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Russia since the Ukraine war: A declining regional hegemon

Richard Gardiner, Saif Islam 2 February 2023
2 February 2023    Richard Gardiner, Saif Islam

Political Violence | Special Edition 2023

In our 2023 publication we look at the big geopolitical questions likely to shape the political violence landscape in the coming year. Notable developments in 2022, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing international tensions elsewhere, will continue to drive instability globally. We unpack these stories in this year’s Political Violence Special Edition.

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Amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, Richard Gardiner and Saif Islam explore the subtle implications for Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.


If Vladimir Putin thought invading Ukraine would make Russia more militarily secure and reaffirm its role as regional hegemon, the opposite may prove true. Shunned by the West, which imposed crippling sanctions on the country and continues to supply Ukraine with critical military aid, Russia now faces the prospect of an expanding NATO with Finland and Sweden keen to join its ranks. Even usually dependable allies such as China and India have hinted at their frustrations with the war. And a little closer to home, subtle shifts are beginning to take place in Russia's backyard. These changes may not be overly dramatic in the immediate term, but they are indications of Russia’s diminishing prestige as a regional hegemon. It is clear that some former Soviet Union countries view the invasion of Ukraine with great unease, lest they become the next target of Russia’s expansionary foreign policy while others are eager to leverage a potentially weakened neighbour.


An increasingly unreliable security guarantor

Prior to the war, Russia served as the primary arbitrator of peace and stability in parts of the former Soviet Union. In 2020, Russia sent 2,000 armed peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh to enforce a Russia-mediated ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan and in January 2022, Russia authorised the deployment of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) troops – a Eurasia military alliance -  to prop up the Kazakh government against unprecedented riots. Yet, fast-forward through the February 2022 invasion and Russia has become more hesitant in taking the security lead. In mid-September, for instance, Russia’s allies Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan engaged in the worst border violence since the early 1990s. Although clashes along their disputed borders are relatively common, and usually followed by Russian efforts to mediate a truce, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov lamented that this time Russia and the CSTO “did nothing at all.”  Also in mid-September, unprecedented clashes broke out along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, outside of the usual flashpoint of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both sides accused each other of initiating the fighting, although most independent observers suggest it was Azerbaijan that had first shelled Armenian positions. While Russia has close ties with both countries, Armenia is a staunch ally and a fellow member of the CSTO. Yet, it appears Azerbaijan correctly gambled that this time a weakened Russia was not going to come to Armenia’s aid. Armenia has since criticised the CSTO on several occasions for not openly supporting it against Azerbaijan.   


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Central Asia flexes its muscles

Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine and its growing reluctance to intervene in regional security matters have created another headache for Putin – an increasingly assertive Central Asia. Given Russia’s sanctioned economy, Central Asian states now find themselves in a position of growing importance to Russia to circumvent sanctions and gain access to imported goods. While countries such as Kazakhstan can ill afford to antagonise Russia, considering its shared 7,600 km long border, there are clear indications that Central Asian states are seeking to address entrenched power imbalances. This dynamic was highlighted at the recent Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Kazakhstan, where Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon publicly admonished Putin and demanded greater respect from Russia. The longstanding economic, political and security links between Central Asian states and Russia suggest a complete break in relations is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, these countries’ growing assertiveness in light of a weakening Russia shows they are eager to prioritise their own agendas ahead of the deep historical ties with the old hegemon.


Trans-Caspian International Route

Trans-Caspian International Route


China seeks to fill the Russian vacuum

The growing pragmatism of the former Soviet Union countries also coincides with China’s increasingly westward gaze, which likely precedes further shifts in regional geopolitical dynamics. Russia’s damaged reputation and strained links with some of its neighbours have left a vacuum of influence that China is seemingly intent to fill. Although China is already one of Central Asia’s largest trading partners, there are signs that the relationship is strengthening and expanding. The geostrategic location of the Caucasus and Central Asia provides a crucial gateway for China-Europe trade links, particularly considering Russia’s growing isolation from the West and the disruptions to its northern rail lines.

Over 2022, China has increased its commitment to the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TTR), a rail and maritime transport network running between the EU and China through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Between January and September 2022, cargo transported along the TTR more than doubled, compared to the same period in 2021, and these numbers will likely grow following the consolidation of economic and diplomatic ties between the four transit countries in 2022. Moreover, Central Asia’s oil and gas reserves will be an attractive option for China given its established connections within the region, Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine, and the West’s limited regional reach.



Despite their newfound confidence, regional players will be wary of burning bridges with Russia completely. For some, like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, Russia remains a key source of political and military support, especially against potential domestic political instability or uprising. And, they view Putin as the bulwark against the colour revolutions that occurred in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan since the turn of this century. That being said, the cracks in Russia’s soft and hard power in the region are clear and should they open further, they will reveal new rules of engagement for all.


To discuss this article or other industry developments, please reach out to one of our experts.

Richard Gardiner
Richard gardiner Analyst, Strategic Intelligence Email Richard
Saif Islam
Saif islam Associate, Strategic Intelligence Email Saif


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