Tajikistan and other Central Asian nations are on the fence of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Image: Facebook / Eurasianet

Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has awakened Russia’s neighboring Central Asian states to possible dangers lurking to the north. They’re yet unsure how to react.

The five countries in the region are uncertain in part because they have tight economic ties and also because Russia provides an armored security blanket against Islamic fundamentalist groups to the south and even unrest at home.

“Russia was seen as a source of stability. It now seems that its presence in a very sensitive security dimension has become a weakness for regional stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Temur Umarov, a researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This is one of the most crucial crises we are going to face.”

Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – are playing it safe, which is a kind of backhanded slap at Russia: they do not outright condemn but none condone the Ukraine invasion.

The conundrum highlights the tremors reverberating across the regions touching Russia’s borders. For Europe, the invasion touched off a frenetic readjustment of continental security.

Russia’s invasion made a mockery of China’s self-proclaimed devotion to upholding international law, forcing Beijing into anodyne calls for peace talks so as not to upend its budding alliance with Putin.

Weaker states along Russia’s borders are also revisiting closely held assumptions. Azerbaijan wonders how the Ukraine adventure will impact the tense conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh. Is Russia a trustworthy neutral partner or will it return to its 19th Century role of protector of a Christian client state?

And then there’s Central Asia, once part of both the Russian and Soviet empires, a place of mystery, adventure and exoticism, as portrayed in the 1970 Russian adventure movie White Sun of the Desert.

The myths and realities of 30 years of Central Asian independence from the Soviet Union suddenly stand on shaky ground. Each government—all of them authoritarian–use glorified local identities and histories to distinguish their nations from eras of Russian domination.

Suddenly, appearing subservient to a new Tsar is not a good look for the heirs of Genghis Kahn, Attila the Hun and Tamerlane.

Modern-day traders on the ancient Silk Road track in Central Asia. Photo: Facebook

Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine is also an explicit threat to their independence; Putin partly justified his invasion of Ukraine in the context of Russia’s dominance during its imperial past. Does that logic also apply to Central Asia? 

All Central Asian countries share at least some vulnerabilities that make it dicey to criticize Russia, much less sign onto Western economic sanctions.

Some depend on Russia for trade and transit routes for fossil fuel exports. Destitute migrant workers in some countries crave access to Russia for menial jobs. Still others want military protection from Islamic militant groups that might filter into the region from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

An additional threat to some is the presence of ethnic Russian citizens within their territories. One rationale for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the supposed mistreatment of Russians by the Ukrainians.

Links to Russia built up over recent decades have bound Central Asian countries to Russia. Three states–Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—belong to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russian-led NATO-style alliance.

Uzbekistan is loosely allied with Moscow through a separate bilateral agreement. Turkmenistan has a security arrangement with Russia based on the need for a gun-slinging ally to ward off guerrillas or terrorists from neighboring Afghanistan.

In addition, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan both belong to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a kind of mini-European Union.

As a result, each country’s cautious reactions to the Ukraine crisis depended on some combination of these vulnerabilities. Take decisions to back, or not, the recent United Nations General Assembly vote on condemning the invasion. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan abstained. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan didn’t vote at all.

Official statements from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan underscore the range of responses.

People take to the streets to protest in Almaty before a crackdown by the Kazakh government and arrival of Russian troops as part of the CSTO in January 2022. Photo: WikiCommons

Kazakhstan is the largest of the countries and shares the longest of Central Asian borders with Russia. It also hosts the biggest number of ethnic Russians. In January, Russian troops aided Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to win a power struggle against rivals. Around 230 people died in the unrest.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan put its official head in the sand. “The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has nothing to do with Kazakhstan. We do not support either side. There can be no questions in this regard,” said Deputy Minister of Defense Sultan Kamaletdinov.

At the same time, the government-owned newspaper Egemen Qazarqstan published an analysis sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight by describing Russian assaults on “peaceful areas.”

The article defined the conflict as a “war,” a taboo in Russia. Putin’s euphemistic description of the invasion as a “special military operation” was used once, but only to convey the Russian media’s forced description.

The Kazakh government also permitted an anti-war demonstration to take place in Almaty, the country’s capital. The protestors demanded that Kazakhstan leave both the CTSO and EAEU.

Uzbekistan, which imports oil from Russia, has gingerly expressed criticism of Russia.

“Firstly, the military actions and violence must be stopped right away. The Republic of Uzbekistan recognizes Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.

He went on to express opposition to Moscow’s formal recognition of two Ukrainian territories. “We do not recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk republics,” he said, apparently to the surprise of the Kremlin.

Carnegie’s Umarov said that Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev had been slowly moving into Moscow’s orbit until the invasion. But that’s over for Uzbekistan and possibly for other Central Asian countries. “I think that Central Asian governments will seek to minimize the influence of Russia, which will be difficult to do, but they have no choice since it has become an unpredictable power,” he said.

Nonetheless, Central Asian governments are concerned about the adverse impact on their economies of the West’s bid to bring Putin to his knees via economic sanctions.

Central Asian migrant workers will bear the brunt of the ruble’s collapse. Image: Facebook

By reducing the value of the ruble, the sanctions have also undermined the buying power of remittances sent home by Central Asian migrant workers. The World Bank forecasts the value of remittances will decline by 21% in Uzbekistan, 22% in Tajikistan, and 33% in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular depend on the wages of migrant workers. Thirty-one percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and 27% of Tajikistan’s depend on remittances from Russia, according to the World Bank.

Despite the economic downturn, Kyrgyzstan’s response to the Ukraine crisis was far from an endorsement. During a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), its representative declared that the government stands for a “peaceful solution.”

“In Kyrgyzstan, there are serious concerns about the likely consequences of open criticism of Russia, both in terms of security and politics,” political scientist Emil Dzhuraev told Al Jazeera cable news network.

The security of states bordering Afghanistan is also a reason not to offend Russia.

Tajikistan has not engaged with Afghanistan’s Taliban government since its takeover last year and both countries have dispatched troops to their frontier. Tajik hostility is bolstered by the presence of the Russian Army’s 201st Division, which has been in the country since 1991.

Escaping Russia’s grip won’t be easy. It’s not clear whether, in the end, Central Asian leaders will blame Moscow or the West for their coming economic problems. New trade routes would ease the burden. Despite all Putin’s signals of hostilities with Ukraine, Central Asian governments did not prepare for the worst.

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.