Crossroads Asia

Speculation on Russia’s Recent Drone Deployment

A report suggests Moscow is trying to counter Beijing’s influence in Central Asia. But the evidence is thin.

Speculation on Russia’s Recent Drone Deployment
Credit: Vitaly V. Kuzmin

Last week, a report emerged that seemed to point to growing friction between Russia and China in Central Asia. According to WantChinaTimes, Russia’s recent deployment of drone technology in Central Asia was not due to Islamist threats in northern Afghanistan. Rather, according to the paper, Moscow opted to test its drones “to confront Chinese influence in the region.” As WantChinaTimes continued, “Since Russia itself relies heavily on economic exchanges with China, military deterrence is now the only way Putin can confront Chinese influence in the region.”

On its face, the report jibes with recent trends and expectations in the region. It’s no secret Moscow has opted to play up threats of ISIS in the region – with Central Asian presidents more than willing to fan the fears, if only to obtain Western military largesse. Terrorist organizations, per WantChinaTimes, offer “Russia a perfect excuse to strengthen its military influence in Central Asia.” Moreover, China has sailed to economic dominance in the region, towering in both trade relations and infrastructural investments. While Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union continues to stumble, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is surging ahead, offering Central Asian governments an out as remittances continue collapsing.

But digging a bit beyond the prima facie claims, the report presents some stark question. First, WantChinaTimes cites its source as a report from China’s Global Times. However, no recent report appears on China’s Global Times website. (A request for clarification sent to WantChinaTimes went unanswered.) Likewise, a few months ago, WantChinaTimes reported that China would be delivering surface-to-air missile components to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Beijing’s largest military allocation in Central Asia to date. But nothing has been heard of the delivery in the four months since.

To be sure, Russia’s recent drone deployment may well serve as something of a subtle deterrent to encroaching Chinese influence in the region. Russia’s security card remains its strongest – or perhaps only – play in the region, and the recent uptick in military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan hasn’t gone unnoticed in Beijing. Likewise, Chinese-Russian relations in the region have proven questionable, with the largest issue remaining Russia’s reticence to see its dominion ceded to Beijing.

However, without any further evidence at this point, it’s best to pause the notion that Russia’s flying drones as a deterrent to China. That may be the motive, and it may jibe with certain trends, but we’d need something more than a one-off rumor to say for certain.