US Retreat From Afghanistan Opens New Strategic Opportunities for Russia in Central Asia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 24

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Kyrgyzstani President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, Bishkek, February 4

President Donald Trump’s voiced intention to reduce the United States’ military presence in Afghanistan has triggered a rush of Kremlin activity in Central Asia (see EDM, February 14). Russia sees the expected US retreat as a window of opportunity for consolidating its own interests, which is likely to severely diminish the regional countries’ abilities to pursue multi-vector diplomacy.

In particular, Russia initiated a parallel-track diplomatic process, organizing in Moscow an “inter-Afghan meeting” involving former Afghan officials as well as other internal actors, including representatives of the Taliban (Izvestia, February 5). At the same time, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conducted a two-day trip to Central Asia, visiting Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

In Kyrgyzstan, Lavrov’s arrival was presented as preparation for President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Bishkek, planned for late March. However, some of Lavrov’s statements suggested his agenda was wider. During his talks with the Kyrgyz Republic’s Foreign Minister Chingiz Aidarbekov, the Russian official criticized the closed and non-transparent talks ongoing between the US and the Taliban in Qatar (Afghanistan.ru, February 5). The Afghan topic and the related security threats for Central Asia had been thoroughly “exposed” by the Russian media both before and during Lavrov’s trip to the region.

Many Russian official and media sources alleged that ongoing US actions in Afghanistan will trigger instability in Central Asia (RIA Novosti, January 31). They invoked the danger caused by the return home of Islamic State fighters originating from Central Asia (Kommersant.ru, February 6). Moreover, a few days before Lavrov’s trip to Kyrgyzstan, the Russian governmental news agency TASS published an interview with the Kyrgyzstani ambassador to Moscow. The journalist raised the question of a possible second Russian military base in southern Kyrgyzstan. The diplomat suggested, neutrally, that the topic could be discussed during Putin’s visit in March (TASS, February 1). However, TASS, followed by other Russian media sites, presented these remarks as if the Kyrgyzstani envoy had himself requested a second Russian military base (Vzglead.ru, February 1).

Considering the modus operandi of Russian information operations, the above-mentioned TASS interview’s sole purpose was likely to disseminate the idea that Kyrgyzstan is requesting another Russian military base. Given this concerted effort by the Russian media to make it seem as if Kyrgyzstan “is coaxing” Russia to open a second such facility (Vzglead.ru, February 4), and given the complementary narrative that Russia does not actually need it but “is ready to discuss that with its Kyrgyz friends,” it is quite likely that talk of a second base was, in fact, a key issue on Lavrov’s agenda.

Lavrov reportedly claimed that this had been the first time he had heard anything about considerations to expand Russia’s presence in Kyrgyzstan (Sputnik News, February 4). However, over the last fifteen years, the issue of another Russian military base in this country’s southern region—specifically, in the volatile Fergana Valley—had, in fact, come up several times before. In 2009, the Russian side requested the opening of the base (Reuters, July 9, 2009) and even achieved progress in pushing Kyrgyzstan to accept it (Interfax, July 31, 2009), until political pressure from neighboring Uzbekistan effectively derailed the initiative (Fergananews.com, July 13, 2009). Then, in 2017, Kyrgyzstani authorities in turn requested a Russian military base in the country’s south, predominantly as a deterrent against its more powerful neighbors (in particular, Uzbekistan), with whom it had regular military standoffs along the border. However, due to Russia’s intense preoccupation at that time with attracting Uzbekistan back into its regional initiatives (see EDM, November 17, 2017), this request was refused.

Since then, Russian priorities in Central Asia have apparently evolved. During his recent diplomatic tour of Central Asia, Minister Lavrov notably skipped Uzbekistan. A clear explanation for this omission of such an important regional player has been difficult to come by. Yet, it may have been motivated by the fact that Uzbekistan, under President Shavkat Mirziyaev, has continued its rather independent-from-Moscow foreign policy. Indeed, last month, Uzbekistan’s special forces participated, for the first time, in the Southern Strike 2019 military exercise in the United States, alongside units from the US National Guard, Canada, Chile and the Netherlands (Podrobno.uz, January 29, 2019). Importantly, Uzbekistani Defense Minister Abdusalom Azizov observed the active part of the exercise and visited US Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters, in Tampa, to discuss bilateral military cooperation (Podrobno.uz, January 25).

Soon after Lavrov’s visit, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov was invited by President Putin to informally meet in Sochi, on February 9. Among other issues, the two leaders discussed “military consolidation and cooperation” (Ozodi.org, February 12). In parallel, Russian diplomacy displayed its usual ability to coordinate its diverse resources, including at the United Nations. On February 11, the under secretary general of the UN Counter-Terrorism Office, Vladimir Voronkov, a senior Russian career diplomat, presented to the Security Council a report, in which he specifically underlined the (alleged) intention of the Islamic State to strengthen its influence in Central Asia and even conduct terrorist attacks in the Fergana Valley (Un.org, February 11). That message deliberately reinforced Moscow’s rhetoric in the region and was meant to build international support for Russian security proposals.

Moscow displays a growing appetite for exploiting the security and political voids being created by Washington’s increasing retrenchment. First, this situation is creating new opportunities for Russia to play an important role in a volatile region that could impact Europe. Central Asia is becoming a key node in transcontinental transit corridors linking the markets of Europe and the Asia-Pacific. If the US withdraws from Afghanistan, Russia’s ability to effectively project military forces in Central Asia will give it greater bargaining leverage in discussions with the EU—particularly in regard to sanctions.

It also may allow Russia to encourage greater international recognition of its military bloc—the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—under the auspices of which it is likely to open the base in Kyrgyzstan. Considering the lack of other effective military forces in the region willing and able to strike the Islamic State or other radical groups operating in Afghanistan, Russia could even attempt to obtain a UN mandate for the CSTO.

Finally, the discussed Russian military base would be exactly where one of the Chinese “One Belt, One Road” railroad lines is planned to be constructed. This planned rail route will connect China with Europe through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, entirely bypassing Russian territory. Given Moscow’s willingness to escalate its strategic competition with Washington, stationing military forces near this strategic transit corridor would create additional opportunities for Russia’s increased regional role and dominance.