As Russia continues its conflict in Ukraine, its influence over its closest allies is dwindling, with China and Turkey taking full advantage of the situation.
Changes in Central Asia
The Central Asian region is home to countries with deep historical, cultural, and financial bonds to Russia, with many having once been part of the Soviet Union.
Currently, most of these nations are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — a group that is often compared to NATO, except under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership.
China’s influence is on the rise across Central Asian states, and Moscow is paying close attention. As well, China’s economic ties with Russia have been expanding for years, even as China recently surpassed Russia as Central Asia’s primary trading partner.
Thomas Graham, co-founder of Yale University’s Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies program, told Business Insider that “dynamics are changing” in these regions.
Graham highlighted China’s “Belt and Road” initiative which seeks to establish global transport and telecom links — some routes now bypass Russia and connect to Europe through countries like Iran and Turkey.
Now China is constructing gas pipelines so they are no longer dependent on Russia for energy. This threatens Russia’s fossil fuel exports, a core component of its economy.
While China continues to support Russia financially and avoids diplomatic isolation, its growing influence clearly challenges Russian dominance in the region.
Turkey’s Expanding Presence
Turkey, though on a smaller scale compared to China, is also increasing its commercial ties with Central Asia, posing another challenge to Russia’s influence.
Graham also noted that “Turkish influence has grown in that part of the world,” but this growth comes at Russia’s expense. These efforts by China and Turkey have implications for Russia’s global standing, as they erode Russia’s influence in regions where it once held a great deal of power.
Graham stated that China and Turkey, “have negative consequences for Russia’s global standing. At least that’s the way they would think about this in the Kremlin.”
Ukraine Conflict Deepens the Problem
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022, has further isolated the nation politically and revealed vulnerabilities in its military strength.
The CSTO, previously reliant on Russia’s military power, has experienced a shift as member states have slowly become disillusioned watching Moscow’s fail at overpowering a seemingly weaker adversary.
Ultimately, the conflict in Ukraine has allowed China and Turkey to expand their presence in the region with less resistance from Russia.
Armenia in Trouble
Notably, Armenia, a CSTO member, felt abandoned by Russia during its border dispute with Azerbaijan, as Russia failed to provide additional troops while preoccupied with Ukraine.
On this, Graham said, “Russia’s operation in Ukraine is undermining, eroding its ability to maintain its influence across the former Soviet space,” and “You’re seeing the slow erosion of Russian influence.”
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