Over the past year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly compared his invasion of Ukraine to eighteenth century Russian Czar Peter the Great’s imperial conquests, and has boasted of “returning” historically Russian lands. However, his dreams of a new Russian Empire are now in danger of unraveling as military setbacks in Ukraine undermine Moscow’s position throughout the entire former USSR.
The invasion of Ukraine has clearly not gone according to plan. Putin anticipated a short and victorious war that would extinguish Ukrainian statehood and force the country decisively back into the Russian orbit. Instead, his army has lost tens of thousands of soldiers and vast amounts of equipment while struggling to achieve its military objectives. With the war now in its fifteenth month, Russia is struggling to advance in Ukraine and finds itself subject to unprecedented international sanctions that pose a grave threat to the country’s long-term development.
Crucially, the faltering invasion of Ukraine has also undermined Russian influence throughout the post-Soviet region. Following the 1991 collapse of the USSR, Russia remained deeply reluctant to concede full sovereignty to the 14 non-Russian countries that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. While Baltic states Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania soon began pursuing a path of Western integration leading to EU and NATO membership, Russia was initially able to maintain its dominant position in relation to most of the newly independent post-Soviet nations.
Over the past three decades, relations between Russia and its former Soviet vassals have varied greatly, with some welcoming continued strong ties and others seeking to turn away from Moscow. Putin has made no secret of his desire to revive Russian influence throughout his country’s former imperial domains, and has publicly lamented the fall of the USSR as the “disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union.”
The Kremlin has employed a mixture of carrot and stick tactics in order to retain and strengthen its influence across the former USSR. Measures have ranged from elite enrichment, customs unions, and security cooperation to trade wars, military interventions, and the creation of “frozen conflicts.”
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The 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and Donbas region was a major landmark in Russia’s post-Soviet empire-rebuilding efforts, but the full-scale invasion of Ukraine eight years later was to prove the biggest turning point of all. Since February 24, 2022, countries throughout the former Soviet Empire have rallied in support of Ukraine and have sought to distance themselves from an increasingly isolated and humbled Russia.
Throughout the war, the three Baltic states have supplied large amounts of defense, financial, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine while welcoming thousands of Ukrainian refugees. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have also been very supportive of Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership bids. During a recent Kyiv visit, Estonian PM Kaja Kallas underlined this backing, commenting, “For peace in Europe, we need Ukraine in the EU and NATO. The way to lasting peace is to end grey areas in European security.”
In the South Caucasus region, Russia’s status has clearly been diminished by the invasion of Ukraine and the embarrassing failures of Putin’s once-vaunted military. The Kremlin has long served as peacekeeper and arbiter between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the region, maintaining a significant military presence in Armenia. However, the war in Ukraine has prevented Russia from fulfilling its commitments, with Moscow unable to stop renewed fighting. This has encouraged the Armenians to reconsider their relations with Russia.
With Russian influence in decline, the Armenian government has deepened cooperation with both the United States and the European Union, including the opening of a new EU Mission in Yerevan. Armenia has also begun to distance itself from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russia-led military bloc bringing together six former Soviet republics.
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In Central Asia, the invasion of Ukraine has amplified existing distrust of Russia. This is most apparent in the region’s largest nation, Kazakhstan. Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan has a significant ethnic Russian population, leading to concerns that the country could become the next target of Russian imperial aggression. These fears have been further fueled by Kremlin propagandists, who have warned that Kazakhstan will pay a high price for the country’s alleged disloyalty to Moscow. Kazakh officials appear unmoved by these threats, and have recently canceled Victory Day celebrations for the second consecutive year in what many see as a direct snub to Putin.
Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Kazakhstan has attempted to strengthen ties with China, Turkey, the EU, and the US, while questioning its relationship with Russia and the CSTO. This geopolitical shift was perhaps most immediately obvious in summer 2022, when Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made international headlines by rejecting recognition of Russian territorial claims against Ukraine while standing alongside Putin at a flagship economic forum in Saint Petersburg.
Over the past fifteen months of the invasion, Kazakhstan has demonstrated its support for Ukraine via the donation of considerable quantities of humanitarian aid. Other countries throughout the former Soviet world have done likewise. Azerbaijan has sent nearly €20 million in humanitarian and medical assistance. Turkmenistan has dispatched a cargo plane filled with medicines and medical supplies. Uzbekistan sent several tons of humanitarian aid. Given continued Russian leverage in the region and Moscow’s traditional expectations of loyalty, these relatively innocuous moves should be seen as bold gestures that reflect a changing geopolitical climate.
The invasion of Ukraine has exposed the extent of Kremlin control over Belarus, with Russia using its neighbor as a platform for airstrikes against Ukraine and the failed Kyiv offensive of early 2022. However, Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka has so far resisted pressure to directly enter the war, despite being heavily dependent on the Kremlin for his political survival. With the Belarusian public and military both believed to be strongly against any direct participation in the invasion, Lukashenka finds himself in a difficult position. He understands that if he were to involve Belarusian forces in the war, this would likely lead to a strong and unpredictable domestic backlash.
Putin saw the invasion of Ukraine as a key step toward rebuilding the Russian Empire. Instead, it has forced countries across the former Soviet Union to distance themselves from the Kremlin. These countries feel able to do so in part due to the poor performance of the Russian army in Ukraine, which has made a mockery Moscow’s claims to military superpower status while reducing Russia’s ability to intimidate its neighbors. The invasion of Ukraine is still far from over, but the damage done to Russia’s regional influence and to Putin’s own imperial ambitions is already impossible to ignore.
Mark Temnycky is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He can be found on Twitter @MTemnycky.
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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.
The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.