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How Russia loses allies, influence amid its aggression against Ukraine

by Oleg SukhovDecember 5, 2022 9:37 am
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How Russia loses allies, influence amid its aggression against UkraineIranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (L) meets with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin (R) in Tehran, Iran on July 19, 2022. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

By invading Ukraine, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin sought to strengthen Russia's geopolitical standing and spread the country's influence across the globe.

In reality, it backfired.

Due to Russia's unprecedented aggression and its heavy defeats on the battlefield, the Kremlin became much weaker, losing allies in the process. 

Russia's influence among the former Soviet countries decreased as sharply as it did worldwide.

The countries on whose support Putin counted the most – many of its former Soviet allies, as well as China, India, and Turkey – are playing both sides, leaving Russia at the table with several rogue states under similar heavy Western sanctions – North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Syria, and Belarus.

As a result of the Russian army's lackluster performance in Ukraine, Putin is now perceived as weak, Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the Kyiv Independent.

He added that Russia's loss of the European energy market and the explicit inferiority of Russia's arms production, seen in Ukraine, are a nail in the coffin of Russia's international standing.

"In this situation, Russia's former allies are beginning to distance themselves from Russia," he added. "Putin is losing allies and will keep losing them. He has to turn to rogue states like Iran and North Korea."

Failing Collective Security Treaty

After invading Ukraine in 2014, occupying Crimea and parts of Donbas, it looked as if Russia could get away with its explicit land grab.

Despite only eight countries – Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe – recognizing Russia's annexation of Crimea, the majority of international players kept a business-as-usual approach.

Furthermore, Russia kept its standing as the region's dominant force, becoming the powerbroker in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, and keeping the political regime in Kazakhstan afloat in 2022.

Now, Russia's power is fading.

One example is Russia’s relations with the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance that it leads. The alliance also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

The same countries, except for Tajikistan, are members of the Eurasian Union, a Russian-led economic bloc.

However, none of these member countries, except for Belarus, has participated in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They also didn't vote against the United Nations resolutions condemning Russia's aggression.

The failures of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization became explicit in September 2022, when Russia denied assistance to its de jure ally, Armenia.

Armenia is sandwiched between two foes – Turkey and Azerbaijan. It has historically relied on Russian support to protect itself against them.

In 2020, Azerbaijan seized a substantial part of the territory controlled by Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-controlled self-proclaimed proxy state within Azerbaijan's internationally recognized borders. 

Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the Lachin corridor, which linked Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Tensions sparked again in August 2022, when Azerbaijan seized control of the Lachin corridor, and Russian peacekeepers had to withdraw.

In September 2022, hostilities resumed between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with the latter accusing Baku of occupying internationally recognized Armenian territory along the border.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has repeatedly called on Russia and the CSTO to help Armenia but his requests were rejected. 

On Nov. 24, he refused to sign a final communique on the results of a CSTO summit, saying that it failed to address what he called "Azerbaijan's aggression."

Oreshkin said that Putin is reluctant to help Armenia because he does not want to spoil Russia's relations with Azerbaijan.

As a result of Azerbaijan's victories, Russia's influence in the region decreased, while the sway of Turkey, a major backer of Azerbaijan, increased.

Sergei Sazonov, a Russian-born political philosopher at Estonia's Tartu University, says CSTO countries don't want to become satellites of Russia, and now they have the leeway to look for other allies.

“Nobody likes the losing side,” Sazonov says.

Waning influence in Central Asia

Kazakhstan is the most significant illustration of Russia's waning influence in former Soviet countries.

Russia sent its troops to help Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev quell large-scale anti-government protests in January, prompting speculation that Russia's influence over the country would substantially increase. 

However, Tokayev appears to have become more and more independent since Russia withdrew its troops from Kazakhstan in the same month.

At the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June, Tokayev challenged Putin by saying that Kazakhstan would not recognize Russia's proxies in Ukraine's Donbas as independent states.

In July, Russian-Kazakh relations were spoiled due to a Russian court ruling that blocked the operations of a pipeline that shipped Kazakh oil through Russia. Landlocked Kazakhstan is the 12th largest oil producer in the world, shipping most of it through Russian territory.

Oreshkin says Kazakhstan does not support the Kremlin because Russian hawks regularly call for annexing northern Kazakhstan, where ethnic Russians live.

Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, can also count on the support of China as a counterweight to Russia, according to Oreshkin. Tokayev speaks fluent Chinese and has regularly visited China.

"Kazakhstan is a sovereign state," Oreshkin added. "It has a partnership with Russia but not an alliance."

According to Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, there is little help from Russia to CSTO members, but the risks posed by Russia are now much greater.

“Russia's aggression has destroyed integration processes among former Soviet countries,” he adds.

China, a crucial neutral

China – like India and Turkey – has so far maintained a neutral attitude. It usually abstains when voting on UN resolutions on Russian aggression.

There is speculation that China could offset the Western sanctions by supplying the weapons and components that Russia badly needs.

As the world's aspiring second superpower and one of the most technologically advanced states, China would be Russia's best option for weapons supplies.

Sazonov says that China could supply weapons and electronic components to Russia and could also help Russia evade sanctions through the black market.

But there’s currently no indication that China is doing so, he adds.

“The Chinese don't want to be seen cooperating with Russia,” Sazonov says.

A violation of Western sanctions against Russia would also damage economic relations between China and the U.S., on whose market Beijing is dependent.

In April, China's foreign ministry said that China would not help Russia bypass Western sanctions.

In June, the Washington Post reported that Russian officials had raised increasingly frustrated requests for greater support during discussions with Beijing, calling on China to live up to its affirmation of a "no limits" partnership. 

But China's leadership wants to expand assistance for Russia without running afoul of Western sanctions and has set limits on what it will do, according to Chinese and U.S. officials cited by the Washington Post.

Defense Express, a Ukrainian military news site, reported on Nov. 27 that Russian An-124 transport aircraft had visited China nine times during the preceding week, with some of them turning off their flight tracking devices. Defense Express suggested that this could be evidence of Russia importing military equipment from China as it struggles to make progress on the battlefield in Ukraine.

However, the reports are still unconfirmed, and there is no other evidence of Chinese arms supplies to Russia.

China is also interested in buying Russian oil and gas at dirt-cheap prices, which became possible due to the Western sanctions and closure of the European market, Oreshkin added.

Oreshkin argued that China is not interested in supplying weapons to Russia and thus strengthening Putin.

"China is interested in Putin as a weak, dependent figure," he said. "For China, Russia is a satellite that supplies raw materials." 

Outcast allies: Iran, Belarus, North Korea

Despite most of the world distancing itself from Russia, Moscow is not alone. 

Belarus, under dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and Iran, a theocratic dictatorship that has survived under Western sanctions since the 1980s, have been among Russia's few useful allies.

Russia has been using Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones against Ukraine since September, launching waves of attacks that killed civilians and destroyed energy facilities nationwide.

Shahed drones are low-tech and ineffective for military targets, military analyst Vyacheslav Tseluiko told the Kyiv Independent.

"But they can be (effectively) used as a weapon of terror against civilians," he added.

CNN reported on Nov. 1 that Iran was also preparing to send approximately 1,000 additional weapons, including surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missiles and more attack drones, to Russia. CNN cited unnamed Western officials.

Iranian missiles are also low-tech, but they can be effective if they are equipped with satellite navigation systems, Tseluiko said.

Iranian weapons are having a certain effect in terms of covering Russia's shortages of weapons, but "they will not change the situation (on the battlefield) radically," he added.

Earlier in November, Iran admitted supplying the drones but claimed that it had delivered them before the invasion, trying to have a way out of a toxic partnership with Russia. 

Meanwhile, Belarus is all in.

After Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea and invaded the Donbas in 2014, Lukashenko was trying to stay neutral. Minsk, the capital of Belarus, became the venue for regular negotiations between the delegations of Russia and Ukraine.

However, the situation changed dramatically when Lukashenko heavily rigged a presidential election in 2020, triggering the largest protests in Belarus' history. 

In exchange for propping up Lukashenko's dictatorship amid the turbulence, Russia drastically increased its influence over Belarus.

“Belarus is de facto an occupied country,” Sazonov says. 

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Belarus has participated in Russia's aggression by allowing Russian troops to use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine.

As Russia's weapons stocks are being depleted, Belarus has also been supplying weapons to Russia.

In October, Belarus supplied 98 T-72A tanks, 60 BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, and 53 Ural trucks to Russia, according to the Belarusian Hajun, a group that monitors the movement of weapons. 

However, Lukashenko has been reluctant to send Belarusian troops to Russia or announce a mobilization of conscripts.

"Putin has been trying to get Lukashenko involved in the war. But not a single Belarusian soldier has crossed the border," Oreshkin said. "For him, it's a red line. Sending Belarusian troops to Ukraine would mean he is losing control over his army."

He added that Lukashenko also understands that Putin is losing in Ukraine and wants to have the opportunity for a rapprochement with the West in case Russia is defeated.

Due to a lack of other options, Russia has reportedly hit rock bottom, asking North Korea – the world's only surviving totalitarian communist dictatorship – for ammunition.

In September, the New York Times reported that Russia was buying millions of artillery shells and rockets from North Korea. The newspaper cited newly declassified American intelligence. 

Like Iran, even North Korea denied the report and distanced itself from the Kremlin.

Note from the author:

Hello! My name is Oleg Sukhov, the guy who wrote this piece for you.

I was born in Russia and moved to Ukraine in 2014 because I couldn't stand the suffocating atmosphere of that totalitarian country. I used to think it might be possible to transform Russia into a liberal Western-oriented country. Now it's clear that it's a lost cause. But at least I can atone for the crimes of my homeland by exposing its barbaric aggression against Ukraine and providing objective and independent coverage of what is going on there. I'm also trying to contribute to Ukraine's transformation into a full-fledged Western liberal democracy strong enough to defeat Russia. 

Our publication needs help from every one of you — support Ukrainian wartime journalism, become a patron of the Kyiv Independent.

Oleg Sukhov
Oleg Sukhov
Political reporter

Oleg Sukhov is a political reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He is a former editor and reporter at the Moscow Times. He has a master's degree in history from the Moscow State University. He moved to Ukraine in 2014 due to the crackdown on independent media in Russia and covered war, corruption, reforms and law enforcement for the Kyiv Post.

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