The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has caused many well-publicised ructions in Europe and the West. However, what is little reported are the political and security issues that have impacted on the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Here, NGS associate analyst James Bulbeck considers the political forecast for the Central Asian region.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked a substantial turning point in 21st Century global politics, one that has proven to be troublingly analogous with the dark days of the Cold War. In the West, NATO members fell victim to Vladimir Putin’s threatening rhetoric, warning the bloc not to interfere in what the Kremlin regards as its own affairs. Yet, the deployment of Russian troops has severely damaged Russia’s image in regions where it has historically retained substantial influence, only proving counterintuitive towards Moscow’s strategic interests elsewhere. A deterioration in relations with the West was something Moscow could have tolerated. After all, rapports between the two have oscillated for over a century. Nevertheless, Putin’s policy of “de-nazifying” Ukraine has backfired on its alliances with Moscow’s closest partners, especially in Central Asia. What was once a collective of mostly “harmonious” states, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have been quick to splinter away from Russia’s tarnishing reputation, whilst also becoming more discordant with one another.
However, this process of estrangement cannot solely be attributed to Moscow’s declining status on the world stage. Deepening economic insecurity alongside a fear of Russian territorial revisionism have been key reasons for Russia’s decreasing influence in the region. Indeed, Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has also given strength to other world powers who wish to benefit from Russia’s growing insignificance and the strategic importance of the region’s natural resources, whilst the invasion has also heightened security issues both domestically and regionally.
Political Context: Growing estrangement of Central Asian states from Russia
Deepening Economic Insecurity: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has had an enduring economic effect on a global level. As the West grappled with inflated energy prices and began to discuss a move to diversify energy imports to limit an overdependency on Russian resources, Central Asia’s elites looked on at Russia’s invasion with ambivalence. Amid a slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s offensive has only been a nuisance for the region. The most damaging aspect of it has been the imposition of embargos on Russia. Whilst initially aimed to cripple and isolate Russia’s economy from the global market, the barrage of sanctions proved especially problematic for Central Asian states, whose extensive economic ties with their larger neighbour have landed the region in turmoil. The by-products of these sanctions, namely the soaring levels of inflation, the growing cost of living, and the ensuing social unrest, certainly gave pause for thought for Central Asian elites not only over Russia’s role as a sustainable trading partner, but also as a trustworthy ally. The region’s close economic links with Russia and the damaging effects of sanctions have rendered Central Asia’s respective economies vulnerable to being isolated from the global market, which also reduced investment attractiveness.
More pressingly for the region, sanctions have had a deep impact on joint-state infrastructural projects and the trade and transit corridors between Russia and Central Asia, which have facilitated the export of the region’s most precious commodities: gas and oil. Kazakhstan has been especially affected. In 2021, the country exported a total of 65.7 million tons of oil, of which over three-quarters went to Europe via major pipelines, including the Druzhba pipeline and the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) which pass through Russian territory. As a form of retribution against the West’s sanctions, Transneft, the energy company controlling the CPC operating largely under Moscow’s command, suspended operations along the pipeline. Initially intended to limit oil exports to induce inflated energy prices, the suspensions directly affected a considerable quantity of Kazakhstan’s exports. It was thus unsurprising that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev accepted a visit to Paris to meet with Emmanuel Macron in November 2022, basing talks on expanding dialogue between the two states on energy and trade. Whilst talks between the two certainly could not be considered to have shown a re-alignment from Moscow, Tokayev’s visit appeared to shed light on Moscow’s dwindling clout within the region. Likewise, at a Caspian Summit meeting in Turkmenistan four months prior, President Serdar Berdimuhamedow did not ensure that Putin was greeted with the customary offering of bread and salt at the airport. He was the only foreign dignitary to have not been received on his arrival. These diplomatic degradations indicate that Russian influence in the region may be fading.
Finally, any incidental benefits that have come of the war have been misleading. Central Asia has acted as a middleman for Russia and China, shadowing and re-exporting Chinese goods for Russian importation. According to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, Tajikistan saw an 85% increase in imports from China in the first two quarters of 2022. However, it is unclear whether the redistribution of goods between China and Russia is likely to be a short or long-term benefit, since this shadow trading is dependent on the longevity, or the lack thereof, of the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin, and thus cannot be relied on as being a stable strategy. Equally, the boosted prices of oil and gas in the international energy market had been especially beneficial for the region’s revenue and provided the opportunity to spill over profit into other sectors of the region’s economies. Yet over a year on from the invasion, prices of oil and gas have slowly retreated, and with it the benefits of increased revenue.
Russian Territorial Revisionism: The invasion of Ukraine presented the five Central Asian states with a deep feeling of territorial insecurity. The notion of a Russian invasion has become a regrettable reality rather than a farcical fantasy. In essence, what would stop Moscow from “liberating” a Central Asian state? Whilst a Russian invasion of a state in the region is extremely unlikely, especially due to the evident military failings in Ukraine, it is perhaps understandable for the elites of the region to hold reservations about Moscow’s foreign policy, especially as its invasion of Ukraine seemed only irrational. Two months after Russian troops entered Ukrainian territory, Rustam Minnekayev, a senior Russian military commander serving as deputy commander of Russia’s Central Military District, alluded to plans of permanently occupying all of southern Ukraine, whilst also annexing the Moldovan breakaway state of Transnistria, arguing that Russian speakers had been oppressed, echoing a similar rhetoric that Moscow used in its attempts to justify its invasion of Ukraine. It seemed obvious that Minnekayev’s comments indicated a greater ambition than initially envisaged, one that involved a disregard for the sovereignty of another state.
Putin’s policy of denazifying Ukraine perhaps draws a veil over the ambition to reinvigorate the old territories of Imperial Russia, accommodating a nationalist, anti-Western stance. Plans for a Union State – which would see the unification of Belarus and Russia – or the annexations of what Moscow deems rightfully theirs, potentially reveal a desire to regain the glory days of regional pre-eminence. Putin’s methods of achieving this have been counterintuitive, with their outcomes proving undesirable. Rather than seeking to reconcile with these territories, Putin’s actions in Ukraine have only pushed his Central Asian counterparts further away and it is thus unsurprising that the region has generally attempted to distance itself from Moscow and eschew any support to Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.
This estrangement was evident at a recent Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit. Putin is seen sat uncomfortably in front of the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In a seven-minute monologue, Tajik President Enomali Rahmon directly admonished Putin, arguing that Central Asian states have not been paid enough attention and demanded respect from Moscow. Whilst this could have been interpreted as an anodyne exchange between leaders, it proved more significant than this. To what could have been a routine gathering of neighbouring peers, and perhaps a form of respite against the backdrop of a failing invasion, the summit, which was held on 14 October 2022 in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, became an embarrassing demonstration of Moscow’s deteriorating clout in Central Asia.
Reinvigorating the New Great Game: Central Asia has long been a region of significant geopolitical interest amongst great powers throughout the centuries. The Silk Road, which traversed all of modern-day Central Asia, played a central role in facilitating trade – amongst other things – between the Far East and the West for over a millennium. The region still acts as an important land bridge from Eurasia all the way to Japan and has retained its geopolitical and strategic significance to this day. Indeed, Russia’s deteriorating influence in the region has created something of a power vacuum, with powers elbowing each other to fill it and gain further access to the rich reserves of natural resources available. In turn, Central Asian states can use the opportunity for their own gain, especially since the region cannot continue to rely on Russia to export its commodities as was clearly demonstrated when Moscow suspended the CPC. Central Asian governments have looked to a number of potential “candidates” that could fill this growing power vacuum.
China: For years now, China has increasingly become more of an attractive regional partner. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has greatly increased Beijing’s economic influence in the region through infrastructure projects and trade agreements. For instance, the Central Asia-China Pipeline – which navigates through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan – when connected with the second west-east pipeline, has a total deliverability of 85 billion cubic metres. The BRI’s maritime routes have also been influential in exporting the region’s resources via shipping, something that was difficult to do with Russia, not only because Central Asia is landlocked, but because Russian ports are usually inaccessible due to ice formation. This would provide the region an opportunity to lessen its dependence on Russia. Indeed, the prospect of Beijing overtaking Moscow’s influence in the region is not as far-fetched as some suggest. For instance, the year before Russia’s invasion, Uzbekistan exported USD1.74 billion of goods from China, USD400 million more than from Russia. It is thus expected that Central Asia-China relations will increase due to the attractiveness of Chinese investment.
The European Union: In a bid to diversify its imports of natural resources, Europe has looked to Central Asia to lessen its unsustainable dependence on Russian exports. As previously mentioned, Macron’s meeting with Tokayev highlights the EU’s move for closer ties with the region. It is certainly likely that the EU will increase dialogue with Central Asia. However, when compared to the advantages that China can offer the region, it does not seem that the EU could have the upper hand any time soon. It may be that the EU must conjure up something like China’s BRI to have any hope of winning over the region.
Turkey: Turkey’s influence in the region is projected to grow. The historic and cultural Turkic links between Turkey and the region puts the former in a favourable position to expand its political heft. Whilst Ankara continues to spearhead the reformed Organisation of Turkic States (OTS), which had its first summit in November 2022, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sought greater engagement with Central Asia by increasing trade and defence agreements with the region. For instance, Turkey is already Uzbekistan’s third-largest export market, and in a visit to Tashkent in March 2022, Erdoğan pledged to increase bilateral trade volume to USD10 billion. Two months later, Erdoğan and Tokayev met in Istanbul to further strengthen the Kazakh-Turkish strategic partnership. Greater engagement in Central Asia is largely driven by Turkey’s energy needs and its dependency on external energy supplies, which is why Ankara’s presence in the region is expected to increase in the medium to long-term.
Increased Prospect of Civil Unrest: Since the invasion of Ukraine, protests and demonstrations in Central Asia have increased. By July 2022, more than 250 people were killed in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan’s autonomous province of Karakalpakstan, and in Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan. Never have protests been so deadly in a calendar year in the region. Moscow’s decision to deploy troops in Ukraine has presented a problem for leaders in Central Asia who have occasionally relied on the Russian military to disperse protesters and protect their leadership. For the first time ever, Moscow had agreed to deploy CSTO troops in Kazakhstan a month before the invasion of Ukraine after mass protests erupted in the country as a result of increased gas prices and deepening economic inequality. The deployment of Russian “peacekeepers” was significant in restoring normality and protecting Tokayev’s ailing regime. Yet, whilst Moscow is preoccupied with its invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states cannot look to its larger neighbour to enforce security and stability. Coupled with growing inflation and ensuing income inequality, prospects for domestic upheaval are high. Since Moscow can no longer protect the leaders’ agendas, it is likely that state leaders will take more drastic measures to keep their respective populations at bay. To take Kazakhstan as an example, Tokayev’s tenure remains fragile as many anti-Russia protesters have voiced discontent regarding his refusal to publicly oppose Russia’s invasion.
Increased Prospect for Interstate Conflict: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has distracted the Kremlin from events taking place in Central Asia, which has been especially problematic for a region with fragile and complicated border disputes. Moscow was once seen as a security guarantor in the region, with its presence alone able to keep disputes within Central Asia at arm’s length. Yet, Putin’s “liberation” of Ukraine has created a significant security problem for the region, with relatively dormant border issues now being revived. At a quick glance of a map of the region, Central Asia is dotted with small exclaves and enclaves that demonstrate the extent of the issues emanating from confusing and often strange border demarcations. Indeed, they also highlight the political fragility of the region’s border disputes. In September 2022, border skirmishes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan broke out, leaving more than 100 dead and displacing over 120,000 people. Whilst it had been argued that the outbreak of hostilities indicated that states could have been exploiting Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine to advance their own agendas, a more disturbing argument is that the border skirmishes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan demonstrate the inability of Russia to remain a security guarantor in the region. With the framework and alliances within the CSTO crumbling, there is little optimism for peace in the region. To make matters worse, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan may further ignite tensions, and even establish new ones. Therefore, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and due to the lack of Russian “peacekeeping troops” available, interstate conflict in the region remains a possible outcome, especially between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
It is unlikely that Central Asian states will completely detach from Russia. After all, continued cooperation between Moscow and Central Asian states remains to be important for all parties involved. However, Putin’s offensive in Ukraine has most certainly damaged its influence and relations in the region. The economic consequences of the invasion combined with a general feeling of distrust towards the Kremlin’s foreign policy has opened a fissure between Russia and Central Asia which will be difficult to remedy. Russia’s preoccupation in Ukraine has also provided the opportunity for external actors, like China, Turkey and the EU, to get involved in Central Asia, which is dependent on regional trade corridors to export oil and gas. If ties between Central Asia and these external actors develop further, as is projected, Moscow may perhaps find its influence in the region deteriorating even more.
Equally, Central Asia has relied on external support to suppress domestic upheavals and keep border disputes at bay. However, the ineffectiveness of the CSTO, due largely in part to Russia’s fixation with Ukraine, has heightened the prospects of civil unrest and interstate conflicts. It may be too early to tell if other states, like China or Turkey, would be ready to supply “peacekeeping” troops to the region. For the time being, it remains unlikely, especially in China’s case due to Beijing’s strong stance on the principles of sovereignty. Despite this, it is likely that Central Asia will broaden its rapports away from Russia, opting to lessen a dependence on an unpredictable and volatile neighbour.
Author: James Bulbeck, Associate Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
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