At a meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) military heads on August 24 in Tashkent, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia would be increasing the readiness of Russian forces in Central Asia in the context of continued instability in Afghanistan.
According to TASS, Shoigu said, “For our part, we are increasing the combat readiness of Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as other response forces for possible crisis situations.”
He said Afghanistan “remains a serious security challenge in Central Asia.”
“In the country, against the backdrop of the ongoing armed confrontation, the socio-economic situation is deteriorating, the ideology of religious radicalism is being implanted, drug trafficking and cross-border crime are flourishing.”
None of the issues cited by Shoigu are particularly novel; indeed, they have featured in Russian and Central Asian statements about Afghanistan for the last two decades. Concerns about religious radicalization and drug trafficking, especially, have fed wide-ranging investments into Central Asian border services and motivated tight control of religious and political expression in Central Asia. That said, with the U.S.-led withdrawal of American and NATO forces in August 2021 and the return of the Taliban to power, concerns have grown that Afghanistan could once again become a safe harbor for terrorists.
The Islamic State’s regional branch, Islamic State Khorasan province (ISKP) has expanded its vision and operations across South and Central Asia. Of particular concern are its amplified narratives directed toward Central Asia — especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Al-Qaida also remains a concern, with its presence and protection by at least some faction of the Taliban government made evident when its top leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed in Kabul by a U.S. drone strike on July 31.
Russia maintains military bases and other facilities in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In Kyrgyzstan, Russia’s presence is largely concentrated in the Kant Air Base outside the capital, Bishkek. Russia’s current presence at the base dates to 2003, when Moscow and Bishkek agreed to lease the former Soviet base to Russia. In 2012, the two sides settled a new agreement extending the lease 15 years (with an option to automatically extend for five more years); Moscow agreed to write off $500 million in Kyrgyz debt. The base is presently referred to as the 999th aviation base under the Russian 4th Air and Air Defense Forces Army and is believed to host various air frames, including Su-25 and Su-27 jets and Mi-8T helicopters.
In February 2020, Kyrgyz authorities announced that Russia was aiming to install new air- and missile-defense equipment and drones at the base. It’s unclear if those improvements were made or if the pandemic derailed the modernization efforts. Russia also reportedly maintains a naval testing station at Issyk Kul.
Tajikistan hosts Russia’s largest military presence abroad (with the exception of Ukraine, involuntarily). Collectively referred to as the 201st Russian military base or the 201st Motor Rifle Division, its history in Tajikistan stretches back to 1945. Given the breakout of civil war in newly independent Tajikistan in 1992, Russian forces never fully left the base (as they had in Kyrgyzstan). The base’s constituent parts include facilities and troops near Dushanbe, Kulyab, and Qurghonteppa (also called Bokhtar) and the force is estimated at around 7,000 troops.
In January 2021, Russian Ambassador to Tajikistan Igor Lyakin-Frolov told TASS that the “combat readiness of the Russian base, which can give a worthy response to threats and challenges emanating from Afghanistan, has increased.” Later in 2021, Russia dispatched 30 new tanks to the 201st.
There is less clarity on the Russian Air Force’s presence in Tajikistan. In 2017, Russia was apparently seeking to move more solidly into the Ayni Air Base outside Dushanbe, which it had used on an ad hoc basis over the years. The base had been renovated by India, which had hopes of moving in, but it’s unclear what kind of presence or control either have at the base at present. (The same goes for Farkhor Air Base, which is discussed in Indian media as the country’s first foreign base but about which little concrete is known.)
Back to Shoigu’s recent statements, it’s unclear precisely what he means by increasing “combat readiness” of Moscow’s forces in Central Asia, and how that relates to or differs from Lyakin-Frolov’s 2021 comments to the same effect. It may mean increased alert with regard to Afghanistan or increased activities; but it may also be just signaling on the part of Russia.
At present, the Russian military is bogged down in Ukraine, fighting six months into a war Moscow likely believed would be much shorter. In announcing the upcoming Vostok 2022 war games — which will involve military forces and observers from Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Syria, and Tajikistan — Russia said it was sending 50,000 troops to participate. Reuters noted that the 50,000 Russians is far below the reported 300,000 that participated in the exercise back in 2018 (which may have been an exaggeration). The 50,000 number may also be an inflated figure. One Polish analyst, Konrad Muzyka, told Reuters: “It’s just Russia pretending everything is fine and they still have the capability to launch a large-scale military exercise with China. But in reality I think the scope of this exercise, especially from a ground force perspective, is going to be very, very limited.”
The joint communique that was issued after the recent SCO defense ministers meeting hones in on Afghanistan: “The defense ministers believe that settling the situation in Afghanistan without delay is one of the key factors in preserving and strengthening security and stability within the SCO space.”
But while the statement does not mention “Ukraine” directly, it does lay out a distinctly Russian talking point about Ukraine: “The ministers firmly condemned attempts to revise the causes and outcomes of World War II, and to rehabilitate Nazi criminals and their accomplices, as well as promote neo-Nazi ideas.”
The SCO includes as full members China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.