Diminishing Returns: Russia’s Waning Sphere of Influence Amid the Russo-Ukrainian War

Image Source: Russian Ministry of Defense

On the evening of September 12, 2022, artillery barrages rang out across the sky. Gunfire and mortar shells pounded small towns while Bayraktar TB2 drones whirred overhead. One could be forgiven for thinking that these events were taken from the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv, launched days earlier, but it was in fact the onset of the deadliest bout of fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces since the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The same day, clashes broke out on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which lasted nearly a week. Russian troops and equipment stationed in bases across the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Syria are being pulled from their posts abroad and deployed to Ukraine in desperate bids by Moscow to stem the momentum of Ukraine’s advances in the east. The developments of the war in Ukraine have not only exposed Russia’s military shortcomings, but they have also severely undermined Russia’s image in the eyes of states living under a previously unchallenged sphere of influence. Security challenges in foreign countries both near and far are rising at a rapid rate, and amid the fighting in Ukraine, the mass exodus of Russians exacerbated by the partial mobilization, and increasing tensions among its neighbors, Moscow’s weakening sphere of influence may crumble altogether.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv is nothing short of a significant military achievement. According to President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian troops were able to recapture over 6,000 square kilometers of territory as of early September, and the manner in which Ukraine was able to recapture strategic locations like Izyum has been particularly telling. According to a Wall Street Journal article, Russian troops fled so quickly that they abandoned hundreds of pieces of usable equipment, which are now used by Ukrainian forces. In fact, the analysis claims that Russia is now “by far the largest supplier of heavy weapons for Ukraine, well ahead of the U.S. or other allies in sheer numbers.” It is a damning indictment of Russia’s wartime capabilities and just one of a growing list of examples of the deteriorating image of the Russian military.

In hindsight, it may be of little surprise that countries within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence are pouncing on what they view as an optimal window to accomplish their goals without heavy-handed Russian interference. Within days of launching their counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces swept across the Kharkiv Region at a rapid pace, capturing an estimated 2,500 square kilometers by September 9. Only a few days later, fighting erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia and, soon after, between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyz and Tajik troops clashed for six days before coming to a ceasefire agreement, though the fighting left nearly 100 dead. The clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers were particularly fierce, and despite initial attempts by the Russian government to broker a ceasefire, it was violated within minutes. While both clashes have since been settled by temporary ceasefire agreements, the timing of the outbreak of fighting is compelling. The image of the Ukrainian counteroffensive crushing Russian defensive lines only added to the ever-growing number of Russian casualties, and with the Kremlin’s focus squarely aimed at mitigating a disastrous retreat, Russia’s neighbors see a window of opportunity. It is even more damaging to Russia’s image abroad that the resolution that put an end to this most recent Armenian-Azerbaijani clash came in the form of an EU border mission, negotiated by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel. The timing and motivations of the fighting among Russia’s neighbors were perhaps best explained by Laurence Broers, an associate fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program of Chatham House: “I think there is a feeling in Azerbaijan that now is the time to deploy its power, its military advantage, and to extract the maximum it can get.” The developments in Ukraine will only continue to create precedents from which Russia’s neighbors will sense an optimal moment to advance their own geopolitical interests, free of any intervention or resistance from the Kremlin.

In the span of a week, any perception that the Collective Security Treaty Organization – a Eurasian intergovernmental military alliance of post-Soviet states, often regarded as Russia’s answer to NATO – could operate as an effective alliance while embroiled in security challenges was shattered. Both clashes arose amid the drawdown of Russian forces in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as 1,500 Russian troops based in Tajikistan and roughly 800 in Armenia have been redeployed to Ukraine. The ramifications of this diminished presence have exposed the failure of the CSTO to respond to crises. For example, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s pleas for CSTO military assistance fell on deaf ears, an inaction seized upon by the EU to broker the peacekeeping agreement. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan called off CSTO exercises scheduled to take place in their territory and purportedly ignored attempts by CSTO officials to mediate a solution. It is a stark contrast to Russia’s relationship with its Central Asian neighbors nearly a year ago, when Russia appeared to cement its influence in the region by coming to the Kazakh government’s aid in a CSTO response to anti-government protests in January 2022. Yet today, Russia appears so embroiled in the conflict in Ukraine that it is unable to address problems close to its borders, and states are capitalizing on its absence.

The Russian military is losing equipment at an unsustainable rate, either having been destroyed or captured and incorporated into Ukraine’s arsenal. It will take years for Russia to rebuild and recuperate the equipment lost in Ukraine, and that does not consider the long-term effect of Western sanctions targeting the Russian defense sector or a workforce impacted by mobilization and mass exodus. Many of the Russians who have emigrated in recent months are young, middle-class members of society who occupy academic, creative, and tech jobs. Those who have been mobilized, on the other hand, are often ethnic minorities plucked from impoverished regions. Working class Russians appear to be disproportionately selected, steadily depleting Russia’s workforce to further Putin’s Ukrainian ambitions.

Russia ultimately cannot expect to maintain a rigorous and enduring presence in Eurasia or beyond as it has in the past. The ramifications of a dwindling Russian sphere of influence would be substantial and far-reaching. Countries outside of the post-Soviet space that previously relied on Russian support, such as Syria, may soon have to contend with a diminished presence of troops or private military companies, all while regional rivals seek to take advantage of Russia’s absence. For instance, military officials estimate that at least two Russian battalions – between 1,200 and 1,600 soldiers – posted in Syria were recently withdrawn. While Israeli airstrikes are contingent on a deconfliction mechanism which exists between the Israeli and Russian air forces, decreasing Russian presence in Syria may convince the Israeli military that they can conduct strikes with impunity. Similarly, Turkey has grown in confidence in its ability to assert itself on the global stage, often upstaging Russian ambitions in to advance its own goals, like supporting Azerbaijan in its strikes against a Russian-backed Armenia. Despite eye-catching headlines of Turkey’s resistance to align with Western objectives, such as sanctions or Russian natural gas transports, the Turkish government could just as easily position itself against Russia when their objectives conflict.

Though the Kremlin’s influence on foreign countries is quickly waning, not all of its constituents are abandoning it. Pro-Russian governments in Burkina Faso, Mozambique, the Central African Republic, and other sub-Saharan nations point to a worrying trend of a more assertive Russian foreign policy in the Sahel, spearheaded by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private military company, the Wagner Group. Russia reaps material and political benefits from its malign campaigns on the African continent, extracting minerals, gems, and other precious resources from impoverished countries for reduced prices and security guarantees while propagating disinformation and anti-Western propaganda. It is a deeply concerning trend for a part of the world caught in the throes of economic strife and civil wars, but signs may indicate that even Russia’s geopolitical prospects in Africa will have their limits. It may not take long before sub-Saharan Africa views Russia no different than France in its ambitions, with Russia’s dwindling military reputation and operational capacity only serving to hasten this process.

Putin’s gambit in Ukraine has sealed Russia’s long-term future; rather than envelop its neighbor in an audacious landgrab, he has instead accelerated the collapse of his country’s capacity to dictate an aggressive foreign policy and exposed systemic vulnerabilities that threaten the existence of the post-Soviet order. Curbing the continuing advances of Ukrainian troops and consolidating illegally occupied territory have become such a singular focus for Russia’s leader that he is willing to jeopardize decades worth of work establishing the Russian government as a viable antithesis to Western foreign policy. Not only are Russian troops being withdrawn from traditional holdings abroad to reinforce a haggard military in Ukraine, so too is Russia’s once-mighty image as the looming force in Eurasia and Central Asia. In an effort to justify his imperial ambitions, Putin conjured up an existential threat to Russia’s security in his own backyard, not realizing that doing so would trigger the release of decades of ethnic, religious, and political tensions among Russian satellite states along its borders. Putin or any successor to his reign will be unable to wage war against Russian adversaries, real or imagined, while maintaining a consistent presence in the former Soviet republics, Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa.

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