How the Ukraine war has affected ex-Soviet bloc states

How the Ukraine war has affected ex-Soviet bloc states

Ukrainian servicemen prepare an FPV drone for a test flight at a training ground in Donetsk region. (REUTERS)
Ukrainian servicemen prepare an FPV drone for a test flight at a training ground in Donetsk region. (REUTERS)
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Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, many countries in regions that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, particularly Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Georgia, have taken neutral stances and carefully calibrated their diplomatic actions between Russia and the West, although maintaining a position that is closer to the Kremlin’s agenda. At the same time, they have developed their ties with other states that have offered neutral responses to the Ukraine crisis, such as those in the Middle East.

Uzbekistan has taken a balanced position on the Ukraine crisis. Relations between Tashkent and Moscow are strong and have developed through multilateral engagements such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the UN.

The impact of Western sanctions on the Russian economy directly affected the Uzbek economy, as the country relies on high-tech imports from Russia. Uzbekistan is now a key link in the logistics chain for goods from states that have imposed sanctions on Russia. In 2022, the volume of goods and services supplied from Uzbekistan to Russia increased by nearly 50 percent, to $3.06 billion.

At the same time, Uzbekistan has tried to balance relations with the West, rather than circumvent restrictive measures against Russia. In April 2023, Brussels provided the Uzbek authorities with a list of goods that are subject to EU sanctions, including microchips and optical equipment. The European authorities paid special attention to this, as they had noticed a significant increase of 126 percent in the export of such products through Uzbekistan.

Just as the Ukraine war pushed states toward alternative logistics arrangements, it also contributed to the importance of geopolitical reality, particularly the growing importance of the trans-Caspian international transport route linking the EU and China via Central Asia, Turkiye and the Caucasus. Connectivity is another field where most of the former Soviet space benefited: in September 2022, an agreement was signed between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and China to develop a feasibility study for a trilateral railway project.

The war has both required and offered opportunities for engagements with the EU and other Western partners

Dr. Diana Galeeva

The war has both required and offered opportunities for engagements with the EU and other Western partners, especially those based on soft power. At an Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies forum on UK-Uzbek ties last month, Sodiq Safoyev, the first deputy chairman of the Senate of Uzbekistan, expressed the idea of broadening relations with the UK based on soft power elements. He took into consideration how historical details and trajectories in the evolution of their civilizations offer the possibility of new research to study different civilizations.

In 1994, the British-Uzbek Society was formed, which in the current geopolitical reality serves as a useful soft power tool. The idea of collaborating on climate change was also discussed at last month’s forum, including the potential of Central Asia as a logistics hub, offering new routes between China, Central Asia and the UK.

There has been much speculation regarding Russia’s diminished influence on Kazakhstan. In 2022, the Kazakhstan government prepared to accommodate Western sanctions, while carefully aiming to mitigate their impact. Nonetheless, statistics show that, since then, Astana’s economic ties with Russia have only grown. The years 2022 and 2023 saw record trade between the two countries of $26 billion and $27 billion, respectively, including the export of dual-use goods.

Russia also controls Kazakhstan’s main export route, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which exports 79 percent of Kazakh crude oil. In 2023, a $6 billion deal was signed that will increase bilateral energy interdependence, as seen with Russia’s attempts to build three coal plants in Kazakhstan.

Maximilian Hess of the Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote in 2022: “Kazakhstan has attempted to placate Western concerns while also showing no serious signs of disloyalty to Moscow.” In 2024, Kate Mallinson nonetheless stressed in an analysis for Chatham House: “An arch-diplomat, the Kazakh president will continue to attempt to balance: refraining from showing support for Russia’s actions while not being accused by Moscow of acting against Russia.”

She concluded that Western countries might play a key role by providing young Kazakhs with technology, education, independent media and Western values. However, “geography, economic and cultural ties matter, and Russia looks set to remain a key strategic partner for Kazakhstan over the next difficult decade of geopolitics.” These analyses might be useful with regards to most post-Soviet states — the Baltic countries excepted — and offer a good explanation of their current standings.

Georgia, as a small state, has also taken a neutral stance, rejecting economic sanctions against Russia. With limited security guarantees, the country still has aspirations of joining the EU and NATO. However, in 2023, Giorgi Kandelaki wrote an analysis for the Atlantic Council titled “Russia is losing in Ukraine but wining in Georgia.” He gave the example of the absence of then-Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili from last year’s NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

These states are arguably seeking a safe haven for their foreign policy away from toxic great power competitions

Dr. Diana Galeeva

Weeks before the summit, Garibashvili attracted global attention by suggesting NATO shared responsibility for the start of the Ukraine war. The war has clearly polarized the internal dynamics of the country, including ongoing clashes amid a so-called foreign agents law debate, which has a direct impact on Georgia’s path of balancing between the West and Russia.

In the case of Georgia, and potentially other post-Soviet spaces, another interesting trend is that of diversification efforts with other actors, principally those that have also expressed neutrality and prioritized their national interests over the Ukraine war. For example, in 2022, bilateral nonoil trade between Georgia and the UAE reached $468 million, an increase of 110 percent over 2021, and constituted 63 percent of Georgia’s trade with the entire Arab world. In March 2022, the two countries signed a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, particularly motivated by the strategic importance of Georgia, as it acts as an east-west corridor to boost connectivity and trade.

After the official visit of Garibashvili to Saudi Arabia at the end of 2022, where he met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Georgia became an area of special interest. As 85 percent of Georgia’s electricity comes from renewable sources, renewable energy — including its related technologies and expertise — is a strategic priority for the country and an important tool in its cooperation with the energy-rich Gulf states amid their efforts to diversify. In addition to renewables, relations with Saudi Arabia are economically strategic, especially in agriculture, manufacturing and tourism.

Therefore, the states of the post-Soviet space are carefully balancing their ties with Russia, while also seeking to widen the windows of opportunity with Western states. They are also aiming to diversify their links with other neutral states, given the current geopolitical transformations, arguably seeking a safe haven for their foreign policy away from toxic great power competitions.

Dr. Diana Galeeva is an academic visitor to Oxford University. X: @Dr_GaleevaDiana


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