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How the Central Asian States Can Protect Themselves From Russia

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Crossroads Asia | Security | Central Asia

How the Central Asian States Can Protect Themselves From Russia

A more integrated region will be richer, stabler, and more secure — and countries won’t have to contemplate using their sovereignty as collateral.  

How the Central Asian States Can Protect Themselves From Russia
Credit: Russian President Press and Information Service

Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s decision to call in Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) forces to Almaty on January 5 dramatically altered the security environment in Central Asia. Facing anti-government protests that had morphed into violent unrest, Tokayev made the dubious claim that foreign-backed terrorist groups were rampaging across Kazakhstan and asked the CSTO for help in restoring order. The next day, roughly 4,000 CSTO troops, including about 3,000 from Russia, landed in Kazakhstan. They began leaving later that week. 

From the perspectives of Moscow and Nur-Sultan, the operation was largely successful. But many analysts fear that this may set a new precedent for Russian intervention in Central Asia. Tokayev’s panicked move to mortgage his country’s sovereignty to Russia should also give Central Asian leaders pause about the security of their countries’ territorial integrity. 

Russia and Kazakhstan share the longest continuous border in the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies have suggested that areas of northern Kazakhstan with significant ethnic Russian minorities should be “returned” to Russia. Putin’s track record of cross-border military intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus should keep Tokayev up at night.

Moscow has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that are set to house thousands of Russian troops for decades. Under current agreements, Russia’s Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan will operate until at least 2027, while the 201st military base in Tajikistan will remain open through 2042. As U.S. forces left Afghanistan in August 2021, Russian forces began a series of military exercises in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to respond to the changing security conditions. 

While Uzbekistan is more reluctant to partner militarily with Russia, it too held joint military drills on its territory last summer. Turkmenistan has largely succeeded in mitigating Russian military influence within its borders, though the Kremlin occasionally exerts diplomatic pressure on Ashgabat to maintain some influence there. 

Maintaining a military presence in countries within its perceived “sphere of influence” is one of the main levers with which Russia bends its neighbors to its demands. Even the threat of force implied by the presence of military bases and joint exercises gives Moscow coercive leverage in Central Asia. 

To be clear, a Russian military operation in Central Asia remains unlikely. But having now sent Russian troops into Kazakhstan, similar protests elsewhere in the Central Asian region or an escalation of violence on the border with Afghanistan could be a pretext for a Russian military operation. Sharing power with Putin is not in the interests of Central Asia’s authoritarian leaders and the death, destruction, and instability of a Russian military operation are not in the interests of their citizens. 

Fortunately, Central Asia can better protect itself from the specter of Russian military intervention by fast-tracking regional integration efforts. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan have long dragged their feet on regional projects; perhaps events in Kazakhstan will force them to refocus. A more integrated region with closer intra-bloc economic ties and better-connected infrastructure may make the Kremlin think twice about malign military intervention, should such a prospect arise again.

Today, Russia’s military power and its separate bilateral ties with each of the five Central Asian countries allow it to dominate the region. But there are ways to offset Russia’s force and economic advantages. While Central Asia will never match Russia in military might, the region can exploit the Kremlin’s obsession with stability. The more Central Asian countries integrate their economies, the more difficult it will be for the Kremlin to contain the fallout of any potential military operation. By binding their interests more closely together, Central Asia can create thick linkages that would be more costly for the Kremlin to break.

Regional integration is one policy area where the interests of Central Asian dictators align with the interests of their citizens. These leaders have been watching how events unfolded in Kazakhstan — protests over a spike in fuel prices grew to encompass broader dissatisfaction with political and economic conditions. The most efficient way for autocrats to avoid a popular uprising is to advance policies that improve citizens’ economic lots.

Cross-border initiatives that lower prices, widen markets, and make it easier for small- and medium-sized enterprises to flourish are broadly in the interests of both governments and their citizens. Projects like more dense rail networks, better integrated energy supply chains, and liberalized trade regimes can deliver on key pocketbook issues and promote regional security. These reforms would be hugely complex and would certainly take time. Yet the region’s leaders want to remain in power for decades — for them, this would be a savvy investment in the status quo.

Some might argue that regional integration projects would do little to change Putin’s calculus, were he to move militarily in Kazakhstan or elsewhere. But consider how fixated the Kremlin is on stability and how much it fears popular protests like those that shook Kazakhstan. Taking risks that widen destabilization is not generally a feature of the Kremlin playbook, with the significant exception of its military buildup near Ukraine. Putin does, however, seek to exploit crises to advance its military hegemony, as he did in 2020 in Armenia. This makes curbing instability at home even more important for Central Asian sovereignty.

To improve regional security, Central Asian countries should work to create a united strategy for dealing with the region’s southern border with Afghanistan. Like Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have aired concerns about extremists crossing their borders and sowing discord. The recent shootout on the Afghan-Turkmen border between border guards and Taliban forces suggests those fears may be justified.

But Tashkent and Dushanbe have taken two very different approaches to dealing with this threat. Uzbekistan has forged greater ties with the Taliban over the last several years; President Shavkat Mirizoyev even lobbied countries to unfreeze the Taliban’s assets last fall. Tajikistan meanwhile has become the staunchest anti-Taliban voice in the region, adopting ethno-nationalist rhetoric in part to cover for economic woes at home. A more coherent regional Afghanistan policy built on top of closer intra-bloc ties would help stabilize the border and improve domestic economies. More collaboration on the Afghan border would also check Russia’s outsized role as security guarantor to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Central Asian countries can exercise their sovereignty by calling in the U.S. and China to finance infrastructure projects and facilitate cross-border investment flows. The U.S. Development Finance Corporation has $60 billion to distribute in loans and investment. Crucially, it also has a mandate to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing already has a significant footprint in the region. Faced with competition from U.S. firms, it might once again leap at the opportunity to finance new infrastructure initiatives. China-U.S. economic competition would also give Central Asian countries a stronger position from which to negotiate deals.

By working with the U.S. and China, Central Asia can also further secure itself from Kremlin aggression. Moscow is very much the junior economic partner to Beijing. An engaged China would have massive leverage over Russia should any military incursion threaten Chinese investment. Putin may also be loathe to provoke renewed U.S. attention to the region; his 2014 invasion of Ukraine eventually brought significant sanctions that continue to shave off 2-3 percent of Russian GDP growth per year — roughly $50 billion.

Russia will not invade Kazakhstan today, nor will it seize Bishkek or Tashkent tomorrow. But Moscow has military beachheads in Central Asia and is always looking to exploit crises and societal fissures for its geopolitical gain. After a successful foray into Kazakhstan, the threat of Russian military intervention in Central Asia is rising. To better protect themselves, Central Asian nations should pragmatically but quickly strengthen ties with each other. A more integrated region will be richer, stabler, and more secure — and countries won’t have to contemplating using their sovereignty as collateral.