Features | Economy | Security | Central Asia

The ‘Great Game’ 2.0

Russia’s plan to use regional organizations as levers in Central Asia has some flaws, argues Richard Weitz.

Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) highlights the growing influence of this often overlooked Moscow-led military alliance in Eurasia. But it also underscores the limited ability of Russia to dominate the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Even more, it indicates how the typical “great game competition” framework for analyzing great power competition in the region is misleading.

CSTO has served as a key element of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive to strengthen Moscow’s influence in the former Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) originally represented the most important institution among the former Soviet republics, except for the Baltic republics, which broke completely with Moscow. Over time, the CIS steadily lost influence, due primarily to the diverging agendas pursued by its twelve member governments. A frustrated Russian government under Putin decided instead to focus on enhancing cooperation among a core group of pro-Russian governments, especially Belarus, Armenia, and the Moscow-friendly Central Asian states.

Putin orchestrated the formation of CSTO in 2002. Since formally beginning operations in 2003, CSTO has gradually been strengthening its defense capabilities and expanding its mandate for multinational military operations against diverse threats.

The originally declared focus of CSTO was to counter external military aggression against member countries, but its member governments have since been authorizing its use for a wider range of possible missions. The body now has programs to combat terrorism, counter extremism on the internet, reduce illegal immigration, and curb narcotics trafficking and other transnational organized crime. Its members also pledge to coordinate their foreign and defense policies, including not accepting foreign military bases with the approval of all other members. They issue joint statements on various international security issues such as missile defense, Iran, and Syria. These almost always support Moscow.

In addition to its original regional groups of forces to provide for the collective defense of its members from external aggression, CSTO has also been developing a joint peacekeeping force and rapid reaction forces consisting mostly of elite military units to help counter terrorism, support the CSTO’s new missions of mediating conflicts among its members, and, thanks to changes in the CSTO Charter since the 2010 upheavals in Kyrgyzstan, when the CSTO and other regional institutions failed to intervene to prevent mass violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks, prevent social upheavals in member countries.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The new 20,000-strong Collective Rapid Reaction Force (Kollektivnye Sil Operativnogo Reagirovaniya –KSOR) created in 2009, prepares to fight low-intensity conflicts throughout CSTO, including peacekeeping, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, managing natural and manmade emergencies, and fighting narcotics trafficking and other organized crime. CSTO also has an older 4,500-man Collective Rapid Deployment Force (Kollektivnyye Sily Bistrogo Razvertyvaniya –KSBR), established for the exclusive purposes of fighting terrorists in Central Asia.

Putin’s plan to enhance the CSTO has enjoyed favorable environmental conditions. Many of its member governments fear that the Arab Spring will spread north and threaten their own rule. NATO’s declining presence in Afghanistan is leading Central Asian states to rely more on Moscow for their security.

That said, Russian policy makers have also been exploiting these regional worries to enhance their influence in Eurasia through CSTO and other means. Russian policy makers have been trying for years to strengthen CSTO and the other security, economic, and political institutions connecting the former Soviet republics. In the past, they encountered considerable resistance from other member governments, which were not eager to compromise their post-Soviet autonomy. But the recent upheavals in the Arab states have alarmed its members sufficiently to accept such major changes as allowing CSTO forces to intervene to suppress large-scale uprisings as well as permit CSTO governments to authorize such deployments even in the absence of a consensus of its members.

Although Uzbekistan joined the CSTO in 2006, Tashkent has fought a rearguard action against Putin’s efforts to strengthen the organization. Uzbek officials consider CSTO as Moscow’s stalking horse in Central Asia. Wary of giving Moscow additional means to intervene in conflicts within the former Soviet republics, the Uzbek government also resisted proposals to use CSTO units for “peacekeeping” operations in conflicts between member states. Uzbek officials objected to the vast range of missions tasked to the Russian-dominated KSOR. But the rapid progress made by Russia and Kazakhstan in developing KSOR in 2010 and 2011 alarmed Taskhent, as did Russian efforts to establish a military base in southern Kyrgyzstan.

In late June, Uzbekistan formally exercised its right to end its CSTO membership without delay. The withdrawal notice Uzbekistan submitted to the CSTO secretariat cited Tashkent’s interest in pursuing an independent bipartisan policy regarding Afghanistan, discontent with the organization’s plans to expand its capabilities and missions, and the CSTO’s failures to address Uzbekistan’s previously stated concerns regarding these matters.

The Russian media is speculating that the United States encouraged Uzbekistan’s withdrawal so that the Pentagon could establish military bases on its territory. Having left CSTO, Tashkent no longer needs the approval of all the other members to allow NATO to establish bases on its territory, which could strengthen Tashkent’s quest to serve as the major artery through which NATO can move its equipment and supplies out of Afghanistan.  Uzbekistan has been seeking to become Washington’s closest military ally in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has also been moving closer toward China, also to balance Moscow.

The role of CSTO in Central Asia has been an object of rivalry with both NATO and China. Russian officials have been proposing for many years that NATO cooperate directly with CSTO on Afghanistan and other Eurasian security issues. Since 2003, the intelligence, law enforcement, and defense agencies of the member governments have jointly conducted annual “Kanal” (“Channel”) operations to intercept drug shipments from Afghanistan through the region’s porous borders to markets in the former Soviet Union and Western Europe. In recent years, observers from Iran, Ukraine, the United States and several European countries have attended these exercises.   In January 2010, CSTO and the European Group on Combating Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism (EAG) signed a memorandum on collaborating against illegal drugs trafficking and laundered drug proceeds. Among other things, the memo provides for the EAG will also participate in Operation Kanal.  CSTO has established a database of transnational drug dealers that is accessible by any of the Central Asian governments. It allows the nations to deal with the problem in a more efficient manner and facilitates communication among their drug enforcement agencies.  CSTO has also established a working group on Afghanistan and has initiated several programs to strengthen the Afghan government’s law enforcement and counter-narcotics agencies.

Although individual NATO countries, including the United States, have sent observers to the Kanal missions, NATO thus far has refused to formalize relations with CSTO as an institution. The NATO staff and member governments generally perceive the CSTO as a Moscow-dominated institution and worry about reinforcing Russian preeminence in Central Asia by strengthening the CSTO through formal dialogue. They believe that Russian policy makers are trying to establish formal ties between the two organizations in order to enhance the CSTO’s international legitimacy by equating it with a more powerful regional security organization. As a result, NATO officials have continued to bypass the CSTO and deal directly with its member governments.

Russia has retaliated by blocking a U.S. State Department initiative to build a network of U.S.-supported counternarcotics centers in Central Asia. Formally launched in June 2011 as a $4.1 million State Department program, the Central Asian Counternarcotics Initiative (CACI) aims to establish counternarcotics task forces in all five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. With training and mentoring from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, these task forces would collaborate with existing anti-drug task forces in Afghanistan and Russia to improve coordination on joint and cross-border interdiction operations and collect evidence against Eurasian drug dealers.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

A high-level U.S. delegation presented the CACI plan at this February’s meeting in Vienna of the Paris Pact countries, which cooperate to counter Afghan narcotics trafficking. U.S. officials had visited Russia and other proposed CACI members last spring to discuss the initiative, and were hoping to obtain formal multinational backing from the Paris grouping. But according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, after the visits last spring, the Russian government warned Central Asian officials against supporting the U.S. proposal. At Vienna, the United States was unable to secure their approval to implement the initiative. An unnamed Russian official in Vienna said, “Why create something new if [CSTO] structures are already in force in these countries? Why does [the United States] insist on bilateral dialogues with the Central Asian republics, demonstratively ignoring Russia’s interests in the region?”

While Western influence in Central Asia is declining, Russia has to contend with China’s growing influence in that region. Although Putin has welcomed China’s rise as enhancing the resources Moscow and Beijing can jointly use to enhance regional stability, Russia has been expanding the influence of institutions that exclude China, such as CSTO and now the proposed Eurasian Union, which could limit China’s economic penetration of Central Asia. The Chinese have thus far been content to leave Moscow to police the region’s security problems, but at some point China’s growing investment in the region may lead China to seek a greater role in the region’s security.

Chinese representatives have also shown little interest in Russian proposals to deepen military ties between CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) since China’s exclusion from the CSTO leads Beijing to prefer that the SCO serve as the most influential regional security institution in Eurasia. Cooperation between the two organizations remains limited primarily to the sharing of intelligence regarding regional terrorism and narcotrafficking.  According to Russian sources, the Chinese-blocked Russian plans, announced by the chief of the Russian General Staff, to conduct a joint SCO-CSTO military exercise in 2007.  The Chinese have been wary of allowing CSTO to act on SCO’s behalf since Beijing cannot veto CSTO actions the way it can SCO decisions. Furthermore, improving defense interoperability between the two institutions would make it easier to conduct a collective military operation in Central Asia, since Chinese forces could better interface with CSTO. It would not, however, alter the fundamental disparity between Russia and China. Moscow could still organize a joint military intervention in Central Asia under CSTO’s auspices without Beijing’s approval.

As Alexander Cooley points out in his new book, Great Games, Local Rules:  The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia, analysts shouldn’t exaggerate the level of competition among the great powers. The “return of the great game” analogy is misleading in many respects. Russia, China, and the United States are most often not in direct competition in Central Asia, with a few important exceptions. For the most part, they have been pursuing different goals.

The focus of U.S. foreign policy has been to secure operational support for its military mission in Afghanistan in the form of bases, logistic arrangements, and transit routes.

Meanwhile, the government of China is most concerned about preventing developments in Central Asia from promoting instability to Xinjiang, which has a large Muslim minority of ethnic Uihgurs that share cultural, linguistic, and other ties with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. China also seeks access to the region’s energy resources. Beijing therefore strives to promote the economic development and regional security of Central Asia through primarily bilateral initiatives that China directs when possible within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Russia has the most diverse goals and the most tools of influence in Central Asia. Moscow seeks to retain its security primacy in the region as well as the preeminent status of its energy companies. It also strives to prevent social revolutions or Islamist terrorism from expanding in the region, and tries to reduce the trafficking of narcotics from Afghanistan into Russia through Central Asia. Russia has the most military bases in the region, including under the auspices of the CSTO, as well as influence from its ability to control the presence of millions of Central Asian migrants working in the Russian Federation. Other tools include the presence of many ethnic Russians in these countries, often working in key sectors of the local economy, as well as ties between the national intelligence services. Russia’s soft power in Central Asia is immense due to the dominance of the Russian media and the fact that most Central Asian leaders share the same Soviet background as the current Russian leadership.

That said, Russia’s strategic influence in the region is diluted by the diverging goals of core Russian interest groups, which provide local elites with considerable room to maneuver. Some Russians prioritize geopolitical competition with the United States and China; others focus on obtaining oil and gas, often in partnership as well as competition with Western firms; while another group is preoccupied with countering transnational threats like terrorism, radical Islam, and drug smuggling, goals that are best served by working with China and NATO, including supporting the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the NDN. The local leaders are skilled at passive resistance and have long experience resisting foreign domination. Their main objective is to remain in power, enhance their autonomy, increase their wealth, and promote the development of their countries. But their collective impact is weakened by their inability to cooperate among themselves. They constantly bicker over territory, economic rents, water, and other issues. Their inability to present a local front encourages the external great powers to pursue divide-and-rule tactics in the region. But Uzbekistan’s recent departure should remind the great powers of the need to proceed cautiously in Central Asia’s geopolitical minefield.