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Russia is using central Asian countries to avoid sanctions

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“Grandfather died, but the business lives on. It would be better if it were the other way around”. So says Soviet folklore about Lenin. Today, another Russian leader named Vladimir has repeatedly and publicly denied the statehood of Ukraine, part of justifying the centuries-long history of Russian imperialism against my country and others in the former Soviet Union - writes Vladyslav Vlasiuk, a sanctions expert in President Zelenskyy’s office.

Ten years ago, this denial of Ukraine resulted in war; two years ago, in a full-scale invasion. Alas, members of ethnic minorities living on their historical lands inside modern Russia – including thousands of Armenians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz people – are being forced to deal with the consequences of Putin’s aggression.

The Ukrainian Government welcomes the actions of those countries in central Asia and our allies around the world who have condemned Russia’s war and refused to recognize the annexation of Ukrainian territories. But at the same time, several are acting as important links in the logistics network supplying Putin’s criminal war machine, regardless of official attempts to comply with the sanctions regime.

It’s clear that more needs to be done to hinder Russian efforts to wage a terrorist war against Ukraine and stop the killing of innocent civilians. This is illustrated by just a few of the many examples of how Russia is using its neighbours to avoid sanctions.

In Kazakhstan, since the invasion, the number of Russian companies registered there has increased from fewer than 8,000 to 13,000; part of the system of “parallel imports” that helps Russia evade sanctions and increase its weapons production. In 2022, a $2 billion increase in Kazakh exports to Russia meant that at least a tenth of sanctioned goods received by Russia were channelled via. Kazakhstan, including microelectronics and mechanical engineering equipment.

Kazakhstan is also being used to support the Russian military’s access to deadly drones that are being widely used in Ukraine, to help them repair their aircraft and support the lifestyles of oligarchs who sponsor the war.

To the south in Kyrgyzstan, dozens of cargo flights by Aerostan Airlines have been used to transport foreign products, mostly from the United Arab Emirates (where many Russian importers have registered companies), to Russia. This includes electrical components, aircraft parts, video cameras and remote control equipment for drones that finds its way onto the battlefield.

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Turning west, Uzbek producers are supplying cotton pulp to Russian gunpowder factories that manufacture ammunition and artillery rounds for Russian troops in Ukraine. In January to August 2023 alone, Russia imported cotton pulp to a total value of 7.2 million USD, 87% of which came from Uzbekistan.

And across the Caspian Sea in Armenia, exports to Russia rose by 85% over the first nine months in 2023, of which 80% were re-exports. The Jamestown Foundation analytical centre in the United States has noted that Armenia's foreign trade turnover grew by 69% after the start of the war, attributing this to re-exports to Russia. In February, new data published by Robin Brooks at the Institute of International Economics showed that Armenian exports to Russia had increased by 430% compared to the period before the invasion.

Consequently, companies from each of these countries are now having restrictions imposed on them. This is increasing risks for respectable businesses, could cause serious damage to national economies, and harm the quality of life of ordinary people, all as a result of the Kremlin’s desire to wage its war of aggression against Ukraine.

Since the fall of the USSR, a host of former Soviet states, including Ukraine, have sought to escape Russian control and safeguard our sovereignty. In the spirit of a shared belief in peaceful co-existence and mutual respect between nations, we ask all counties in the region to stand with us against this brutal aggression and ensure that they can no longer be used as a back door to avoid sanctions.

As well as helping us win the war, the changing economic relations of the region, prompted by the current sanctions regime, are opening up new opportunities for cooperation with partners around the world. The relocation of businesses leaving Russia to neighbouring countries can also give a powerful impetus to economic development. We stand ready to encourage further coordination of efforts in these areas, as well as consultations on further sanctions, to unlock these new opportunities for our allies.

There is now an opportunity for countries in central Asia to not only stand up for what is right, but escape the clutches of an economic relationship with Russia which Putin is shamelessly exploiting to pursue his own ambitions to redraw borders on the map by force.

Ukrainians believe that sharing responsibility with the criminal Putin regime is not what ordinary people living in the region want. There is a better way, and we hold out the hand of friendship for all who chose to uphold the sanctions imposed by the global community in response to this heinous Russian aggression. 

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