In 2014, after Russia’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, some Central Asian countries de facto recognized it. Since then, the mood in the region has changed, in particular the attitude towards Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
Last week, speaking at a ceremony to annex four parts of Ukraine partially occupied by Russia, President Vladimir Putin portrayed himself as the head of an anti-colonial movement challenging Western hegemony.
But in the countries of Central Asia, which Russia once considered part of its empire, the holding of pseudo-referendums on the annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, parts of the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions of Ukraine to Russia was met with either silence or statements in support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
According to Putin, the reason is simple – fear of Western sanctions, which plunged Russia and its citizens into isolation after the Russian invasion.
But Central Asia’s wariness about the Kremlin’s overseas projects dates back to 2008, when Moscow’s allies in the region did not recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia, two Russian-backed territories that declared independence from Georgia.
Experts say the full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched by Russia in February has raised new fears in the region about what Moscow is capable of, and has also brought increasing social and economic consequences for Central Asian countries, most recently associated with Russia’s large-scale military draft.
INTEGRAL OF TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY
In a September 30 speech about illegal annexations, Putin criticized Western governments, particularly accusing them of putting “everyone in the crosshairs” because of their threats of sanctions, including Russia’s neighboring countries.
A neighbor that may actually feel like it’s in Moscow’s crosshairs is Kazakhstan, the only Central Asian country that shares a border with Russia and has been the target of a torrent of attacks from Russian politicians and commentators over its repeated declarations of neutrality in the war.
So far, Kazakhstan has been the only one in Central Asia to directly oppose the pseudo-referendums, which were hastily organized from September 23-27 in four Ukrainian regions as Kyiv’s ongoing counter-offensive threw Russian troops into disarray.
Speaking on September 26, Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov said that Kazakhstan’s position on the referendum “is based on the principles of the territorial integrity of states, their sovereign equality and peaceful coexistence.”
The statement by the Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan, the region’s most populous country, makes no mention of pseudo-referendums. Instead, they talk about “a recent increase in requests from citizens who want to clarify some questions regarding the situation around Ukraine.”
Neither Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, nor neutral Turkmenistan have commented on Russia’s new annexation claims.
A senior official in the Kyrgyz government informally told RFE/RL that his country “does not recognize any attempt to present what happened in the occupied territories of Ukraine as a legitimate referendum.” He also called territorial integrity “the cornerstone of the [UN Charter] and international law.”
The last time the Kremlin’s regional partners were asked to decide whether to recognize the annexation was in March 2014, when Moscow held a widely criticized referendum on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Russian troops had captured the month before.
And then they chose not to recognize the annexation, but Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan verbally confirmed the results of the vote, and the Kazakh Foreign Ministry called the vote “the free will of the population of the autonomous republic,” adding that the authorities of this country “understand the decision of the Russian Federation in the current conditions.”
Back in 2019, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said that annexation in the case of Crimea was “too heavy a word,” prompting a rebuke from Kyiv.
Since then, the mood in Astana has changed – after the February invasion showed “how far the imperial sentiments of the Russian ruling elite can go,” said Asel Bitabarova, a lecturer in the department of international relations at KAZGUU University. M. Narikbayev in the capital of Kazakhstan.
In the months that followed, pro-government politicians and public figures in Russia bombarded Kazakhstan and its leadership with threats, with one accusing Tokayev’s administration of “ungratefulness” after Russian-led CSTO troops helped him survive a bloody and unprecedented political crisis in January.
Others in Russia have called for “protection” of the large ethnic Russian population concentrated in northern Kazakhstan. Bitabarova singles out a Moscow city council member’s proposal to include Kazakhstan in the “zone of denazification and demilitarization,” terms Moscow used to justify its invasion of Ukraine.
These statements highlighted the “striking similarities between the Kazakh and Ukrainian contexts,” the analyst said.
Uzbekistan’s statement in support of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine was also not the first since the beginning of the crisis.
In March, at that time, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov in the country’s parliament called for an immediate end to violence in Ukraine, ruling out Tashkent’s recognition of the self-proclaimed republics in the Donetsk or Lugansk regions of Ukraine.
Komilov later disappeared from public view. The ministry explained this as a “chronic illness.” In April, he was replaced as foreign minister, and he himself took the post of deputy secretary of the Presidential Security Council.
Anvar Nazirov, a Tashkent-based political commentator and outspoken supporter of Kyiv, described Uzbekistan’s position on Ukraine as “more expressive than in 2014, but more cautious than Kazakhstan’s.”
Back in March, Nazirov says, he was part of a group that held a solidarity rally at the Ukrainian Embassy in Tashkent. Then the Uzbek security forces forced them to disperse, citing dissatisfaction with the Russian embassy.
However, Uzbekistan is unlikely to offer significant support to Russia any time soon, both because of the country’s growing investment and credit ties to the West and Asia, and because of the catastrophic turn the war has taken since early last month.
“After Ukraine’s recent strategic breakthrough, Uzbekistan needs to remember the possible defeat of Russia and even post-Putin Russia,” Nazirov told RFE/RL.
CHINA AND RUSSIA AS AN “INTERNAL ISSUE”
Crimea was not the first territorial conundrum thrown up by Russia.
The first happened in 2008 after Moscow recognized two Georgian breakaway territories that it had previously supported in a military conflict with Tbilisi that same year.
Russia expected its closest partners to follow its example.
At the time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Tajikistan for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an organization that includes four Central Asian countries, Russia and China, to drum up support for the group for the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But the SCO “outright refused, and China was at the helm,” said Raffaello Pantucci, an expert at London’s Royal United Studies Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI).
Although Beijing and Moscow have since moved closer, declaring a “borderless” friendship before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Central Asian countries can still rest assured that “China will always refrain from recognizing breakaway territories,” Pantucci said.
The diplomatic shadow that China could cast over Central Asia to shield these countries from Russia’s gaze was in the spotlight last month when Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Kazakhstan since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Stopping in Astana on his way to another SCO summit in Uzbekistan, Xi told Tokayev that China would support Kazakhstan “in defending its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” and would also “firmly oppose interference by any force in the internal affairs” of the country, the report said. Tokayev’s administration.
The final weeks of the war in Ukraine brought new economic and social consequences to Central Asia: tens of thousands of Russian men of military age left their homeland overnight to avoid conscription and the prospect of serving in Ukraine.
“We plan to stay.” What do Russians who fled mobilization and came to Pavlodar say?
Since Putin ordered partial mobilization on September 21, according to Kazakh authorities, 200 thousand Russians have left for Kazakhstan alone, and 147 thousand have left during the same period.
Major cities in three other Central Asian countries—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—are seeing smaller but significant influxes of Russians, prompting locals to report a jump in rental and travel prices.
The mixed reactions to the influx of Russians – from hospitality to protests – epitomize that “Russia is an internal issue” in Central Asia, said Luca Ancheschi of the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom.
While global geopolitics and attitudes toward Russia within these countries have become “more and more polarized” since 2014, “the context of Central Asian governments’ reactions to Russia’s behavior has remained virtually unchanged,” Ancheski told RFE/RL.
“They filter everything they do internationally through their domestic needs and the need to stay in power. They are quite skilled in this,” adds the expert.