The consequences of European colonialism in Africa are ever apparent. Arbitrarily drawn borders have split tribes and regions of common interest, leading to decades of war, instability, and famine. For example, the Somali people in the Horn of Africa were split three ways: Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya by the French, British, and Italians. Ethiopians were split three ways: Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. This unstable region suffers from near-perpetual war and has recently been a breeding ground for ISIS militants.
The Tankies may not like to hear it, but Russia isn’t just a colonial empire. It has made exactly the same mistakes with arbitrary borders. Crimea, for example, only became part of the Ukraine in 1954 and is a major factor in this war.
Indeed, those arbitrary borders (along with forced deportations and ethnic Russian in-migrations) are a major reason Russia has been able to stir up so much shit in its former colonies.
Russia hasn’t just been able to foment such conflict when it suited it, but also used its perceived might to squelch conflict when that was the better option. Two of its tools have been the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a customs and economic cooperation union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a NATO-style military alliance that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. When a protest movement threatened the repressive Kazakh regime earlier this year, the CSTO, led by Russian VDV airborne “peacekeepers,” intervened to save the day.
Yet those arbitrarily drawn borders and Russia’s precipitous loss of prestige and military might are suddenly igniting the region in war.
Earlier this week, ignoring Russian peacekeeping forces (and shelling them in at least one case), Azerbaijan invaded its neighbor Armenia, looking to recapture the breakaway regions of Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mostly by ethnic Armenians. The region had been mostly occupied by Armenian separatists following a 1991-1994 war in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Azerbaijan clawed some of that territory back in a 2020 war, but Russian pressure brought on an uneasy truce that finally fell apart this week. To be clear, I lack the knowledge to provide a nuanced view of the situation, particularly in a conflict that incites the same kind of passions as the Israel-Palestine one does. No one wades into this debate and walks out unscathed.
I mean, who can make sense of this?
As a responding tweet explains: “Armenia is a Christian nation where a guy is waving an Iranian flag and a bunch of people are waving French flags. Azerbaijan is a Muslim nation and they are dancing with an Israeli flag.” Yeah, I’m not the guy to unravel all that as it delves into the 1915 Armenian genocide by Turkey, a close Azerbaijan ally, and literally hundreds of years of grievances.
Armenia is a member of the CSTO and triggered the mutual defense clause of their alliance. Yet Russia has shrugged it off. Not only does it lack any spare forces to engage, but it is still mad at the current Armenian government for making kissy-faces at the European Union a few years back. The ascendent opposition would be far friendlier with Moscow, so Russia seems happy to see the government flail and likely collapse in the next few days.
The European Union, for its part, is depending on Azerbaijani oil to help make up Russia’s shortfall. So their support for the democratic Armenia will be muted by their need for fossil fuels from yet another dictatorial regime. And the rest of the CSTO is also sitting things out. NATO it is not.
And part of the reason is because CSTO members Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are too busy lobbing mortar and machine gun fire at each other. One-third of their 1,000-kilometer border lacks demarcation, and border clashes are common. Yet Russia has had military bases in both countries helping keep tensions to a slow boil. Without Russia holding the leash, the odds of war between these two nations increases.
Meanwhile, despite being bailed out by Russia earlier this year, Kazakh dictator Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has been increasingly hostile to Moscow in recent months. It started with refusing Russia’s request for troops in Ukraine, then escalated with this from back in June:
Putin retaliated on stage by arguing that all the territories of the former Soviet Union historically belonged to Russia, which must’ve felt like a nuclear bomb to those former republics—they were just as at risk as Ukraine.
Tensions have escalated to the point that China is swooping in, seeing an opportunity to fill Russia’s leadership and military void.
After meeting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Kazakhstan’s capital, [Chinese leader Xi Jinping] made it clear that Beijing would not tolerate any encroachments on Kazakhstan’s territory.
“I would like to assure you that the government of China pays huge attention to relations with Kazakhstan,” he said, in remarks quoted in Russian in Tokayev’s office’s readout of the meeting.
“However the international situation changes, going forward we will also resolutely support Kazakhstan in the defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity; firmly support the reforms conducted by you to assure stability and development; [and] categorically come out against interference by any forces in the internal affairs of your country.”
There is only one country that threatens Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, so it’s clear at whom this was directed. So much for Russia and China’s “no limits” friendship, declared shortly after the Winter Olympics.
Yet as much trouble as we might see in Central Asia, that might pale in comparison to what a breakup of the Russian federation might look like. Russia has 85 federal subjects, 21 of them republics like Chechnya, Dagestan, and Buryata. If those names sound vaguely familiar, it’s because those poor regions constitute a disproportionate number of Russia’s war dead in Ukraine.
Almost all of Russia outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg has been historically neglected by Moscow. Indeed, historian Kaleem Galeev argues that the city of Moscow is incapable of functioning as anything but a parasite sucking the life out of the rest of its empire.
Underscoring that point, over one-fifth of Russian households lack indoor plumbing, a war is killing tens of thousands of countrymen and maiming untold more, yet this is what Putin is up to these days:
You may remember Russia’s push to stand up volunteer units in every one of Russia’s 85 federal jurisdictions. Forty such units were supposedly launched, and then … crickets. What happened?
Putin is so paranoid that he created a separate army personally loyal to him, the Rosgvardia (National Guard). Suddenly he was directly arming peasants out in the hinterlands? The effort seems to have died a quiet death, and most assume it was from lack of volunteers. But I’d be willing to bet that Putin got cold feet, that perhaps arming a future potential separatist movement might prove problematic. (Note that some reports say these troops were absorbed into the new 3rd Army Corps that went and already got its ass whooped at Kupyansk.)
There is a very real scenario in which Russia falls apart even more spectacularly than the Soviet Union, with those dozens of regional “republics” and federal areas demanding independence. It is not a scenario the West likely relishes—instability in these impoverished regions could easily spill into broader regional conflicts. And don’t forget nuclear weapons are stored in many of them, and everyone has learned from Ukraine’s mistake. No one is willingly giving up a nuke if they’ve got one.
Russia will lose in Ukraine. The question will soon be how much new misery this will cause on the Asian continent.
I’m fascinated by the amount of abandoned equipment left behind by Russians in Kharkiv Oblast. After today’s update, the tally now stands at over 400 visually confirmed military vehicles, including 61 tanks, 117 armored infantry vehicles, and over 20 artillery pieces. I pity Ukrainian mechanics working to bring this all back to full working condition. Undoubtedly, much of it will be sent to Poland for repairing, refitting, and updating.
Putin was famous for pulling this power play, leaving a world leader to sit awkwardly waiting. This wasn’t an accident. Central Asia is letting Putin know he no longer holds the cards.
This is looking like Putin’s nightmare of a trip.
Remember, Putin and Xi signed a treaty of “friendship without limits,” then about a week later invaded Ukraine without consulting with their supposed new friends. Meanwhile, the United States had asked China to try and talk sense into Putin and China was like “America lies!” Putin made them look like fools.