The Russia Program at GW Online Papers, no. 2, April 2023

Eurasia Remade?

The Regional Ripples of Russia’s War in Ukraine

Alexander Cooley

This paper is a transcript from Prof. Cooley’s keynote presentation at the Central Asia Security Workshop, March 23, 2023, at GW’s Central Asia Program.

I think initially what stunned all of us was the unprecedented Western unity that we saw after Russia’s invasion. First of all, the Ukrainians surprised all of us, or maybe not all of us, but many so-called experts. Their heroic bravery and resilience in the fight to defend their lands. But I think it’s worth just thinking about some of these other dimensions, including the unprecedented condemnation and sequence of sanctions, and coordinated responses out of the West. The US Treasury and the European Central Bank together announced the freezing of Russian assets. A whole series of financial and individual sanctions were imposed, including the Nord Stream 2 cancellation; partners that had never imposed export controls before came on board – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore. Even Switzerland joined the sanctions regime. Europe has embraced seven million Ukrainian refugees; but 10 years before, observers were foretelling the end of Europe as a project, specifically because of exogenous shocks generated by refugees from Syria and the Middle East. A range of Western countries individually announced military resupply for Ukraine with increasing sophistication in weaponry. NATO agreed to admit Finland and Sweden – just like that. And then we witnessed a mass corporate pullout of Russia.

And so, this is what Daniel Nexon wrote about, the strength of the US liberal hegemonic cartel coming together in a time of global crisis. When the West wants to get together and act concertedly, they have a remarkable number of tools, processes, actors and networks to drawn upon.

And while this is going on, I think we are having a much-needed conversation and awakening about the analytical lenses and assumptions that blinded us to what Russia was planning, as well as the depth of Ukraine’s resilience. I think the calls for decolonizing the field, recognizing agency and the real local accomplishments, and the local factors in places that we reflexively, perhaps irresponsibly, called the post-Soviet space; these are incredibly important contributions. And thinking about a colonial project as unwinding over a series of different markers and events, implicated in Russian victimhood, I also find to be analytically very important.

But I would also say that I think in some ways that we have conflated the important project of thinking about why we got the lead-up to the war so wrong with our assumptions about how every country of the region might react to the war.

Following our observations about Western unity, I think we adopted a number of assumptions and overlooked the dilemmas, balancing acts, the very real, excruciating choices that a lot of the Eurasian states, governments, and actors within the region have had to make in response to the war.

So, in these remarks today – and I apologize for their lack of structured coherence – I wish to make about four or five points. Maybe they are provocations, maybe observations, maybe they’re all wrong. But it’s an effort to open up a dialogue and discussion within this group that has such enormous expertise.

Central Asia’s and Global South’s stance toward the war

First, I think everyone’s familiar with some version of this map. This is the map of the countries that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March at the United Nations and numerically they, the blue states condemned the attack, are overwhelming. But the abstentions that we see, the 30 some abstentions, and single-digit support of Russia, together do account for almost half of humanity, right? Think about all these countries and regional groupings: certainly China, South Asia, Southeast Asia, certain parts of Africa. Why is that?

I found the Central Asian stances of official neutrality to be understandable in terms of a legal position. And actually, they mirrored what had happened in 2014, when there was a similar vote at the UN to condemn Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The Central Asian votes were a combination of abstentions, formal neutrality and not voting – refusing even to cast a vote, to even get involved.

I think the reasons behind these abstentions vary, and it’s important to understand that. There’s not one kind of response here, and I think that also gives us a potential set of insights in some specific cases. China now is promoting its 12-point Peace Plan – more a list of principles. Even though, in essence, it’s supporting politically its revisionist strategic partner. Beijing is opposed to and avoiding sanctions, or at least avoiding detection on really big red lines, such as military supply. And it’s extracting concessions from Russia. It’s using this to try and legitimize its own potential leadership role, and posturing for the Global South.

India is a really interesting mix of factors: energy opportunism (Indian purchases of Russian oil are up exponentially over the previous year), geopolitical hedging, a kind of belief that great powers don’t actively pick sides in the multipolar world (they try and keep doors of engagement open), as well as the very real institutional ties on domestic legacies in certain parts of the Indian foreign policy community with Russia.

Let’s go to South Africa. Here it is a question more of the resonance of anti-imperialism and nonalignment. You say, well, hang on, isn’t an imperial power actually invading a former colony? Yes, but the resonance in Africa of the Soviet Union being perceived as an anti-colonial power is very real. Questions about NATO expansion, the kind of destabilizing aspects of democratization, legacies of the Nonaligned Movement. All in all, 17 African countries voted to abstain from condemning Russia. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise then.

A final point I want to make, about the regional fallout of the war, even though we saw this as this unique, unprecedented kind of act fundamentally destabilizing the post-Cold-War European architecture. Central Asia is a region that had endured several exogenous shocks, many of them involving conflict within a short period of time. So, let’s just recap the last two years: the final US withdrawal from Afghanistan; the sort of symbolism of Russian and Chinese-led security and economic fora, now the main formal and informal ways of pulling the region together; January 2022, Tokayev’s consolidation of power and the successful CSTO intervention – this in itself was incredibly important, right? The CSTO had never intervened before, even though it had been asked on several occasions by the Kyrgyz Republic, by Armenia and so forth. And then of course, February, 2022. So, this is a region that had endured a number of exogenous shocks coming into the war.

Now, in terms of US policy, I think it’s fair to say that the US’s standing is not what it was 20 years before, when it successfully set up military bases and supply and refueling agreements across the region to support its operations in Afghanistan. Back then, both Russia and China reluctantly in some ways and certainly self-servingly supported the US. Vladimir Putin called George W. Bush, offered his assistance and the use of Soviet-era facilities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (whether they were even actually his to volunteer should be questioned). And he talked about the common civilizational struggle. China also went along, and China’s main concession was grafting on its campaign in Xinjiang onto this lens of the global war on terrorism – as colleagues have explored.

So, when the withdrawal was happening and negotiations were ongoing over a set of possible logistics sites to fly surveillance drones over, Russia, by all accounts, pressured the Central Asian states to deny this. And I think Putin at some point even said that China agrees with us. It was an important denial that complicated the withdrawal, but I think it reflects some changing ordering dynamics and the US’s declining relative influence across the region. There were enough regional levers available that enabled Russia and China to successfully pressure the Central Asian states.

I think when we talk about Kazakhstan and its stance toward the war, we have emphasized some of the very real protests and outrage, the mobilization of civil society that we saw, including an effort that actually raised humanitarian assistance for Ukraine. And we also tended to see, or look for, I would say, Tokayev’s defiance against Putin. And so this particular episode at the St Petersburg Economic Forum drew a lot of attention: Putin reportedly got unexpected pushback from an ally on the war Ukraine. President Tokayev talked about how they don’t favor, and would not recognize, the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics as independent states.

However, what didn’t get covered in the same speech, rereading it, was that he said the same thing about Kosovo. And he also said the same thing about Abkhazia. The Kazakhstan position has been consistent to not recognize separatist states without UN authorization.

So, to me this was more emblematic of Tokayev’s threading the needle in what was a very difficult situation. And I think it’s perfectly consistent with their previous positions. The Economist Intelligence Unit came out with this really interesting infographic a couple of days ago. And their point is that one year after the war, there’s an increasing number of countries that are siding with Russia. And I think on this map, if you look at where Central Asia is, and you look at the other countries that are colored in red Russia-leaning or supportive of Russia, this is hardly surprising. Central Asian positions on the war are absolutely consistent with where their neighborhood is.

Western Sanctions against Russia and the non-Western world

So, let’s go through some of the other points. The second issue that comes to mind is non-Western outrage (or lack thereof) against Russia’s behavior. To me, this is one of the more surprising parts of Western unity – the corporate pullout. It’s not complete but it is significant. And I would argue that this is probably the most successful case of the stigmatization of a country since the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

When you talk about corporate entities who were forced to withdraw, almost overnight, because their boards and their shareholders determined it was impossible to remain in Russia – the reputational damage and risk is too much. And so hopefully someone will write a tale of this at some point. Midnight emergency board meetings at companies such as BP or ExxonMobil, not just companies like IKEA and McDonald’s that are Western consumption companies. Companies with real, multi-billion-dollar energy investments that had endured every kind of political risk there is, especially when you think about BP, and its history with the Russian government, saying, “No, we’re out of here!” That level of opprobrium. Now, you might say, well, you know, this is a fear of shareholder activism. So yes, but that shareholder activism is based on a reputational concern. For a running list you can go to the Yale School of Management.

But this opprobrium isn’t widely shared across Central Asia, just as it’s also not shared in the developing world, the Global South, many parts of Eurasia in general (save some members of civil society and a few elites). This is a mashup, as reported by Eurasianet from the Central Asian Barometer on public attitudes toward the war in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. And what we see is a pretty even split in Kazakhstan on perceptions of responsibility for the war. And in Kyrgyzstan, the proportion of respondents who think that the West is responsible is pretty significant. And again, given the Kyrgyz Republic’s ties to Russia, migration, the information space, the attitudes toward Russian foreign policy in general, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

I think more interesting for my argument was not the vote at the General Assembly, but the April 2022 vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. This was separate from the UNGA vote about the war or Russia’s later annexation of four Ukrainian provinces. This is about Russia’s membership and standing in the Human Rights Council. Let’s look here. With the exception of Turkmenistan that forgot to vote on this one, every Central Asian country votes “no” – they don’t even abstain. They vote “no.” And so, particularly on this issue of condemning Russia’s involvement in human rights abuses, Central Asian states support Moscow.

My third point is one of the fundamental concerns that Central Asia, Eurasia and other parts of the world have – the disruptive impact of Western economic sanctions and compliance with US secondary sanctions. The sanctions regime that was described to me by one official from the region with great alarm: “there is a sanction regime against Iran. We don’t have an exemption from that regime the way India [does]. You haven’t granted us an exemption. We now have sanctions for dealing with companies in Xinjiang. Now you’re sanctioning Russia. What are we supposed to do? We’re a landlocked country.”

I thought it was a very interesting and telling way of phrasing the connectivity dilemma for the Central Asian states. Additionally, I think that none of the post-Soviet states having joined the sanctions fully is a story. Perhaps not in Central Asia, but certainly when you think about Georgia. And there are a couple drivers here. One is self-interest. Certainly, the Georgians don’t want to unilaterally cede half of their wine industry or a third of their tourist industry that relies on the Russian market and Russian visitors.

But also, I do think there’s a sense of indignation about where were the sanctions in 2008? Where were the sanctions when Abkhazia and South Ossetia were taken from us and recognized as independent states? Furthermore, there are regional concerns about the shocks of integration, inflation, soaring prices for energy and food stuffs, and compliance risks. Can you use Mir cards? What does this mean for Eurasian shipping, and so forth.

A very interesting paper that I would recommend for everyone, put out by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development a couple weeks ago, finds that there is evidence suggestive of intermediated trade via neighboring countries being used to circumvent the sanctions. In other words, exports of sanctioned goods through members of the Eurasian Economic Union rose by 30% relative to those of other goods. What does that mean? It means re-export through Armenia, through Kyrgyzstan, through Kazakhstan. Countries that are members of the Eurasian Economic Union are also most likely being used for sanctions evasion.

Repurposing of Eurasia’s regional institutions

That gets me to my next point and I think maybe

One of the more interesting ones that Russia and Eurasia, rather than being pulled apart or “de-centered” by the war, are actually remixing and re-networking in ways that very few of us anticipated. It involves individuals, companies and economies.

It is the consequence of the repurposing of Russia-led regional architectures, including visa regimes and regional economic organization. And the very fact that the Eurasian Economic Union can be used for this kind of activity is telling. But, of course, the war isn’t mentioned at all by the Eurasian Economic Union on its website, which proceeds as if nothing’s happened over the last year.

Let’s talk about migration. So initially, I think there was a wave of analysis that there would be a mass exodus of Central Asian migrants from Russia, especially because the sanctions would impact their ability to send home remittances. There was also alarm about the possibility of forced conscription of migrants. Some media stories recounted how migrants were lured to the front lines, and others detailed the potential loss of citizenship for hundreds of thousands of Tajiks that had acquired Russian passports if they refused conscription.

But over the last few months, we’ve seen a couple of trends that run counter to that. The ruble has remained relatively stable due to Central Bank capital controls. I think sanctions are biting in other ways, but the financial sanctions that some thought would cripple Russia financially have not had that immediate effect. And as a result of the war, we’re seeing what is, according to the Gaidar Institute, the Russian labor market experiencing the most acute shortages it’s had since 1993. And in fact, we’ve seen migration quotas lifted for Uzbek migrants in critical industries, construction and agrobusiness. So, Russia needs labor, and it strikes me that that is going to only encourage migration to resume and even exceed previous trends.

Then, there is one of the more unexpected stories. And this starts from the Russian government banning all Western tech platforms for fears of information security when the war started, and also in response to sanctions. And here is an infographic with percentages of Russian adults that use Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, PayPal, all of these different platforms. As a result of both the instability of the war and a lot of these sort of tech companies and products being banned, we had an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russian IT workers. The estimate is that a hundred thousand are still abroad. A hundred thousand IT workers, it is 10% of all workers in the sector.

Initially, this is where they went in the first month, according to a hearing in the Russian Duma. They identified 25,000 in Georgia, 20,000 in Turkey, 20,000 in Armenia, 3,000 in Uzbekistan. And one year on, we see some extraordinary developments. We see in Armenia, Armenian GDP having exploded, up 13% in 2022, with 1,300 companies formed there. Exports to Russia up three times, remittances from Armenia to Russia up four times. We see IT hubs booming in Central Asia. The Astana Hub, which is also, I think, quite strategically targeting incubating FinTech along with the Astana International Financial Center. You see the high-tech park in Kyrgyzstan. For so long, relatively quiet places are now an absolutely bustling engine: 270 companies, double the number of the previous year. And in Uzbekistan, its IT park registering 200% growth from last year, revenues up 440%. So, what we’re seeing is a concerted effort in these places to adopt strategies to attract Western, but not just Western, business outsourcing firms and services. We see the implementation by all these countries of new residence regimes to facilitate it: five-year visas, tax-free status in Kazakhstan, digital nomad visas in Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan’s TashRush relocation program.

That’s point one, and point two – the mobilization and conscription in September. This is less about IT workers and fleeing academics with more liberal worldviews. It is about those wanting to avoid mobilization even though maybe they don’t have strong political opinions. And again, let’s look at the vectors from the data provided by Novaya Gazeta Europe: when mobilization was announced, over 260,000, probably more, going through routes where you have visa-free travel.

This isn’t a Central Asian slide, but I call this a tale of two clients – both Russian allies – and their reaction to the war. I think reactions depend on the regime security in question here, so the Belarus-Armenia comparison is interesting, because they are both relatively small states and both viewed Russia as a security ally. To understand Lukashenko’s active support, not neutrality, but active support and co-belligerence in this conflict, you have to understand the deals that were made in 2020 with Moscow to help stem the protests against fraudulent elections and the quid pro quo that they involved.
But with Mr Pashinyan, this is the ultimate final straw, I think, showing that the security partnership with Russia is actually unreliable when applied to Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan. Russia provided legal pretexts that its security commitments did not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh, but even when the fighting spread to Armenia proper, Russia was not there. And so, this is Pashinyan very demonstrably interrupting a meeting of the CSTO. But I think regime politics and insecurity, as is usually the case across Eurasia, dictates the stance toward Russia, including in the Kyrgyz Republic, in Tajikistan, in Kazakhstan and the others as well.

So, let’s go to the latest Russia-China summit. Temur Umarov flagged an official statement explicitly referencing Central Asia for the first time as a region of mutual interest and coordinated action. And true enough, there was. I find really interesting the paragraphs that the parties are ready to strengthen their mutual coordination to support the Central Asian countries; we don’t want color revolutions, we don’t want external interference in the affairs.

But there’s also this paragraph before where the parties note the positive contribution of the CSTO to regional security. And they note the potential for the development of cooperation between the CSTO and China in order to ensure peace and stability of the region. Why insert this? Why is this in the communique? And I think the answer, going back to a year ago, goes to Xi’s statement at his Central Asia summit in January 2022, where in response, in the wake of all that had happened in Kazakhstan, he issued a blandly supportive statement of principles of Tokayev and Kazakhstan: firmly opposed to external forces, Kazakhstan should maintain stability, stop violence, strong leadership of Tokayev, and so forth. But there was not a reference to the CSTO in that speech.

My reading, and this is just pure speculation, is that the 2023 CSTO statement is an attempt to loop the circle. We can argue about sort of different interests of Moscow and Beijing and their possible clash in Central Asia. We’ve done so and we’ll continue to do so. But my thinking on this, based on what I see transpiring in Central Asia, is that

Rather than be the cause of potential fallout between Russia and China, it’s the arena in which they actually reach mutual accommodations. It’s the arena in which their different ordering institutions, whether it’s regional architectures, norms, economic spaces, security organizations, if not mutually coordinate, find a way to co-exist and overlap.

So, I think these interactions are important. They work through their interests in Central Asia as opposed to being divided by them in Central Asia. And to me that’s incredibly significant.

So, to wrap up, how should the US, the EU and other countries navigate a Eurasian region that’s being remade? First of all, I think it’s really important to understand the positionality of the dilemma that Central Asian actors face: the hedging, the neutrality, the sort of impossible and acute pressures that they’re facing from Russia, from economic sanctions, from this re-networking, from the uncertainty of new waves of migration – what that means for stability in their country, what that means for prices for their citizens, things like real estate markets, food stuffs.

So, I would say focus on affirming the principle of Ukraine’s sovereignty rather than promoting the democracy aspect of this; that this war should be about defending Ukrainian sovereignty. But this is also neither sufficient nor prescriptive. I think there should be an avoidance of framing this as a confrontation that pits the West versus Russia and that countries must choose sides. This is what Russia wants to do, and I think it’s doing so increasingly successfully in the Global South.

Once you start to buy into the framing of West versus Russia, then all of the other grievances about the US-backed international order start to come into play. Take this ICC indictment of Putin. By the way, there is one Central Asian country that signed on to the ICC – it’s Tajikistan. And Tajikistan actually was pressured in the campaign about forced returns of Uyghurs, along with Cambodia. I don’t think Mr Putin has to worry about going to Dushanbe, but certainly I think the normative fallout of the ICC indictment – and I’m all for stigmatizing Mr Putin – but I wonder how the dynamics are going to play out in the Global South. I wonder actually whether this is going to sort of enhance this theme that the West is selective about who they indict. That the ICC is an instrument of geopolitical power as opposed to actual international accountability.

But anyway, this West versus Russia frame is particularly unhelpful, I think, for the Central Asian states. But in terms of the opportunities, let’s think about these new kinds of networks. In other words, not just start thinking about new government-to-government relations and affirmations of sovereignty and support, but other levels of government. Can we support and engage with municipalities? Municipalities that are under strain to cope with the influx of these tech workers, to process them, to create favorable sorts of regimes, but they are also big beneficiaries. Juliet Johnson, in her amazing book about central banks in post-communist states, has a term that I really like. She calls them “wormhole networks” – very tightly coupled global networks that arise in certain fields of specialty. I think that could be the case for IT.

When you look at the tech conferences, international spaces, interactions that these companies have. This is a strength of the West – having access to such IT wormholes. I think we need to develop a strategy for dealing with Russian exiles and especially Russian IT workers. It doesn’t have to be a Cold War strategy but there needs to be a strategy. There are too many Russian exiles in the information space and in the knowledge sphere that don’t have alternatives, that don’t have options except to return. This should be a strategic calculation.

And then finally, I think within these spaces, these transformative spaces, this is a chance for us to do what we do best, which is to cultivate our own global educational networks and people-to-people partnerships, and really contribute and support this sudden reopening to the world. To conclude, I don’t know if Eurasia has actually been remade, but I do think that some of the assumptions that we have perhaps require some recalibration and some rethinking as well.
  • Alexander Cooley
    Claire Tow Professor of Political Science, 15th Director of Columbia University's Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe (2015-2021), Vice Provost for Academic Centers and Libraries (2022 - present)
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