The war Russia launched on Ukraine in late February has caused a geopolitical tectonic shift, the shockwaves of which are being felt in many countries around the world.
The countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are bound to Russia by ties established since the Russians colonised Central Asia in the 19th century, but Russia’s growing pariah status in the international community is prompting the Central Asian states to look at other options for foreign partners.
Russian Turkestan around 1900 (Credit: HylgeriaK, cc-by-sa 3.0).
For more than 200 years, Central Asia has dealt with Russia as a global power, able to impose its will on the region by force if necessary. Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have come to Central Asia, most then travelling on to countries further away. The Central Asian governments and state media try to avoid talking about the war in Ukraine, but the sight of waves of Russian citizens fleeing their country and arriving in Central Asian cities tells its own story, one of a nation in decline.
Russia has been a leading trade partner of all the Central Asian states and much of Central Asia’s trade with the West goes through Russian territory. Russia has also been seen as the guarantor of security in Central Asia, but the Russian military’s poor performance in Ukraine calls into question Moscow’s ability to project military power into Central Asia.
Security is probably the biggest and most difficult vacuum for the Central Asia states to fill.
Much of the weaponry used by the armed forces of Central Asia is Russian – or even Soviet-made. There will be some questions about how effective these weapons would be in battle, since the same weapons have proved no match for Ukrainian forces armed with modern Western weapons.
The Central Asian states have diversified their weapons purchases in the last decade. Turkmenistan, for example, now buys more weapons from Turkey than from any other country. China is increasingly an arms supplier for Central Asia also.
Among heads of state present at a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in December 2021 were Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, standing left of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and moving right, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, then president of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (Credit: kremlin.ru, cc-by-sa 3.0).
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). The CSTO has never sent troops to a combat zone, though the organisation did send a small force, some 2,500 to 3,000 troops, to guard vital facilities in Kazakhstan in January when violent unrest broke out across the country.
But the CSTO did not send troops to Armenia when Azerbaijan launched attacks in September. And the CSTO did not take any action when member states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan fought a brief war from September 14-17. Kyrgyz officials complained unsuccessfully to the CSTO that their territory was invaded, and that the organisation should take action to prevent further hostilities from the Tajik side. The bad feeling looks to have been one reason why Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov last week failed to attend a 70th birthday occasion held for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian losses in Ukraine have led its military to transfer some of the forces it has in Syria to Ukraine. Russia has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but it has removed some of the troops and equipment from those two countries and transferred them to Ukraine.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO has conducted joint military exercises, but with Russia, China, India and Pakistan as the other members, it is difficult to believe the organisation would ever reach a consensus on intervening in a Central Asian security crisis.
Turkey, and to a lesser degree Iran, have stepped up their military co-operation with Central Asian states since February.
Ankara was already establishing closer security ties with some of the Central Asian states before the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Turkey, for instance, sold Kyrgyzstan Bayraktar TB2 combat drones in late 2021. Turkmenistan showed off its Bayraktar TB2s acquired from Turkey at its Independence Day celebration in late September 2021. Kazakhstan reached a deal to buy three Turkish Anka drones in November 2021. And Turkish Ambassador to Uzbekistan Olgan Bekar, accompanied by two “consultants on internal and security issues at the Embassy,” discussed security and military matters, including the training of military personnel, with officials from Uzbekistan’s National Guard at the end of October 2021.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Uzbekistan, on March 29-30, and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited Turkey, on May 10-11, to meet with Erdogan. Officials from the Turkish and Uzbek defence ministries signed new agreements during Erdogan’s visit, and officials from the Turkish and Kazakh defence ministries did the same during Tokayev’s visit, including an agreement to jointly produce Turkish Anka drones in Kazakhstan.
At a summit in Istanbul on November 12, a loosely organised group of Turkic-speaking states that had existed in various forms for nearly a quarter of a century took a formal step forward by establishing the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) with Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as members, and Hungary and Turkmenistan as observer states, though the latter country is due to become a full member at the OTS summit scheduled for November 11 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
The previous groupings of Turkic-speaking states did not make any discernible impact on world politics, but Erdogan seems to want the OTS to play a stronger role, certainly in regional politics. With Russia’s potential to exert influence in Central Asia receding, Turkey, using the OTS, could fill some of the security gaps being created.
The Tajiks are a Persian people, rather than Turkic, and perhaps for that reason Tajikistan has looked to Iran for security help. In May, the head of Iran’s armed forces, General Mohammad Bagheri, visited Tajikistan and together with Tajik Defence Minister General Sherali Mirzo opened a plant that will produce Iran’s Ababil-II drones.
Tajik-Iranian ties have been up and down since Tajikistan became independent in late 1991. The Tajiks and Iranians share linguistic and cultural affinities, but the Tajiks are Sunni Muslims and the Iranians Shi’ites. Iranian efforts to strengthen ties with Tajikistan have in recent times encountered resistance from another country seeking influence in Central Asia, Saudi Arabia.
In 2017, Saudi Arabia provided a $200mn grant to Tajikistan to build a parliament building and government complexes in the capital Dushanbe. Three months later, Tajik authorities accused Iran of being behind sabotage and killings that took place during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud visited Tajikistan on October 4 and met with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.
How much Saudi Arabia is genuinely interested in gaining influence in Tajikistan or is merely undercutting Iranian efforts in Central Asia is debatable, but other Central Asian countries are showing interest in building ties with the oil-rich kingdom.
Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov visited Saudi Arabia in June, Kazakh President Tokayev in July, and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in August, paying the first visit by an Uzbek president to the country in 30 years. All three performed the Umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage, but they also discussed new business agreements with Saudi officials, indicating the three Central Asian presidents were interested in financial as well as spiritual salvation.
Tokayev also made the most of his trip to the United States to address the UN General Assembly by also meeting with representatives of American financial organisations.
Central Asian countries are, meanwhile, diversifying their trade transit routes south, away from the traditional routes through Russia.
Kazakh President Tokayev’s June visit to Iran was timed to coincide with the arrival in Tehran of a freight train making its first trip from the north-eastern Kazakh city of Pavlodar to Turkey. The journey along the 6,336-km railway takes 12 days.
Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been working to expand trade flows across the Caspian Sea.
During his May visit to Turkey, Tokayev discussed alternative trade routes with Erdogan, and prior to that there were reports that Kazakhstan was working with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to expand trade across the Caspian Sea and through the Caucasus.
Tokayev visited Azerbaijan on August 24 to meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev with transportation connections high on the agenda. Just prior to that visit, Kazakhstan’s national railway company – Kazakhstan Temir Zholy – discussed cooperation with officials from the Baku International Sea Trade Port. Kazakhstan is hoping to cut down its major dependence on shipping oil exports through the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, where there have been suspensions of operations three times since March. One option is to send more oil through Azerbaijan but that ambition faces obstacles such as a lack of tankers plying the Caspian Sea.
Aliyev was in Uzbekistan discussing trade routes with President Mirziyoyev on June 22 and the two presidents met again in Samarkand in September, when Aliyev was invited as a guest to the SCO summit that Uzbekistan was hosting.
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan recently completed upgrades and expansions at their Caspian ports, Aktau and Kuryk, and Turkmenbashi city respectively. Uzbekistan has agreements with both countries to ship goods by road and rail to those ports. Azerbaijan has also opened its new port at Alat, but the cargo-shipping fleet on the Caspian Sea also currently remains small and the infrastructure for moving cargo through the Caucasus is still limited.
These are difficulties all the countries involved are working to address and the longer Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, the quicker the progress in opening routes across the Caspian and through Iran is likely to be.
The Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine has weakened Russia militarily and financially, the country’s international image is shattered and its near-term future is not bright.
Russia can no longer be the same ally, partner or colonial power it has been to Central Asia in the past two centuries, and even if Russia can later rebuild itself it will have to contend with a far more independent Central Asia.