The Russian Federation is strengthening its economic integration with several Central Asian states. At the beginning of April, the authorities of Uzbekistan and Russia agreed to set up an economic cooperation program in May that would take into account the influence of the novel coronavirus pandemic on their trade. According to the official joint declaration, enterprises of the two countries plan to implement projects worth $7.3 billion over the short term. At the end of 2019, bilateral trade turnover had already increased by 17 percent compared to 2018 (Sputnik-Uzbekistan, April 3).
By the end of last month, Uzbekistan began the process of joining the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as an observer. The formal signing of the agreement most likely will take place during President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s upcoming visit to Moscow, planned for June (Kommersant, April 29). At the same time, Russian experts are advising Uzbekistan’s authorities to consider not only full membership in the EEU but also returning to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is also dominated by Moscow (Forbes—Kazakh service, October 4, 2019).
Russian influence in Central Asia is not limited to increasing economic integration. As early as October 2015, experts at the Minsk Center for Strategic and Foreign Political Research insisted that Russia was preparing a destabilization scenario intended to encourage conflict among the key governments and forces of the region. In their words, regional destabilization would permit Russia to strengthen is military-political sway over Central Asian governments, especially over members of the CSTO, thus formalizing its sphere of influence by completing the “belt of instability” (Krymr.com, October 27, 2015).
A year later, the same experts posited that Moscow’s active stirring up of conflicts was intended to raise energy costs by hampering local production in Central Asia and allow Russia to become the sole supplier of energy recourses to the region, thus further limiting competing outside influence from China and the United States. The analysts opined that to trigger such destabilization, Russia has been exploiting its relationship with the Afghan Taliban, building off the two sides’ cooperation against the Islamic State in the war-torn South Asian country (Krymr.com, May 16, 2016).
Some of these warnings from the Belarusian specialists were ultimately confirmed by other sources. In 2017, US General John Nichols revealed that Russia was actively supporting the Taliban in an effort to undermine the influence of the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the region. At the same time, Russian diplomats confirmed that they supported contact with the Taliban in order to seat the militants at the negotiating table with Kabul (BBC News—Russian service, February 10, 2017).
In the autumn of 2019 Russia acted as intermediary in negotiations between the Taliban and the US. That September, a Taliban delegation arrived in Moscow to meet with the Russian president’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. On this occasion, the parties noted that Russia and the Taliban were “on the same side of the barricades” in these negotiations, and the representative of the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, declared that “a complete curtailment of foreign military presence is an essential condition for sustainable peace in Afghanistan” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 15, 2019).
The United States began to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan following the February 29, 2020, signing of a peace agreement, which was officially supported by Russia (Mid.ru, March 2). US experts suggest that the withdrawal of forces will lead to the strengthening of the Taliban, the aggravation of the civil war, and the growth of the trans-border terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan (Rand.org, January 21, 2019). However, this does not mean that Moscow is quite ready to use all the levers available to it to wholly disrupt Central Asia.
On the one hand, the Russian goals enumerated by the Belarusian analysts several years ago are still relevant. Competition among Russia, the US and China in Central Asia has sharpened since then. Last September, the Russian media admitted that Russia is losing ground in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Namely, a piece in Gazeta.ru argues, although most governments in the region still rely greatly on Moscow, the significance of China as a trade partner and source of investment has enjoyed notable growth. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are part of the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative,” and Armenia, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and others are seeking to develop technological ties outside the former Soviet Bloc (Gazeta.ru, September 20, 2019).
China is the most valuable supplier of foreign direct investment, particularly in the energy and infrastructure sectors, while the Russian contribution in this sphere is small and shrinking in the region’s largest economies, as noted in the above-mentioned article. “Russia is losing in this area to international oil companies, including Shell (Netherlands), British Petroleum [BP] (Great Britain), Chevron and ExxonMobil (USA),” the Gazeta.ru authors admit (Gazeta.ru, September 20, 2019). At the beginning of this month, the new president of Kazakhstan, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, called his country’s partnership with China natural and mutually beneficial, declaring that the republic is in no danger of excessive dependence on a neighboring power (RIA Novosti, May 1, 2020).
Instability in the region, particularly if clearly linked to Russian actions, and the latter’s continued open cooperation with Taliban militants could finally drive the countries of Central Asia away from Moscow and into the arms of its competitors. Russia, it seems, understands this and for the moment is trying to portray itself instead as a peacemaker and guarantor of regional stability. It is extending economic support programs to its Central Asian neighbors and offering to be the arbiter of interstate disputes, for example in the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (Kommersant, September 20, 2019). However, in the event that Russia’s regionalist economic integration plans collapse and the Central Asian and South Caucasus states refuse Moscow’s “mediation” assistance, Russia may again seek to use its built-up leverage to exacerbate the underlying conflict dynamics in the region.