Central Asia: The Stronghold of Russian Foreign Policy, part II

This article is the continuation of Central Asia: The Stronghold of Russian Foreign Policy, part I, published on September 20

There was, simultaneously, a need by Russia to adapt its interests and priorities in the region. In fact, the process of reaffirming Russian interests has evidenced, in an initial phase, a reactive nature to events on the terrain (for example, the civil war in Tajikistan or the growing presence of western energy companies in the Caspian Sea). With the arrival of Putin to the Kremlin, Russian goals became more assertive, materializing in the institutionalization of economic and security cooperation through the creation of the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), in 2015, or the Collective Security Treaty (CST) in 1992, while at the same time, that energy resource investment was adapted to the Russian strategy of transforming Russia into the main energy power of Eurasia.

In 2001, a year after Putin became president, a new dynamic was triggered that placed Central Asia at the top of the international agenda. After the events of September 11, 2001, and taking into account Operation Lasting Freedom in Afghanistan, the USA, in the context of the fight against terrorism, were shown to be able to act militarily in the region. Russia affirmed its commitment in providing assistance to the war effort of the western powers, and shared a genuine interest in stopping radical Islam in its close neighbor and in limiting its pernicious impact that the illicit drug trafficking has in its own society. However, this was one of the biggest challenges for Russian foreign policy which, up to that point, maintained a military monopoly in the region. In the face of growing global independence processes and their rising above hegemonic competition dynamics in the region, the security of Central Asia became an object of dispute. In the following years, countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, due to their proximity with Afghanistan, served as and/or provided bases for the transit of US troops. The strategic importance of this geographic region increased exponentially to the US after these events, and, in 2009, in order to accommodate the need of non-lethal supplies in Afghanistan, and to reduce its dependence from supply lines from Pakistan, the USA opened the Northern Distribution Network, a set of logistical arrangements of commercial basis which connected the Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia. The heightened presence of the american presence in the region, in connection with the Afghan operation (the military base in Kyrgyzstan and since 2005 in Uzbekistan), represented a serious challenge to Russian interests in the region. Later, during the Obama term, there was a gradual NATO and US troop withdrawal from the region, as well as the end of the operation in Afghanistan. The US, as it stands, are not the biggest threat to Russian interests in the region, since Washington is often accused of having a pragmatic view of the region, without defining specific interests.

On the other hand, particularly since the events in Andijan, in 2005, in Uzbekistan, when on May 13, 2005, a protest gathered around 10,000 people in Andijan, in the Ferghana Valley, in response to the trial of 23 local businessmen, accused by the Islam Karimov regime of being Islamic extremists connected to the Hizb ut-Tahrir. Uzbek troops opened fire on the protesters, killing hundreds of people, the Russian presence has been reinforced through a process of regional reaffirmation, including a gradual revision of cooperation structures led by Russia, making use of its significant budget. Additionally, after these events, the Russian influence consolidated by regional leaders, due to the political support that Moscow provided and the fact that Russia appealed to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states. The US and the EU, in turn, imposed sanctions on the Tashkent regime, including ending the use of the aerial base of Khanabad, in Uzbekistan, after 2005.

According to Leonid Gusev, the Russian presence in the region is significant, and is destined to grow. He notes that Russian foreign policy has three overarching goals for Central Asia. The first is to promote security and cooperation in technical and military terms (from modernizing the armies of states in the region to the construction of military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). The second is to facilitation of projects in the energy sector, more specifically in the oil and gas, and in the hydropower sector. Lastly, the third is the strengthening of integration institutions in the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are full members, and Tajikistan is a potential member. Besides Russian hard power, clearly present in the region, Russia also has a strong influence in terms of soft power. The Russian media, as well as film, theater, among others, are highly popular in the region. Russia is seen as an example and these states tend to adopt legislation similar to Russia’s, as for example in the field of combating terrorism.

However, at the same time as US presence in Central Asia is growing less expressive, other actors with interests in the region arise, which may challenge Russian hegemony: China. China has maintained a cautious posture, and the initiatives have been taking place only in the economic field, since in terms of security Russia plays a larger role. Beijing has an ample vision of connectivity for the region, and has been undertaking commercial investments and monetary loans without imposing policy conditions on the borrower. With the Belt and Road initiative, it’s expected that China will expand its influence in the region, as it attempts to challenge Russian interests in the region. The emergence of this country as a dominant actor in the fields of energy and infrastructure, as well as its presence as the preferred loan partner for Central Asia, has profound political consequences that should concern Moscow. 10 years ago, this landlocked region depended on Russia to export its goods and natural resources to the international markets, which gave Moscow an advantage in terms of maintaining its sphere of influence. However, since 2007, China has been breaking the Moscow monopoly, through the construction of pipelines that connect Central Asia to China. With Washington reducing its presence in the region, Russia will have to worry about securing the influence that it still has with regional political leaders, and in containing the rise of China in the region, although the latter is seen by analysts as being inevitable in the long run.

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