Russia’s allies in Central Asia appear to be slowly distancing themselves from the Kremlin, an emerging shift born of the war in Ukraine.
While Moscow is preoccupied with its “special military operation” in Ukraine, other regional and global actors are seeking to boost their influence in a region that has traditionally been in Russia’s geopolitical orbit.
The United States – Russia’s major rival in the emerging new Cold War – has developed a new strategy for Central Asia that aims to “promote American values and provide a counterbalance to the influence of regional neighbors.”
Moscow, for its part, claims that it “has not and does not regard the region as an arena for geopolitical confrontation,” said Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko during a plenary session of the Inter-Parliamentary Forum of Central Asian countries and the Russian Federation on May 12.
So does Matvienko’s pronouncement mean that the Kremlin has already given up protecting its strategic interests in Central Asia? “Russia traditionally respects the right of the states of the region to sovereign development and welcomes trends towards strengthening intraregional integration,”said Matvienko.
Sensing an opening, Washington is now bidding to strengthen its relatively modest positions in the region. On May 10, the US Ambassador to Tajikistan John Mark Pommersheim said that the US would allocate US$60 million to Tajikistan for security. The assistance would include $20 million worth of Puma reconnaissance drones.
The US Embassy in Dushanbe has already provided eight IVECO trucks, tires and related spare parts to Tajikistan’s Ministry of Defense, valued at $2.3 million. Moreover, the United States also plans to build a border checkpoint on the Tajik-Afghan border and an additional outpost for 900 military personnel and their families on the border with Afghanistan.
Tajikistan is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and is economically dependent on Moscow. Migrant remittances from Russia fuel the economy of Central Asia’s poorest state; it is estimated that around one million Tajik citizens live and work in the Russian Federation.
It is thus unclear considering that considerable leverage why the Kremlin does not attempt to prevent Dushanbe from developing closer military ties with the United States.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Washington would ever give the green light to any NATO member to accept military donations from and strengthen defense cooperation with Moscow amid the escalating war in Ukraine.
The one exception might be Turkey, a US ally that purchased Russia’s S-400 missile defense system in 2019. However, Turkey is also actively increasing its positions in Central Asia, which fits perfectly with America’s emerging Central Asia strategy to “provide a counterbalance to the influence of regional neighbors”, namely Russia and China.
Turkey has already sold its Bayraktar TB2 drones to Kyrgyzstan – another Russian CSTO ally – and reportedly plans to deliver unmanned combat aerial vehicles to neighboring Tajikistan. More importantly, Turkey and Kazakhstan – yet another CSTO member – recently signed an agreement to start co-producing Anka drones, or medium-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aerial vehicles.
Following a May meeting between Turkey’s and Kazakhstan’s presidents in Ankara, rumors began circulating that Russia’s Central Asian ally may leave the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, which brings together various post-Soviet states. Although Nur-Sultan denied the speculation it intends to leave the union, certain signals have no doubt garnered the Kremlin’s attention.
For instance, 36 out of 107 members of Kazakhstan’s Parliament (Mazhilis) have recently supported the idea of changing the status of the Russian language in the nation’s constitution. That follows on so-called language patrols in August 2021 that demanded people speak the Kazakh language instead of Russian, even though constitutionally Russian is the official language in Central Asia’s geographically largest country.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, drivers are being fined for having stickers on their cars with the “Z” sign, a symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seen on signboards and tanks in Russia. Kyrgyzstan authorities also banned the symbol’s use during Victory Day celebrations on May 9.
Significantly, neither Kyrgyzstan nor any other of Russia’s Central Asian allies has openly and officially supported Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, although nor have they condemned the Kremlin’s military adventure.
During the March 2 vote at the United Nations General Assembly, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan abstained from condemning the invasion, a clear indication of their official neutrality.
Because Russia is not actively pressuring its allies to take sides on the invasion, it is not surprising that Central Asian nations are attempting to carefully balance their nominal alliance with the Kremlin with the growing influence of other foreign actors including the US.
On May 16, Russian leaders will have an opportunity to discuss all these issues with their CSTO allies in a summit at Moscow that will mark the 30th anniversary of their Collective Security Treaty, as well as the 20th anniversary of the organization.
For now, it remains unclear if the Kremlin intends to radically change its strategy and press CSTO members to overtly back its actions in Ukraine, which is not yet officially declared a “war” by Moscow.
But without a significant and fast shift in its foreign, domestic and defense policies, Russia risks not only a bruising defeat in Ukraine but also a loss of influence in neighboring Central Asia.
Follow Nikola Mikovic on Twitter at @nikola_mikovic