In Central Asia, China has over the last decade been able to substitute Russia as Turkmenistan's major trading partner and is seriously challenging Russia's trade dominance with all the other four countries. Chinese investments in Central Asia have already outpaced Russian ones and the economic reorientation of Central Asian economies to China should consequently be expected to deepen in the future.
Although Kazakhstan, as the only Central Asian member, initially welcomed Russia's economic union project, the organization has started to lose support in Kazakhstan's political and economical circles due to a stronger influx of Russian business on the Kazakhstani market. And while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are mentioned as potential candidates to join the union, Tajikistan obtained WTO membership a year ago and Kyrgyzstan harshly debates the pros and cons of joint membership in the WTO and the Customs Union. At the same time, the Silk Road Economic Belt initiated by China seems to present an attractive alternative for Central Asian countries as it contains neither Western ideological (democracy or human rights) prerequisites, nor a Russian geopolitical embrace.
Russia still maintains a military predominance in Central Asia, although alternatives exist also in this sector. Russian equipment supplies are still key to maintaining the existing armies in Central Asia, although the U.S., the EU, Israel, India, Turkey, and South Korea have provided Central Asian states with second-hand, but also some highly modern military equipment particularly to Kazakhstan. The Russian army is based in three countries of the region (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan not counting the special case of Baikonur), but Russia's political will to use force in case of a serious crisis or an asymmetric insurgency is questionable.
Finally, migration remains a key component of Russian influence in the region. Uzbekistan's, Tajikistan's and Kyrgyzstan's populations compose the largest migrant labor force in the post-Soviet area and their remittances have become a key element of the survival of these regimes. Any downturn of Russia's economy constitutes a potential destabilization factor in Central Asia.
IMPLICATIONS: Cautious immediate diplomatic reactions notwithstanding, Russia should expect less political support for its intervention in Ukraine from its Central Asian allies than was the case during the 2008 war in the Caucasus. Even if six years ago some local elites approved of Russian advances in Georgia, the willingness to do so is far lower today. Russia's integration efforts will now encounter much more suspicious responses and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could distance themselves from the Eurasian project. In the long term, Kazakhstan could even find it unprofitable to form a union with a state ostracized in many parts of the world and threatening Kazakhstan's territorial integrity. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev's attitude at the recent Customs Union summit demonstrated a more cautious stance in relations to its northern neighbor. Moreover, any attempt to tie Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan closer to Russia – already a hard sell – will now be met with much more skepticism within their respective elites.
Russia's aggressive attitude can be compared to the more quiet and effective Chinese or Turkish strategies in the region. The gradual retirement of the last Soviet generations and change of elites in Central Asian countries implies that new state officials will analyze Russia's actions based on its current aggressive policies rather than tradition and old affiliations. In addition, the politics of military “collecting of lands” will confirm the perspectives conveyed to the new elite in local educational institutions, where Russians are already portrayed as colonialists and aggressors.
Economically, recent figures indicating Russia's stagnation results in fewer incentives in the form of credits or investments comparing to China. The results of Chinese politics in Central Asia has already prevailed over Russian attempts to keep the local economies in its orbit. Russian investments are behind Chinese ones on local markets despite their increase in recent years. The experience with Chinese companies in Central Asia are often more concrete than Russian promises of investments. Chinese businessmen have become able not only to put their money into the local economies, but also to defend them in the complicated investment climate, with strong state support. Moreover, fears of China as a potential threat to territorial integrity in Central Asia after redrawing some segments of its borders with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have calmed down. However, after the Crimea annexation, Russia lost its position as the (at least potential) guardian of the borders set up in 1895.
In light of the Black Sea Naval base in Sevastopol, Central Asian leaders can more realistically weigh the advantages and disadvantages of Russian troop deployment in their countries. In the last years, Russia lost several military bases and its military installations in Central Asia could easily face the same fate as those earlier deployed in the Caucasus.
The possible further stagnation of Russia's economy due to economic sanctions or isolation could easily turn into a disaster for Central Asian labor migrants. Russia will probably remain an irreplaceable destination for the Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek labor force escaping from the poverty in their home countries. However, even today more skillful migrants are trying to bypass Russia in their migration strategies, resulting in the influx of a less qualified labor force to Russia with less knowledge of Russian language and no previous ties to the country. Anti-migrant rhetoric (particularly focused against Central Asians) in the Russian state-controlled media makes their position inside the host country even more difficult. As a result, growing hostility between the migrants and Russians could deplete firstly Russia's attractiveness in the eyes of future generations of migrants, and secondly Russia-Central Asian relations in general, especially in light of the change of elite mentioned above.
CONCLUSIONS: Russia's advances in Ukraine could seem profitable for the Kremlin in the short term, especially by tightening its relations with Eastern Ukraine and consolidating its domestic position in Russia. However, Central Asian states will slowly but steadily try to find ways to escape Russia's embrace. In particular, their fear of China is diminishing in light of the growing Russian aggressiveness and economic stagnation. Especially Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are less vulnerable to Russia in terms of labor migration and hence possess more tools for seeking alternative allies to Russia. Finally, while acquiring a relatively small area in Crimea, Russia could pay a high price by losing Central Asia as the last territory willing to be under its influence.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Slavomír Horák is a researcher with The Department of Russian and East European Studies, The Institute of International Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague. He was a Fulbright Fellow at CACI in 2012-2013.