the EU, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may usher in a new era, but for states in the region, it will not radically alter their regional and international coordinate systems, as in Europe. Russia and China are important power holders. At the same time, new players such as Iran and Turkey are gaining prominence in Central Asia with their military-technical partners – Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Local rulers are trying to preserve their rule, preserve the territorial integrity of their states and create security and prosperity for their countries.

During the Karabakh war in the summer of 2020, Turkey had already profiled itself as a key military player and arms supplier. His balancing position between Kyiv and Moscow makes President Recep Erdogan a potential mediator in the war in Ukraine. However, Turkey and Iran are purely transactional actors, seeking to exploit the relative instability in the region to suit circumstances – economic or security – to gain. Against this backdrop, Turkey was one of the countries (along with China and India) that increased its trade volume with Russia the most during the war.

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The message is clear: to think of a region as ‘lying between stools’ is an outdated view of the regional security order inspired by now defunct geopolitical models. Local rulers strive to maintain their governance, preserve the territorial integrity of their states, maintain their distinctive transactional foreign policy and ultimately and above all provide security and prosperity to their respective countries. They are interested in diversifying their foreign and economic policy partners (in the spirit of risk spreading). In this context, the EU is just one player among many. Thus the foreign policy orientation of these countries is not primarily one of recrimination – as the slogan goes: ‘Join us because we have a better system’ – but of security policy and recognition of economic realities.

Therefore, strategically and in line with its own values, the EU should seek to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus on real grounds, where Russia will be the main player, China will continue to influence, and new players such as Turkey will seek to have a greater say.

Central Asian countries’ own perspectives should be taken into account more. In most cases, the starting point here is the desire to stabilize their energy.

Therefore the goal is not to force Russia and China out of Central Asia or the South Caucasus. Unable to fix the missing elements of internal and external security, the EU has absolutely no means to do so.

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However, if Germany and the EU succeed in helping these states emerge from the current geopolitical and economic crisis with more stability, much can already be achieved. For this, these countries’ own perspectives should be taken into account more. In most cases, the starting point here is the desire to stabilize their energy.

In concrete, small-scale economic cooperation situations, the focus should be on the fulfillment of production standards, employee and human rights, and environmental protection. These respectively have more positive effects than the unrealistically demanding attitudes that characterized the German-Russian modernization partnership.

By identifying and understanding what motivates the Central Asian and South Caucasian partners, Germany and Europe can do something in their interests – namely practice pragmatic realism (Heiko Maas). What the former foreign minister only said at the end of his term could give Germany a stronger role in the short and medium term. Because it is accompanied by the moderation of one’s own claims: it is not about a worldwide struggle of good against evil, democracy against tyranny, but action for the economic benefit of both sides with a simultaneous stabilizing effect. In a fragile area. This is not a self-echo, but a timely return to skills that have worked in international cooperation in the past and over which we have more or less sovereignty.

This may not seem like much to some, given the current pressure for transformation in Western capitals, but it could affect the stabilization needed in conflicts from the South Caucasus to the Pamir Mountains more than any raw, geopolitical force. Countries enter take-it-or-leave-it situations without any acknowledgment of the institutional, geographic, ethnic and economic limitations to which states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan or Armenia are subject.


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