Russia, Crimea and Central Asia


A little over a year ago, little green men began popping up at strategic locations throughout the Crimean peninsula. While they kept mum as to their funding and support, their ends were clear: instill a pro-Russian parliament, force a referendum, and attempt to provide a veneer of legality to a Russian occupation.

Twelve months on, the reverberations from the Kremlin’s heist are still being felt. Sanctions have continued and expanded, compounding an oil sag to dampen economic prospects throughout Eurasia. Russia’s self-sanctions, preventing access to European goods for its populace, have helped illustrate how flaccid and ad-hoc the Eurasian Economic Union truly is. And where Central Asian governments were primarily concerned with potential Islamist spillover from ISAF’s Afghan pullout, Russian revanchism provided a sudden, immediate security threat, with far broader and deeper penetration through the region than anything ISIS could hope to ever achieve.

Crimea, as we now know, shifted the basic presumptions undergirding the post-Cold War order, broaching a Westphalian system that had stitched together the international community for decades. As we push into the second year of occupation, it’s worth taking stock of how Central Asian governments responded to the invasion – and how they’ve attempted to spin their views since.

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None of the five Central Asian governments acknowledged the annexation during the United Nations vote last year, with all either abstaining or failing to lodge a vote. (Those siding with Russia read as a rogue’s gallery of the international community: North Korea, Syria, Belarus, etc.) Reports soon circulated that, unsurprisingly, Russia had applied substantial pressure on Central Asian contingents to forego any opposition they may have felt.

Beyond the UN vote, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the two countries furthest from Russia’s military and economic orbit, have remained largely mum on Crimea. Tajikistan, too, has opted to remain quiet – despite reports that Tajiks have been relocated to fight among Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan, however, quickly acquiesced to the Russian position: Soon after Russian troops spread through the peninsula, Bishkek recognized the “referendum” as valid.

Kazakhstan, meanwhile, went a step further. Astana joined Moscow in damning the EuroMaidan movement as an “unconstitutional coup d’état,” considering the post-Yanukovych government illegitimate. While Astana did not join Russia in the UN vote, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stamped its approval on the Crimean annexation, terming the aforementioned referendum as an example of “free expression of will” of the residents of Crimea.

As the months wore on, however, Kazakhstan began wavering. President Nursultan Nazarbayev soon recognized the legitimacy of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Astana even began offering energy support for Ukraine’s beleaguered, government-held eastern regions. At some point over the past few months, Astana quietly removed its official statement of support in recognizing the Crimean referendum. And Nazarbayev has offered multiple comments in support of Ukraine’s sovereign “integrity” – though whether this extends to Crimea, he won’t clarify.

The shift has proved conspicuous enough that it has begun seeping into academic literature. A recent write-up within The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst publication claimed that Nazarbayev “did not support Russia’s annexation of Crimea and implicitly took Kiev’s side in the conflict.” This, as the paragraphs above demonstrate, is not true – but it does play into Astana’s attempts to retrofit a position more in line with the international community, and less in line with placating its belligerent northern neighbor. It also helps illustrate the confusion and consternation that has rippled through Central Asia since the invasion. A year on, as it pertains to Crimea, there’s no easy answer for the Central Asian governments, whether in recognition or anticipation of Russia’s next move.

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