Tsentr 2019, this year’s largest Russian strategic-operational exercise, involving both Russian troops and seven regional allies and partners, was a highly promoted event by Russia’s state-owned news outlets. According to Sputnik News, the maneuvers (September 16–21) “demonstrated to the world the unprecedented defensive capabilities of Russia on a scale completely inaccessible to the Pentagon and NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization]” (Sputnik.kz, September 21). The exercise was a clear attempt to showcase Russia’s military might, though its formally declared goal was countering a fictitious enemy state “located in the southwest” that supported an insurgency in Central Asia, eventually leading to a regional war (see EDM, September 25). In fact, Russia has always tried to underline, if not overstate, the possible threat of extremists coming from Afghanistan. These concerns have been expressed many times by top Russian political and military leadership, including President Vladimir Putin himself, and Moscow continuously “reminded” Central Asian countries that Russia and no one else would protect them in case of extremist aggression from the south. Most recently, in May 2019, Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), stated that 5,000 Islamic State–affiliated fighters, mostly from post-Soviet states and who accumulated ample fighting experience in Syria, had gathered in northern Afghan provinces, on the border with Central Asia, ready to infiltrate the region (RIA Novosti, May 21). Not everyone accepts such inflated threats in Central Asia; nonetheless, this discourse has periodically been used in the region to strengthen the positions of the Central Asian leaders or justify heavy-handed crackdowns on political dissent (Voicesoncentralasia.org, September 27, 2018).
The exact number of troops committed to the joint Tsentr exercise from the Central Asian countries was not reported in the media, but the country with the biggest force contribution was certainly Kazakhstan. The exercise took place in seven Russian districts, five of which share a direct land border with Kazakhstan. Part of the drills were also held in four military training grounds inside Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstani Ministry of Defense called the launches of Iskander missiles in the Sarishagan training ground (Karaganda, Kazakhstan) the most important part of the Tsentr 2019 exercises (Azattyq.org, September 20). Also interestingly, for the first time, a sizable contingent of Chinese military forces—1,600 soldiers and heavy equipment—were transported across Kazakhstani territory, via new infrastructure built partly with Chinese loans (Azattyq.org, September 18). In other words, infrastructure created to carry Chinese commercial goods to the West can clearly also be employed to project military power.
The particpation in Tsentr 2019 by Uzbekistan, which wields the largest and arguable strongest military force among the Central Asian republics, represented another noteworthy development. Under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (in power since September 2016), Uzbekistan has been gradually abandoning its self-imposed isolation and recently begun to actively join various regional multi-national exercises. In September 2018, the first small-scale Uzbekistani-Tajikistani anti-terrorism exercise took place near the Afghan border in Tajikistan. Throughout 2019, Uzbekistan’s armed forces trained together with their Belarusian, Turkish and Pakistani counterparts (Fergana.agency, September 19). The second joint drills with Tajikistan were held in 2019, but this time as a part of the wider Tsentr 2019 exercises. Uzbekistan’s involvement in Tsentr 2019 on Russian territory was rather limited—only about 100 special forces soldiers (News.mail.ru, September 8). Nonetheless, exercising alongside members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) sparked discussions about the possibility of restoring Uzbekistan’s membership in this Moscow-led alliance, which Tashkent left in 2012 (Ritmeurasia.org, October 1).
Despite the modest troop commitment, Uzbekistani Minister of Defense Bahodir Kurbanov visited Orenburg, Russia, to observe the exercise (Sputnik Uzbekistan, September 20). Moreover, a few days before the start of Tsentr 2019, the speaker of the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament), Vyacheslav Volodin, during his visit to Tashkent, invited Uzbekistani parliamentarians to join the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly as observers (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, September 16). And Valentina Matvienko, the Speaker of Russia’s Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) stated in Tashkent in early October that President Mirziyoyev had already decided to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) (Fergana.agency, October 5).
While Uzbekistan joining the EEU looks probable (see EDM, October 14), recent remarks by Foreign Minister Andulaziz Kamilov at the United Nations Security Council might hint that discussions on a return to the CSTO are premature. In his speech, Kamilov underscored that the Central Asian countries are all able to defend themselves against foreign threats, particularly those coming from Afghanistan. He publicly criticized framing Central Asia as a possible hotbed of extremism, noting, “For the last 25 years, we hear about Central Asia being about to explode any time; but this has so far never materialized” (Podrobno.az, September 28). He pointed out that Uzbekistan does not perceive the extremist threat as serious and thus has not need for active protection by any outside power. Moreover, to join the CSTO, Uzbekistan would first need to modify its Foreign Policy Concept, which establishes that the country has non-aligned status and will not join military alliances nor allow foreign military bases on its territory (Ritmeurasia.org, October 1).
Tajikistan, which hosts Russia’s largest military base abroad (the 201st base), is the only CSTO member that shares a border with Afghanistan. Some limited-scope Tsentr 2019 drills were held at Tajikistan’s Laur and Sambuli training grounds (Sputnik News, September 23). Interestingly, the country has also noticeably intensified military cooperation with China, Russia’s main competitor in the region. Just a few weeks before Tsentr 2019, in mid-August, Dushanbe and Beijing held exercises involving around 1,200 troops in total (RFE/RL, August 13).
The other small Central Asian republic, Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand seems dedicated to expanding military cooperation with Russia. Kyrgyzstani President Sooronbai Jeenbekov was the only foreign leader attending the opening of Tsentr 2019, in Orenburg (Elezgit.kg, September 21). About 500 soldiers from the Central Military District of the Russian Federation arrived in Kyrgyzstan for joint drills (Orbita.kg, September 23). This year, both countries also agreed to expand the Kant airbase—Russia’s major military installation in Kyrgyzstan (Rosbalt, April 1). Moreover, speculation has been rampant that the two governments are considering opening a second Russian military base on Kyrgyzstani soil. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin confirmed that Bishkek offered Moscow a second base two years ago but also noted that the issue is not currently under discussion (Sputnik.kg, July 20).
While being a message to the West about Russian military capabilities, Tsentr 2019 additionally signaled the importance of Central Asia to Moscow’s security considerations. And it has once more demonstrated the willingness of the Central Asian countries to accept Russia’s exceptional role in regional security affairs. Although China has successfully challenged Russia’s economic position in the region, Moscow continues to dominate military-security relations in Central Asia.