A major casualty of Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine has been its weakening position and leverage in Central Asia. In truth, this war has plainly demonstrated Moscow’s risky imperial impulses are clearly damaging the region. The most obvious example of the region distancing itself from the Kremlin is Kazakhstan, which has repeatedly asserted its independence from Russia (Trendsreserach.org, August 26). But more recently, other Central Asian states have followed suit. For example, Kyrgyzstani analysts have reported a distinct cooling of ties (The Diplomat, October 11). Indeed, Kyrgyzstani President Sadyr Japarov cancelled joint military drills with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) due to Russia’s support for Dushanbe against Bishkek in the controversies over their shared border; opposed the railroad project to connect Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China; as well as decried Russia’s overall colonial hauteur directed against Kyrgyzstan (if not all of Central Asia).
Similarly, Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon, normally a dependable Russian client, publicly upbraided Russian President Vladimir Putin for not respecting “small states” and for not paying sufficient attention to the needs of all the Central Asian states (Al Jazeera, October 18). He also complained that Moscow did not treat Tajikistan as an equal strategic partner. Finally, Rahmon further lamented that Russian businessmen only care about hydrocarbons and are not helping develop Tajikistan’s economy. These signs of common disapproval of Russian policy and the willingness to reprimand Russia and Putin publicly clearly derive inspiration from Kazakhstan’s example, which, like these actions of regional assertiveness, also continues to affirm its more independent course.
Thus, Astana actively challenges Moscow and its policies. Ukraine’s demolition of the Kerch Bridge on October 8 led some Kazakhstani bloggers to question Russia’s ability to ensure Central Asian security, something the Kremlin has always proclaimed (EurActiv, October 8). The Kazakhstani government also said it had no plan to sign a new military agreement with Russia when Putin visited Astana in early October 2022 (Informburo.kz, October 12). The privately owned news and analysis website, 365info.kz, went a step further and denied that Kazakhstan owes Russia anything for allegedly “saving” it during the widespread public unrest in January earlier this year. And this article is only one of many that have challenged the Kremlin’s arguments that Kazakhstan is somehow indebted or beholden to Russia for that assistance. In truth, the continued publications of similar articles in the Kazakhstani press signifies Astana’s intention to further assert itself vis-à-vis Moscow. As such, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, during his visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly session on September 19 and 20, invited leading US corporations, including Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Amazon, Pfizer, Netflix and Boeing, to invest in Kazakhstan (Akorda.kz, September 20). Tokayev has also urged other governments in the region and Russia to develop effective mechanisms for a viable regional organization to counter emerging threats to security—as the CSTO has largely been symbolic in this regard (The Astana Times, October 14).
All this activity denotes a growing regional sense in Central Asia that local governments cannot rely on Russian economic or military guarantees of security and assistance. Despite Putin’s proclaimed openness to forming new production and marketing chains with the Central Asian states, these countries will likely remain quite skeptical of Russian economic guarantees given the withering effect of Western sanctions and because of, as Rahmon argued, too many earlier examples of Russian disinterest in the region’s actual economic development (TASS, October 13). Putin’s numerous invocations of the economic gains to be made together from joint transport and logistics proposals, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Eurasian Development Bank will likely not progress very far, as has often been the case (TASS, October 14). Indeed, in Kazakhstan, if not elsewhere, a lot of resentment is harbored against Moscow’s charges that Astana is supplying weapons to Kyiv and that Washington is trying to sever Russo-Kazakhstani relations, especially as these charges could serve as the basis for a casus belli against Kazakhstan (The Moscow Times, October 5). Not surprisingly Kazakhstani officials and media forcefully rejected these charges and pointed out how Kazakhstan has supported Russia in the past (The Moscow Times, October 5).
All these events and trends betoken further difficulties and the ongoing erosion of Russia’s position in Central Asia. Moscow’s capacity for influencing Central Asia economically and militarily is clearly diminishing along with the legitimacy of its claims to be a security manager or guarantor of regional security (TASS, October 27, 2011). Likewise, Central Asian suspicions of Russian interests, always present, even if hitherto suppressed, are now more freely and overtly expressed than ever before. Moreover, these governments are likely to follow Kazakhstan’s example of seeking enhanced economic, if not political ties, with other governments. Additionally, we can be sure that China will exploit these new opportunities in the region both economically and politically, if not militarily as well.
In truth, we are also seeing increased mutual attention being paid to Central Asia by both Turkey and Iran. Between Astana and Ankara, this attention manifests itself most clearly in recent military deals. And in Iran’s case, Tehran seeks to increase its economic presence in Central Asia through various trade and transit agreements (Studies.aljazeera.net, April 1, 2014). Thus, it is clear that Moscow’s pretensions to hegemony in Central Asia are coming under severe pressure from the impact of its war against Ukraine on its military and economic capabilities, as well as on its relations with the respective regional governments. These trends are sure to lead to the European Union and United States showing a greater interest and bolstering their presence in Central Asia. For all these reasons, we can assert confidently that Russia’s ties with Central Asia are and will continue to be casualties of the war in Ukraine.