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