Russian Rhetoric Toward Central Asia Grows Increasingly Hostile

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 23

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia’s rhetoric toward Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, has become increasingly hostile since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. 
  • The rhetoric from Russia includes threats of invasion and annexation, reminiscent of the language used toward Ukraine before its invasion. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian media has escalated its attacks on Central Asian states. 
  • The hostile rhetoric and actions from Russia have eroded trust and relations between Central Asian countries and Russia. The invasion of Ukraine has shattered the perception of Russia as a reliable ally among Central Asian elites.

On January 23, Russian historian Mikhail Smolin stated that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan did not exist as nations before the 1917 October Revolution while appearing on the set of the “Mestro Vstrechi” talk show on Russia’s “NTV” channel. Commenting on the history of Central Asian states, Smolin explained that Kazakhstan was originally part of Russia, and Uzbekistan was created “from several Central Asian peoples” by the Soviet authorities (, January 23). 

Smolin’s scandalous remarks became the latest example of Russia’s increasingly hostile rhetoric toward the Central Asian countries. Moscow has employed this rhetoric since the start of the war in Ukraine. These statements resemble those used against Ukraine before its invasion, denying the regional states’ history and agency as sovereign states, threatening invasion and annexation, and accusing them of pursuing policies aimed at discriminating against ethnic Russians. 

The Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have a long-standing common history with Russia. The region came under the Russian Empire’s control in the 19th century and then became part of the Soviet Union, gaining independence only in 1991. Even after the regional states became independent, the Kremlin viewed them as part of its backyard. Moscow claimed for itself the exclusive right to influence the region, which limited Central Asia’s political, security, and economic engagement with other regional and global actors. 

Thus, the regional nations were not strangers to the Russian authorities’ outrageous claims against their statehood. In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin implied that Kazakhstan never existed as a state before 1991. He did so by stating that its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, “created a state on territory where there had never been a state” (, August 28, 2014). In 2020, a Russian State Duma deputy and member of the pro-Kremlin “Edinaya Rossiya” party, Vyacheslav Nikonov, claimed on air that “Kazakhstan simply did not exist” and its territory was “a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union” (, December 12, 2020). Such statements, however, were exceptions to the norm and were rarely made in public. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked a change in Russian public and media figures’ rhetoric toward Central Asia. They turned the rare hostile statement into regular lines of attack from the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. A month after the invasion, another Duma deputy, Sergei Savostyanov, offered to expand the ongoing “denazification and demilitarization operation” in Ukraine to include Kazakhstan, among other post-Soviet states (, March 26, 2022). A month after this incident, Russian television host and husband of the central propaganda figure Margarita Simonyan, Tegran Keosyan, accused Kazakhstan of “ungratefulness” and threatened the country, calling for it “to look at Ukraine” in response to the country’s decision to cancel the annual parade commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory in the World War II (, April 27, 2022). 

Even high-level Russian officials have made hostile statements toward Central Asia, questioning their sovereignty and statehood. In August 2022, Russia’s former president and deputy chair of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, designated Kazakhstan as an “artificial state” built on the territory gifted by Russia. Medvedev further blamed Astana for implementing policies that “could be classified as genocide of [ethnic] Russians” (, August 18, 2022). 

These media attacks have only increased in intensity and frequency since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the latest example, Russian television host Tina Kandelaki responded to the changing of train stations in Kazakhstan from their Russian names to Kazakh by accusing the country of “pushing out the Russian language” from the public space on a state level (, January 16). 

As the only Central Asian state with a land border with Russia, Kazakhstan has been the target of most of these statements. Still, other Central Asian states have also been on the receiving end of Russian accusations and threats. In July 2023, after Kyrgyzstan adopted the Law on the State Language—making it mandatory for state workers and other groups to know the Kyrgyz language—Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Bishkek of pursuing undemocratic policies (, July 24, 2023). 

In another incident, a member of the Russian Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, Kirill Kabanov, accused Kyrgyz authorities of “clearly unfriendly actions” and threatened to use “all possible pressure mechanisms” to demand the release of a Kyrgyz national. This individual had been imprisoned for taking part in the war in Ukraine on the Russian side (, August 30, 2023). 

For Uzbekistan, Smolin’s remarks denying its statehood are not the only case of hostile rhetoric from the Kremlin-backed propaganda figures. In December 2023, Russian writer and politician Zakhar Prilepin called for the annexation of Uzbekistan and other former members of the Soviet Union into Russia, explaining that it would solve the issue of Uzbek migrant workers in Russia not knowing the Russian language (, December 21, 2023).

Central Asian states are limited in their arsenal of responses to these media attacks by Russian propagandists. Their political, security, and economic dependence on Russia has made them vulnerable. Thus far, they have responded by issuing notes of protests through diplomatic channels and adding Russian propagandists to persona non grata lists. In response to Smolin’s remarks, a leader of the “Milliy Tiklanish” party in Uzbekistan and parliament member, Alisher Kadyrov, proposed that the usage of the Russian language in the country be revisited, limiting its use in the spheres of education and media (, January 25). Kazakhstan has gone further, canceling the broadcast of several Russian TV channels that translate state propaganda (, January 4). 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered the Kremlin’s allies in Central Asia’s perception of once-unthinkable foreign policy actions by Russia. It has also exposed Russian elites and public figures’ colonialist and expansionist views toward Central Asia. This increasingly hostile rhetoric—similar to what was once used against Ukraine before its invasion—erodes Central Asia’s perception of Moscow and regional elites’ relationship with and trust in Russia.