Crossroads Asia

Russia Continues Inflating the ISIS Threat in Central Asia

ISIS is recruiting around the world, but Russian rhetoric boosts the threat of ISIS to the region beyond reality.

The past year has seen wild swings in economic prognoses, hydrocarbon futures, and security realities throughout Russia and Central Asia. There seems to have been one constant, though: Russian officials hyper-inflating the threat of ISIS (also known as Islamic State) to Central Asian states. The head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) helped kick off the fear-mongering just over a year ago, describing an “attempt to create some sort of underground extremist state” in Central Asia. Ever since, Russian appraisals of ISIS’s regional threat – from higher-ups to think tanks tied to the Kremlin – have been nearly uniformly overblown.

To be sure, Russian officials are not the lone voices blustering ISIS’s potential threat beyond recognition – regional leaders, and certain Western voices, have contributed to the threat-inflation. And all appearances indicate that ISIS has continued its regional recruitment, especially among itinerant migrant populations working in Russia. But the underground states, the rolling waves of Islamist invaders – these claims would appear to stand far more as a figment of imagination than a reality on the ground.

Nonetheless, Russian officials, and those tied to official Kremlin organs, appear to be sticking to the rhetoric 12 months on. To wit, earlier this month Vasily Kashin, of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), told The Daily Beast that Central Asia is currently at a “high risk of ISIS blowing up one more front.” Kashin – whose CAST works closely with the Russian defense ministry – didn’t cite any evidence or information backing up his claims of the “high risk,” but moved directly on to the peril of a region-wide war ISIS could somehow spur. “If a large-scale war begins in Central Asia, Russia would definitely have to get involved. In the best scenario, that would be together with China, and in the worst alone; so Putin means to say that he would much rather crush ISIS in Syria by pumping up Assad’s and Iraq’s armies with weapons, than to have a massive war in Central Asia.”

Fortunately for Kashin, the Kremlin appears to be taking his thoughts to heart. The CSTO just wrapped Russia’s largest military exercise of the year, comprising 95,000 CSTO troops – nearly all of whom hailed from Russia. The exercise aimed at the “containment of an international armed conflict in the Central Asian strategic direction,” per Vladimir Rudnitskiy, who heads Russia’s Central Military District. The exercise follows on the heels of the CSTO’s recent summit, held in Dushanbe. During the summit, Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon wasted little time in linking his country’s recent assaults – led by the country’s former deputy defense minister, whose Islamist ties remain tenuous at best – to Islamic State, saying they “pursued the same goals as Islamic State.”

And Russian President Vladimir Putin has echoed these voices, time and again. Per Putin, “The risk of terrorist and extremist organizations making incursions into countries neighboring Afghanistan has increased.” Just in case the point got lost, Putin repeated himself: “The real threat of terrorist and extremist groups infiltrating the countries neighboring Afghanistan is rising.” As such, and as has been the case for over a year, Russia’s security presence in Central Asia – and beyond – must increase, until the threat from ISIS is culled. The fact that Putin has “increasingly focused on the export potential of the Russian defense industry,” all while the other pillars of the Russian economy corrode, is surely a convenient concurrence.

A year on, the rhetoric boosting ISIS’s threat beyond any reality remains. And it’s become clear that so long as ISIS exists, officials, based in both Moscow and regional capitals, will continue using the group as a convenient canard for increasing their own security measures, no matter the facts on the ground. So long as a threat remains, you can be sure that an inflation of that threat’s close behind.