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

When Vladimir Putin declared that Ukraine was a “historic part” of Russia, a rhetorical salvo that presaged his invasion, the message must have set Central Asian republics that broke away from the ex-Soviet Union back in 1991 on a certain edge.

None of those republics, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have the same European or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aspirations of Ukraine and thus by any measure are out of Moscow’s immediate firing line.

The Ukraine conflict has nonetheless put certain Central Asian states on high alert, particularly those that are party to the Russia-centric Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a mutual defense pact first formed soon after the Central Asian republics broke away.

CSTO member Belarus has already assisted Russia’s Ukraine war effort by providing grounds for the invasion. It is possible others could be called upon to provide military support to the campaign if it fails to quickly achieve its objectives.

While states like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have expressed solidarity with Russia, none have yet offered or agreed to send their troops to fight in Ukraine.

The CSTO’s collective rapid reaction force, initiated by a 2009 agreement, could potentially be called upon for peacekeeping if and when Moscow subdues various cities and areas now under assault, some analysts suggest.

In January, CSTO peacekeepers were deployed to Kazakhstan in response to anti-government unrest that some perceived as being stirred by Western countries.

China’s rising stakes in Central Asia, a region that it is pivotal to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), means Russia will stay focused on Ukraine and won’t likely extend its apparent new age of expansionism to its former Soviet satellites, not least for fear of irking its key ally in Beijing.   

China’s total investment in the Central Asian states reached US$40 billion at the end of 2020, with about 7,700 Chinese firms operating in the old Soviet republics. China also sources a considerable amount of its gas imports from the region.

In January, when the Kazakhstan protests broke out, the Chinese reportedly watched the situation with grave concern. Chinese officials said the unrest resembled a Western-backed “color revolution”, and extended its full support against any bid to change the political status quo.

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. Photo: WikiCommons

China is also building a military outpost in Tajikistan with an eye on potential instability arising from neighboring Afghanistan, where anti-Chinese militants are known to be active and with ambitions of stirring new trouble in Xinjiang, where Beijing keeps ethnic Uighurs in controversial labor camps.

This Chinese hedge is likely one key reason why Central Asian states did not automatically follow Moscow in extending recognition to the two rebellious regions of Ukraine – Donetsk and  Luhansk – as “independent states.”

Yet Central Asian states are deeply integrated with Russia’s economy, and will suffer by association from Moscow’s growing isolation as the West piles on punitive sanctions in response to its Ukraine invasion.

Those sanctions have plummeted the ruble, tanked the Russian stock market, sparked new inflation and cut many Russian banks from the SWIFT transfer system. All of these impacts will also hit the literal millions of Central Asian workers in Russia, which in turn will redound on their homelands.    

New Russian capital controls on foreign currency transfers means that Central Asian migrant workers will either be unable or find it difficult to send remittances back home. A broad decline in the Russian economy means many will likely be squeezed out of work altogether, leading to a reverse migration of unemployed workers.

According to data released by Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, more than 3 million workers from Uzbekistan, 1.6 million from Tajikistan and 620,000 from the Kyrgyz Republic entered Russia between January and September 2021.

In 2019, Tajik workers from Moscow sent home US$2.6 billion in remittances, which is triple the value of all other Tajik exports that year combined. Remittances from Russia make up about 30% of Tajikistan’s GDP, 28% of Kyrgyzstan’s and 12% of Uzbekistan’s.

Economists and analysts have warned that a significant fall in remittances from these Russia-based workers could generate social and political pressures in their homelands. In 2014, when the West imposed much more limited sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea, Tajikistan’s remittances fell by half.

Migrant workers arrive by train in Russia. Photo: Facebook

But it is not only remittances from Russia that are at a stake. Hundreds of thousands of Central Asian workers are based in Ukraine as well. The war is already displacing them, which means that even more economic pressure will grow on Central Asian states as they return home empty-handed.

About 4,000 Tajik workers are based in Ukraine, according to the Tajik embassy in Ukraine. A similar number of Uzbeks are based in the now war-torn country.

The timing couldn’t be worse as Central Asia’s economies are still suffering from the economic fallout of the pandemic – and Russia’s isolation will inevitably stunt their projected recoveries, as will the broader fallout of the conflict on the global economy.

Economic crisis and political instability in Central Asia could quickly redound on Moscow. As recent events in Kazakhstan showed, economic crisis can quickly spark political unrest and threaten the stability of pro-Russia and pro-China authoritarian regimes.

If Central Asian states become unstable indirectly because of the economic fallout caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, Western intelligence and other agencies could seize the opportunity to seed new “color revolutions” in the region that seek to oust pro-Russian leaders and install more pro-Western regimes.

While the West is unlikely to push for NATO’s expansion beyond Europe to Central Asia, Western strategists will no doubt be keen to exploit any openings in the region that could work to erode Russia and China’s interests and positions.

Unrest in Central Asia would potentially destabilize Russia’s geographical “underbelly” and thus start to squeeze Moscow’s ability to project hard power into Europe in a type of two-front conflict scenario.

While most Central Asian states have so far refrained from expressing open support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, they might soon see the merit in supporting active diplomacy to defuse the crisis before they get fully dragged into it.