Vladimir Putin’s Guide to Allied Alienation

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Slumped, disappointed and mildly irritated, Vladimir Putin listened in silence as Tajikistan’s veteran autocrat Emomali Rahmon seized the opportunity presented by a regional meeting to berate the Russian president, offer rambling advice and demand “respect”. It was a snapshot of Moscow’s current predicament, eight months after the start of a supposed blitzkrieg in Ukraine – and more telling than expected on either side.

Tajikistan is not just any ally. It is a poor nation of about 10 million people that hosts Moscow’s largest overseas military base. Remittances made up more than a quarter of its GDP even during the pandemic, with most coming from migrant workers working in Russia. In late June, when Putin needed safe destinations for a post-invasion overseas tour, he started with Rahmon and quickly proclaimed himself on “friendly soil”.

And yet, last Friday came this awkward, discursive monologue over seven minutes long – viewed more than eight million times on YouTube since it began circulating over the weekend. “We have always respected and do respect the interests of our most important strategic partner,” Rahmon told Putin during a summit with other Central Asian leaders, the index finger pointed. “But we also want to be respected.”

Central Asia, and Tajikistan in particular, is not breaking with Putin over Ukraine. Economic and trade ties with Russia are still vital to the wider region, indeed Rahmon was pushing for more investment and attention, not less. Yes, the invasion of a former Soviet neighbor certainly did not go unnoticed – especially by states like Kazakhstan, with a large ethnic Russian minority and directly threatened by Kremlin hawks – but Rahmon did not speak. of the war.

It was about Russia’s failing military, economic and political power and its implications. The effect may not be too different.

That the disastrous assault on Ukraine has distracted the Kremlin from its interests elsewhere is obvious. This facilitated the spillover of hostilities, including between Tajikistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Elsewhere, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have also flared up. And yet there was no repeat of the January show of force, when troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization were flown into Kazakhstan to help restore order. after street protests. In an expression of displeasure with the response in its hour of need, Kyrgyzstan has unilaterally canceled joint “Indestructible Brotherhood” exercises scheduled for last week. The Armenian leader has come under pressure to step down completely.

It’s more than a temporary hiatus. Moscow, long obsessed with its great power status, is definitely losing its appeal.

Central Asia remains tied to Russia through basics like trade and pipelines, and that won’t change overnight. Kazakhstan, for all its careful diplomatic balances, depends on Russia for its main oil export route. And Moscow has long been able to use its cultural and historical ties to elites to compensate for an inability to engage in infrastructure diplomacy and Chinese-style economic persuasion. But Soviet memories fade, especially when an invasion and economic sanctions lend a hand.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the Russian military has also suffered a major reputational blow to Ukraine, which simultaneously shatters its credentials as a regional policeman. Moscow’s battlefield incompetence and inattention left the CSTO alliance – never quite up to the Warsaw Pact Russia hoped for – sick.

And that’s before considering the impact of Russia’s clumsy mobilization campaign on the region. The campaign has sent hundreds of thousands of people across the border to flee conscription, filling every empty bed, driving up rents and other costs from Bishkek to Almaty. Kazakhstan alone said earlier this month that more than 200,000 Russians had entered the country. Worse, short of themselves, Russian recruiters have tried to catch Central Asian migrants in the snare to supplement the military, promising generous salaries, citizenship (a new bill allows foreign nationals to become Russian citizens after only one year of service) but also resorting to threats of deportation and widespread deception.

Several Central Asian states, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have warned citizens they risk jail if they join the fight.

It’s important to note that Rahmon is by no means the only one pushing back – he’s just the latest. Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, seated next to Putin at a landmark event in St Petersburg in June, said he would not recognize the self-declared people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine. He banned Russian propaganda symbols and canceled the May 9 Victory Day parade. Of all its neighbours, Belarus was the only former Soviet state to back Moscow last week in a UN vote to condemn Russian referendums in Ukraine. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan all abstained, while Turkmenistan did not vote.

Russia’s backyard isn’t what it used to be, and that creates opportunities for other powers.

China, whose trajectory is increasingly diverging from that of Russia, is not collapsing to rush into the breach. Contrary to popular belief, it would be rather happy if Moscow continued to play its role of guarantor of security while leaving Beijing some leeway in other areas.

But China abhors a power vacuum, and it is undoubtedly increasingly assertive in an area seen as crucial to its security and for projects like the Belt and Road infrastructure program. There’s a good reason the region was the first President Xi Jinping visited after his long Covid isolation. In Kazakhstan, he pledged to resolutely support “the defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” – a not-so-subtle warning.

After battering the economy by imposing crippling sanctions and inadvertently beefing up NATO, Putin now finds himself tested by even his most trusted and undemocratic allies. The list of self-inflicted injuries only grows longer.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• The flawed theory of “Russian strategic defeat”: Leonid Bershidsky

• Putin finds the limit of Xi’s unlimited friendship: Clara Ferreira Marques

• The war in Ukraine is the end of the Soviet Union: Hal Brands

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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