Thursday, 09 May 2024

Russia’s Retreat and Counterattack in Central Asia Featured

Published in Analytical Articles

By Stephen Blank

May 9, 2024

Russian power is retreating from the Caucasus and Central Asia, most prominently with the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh and Washington’s concurrent decision to open discussions with Yerevan on military support. The same process is discernible in Central Asia in the lukewarm support for the war in Ukraine and Kazakhstan’s critique of that war. Other harbingers of the trend are the gradual erosion of Russian language use and China’s dominance in regional finance, trade, and investment. Nevertheless, Moscow still deploys substantial leverage over Central Asia and individual states and can conduct purely domestic policies that negatively affect Central Asian governments and citizens. Moreover, recent indicators suggest that Russia is launching a campaign to restore its hegemonic position in Central Asia. Thus, despite the war in Ukraine and the burdens it has imposed, current Russian policies in Central Asia amount to a determined resistance to its equally observable retreat.

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BACKGROUND: Russia’s counterattack in Central Asia is multi-dimensional. In culture Moscow vigilantly defends the public use and privileged status of the Russian language in local laws and pressures local governments to retain that status despite rising public sentiment to exalt local, national or other foreign languages at the expense of Russian. Moscow is also pressuring Central Asian states on a range of other issues. For example, Russian spokespersons frequently raise the threat of annexing Northern Kazakhstan as constituting part of an alleged Russian territory. Moscow continues to pressure Central Asian governments to join the organizations it has established since 1991 to preserve its hegemony under a façade of multilateralism: the CSTO, the Eurasian Economic Union, and more recently a prospective gas union to ensure these states’ subordination to Russia’s energy interests. Russia also continues to strive with China, whose presence in the region is both indispensable and unavoidable.

While China continues to extend its economic presence in Central Asia, it has largely left the hard security agenda to Russia’s control, not least due to its wariness about becoming tied down in a secondary if not tertiary theater. As a result, scholars discern a “division of labor” where China is the “banker” and Russia the “sheriff.” Yet this is not the whole picture because Russia seeks to maintain its power over the regional energy economy to buttress its position and deny Chinese leadership. Thus, Russia continues to come up with its own continental plans for trade with Central Asian states and continues to reject attempts by China and Central Asian states to weaken Russia’s dominance over energy flows.

Since 2022, Russia has expanded its remit in this area to include uranium, thereby consolidating its position in the nuclear energy field both in Central Asia and abroad. Thus, Russia has become a major investor in Kazakhstan’s uranium sector apart from controlling the oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia to Europe. If realized, the gas union would represent another form of institutionalized regional dependence on Russia.

IMPLICATIONS: These are not the only weapons in Russia’s arsenal of leverage over Central Asia. For instance, Moscow possesses the means to create, sustain, and deploy in every post-Soviet state a loyal pro-Muscovite party that it can employ to threaten the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the targeted state. This is the case with the intensification of hostile Russian rhetoric directed at Tajikistan in the wake of the terrorist incident in Moscow on March 22, 2024. Central Asian leaders have seen many examples of Russia deploying those instruments to threaten their governments, Kazakhstan in particular. In the Duma and in Russian media, threats to invade Kazakhstan and punish it for its “disloyalty” are frequent and this could not happen without the government’s direction and/or encouragement.

In another example of Russia’s still potent capabilities and power, Russian forces operating at the behest of Kazakh President Tokayev intervened in Kazakhstan in 2022 to help quell large-scale disturbances apparently incited by loyalists to former President Nazarbayev. Russia, probably alone, retains the capability to bail out local rulers who might be threatened by domestic or foreign insurgents.

No Central Asian ruler is ready to forego this insurance policy, a fact that ensures the continuity of Russian power in Central Asia. Moscow will undoubtedly use the recent terrorist attack on March 22 to drive home the terrorist threat as a collective concern that justifies still more coordination from Russia.

At the same time Russia has, for several years, undertaken an offensive against Central Asia’s independent media to enforce and extend Russian leverage. As the Kazakh Novastan agency has reported, ever since Russia attacked Ukraine, the Kremlin has tested Central Asia’s independent press either through “suggestions” by local officials or Russia’s own agency Roskomnadzor, since those networks depend on Moscow’s infrastructure and the predominance of Russian sources in the distribution of content. Likewise Kyrgyzstan, which must constantly balance between Beijing and Moscow, has now passed a foreign agents law that emulates the recent Russian law, thereby underscoring Russia’s political power over legislation, especially concerning security issues.

In this context, the media and police campaign against Tajikistan from where the terrorists originated serves many functions. Although Moscow first tried to use the attack for arousing the public against Ukraine, this appears to have failed. Moscow has shifted tactics to launch a media campaign in tandem with severe police repression against Central Asian migrants. Because many Central Asian states depend heavily on remittances from migrants in Russia to their families, any attack on Central Asian migrants threatens these states – particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – with serious economic repercussions. Moreover, Russian police has now deported hundreds of Tajik migrants, launched an overall crackdown on “illegal immigrants” and may now demand visas from them, a move that will possibly curtail future migration and inflict serious hardship on Central Asian countries even as it exacerbates Russia’s own labor shortage.

While the threat of a visa may ultimately be hollow since it will rebound on Russia, Central Asian states must reckon seriously with such threats and have apparently gotten the message. For example, Uzbekistan is again cracking down on “Islamic extremism.” The message also caters for invoking an alleged Muslim terrorist threat as a pretext demanding strengthened military cooperation with Central Asia under Russian leadership.

CONCLUSIONS: Russian policy in Central Asia originates in the conviction of Russia’s predestined hegemony over backward, inferior peoples and more practically in its need to dominate their energy economy and collect rents for the benefits of Russian elites. Yet the steady and apparently irreversible decline in Russia’s economic and other forms of power makes empire-building a steadily more insupportable burden in Central Asia and elsewhere. It is increasingly clear that Russia can neither meet its own, nor Central Asia’s increasing challenges, e.g. the severe environmental threats as recent floods in Russia and Kazakhstan illustrate.

Neither can Moscow provide the economic-technological assistance that Central Asia’s states need, nor will it tolerate the ongoing moves towards greater autonomous regional cooperation that will provide welcome benefits to the regional governments. The consolidation of these states and their interest in economic cooperation and greater outreach to the world to meet severe economic-environmental and technological challenges does, however, provide an opening to other powers, particularly in the West.

Turkiye is also competing with Russia in economics, seeking to connect Central Asia and the Caucasus in new trade routes like the Middle Corridor to Europe that bypass Russia, while attempting to refashion the Association of Turkic States as a vehicle for another kind of regional bloc. Turkiye’s military is allied with Azerbaijan and projects power abroad. The EU is also now trying to upgrade its economic-political presence in Central Asia and Daniel Rosenblum, U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan, has even raised the issue of a presidential visit to Central Asia in 2025.

Yet Turkiye lacks the means and necessary knowhow even if it has the requisite ambition. China certainly has the means to provide solutions but doing so contradicts its fundamental interests. The West alone is interested in promoting both the autonomy of these states and their cooperation, since this opens up vast new opportunities for productive U.S. and European investment.

Russia increasingly cannot provide for itself as demonstrated by the war in Ukraine, given its increasing dependence on China for its war machine. Nevertheless, its present government has embraced a view of its tasks and strategies that was dysfunctional already in 1849 when it was proclaimed by Minister of Education Sergey Uvarov. Thus Russia, despite its continuing power, offers nothing to Central Asia other than attempts at imperial restoration and repression that could lead to war and stagnation. Because Russia cannot fulfill its self-anointed mission, Central Asia, if it plays its cards right, stands to move forward provided it gets meaningful Western assistance. This is an opportunity that must be grasped for our benefit, that of Central Asia, and of international security.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Read 11233 times Last modified on Thursday, 09 May 2024

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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