Tajikistan’s military, according to Moscow-based defense analyst Vladimir Mukhin, “today represents a small outpost of the Russian Army. It is completely equipped with Russian arms, has the same organizational structure,” its soldiers and officers are being trained by Russians and in Russian military schools, and its forces are fully integrated into exercises organized by Moscow. Moreover, he points out, the strongest and most reliable military force in this Central Asian country is not Tajikistani at all but rather a Russian military base that Moscow owns the lease to until 2042 (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 28).
No other military of a former Soviet republic is as fully integrated into the Russian Armed Forces as Tajikistan’s, a situation highlighted last week (May 28) by the visit to Dushanbe of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (TASS, May 28). The particularly close military-military relationship reflects three interrelated calculations by Moscow: First, Tajikistan has the longest land border with Afghanistan (1,300 kilometers) of any Central Asian state and, thus, is more at risk than any other country regarding the spread of radicalism from there that could, ultimately, make its way toward the Russian Federation. Second, Tajikistan itself is unstable and at risk of collapse—its government is corrupt and heavily in debt, its population is increasingly disaffected, and the center’s control over the regions is increasingly in doubt, according to some observers (see EDM, October 18, 2018). And third, Russia views Tajikistan as a potential model for the restoration of Russian dominion over the entire Central Asian region, convinced that by controlling the force structures there, it can politically control the countries as well.
Shoigu’s trip to Tajikistan was preceded a week earlier by a visit from Aleksandr Bortnikov, the director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Bortnikov told his hosts Moscow has “indisputable information” that forces of the Islamic State have concentrated in northern Afghanistan, just across the border from Tajikistan. If “decisive measures are not taken,” he warned, “the terrorists will be able to penetrate the territory of Tajikistan and, from there (under the guise of migrants) move into Russia.” In essence, he said in Dushanbe, “this is already happening,” and Russia and Tajikistan must work closely together to stop it (Svobodnaya Pressa, May 30).
In the wake of Shoigu’s visit, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that an additional group of Tajikistani officers will begin studying in Russian military academies, while Russian officers will increase their role as trainers of Tajikistani troops. The Ministry added that Tajikistan will be included in a series of Russian-organized military exercises this summer. In these exercises, “the Russian-Tajik unified military group” will act as one unit rather than as two forces cooperating with each other, an indication, defense expert Mukhin says, of “the high degree of integration of the armies of the two countries” (Svobodnaya Pressa, May 30). According to the Russian government, the Russian military base in Tajikistan, its largest abroad, will receive new weapons—and likely more Russian personnel as well (Polit.info, May 28).
Russian military officials claim that “more than 1,500 junior specialists” from Tajikistan are now studying in Russian military schools, where they are learning to operate the new weapons systems going to the Russian base there (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 28). This comes as Moscow ramps up its general military assistance program to Dushanbe, which (officially) has been running at more than $20 million a year (see EDM, August 14, 2013)—a large sum given that the Tajik army has fewer than 85,000 active personnel. The actual military aid figure is almost certainly many times higher than reported, but that information remains classified.
The Russian government is taking these steps out of fear that the situation in Tajikistan may be near collapse but also because it hopes to use expanded military-military ties in order to boost expand Moscow’s regional power. On the one hand, as Russian analysts have pointed out, Tajikistan is incapable of defending itself on its own and desperately needs Moscow’s assistance, making it ever more willing to make concessions (Centrasia.ru as cited in Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 11, 2015; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 12, 2018). Dushanbe lacks the money to pay for a serious defense force and its army is beset by corruption, disloyalty and even openly Islamist elements (Centrasia.ru as cited in Euromaidan Press, August 30, 2017). Its population is so influenced by Islamist groups that the regime has even begun to maintain a census of those supporting the radicals, including the more than a thousand who have fought for the Islamic State in the Middle East (Islamsng.com, January 23, 2017). It has called home all Muslims studying in madrassahs abroad and closed more than 700 inside the country; it has even shut down Friday prayers in some mosques lest they become places for Islamist recruitment (Islamsng.com, January 24, 2017; Svobodnaya Pressa, May 30, 2019). Moreover, it already faces revolts in its mountainous south, near the Afghan border, and in its prisons (EurasiaNet, November 7, 2018; Tajikta.tj, November 9, 2018; Akhbor-rus.com, Fergananews.com, November 8, 2018).
And on the other, because Dushanbe feels compelled to make concessions regarding Russian control over its armed forces, Moscow sees this as a chance to expand its domination there in ways that recall its control over the Soviet bloc states. What makes this especially interesting is that the history of the development of Tajikistan’s military after 1991 differs considerably from other former Soviet countries. Elsewhere, the newly independent states absorbed what had been Soviet bases and built their armies around them. In Tajikistan, however, because of the civil war, the Russian base remained in Dushanbe, and the Tajikistani government began to build its own Armed Forces from scratch, but only in 1993. That gave some hope that its military would not conform as much to Soviet standards as the others or be influenced or controlled by Moscow (I. Usmon, Sulkhnoma, 2001). But now Moscow is moving to reverse the consequences of that history, something that may give Moscow hope but could set off alarm bells elsewhere.