Author : Ayjaz Wani

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 13, 2022
Amidst the shifting geopolitical and geostrategic landscape, Russia renews its efforts to exert its influence over the Central Asian Region.
Vladimir Putin visits Central Asia amid Russia–Ukraine War Since the start of the Russia–Ukraine war in February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made his first foreign visit to the former Soviet Republics of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. In the midst of the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has multiple implications and challenges for Russia and Central Asia, the timing of Putin’s visit has several geopolitical, geoeconomic, and other connotations. In Tajikistan, Putin met Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to discuss the security situation emerging from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and bilateral economic ties. In Turkmenistan, he participated in the sixth Caspian Summit with the presidents of Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, discussing the improvement of transport infrastructure for the development of trade and tourism in the region, amongst other issues. Geopolitically, the visit came after General Michael Erik Kurilla, Head of the US Central Command, visited Central Asia to counterbalance Russia to position the US as a viable alternative security guarantor. A US official said that the visit was aimed at giving the United States (US) “an opening to do more with them in security cooperation and counterterrorism”.

Geopolitically, the visit came after General Michael Erik Kurilla, Head of the US Central Command, visited Central Asia to counterbalance Russia to position the US as a viable alternative security guarantor.

Russia’s strong orbit of influence in Central Asia

After the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Russia considered the five Central Asian Republics (CARs) as its backyard. It ensured these former constituents of the Soviet landmass did not become close to the US or European Union (EU). Strategically located between Asia and Europe, CARS are rich in hydrocarbon resources. Russia considers CARs its direct sphere of influence and maintains strong political, cultural, and trade relations. Russia has promoted military and security cooperation with the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), helping CARS modernise its armed forces. It has also established permanent military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The CSTO not only helped Russia to tighten its grip over the region but also emboldened the Central Asian rulers to be more autocratic and despotic. For example, on 2 January 2022, Kazakhstan saw the biggest-ever protest against the halt of state subsidies on Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) that latter on the protest snowballed against the authoritarian regime. Within no time, the protests became violent, killing dozens of people, including 18 security officials, and injuring thousands. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev imposed a state of emergency and accused foreign-trained terror gangs of the violence. However, as protests went out of control, he sought CSTO’s help to quell the violence. Within no time, the para-troops from Russia and special forces from Belarus reached Kazakhstan to quell the protesters and helped Kazak authorities in maintaining law and order.

Russia has promoted military and security cooperation with the region through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), helping CARS modernise its armed forces.

On the economic front, Russia facilitated energy projects in the oil, gas, and hydro-power sectors and strengthened the region’s economic integration through the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are the full members, and Tajikistan is a potential member of the EAEU. Similarly, CARs also depend on Russian transport infrastructure for finished goods and hydrocarbon exports. Furthermore, more than 2.5 million migrant labourers from CARs went to Russia for work and remitted US$6.88, US$2.4, and US$2.18 billion to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan respectively, in 2020. Russia has also used its soft power to increase its influence in the region. The popularity of Russian movies, TV serials and other mass media has made Moscow a political model for the whole region.

CARS’ concerns about the Russia-Ukraine war

The Russian-Ukraine war and the consequent economic sanctions on Moscow have also adversely impacted Central Asia. The sanctions and the war have made CARS’ transit routes/corridors difficult and risky, especially the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, used by Kazakhstan to export 80 percent of its oil. With no end in sight yet, the prolonged Russia–Ukraine war has also increased the worries of the Central Asian migrant workers. These migrants contribute 26.7, 11, and 31.3 percent to the GDPs of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, respectively. However, the western sanctions have curtailed these remittances and forced some migrant workers to return home, adversely impacting countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan , the poorest of CARs. The World Bank estimates that the remittances by Tajik migrant workers will decrease by 40 percent, contracting the Tajik economy by 2 percent in 2022. Additionally, the strong resistance the highly motivated Ukrainian troops put up against the Russian army has made CARs worry about their security dependence on Moscow. Before the war, CARs saw Moscow as a source of stability; however, experts now see the overdependence on Russia as a “weakness for the regional stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity”. Given such apprehensions, some countries in Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan, have criticised the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Kazakhstan, an active member of CSTO, made its position clear by sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. During the St Petersburg Summit, the Kazak President said in Putin’s presence that Kazakhstan would not recognise the two separatists-held Ukraine regions as sovereign states as declared by Russia. Even though CARs remain loyal to Kremlin at global forums, they have chosen to abstain from voting on vital UN votes condemning Moscow’s aggression on Ukraine.

The western sanctions have curtailed these remittances and forced some migrant workers to return home, adversely impacting countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan , the poorest of CARs.

Furthermore, the Afghan problem has increased the security dilemmas of CARS, especially in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan has taken a hardline stance against the Taliban given the latter’s repressive measures against the Tajik minorities, which amount to 20 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Uzbekistan has also faced shelling from the Afghanistan side of the border and received renewed security threats from the area. CARS’ economic, geostrategic, and security concerns have increased manifold after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. The Russia–Ukraine war has not only added to these worries but also forced the region to diversify its future economic cooperation and foreign policy. Subsequently, the US has leveraged the situation and tried to increase its regional presence by using security threats from Afghanistan as an excuse. Putin’s visit also was an attempt to pacify the region on these concerns in the expectation that CARS would stand with Moscow. Clearly, the symbolism and timing of Putin’s visit to the region under these geostrategic, geopolitical, and economic strains indicate Moscow’s renewed efforts to keep the region in its orbit of influence.
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