Russia’s Power Play in Central Asia

Concerns over Central Asian security have increased in recent weeks as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan engaged in serious fighting on their border and as the region braces for the Taliban’s reaction as President Joe Biden ordered U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan by September 2021. Despite Russian officials’ contradictory statements and attitudes on the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, Moscow is now taking advantage of the opportunity to bolster its own security there.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently toured the region, attending a meeting of the Council of Defense Ministers of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)  where he mainly criticized the West,  stressing that “the actions of the United States and NATO in the European region contribute to the growth of the military danger.” A few weeks later on May 19 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Dushanbe to meet with his fellow foreign ministers from CSTO states.

While in Dushanbe, Shoigu held talks with his Tajik counterpart Sherali Mirzo. As a result, the ministers announced the creation of a unified air defense system between Russia and Tajikistan. Since 2009, Moscow has been trying to integrate the air defense systems of Russia and  several former Soviet Republics, signing deals with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. Negotiations continue with Kyrgyzstan over the creation of a similar system. Shoigu also said that Russia is ready to increase the number of places for Tajik servicemen in Russian military universities and hinted that the Tajik military will continue to be involved in Russia-led exercises, such as Zapad-2021 scheduled for September. He noted that 500 military personnel currently attend courses in Russia, with a further 1,000 being trained at Russia’s 201st motorized rifle division base in Tajikistan. 

Following Tajikistan, Shoigu visited Uzbekistan where he had talks with the Uzbek Defense Minister Bahodir Kurbanov. Shoigu emphasized that Uzbekistan is Russia’s strategic partner in Central Asia. Developing training programs is a priority for both sides, as highlighted in the  strategic partnership program between Russia and Uzbekistan in the military field for 2021-2025 which was unveiled during the visit. This was the first agreement of this kind to be signed between the two countries. “Its implementation will make it possible to give the cooperation a more systemic character, to bring it to a level corresponding to the spirit of our special relations,” Shoigu said.

Uzbekistan has traditionally kept Moscow at arm’s length, joining and leaving the CSTO twice in 1999 and in 2012. But the two have strengthened military ties since signing an agreement “On the development of military-technical cooperation” in 2016. Rejoining the CSTO does not seem to be on the agenda at present, but may reemerge if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates. Although it is not a member of the CSTO, Russia continues to implement 12 supply contracts with Uzbekistan, according to which, Tashkent receives new radar systems, Su-30SM fighters, Mi-35M attack helicopters. Another major contract regulates the phased delivery of a large batch of Russian K53949 Typhoon armored vehicles. Since 2016, Uzbekistan has been receiving all military products from the Russian Federation at domestic Russian prices, the only CIS country outside the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union that has such a privilege. Closer integration is reflected in the production of Russian trucks “Ural” with 4×4 and 6×6 wheel configurations based on MS RemTex LLC in Tashkent.

According to the Russian media and experts, the main reason for Shoigu’s visits to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is the possible escalation of violent incidents in Central Asia amidst Washington’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Experts drew attention to the fact that the armed formations of the Taliban and ISIS have already intensified attacks on government troops and representatives of the Afghan government, and there are reports of high-profile terrorist attacks, for instance,  in Logar and Zabul  provinces and in Kabul. According to the Russian  media, the escalation of threats and challenges emanating from Afghanistan creates long-term challenges for members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In this regard, the military leaders of the CSTO countries at their meeting in Dushanbe stated the need to consolidate efforts to protect both the national and collective interests of the members of the organization. In particular, they talked about improving the decision-making mechanisms to facilitate a prompt response to threats and challenges related to Afghanistan. However, there are several problems within the alliance, such as Yerevan’s grievances on the CSTO’s lack of involvement in the recent Karabakh conflict and the recent military clashes between Tajikistan and KyrgyzstanWhile Russia remains active in patrolling the Tajik border, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have jealously guarded their sovereignty from Russian encroachment. However, there are reports that Russia provides military advisors, in some cases even small troops for Turkmen border guards. 

Three weeks after Shoigu’s visit, Russian foreign minister was in Dushanbe. In the meeting of foreign ministries of Russia and Tajikistan Lavrov stated that Dushanbe shares the opinion that the 201st Russian military base is a significant factor in the stability of Central Asia. According to Lavrov, Russia and Tajikistan will soon sign an intergovernmental agreement, under which the Russian Federation will assist in the construction of a modern border post on the Tajik-Afghan border. According to the Kommersant, he reminded the Tajik side of what benefits it could get from participating in another integration project promoted by Russia – the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). According to the Tajik foreign minister, the visit of President Putin to Tajikistan is scheduled for the second half of September. In total, about 40 documents will be signed during the Putin’s visit. 

On the one hand, the withdrawal of U.S. forces offers an opportunity for Russia to strengthen its role in Central Asia’s security. By providing more security guarantees, requesting a firmer pro-Moscow attitude and economic and foreign policy orientation from the Central Asian Republics. Moreover, the security guarantees provided by Moscow will probably have to bring economic benefits for Russia too.    

Nurlan Aliyev is an expert based in Warsaw. His research area is primarily focused on Russia’s foreign and security policy, the Arctic, post-Soviet countries, strategic studies, and asymmetric warfare. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and security studies. He is a lecturer in the University of Economics and Human Sciences in Warsaw.   
Follow him on Twitter @anurlan