Eurasia Is More Than Russia’s Backyard

Viewing recent conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia through the lens of Moscow’s political calculus overlooks important internal dynamics.

By , a researcher and educator based in New York.
A boy rides his bicycle past a burned-out store in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, on Sept. 22.
A boy rides his bicycle past a burned-out store in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, on Sept. 22.
A boy rides his bicycle past a burned-out store in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, on Sept. 22. VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

Western analysts and policymakers have long viewed security in the post-Soviet sphere through the lens of Moscow’s political calculus, a trend that has accelerated since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. However, recent developments—primarily the resurgence of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia—show the limits of this framework. Focusing on Russia doesn’t explain conflicts where both sides have close relationships with Moscow, and, perhaps more concerning, it overlooks leaders’ own strategic agency.

Russia frames itself as a security guarantor in post-Soviet states first through formal institutions such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Supported by the CSTO, around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region at the center of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; Russia has a five-year mandate to maintain stability there. In addition to its formal involvement in conflicts, Moscow also asserts its influence through rhetoric. For example, Russian experts have framed previous conflict on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border as an escalation in Russia’s “southern borderlands.”

Although Russia is involved in both the Caucasus and Central Asia, it doesn’t play a truly decisive role in either ongoing conflict. In both cases, governments on either side of the border have built diplomatic, economic, and military ties with Russia in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interpreting recent territorial incursions through a Russian lens or as part of a so-called new Great Game offers limited insight—and it could undermine potential resolution of the conflicts.

Western analysts and policymakers have long viewed security in the post-Soviet sphere through the lens of Moscow’s political calculus, a trend that has accelerated since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. However, recent developments—primarily the resurgence of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia—show the limits of this framework. Focusing on Russia doesn’t explain conflicts where both sides have close relationships with Moscow, and, perhaps more concerning, it overlooks leaders’ own strategic agency.

Russia frames itself as a security guarantor in post-Soviet states first through formal institutions such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Supported by the CSTO, around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region at the center of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; Russia has a five-year mandate to maintain stability there. In addition to its formal involvement in conflicts, Moscow also asserts its influence through rhetoric. For example, Russian experts have framed previous conflict on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border as an escalation in Russia’s “southern borderlands.”

Although Russia is involved in both the Caucasus and Central Asia, it doesn’t play a truly decisive role in either ongoing conflict. In both cases, governments on either side of the border have built diplomatic, economic, and military ties with Russia in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interpreting recent territorial incursions through a Russian lens or as part of a so-called new Great Game offers limited insight—and it could undermine potential resolution of the conflicts.

Azerbaijan’s and Tajikistan’s acts of aggression should be interpreted on their own terms. On Sept. 12, Armenia’s defense ministry reported firing from Azerbaijan’s armed forces. But unlike the 44-day war between the countries in 2020, this incursion took place not in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region but along their border. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said Armenia initiated the provocations and that any shooting was defensive. Russia brokered a cease-fire that was violated minutes after it came into effect on Sept. 13. The two sides reached a new agreement the next day, after which U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Armenia and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of the importance of solving the crisis.

While fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan resumed, entire villages were evacuated in Batken, Kyrgyzstan’s southernmost province, for the second time this year amid conflict with neighboring Tajikistan. The intensity of the latest fighting marked a departure from frequent clashes along the border. The violence began on Sept. 14, with forces clashing for two days before a cease-fire was called. Within hours, Tajik forces violated the cease-fire and pushed beyond border villages, striking schools and government buildings in Batken. Both countries’ national security chiefs met on the border on Sept. 19 to sign a peace protocol that called for an end to hostilities and the withdrawal of troops.

Several analysts have focused on the timing of the border conflicts, which both coincided with Russia’s retreat from the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. In this view, Russia was bogged down by its losses on the battlefield, supposedly creating an opportunity for Azerbaijan’s aggression, and the distraction caused by its disastrous campaign in Ukraine will also lead to more instability in Central Asia. Although Russia has lost influence in the post-Soviet space because of its war in Ukraine, there has not been enough meaningful change in the regional distribution of power to point to Russia as a cause of the most recent fighting. Armenia and Azerbaijan were at war for 44 days in 2020, and Tajikistan’s most recent deep incursion into Kyrgyz territory was in April 2021.

Diplomatic relations with Russia do not explain the dynamics of either conflict. In its persistent conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenia is often perceived as the Russia-aligned state because of its membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO. But Azerbaijan is also close with Russia: Just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, the two countries signed an agreement to deepen diplomatic and military cooperation. Moreover, institutional entangling with Russia has not guaranteed security for Armenia. Russia ignored Armenia’s invocation of the CSTO collective defense provision in September, despite its treaty-bound obligation to protect.

Determining relative closeness with Russia in the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan conflict is even more difficult. Russia has military bases in both countries, and both are CSTO members. Their economies each depend heavily on remittances from labor migrants in Russia. Like Armenia, Kyrgyzstan is part of the Eurasian Economic Union. Although Tajikistan is not a member, its trade with member states in the first half of the year amounted to some $1.2 billion, largely driven by trade with Russia and Belarus. Dushanbe has been silent about Moscow’s war in Ukraine, but informal public polling suggests a large base of support for Russia. Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has officially remained neutral while punishing anti-war protesters and echoing the Kremlin’s talking points to justify the recognition of the Russia-backed separatist republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Looking to Russia to intervene in these conflicts, let alone serve as the main guarantor of any former colony’s security, is problematic: Eurasia is not just Russia’s backyard. Other powers have expressed interest in security dynamics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Throughout 2022, the European Council has mediated talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Iran and Turkey have contributed to an arms race between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan in 2013, so it is fitting that he started his first overseas trip since January 2020 in the country, where he articulated support for “safeguarding national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

Only emphasizing the engagement of Russia—and other regional powers—in Eurasia ignores that leaders of the countries involved in the conflicts are strategic actors, too. Armenia and Azerbaijan have courted economic investment and geopolitical support far beyond Moscow. The two countries leverage their claims over Nagorno-Karabakh to cultivate diplomatic ties with other states. Armenia has vocally backed Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, while Azerbaijan has historically received weapons and intelligence support from Israel. Although Pelosi voiced support for Armenia on her recent visit, Azerbaijan has also sought U.S. military aid.

In September, Azerbaijan did not target Nagorno-Karabakh but rather attacked areas on the southern border with Armenia that block access to the Nakhchivan exclave; establishing a corridor to the exclave would grant Azerbaijan access to major trade links and a more direct route to Turkey. Tajikistan is facing an economic crisis and struggling to keep a lid on repression in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region. Furthermore, Tajikistan’s aging president is purportedly preparing to transfer power to his son. A quick military victory—even one created out of thin air—is a predictable tactic in the dictator’s toolkit for shoring up legitimacy.

Meanwhile, Central Asian states have traditionally practiced so-called multivector diplomacy, playing strong states off one another to bolster their own domestic stability. The states that are best positioned to handle the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are actually others in the region. The infrastructure for multilateral conflict resolution is lacking, but Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have signaled willingness and preparedness to broker peace between neighbors. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev fielded calls with both Japarov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on Sept. 20, the day after the first peace protocol was signed.

Analyzing the conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan solely through the lens of Russia’s own strategy overlooks these important subregional dynamics. But it also perpetuates a narrative about Russia’s natural position as the “guarantor of security” in countries that have been independent for more than 30 years. In an essay in the Atlantic, Casey Michel calls for the West to “decolonize Russia,” arguing that the world will not be safe until “Moscow’s empire is toppled.”

Surely the first step is not to dissolve Russia but to decolonize analysis of Eurasian politics. Ultimately, references to Central Asia and the Caucasus as Russia’s backyard serve the same linguistic end as Moscow calling the post-Soviet states its “southern borderlands.” Instead of looking first to Russia for explanatory power, researchers and analysts must approach these conflicts in terms of leaders’ own strategic calculations.

Colleen Wood is a researcher and educator based in New York. She holds a doctorate in political science from Columbia University. Twitter: @colleenwood_

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.