Russia’s Singular Focus on Ukraine is a Boon for Others
Soon destined to enter its first year, the war in Ukraine has produced consequences that extend far beyond the European borders, affecting the degree of agency exercised by actors on the international stage vis-à-vis Russia, Ukraine, and beyond. Some countries have seen in the disruptions brought about by the war the opportunity to act more independently of the Kremlin and strengthen their regional and international role.
For others, the war has instead worked as an ‘agency killer,’ undermining their ability to take a reasonable position on the war. However, the impact of the war and the extent to which it reshaped agency has often been either ignored or viewed only through a Eurocentric lens. Only through an analysis of how non-Western countries have experienced the impact of the war can one fully grasp the global implications of the conflict.
Windows of opportunity
For some countries in the post-Soviet space, the war has generated new opportunities to pursue their strategic objectives. Azerbaijan represents a case in point. Last September, Azerbaijani troops attacked the disputed areas of Nagorno-Karabakh, going as far as hitting Armenian national territory. According to various experts, the decision to strike was prompted by the war in Ukraine.
Indeed, Baku was aware that Moscow’s preoccupation with the invasion would have prevented it from promptly rescuing Armenia, its ally. This is confirmed by the timing of the offensive, launched right after the Russian setbacks in the Kharkiv region. As anticipated by Baku, the support offered by the Kremlin to Armenia was late and weak, enabling Azerbaijan to maintain control of the conquered territory.
These events speak to the extent Azerbaijan has taken advantage of the invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, they also suggest that Armenian positioning on the international stage might be reshaped by the resumption of hostilities. Considering the weak and belated support offered by the Kremlin, Yerevan may start pondering the possibility of gradually distancing itself from Russia. Some fissures have already started to appear in the relationship between the two countries.
Last November, Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s president, refused to sign the summit declaration of the CSTO, the mutual defence agreement composed of former Soviet republics. Interestingly, a few weeks after the resumption of hostilities, Azerbaijan and Armenia met to discuss the state of the conflict at an EU-led initiative to deal with the consequences of the war in Ukraine. From a broader perspective, this might fit in the framework of the enhanced diplomatic proximity between Armenia and France. Consequently, new windows of opportunity could open also for Armenia on the international stage.
Similarly, other players outside the post-Soviet space are set to benefit from the opportunities arising from the war in Ukraine. In Syria, Russia has decreased its military presence as it shifts resources to Ukraine, providing Iran with an opportunity to strengthen its regional role.
Before the invasion, Russia was able to curtail Iranian ambitions, such as expanding in Damascus periphery by building a stronghold with its Shiite militias. Nonetheless, Russia’s singular focus on Ukraine has allowed Iran to pursue these objectives with greater liberty. Furthermore, since the start of the war, Teheran has extended its control over some Moscow-held areas.
Although this dynamic is conceivable as part of the long-lasting cooperation between the two countries, Iran’s pursuit of a more prominent role in the region should not be underestimated. At the same time, Teheran should be cautious regarding the potential strategic and military implications of Russia’s reduced foothold in Syria. For instance, Moscow decided to remove the S-300 air defence system and redeploy it to Ukraine, a decision that will likely enhance the vulnerability of Iran in the region. Indeed, this armament had proved crucial over the past few years in countering Israeli airstrikes that severely beset Iranian troops in southern Syria. Therefore, this newly achieved freedom of manoeuvre might reignite local tensions and produce unpredictable scenarios in the area.
Ukraine as an ‘agency-killer’
While the resumption of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has highlighted how local players might benefit from the repercussions of the war in Ukraine, other actors in the post-Soviet space could see their agency inhibited. This is exemplified by Kazakhstan.
Despite the long-lasting economic and political liaisons with the Kremlin, the Kazakh government has taken a somewhat independent posture towards the invasion, rejecting the referendums in Donbas and Luhansk, and delivering humanitarian aid to Ukraine. This stance mirrors the greater degree of political autonomy sought by the country. However, it is hard to predict the durability of this decisive position in light of the dire repercussions of the conflict.
The war-induced inflation increasingly affecting the country risks reviving popular dissent and unrest in the country. From this standpoint, the violent protests that erupted in the country last January – quickly suppressed by Russian troops at Kazakhstan’s request – were motivated by the poor living conditions of the population. Considering the worsening economic outlook caused by the war, Astana is unlikely to fully detach itself from the only guarantor of its survival in the case of popular dissent. At the same time, this might constrain its ability to pursue a more independent position from the Kremlin.
Besides its military and strategic implications, the war has reverberated through other dimensions that limit the agency of certain actors in the international arena.
From this viewpoint, multiple African countries have seen their freedom of action critically restrained by the war-induced food crisis. With the closure of ports on the Black Sea caused by the invasion, lower exports of grain and fertiliser has led to a tremendous increase in the prices of these commodities, sparking mass hunger and economic upheaval across Africa.
Considering this complex situation, multiple countries have found themselves walking a tightrope between Western demands to take a tough diplomatic stance against the invasion, and the burden caused by the food shortages. This has led to somewhat ambiguous positions vis-à-vis the war.
Egypt, the first importer of Russian wheat, initially avoided condemning the invasion or joining the sanctions imposed on Moscow, preferring instead to call for dialogue between the parties. However, after Western allies pressured Egypt for a more decisive attitude, Cairo voted in favour of a UN resolution condemning the war. This oscillating position suggests how concurring international pressures and strong dependence on Russian commodities restricted Egyptian freedom of action. As a result, the government finds itself in a diplomatic crossfire, while being growingly damaged by the food crisis.
These last examples confirm the far-reaching repercussions caused by the ongoing war in Ukraine on the global political arena, which has affected the agency of various actors, both within and outside of Europe. While some nations have seized the opportunity to assert their independence and strengthen their international position, others have seen their ability to act independently undermined. From the South Caucasus to sub-Saharan Africa, these changes are likely to lead to increasing instability and potentially revisionist attitudes. Azerbaijan and Iran seem to confirm this argument.
In parallel, some countries risk getting squeezed by big power competition between Russia and the West. Thus, a remaining question relates to who will be able to reap the benefits of these overwhelming changes while avoiding being crushed by them.