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Russian Foreign Policy in Central Asia Since 2001: Assessing the Successes and Failures

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Russian Foreign Policy in Central Asia since 2013: Assessing the successes and failures
Generally it is assumed that Russian foreign policy in Central Asia has been characterized by “neo-imperialism”. Yet this is statement is only partially true considering the fact that Moscow’s policies within its “sphere of influence” have not be static, and have been characterized by sweeping modifications. Since the breakup of Soviet Union, Russian policy in Central Asia has gone through drastic transformations and its influence in the region has varied over time. At present, Russian authority in Central Asia is weakening, yet the Kremlin continues to utilize number of political, institutional and economic strategies to prolong its presence there. Multilateral as well as Bilateral arrangements, and economic and energy leverages combined with cultural instructions are widely implemented in order to maintain Russian influence in Central Asia. Considering the fact that states in the region most importantly though not solely Kazakhstan, have begun to search for diversification and partnership with other great powers, they have gained a certain degree of independence from Moscow. Besides, in recent years China has emerged in Central Asia as an important rival to Russia in terms of influence, and has already established multiple agreements and investments with all of the states in the region. The degree of independence that Central Asian states have managed to gain due to their conviction to act separately from Moscow and to grab Western opportunities, as well as the Chinese presence in the region, suggest that Russian influence there is decreasing and will continue to do so in the near future.
Russia has not lost its ambition to remain the main player in Central Asia, which is seen as a priority for its regional security, and besides the opposition both from the regional states and the comparably new competition from China, it is understood that Moscow will not be able to implement policies that will stop the current developments, and that in the context of vanishing Russian strategic influence in the energy, economic and political spheres, they are unavoidable. Russia’s revived determination to pursue “post-imperial” objectives is still evident in the region, even though the “game” is at this point being played with more caution. The Kremlin’s position in the region continues to be imply that operates according to this logic, and is represented through various soft power instruments employed in Central Asia. This essay considers economic, political, institutional and cultural projects that Russia implements in the region, and assesses its successes and failures accordingly.

CENTRAL ASIA: overview of the region

Central Asia is comprised of five moderately similar states. They are ruled by totalitarian leaders, although the degree of autocracy differs from one another. All of them struggle with severe corruption, lack of democracy, drug-trafficking and politically weak society. It is also important to mention that all five states have distinct foreign policies which are reflected in their actions. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to some extent pursue isolationist policies, while Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan embrace multilateral and diversified foreign outlooks. Although the West has revealed its interest in the region on several occasions, none of the five states have displayed especially Western positioning, possibly due to erratic Western involvement, as well as Western states’ criticisms of the anti-democratic policies employed by the various Central Asian governments. In this context, China is seen as a better choice for partnership since it places minimal emphasis on the kinds of regimes established in the states. On the other hand, anti-Western sympathies in the region characterize both Chinese and Russian interests in Central Asia. This common ground has facilitated the establishment of various multilateral institutions where both leading players have worked diplomatically. Nevertheless, this has resulted in Moscow’s declining influence in the region.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Russian position in Central Asia varied from total lack of interest to relative rhetorical involvement. As a result of Moscow’s absence during this critical period, faith in Moscow’s support was lost among the states, as was its influence. The terrorist attacks of 2001 in the USA have since revived US interest in the region. After “9/11”, the United States has sought military bases in the region, and this was mostly approved by the Central Asian states, as well as by Russia. For the US, dealing with the perceived Taliban threat became a priority for national security, and the Central Asian states, which are geographically situated “in the backyard” of the regions in which the Taliban were most active, were seen as necessary partners in combating such threats. The US therefore successfully gained access to the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, and to an air base in Uzbekistan that was in close proximity to the Afghan border. Fearing that America would replace Russia as the sole major power in the region, Moscow then began to dedicate great effort to renewing its authority. Its policy of indifference, which was implemented soon after 1991 and which saw diminishing Russian importance in the region, was soon to be changed. Since 9/11, Russia has increased economic links with the Central Asian states, not only in terms of energy cooperation. It has also pushed to promote cultural and linguistic education that would re-establish the Russian-Central Asian connection. Moreover, it has played an important role as an external actor in the politics of the region, by supporting different authoritarian regimes through financial and military assistance. Therefore, since 2001, Russian policy towards Central Asia has been characterized by post-imperial goals, yet its efforts have not always met with positive outcomes due to the unavoidable overall waning of its power.
Russian interests in the region, besides the unrealistic dream of creating the Eurasian Union, in which Moscow would coordinate and manage its “little brother” states, are various. First of all, control over the Central Asia improves Russia’s geopolitical position and also brings vast economic benefits due to the region’s large energy reserves as well as the energy transport routes. Central Asia’s energy resources are critical instruments for Moscow’s trade partnership with Europe – the leading importer of Russian gas and oil. For instance, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan sell their gas to Russia at $100 per 1,000 m3 , which is then sold to European countries at the price of $250 per 1,000 m3. Thus, the favourable relationship with the region that enables Moscow to purchase resources below the market price directly reflects on the Russian economy and its position in the international arena. Moreover, influence in Central Asia will improve Russia’s position as a great international power, a status that it has lost. On the other hand, the region represents potential security threats for Russia itself, which it must regulate. Drug trafficking and the presence of Islamic extremism just across its borders pose a real threat to Russia’s security. However, this same reason is usually cited to justify unnecessary Kremlin policies, and in many cases such risks are over exaggerated and even virtual.
For Russia, the US is not the main competitor in the region, since Western ideas of democracy at this point are discordant with the governmental ideals of Central Asian states, and neither the US nor other Western states are inclined to get too involved with the region if democratic ideas are not at least pushed forward by their governments. Realizing this, states in the region remain separated from the West while simultaneously being more disposed toward Russia. Unlike the dismissed Western threat, which might be temporary but does not provide a case for total dismissal, China does pose a serious danger to Russian dominance, yet alignment with China is the only choice left to the Kremlin if it wants to counter Western authority globally. Besides, Moscow does not possess enough leverage to resist Chinese presence in Central Asia, neither with respect to China itself nor in light of the region’s willingness to engage with China. Therefore, the Kremlin cannot use forceful or military policies that might otherwise bring about a quick revival of its influence, but instead has to implement soft power strategies in order to retain its status in the region. Although each of the states have expressed their preparedness to cooperate with both the West and China on various projects, none of them have indicated a complete ignorance of Russia’s significance.

Political Influence


The most apparent proclamation of political influence that Russia has exerted was seen in Kyrgyzstan during the events of 2010. The Kremlin was not impressed by President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s policies, and indirectly pushed for regime change in Kyrgyzstan. Firstly, it was dissatisfied by Bakiev’s stance regarding the US base at Manas; secondly, the president’s son was in charge of the economic process in the country, which at some points went contrary to Russian objectives. Russia has used both economic and political tactics to achieve its goals. It increased the fuel duty on petrol and cancelled various banking contracts, which directly affected the economy of the country and caused social discontent with regard to the government. Moreover, it has used several media sources to reveal corruption taking place in the country, which further intensified the turbulence within the population. When it was already apparent that pro-Russian leader, Roza Otunbaeva, was in charge of the provisional government, Moscow instantly supported her with financial assistance that amounted to 1.5 million tonnes of grain and offered $50 million aid to counter the unrest. As expected, after being appointed on her position, Roza Otunbaeva visited Moscow and expressed Kyrgyzstan’s loyalty to Russia. Although in the case of Kyrgyzstan, Moscow has had a certain degree of success due to its persistent policies, its success is not final. The fact that Kyrgyzstani businesses continued to supply visiting American forces irritated leaders in the Kremlin and eventually led to GazpromNeft to impede oil transfer to them. It was clear to Moscow that Russia was not accepted as the only great power in the country, and even though Kyrgyzstan remained Russia’s leading loyal partner in the region, it still pursued a multi-vector foreign policy that would consider US relationships in its calculations.


For Turkmenistan Russia provides security with regard to confrontations with Iran and Uzbekistan, which automatically provides Moscow with some influence there. But this has not changed Ashgabad’s stance in relationship to Moscow significantly. Russia also tried to revive its influence in Turkmenistan in 2006, yet the outcome of its policies did not bring the latter country under its sphere of influence as it had hoped. For President Sparmurat Niyazov’s funeral, Russian high-ranking officials were sent to Turkmenistan, some of whom intended to sign long-term economic deals with leading businesses in the country. Gazprom CEO Alezei Miller was one of them, and was willing to pursue discussions of the arrangements for gas transfers with the new Turkmenistan government officials. Again, with Turkmenistan Moscow’s strategies have met with partial success. Although Turkmenistan adheres to an isolationist foreign policy, especially in relation to the US and other Western-oriented states, it has cooperated with them on various occasions, which went against Russian interests. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has proclaimed the country’s openness and reduced isolationism. It has negotiated with European Union to arrange gas export deals in 2011, and these negotiations were positively evaluated by both sides. Although for Turkmenistan the EU’s significance is limited, the fact that it welcomed a Western organization implies that Moscow’s role is also only partial in the country. Ashgabad understands that for the Kremlin, its energy reserves and transit routes are important and that the Russia will likely reassert its power in the country, yet President Berdimuhamedow is not willing to abandon its isolationist policy completely in regard with Russia. Besides Kyrgyzstan, and, to a lesser extent,Turkmenistan, the political leverage for Russia in Central Asia is reduced.


Kazakhstan is the leading actor in the region. Since the collapse of the USSR, it has pursued policies that have aligned with, though not been limited to, Russian interests. It is apparent that Russia possess a significant degree of influence on the country, which is balanced by the country’s ambition to stay independent. President Nursultan Nazarbaev is approved by leaders in the Kremlin, even though he continues to cooperate with other non-Russian states as well. Astana has a full grasp of the Russian position, and understands that it should not be seen as a potential sole partner due to its unreliability. In this context, Kazakhstan remains independent of the Kremlin’s directives, but also embraces various strategies to satisfy the latter. The relationship between Astana and the Kremlin is thus a steady one, in which both play safe; Kazakhstan tries to remain considerate of Russian interests, while Russia controls its ambitions and does not impose its authority to an extent that would aggravate tension with officials in Astana.
A large number of ethnic Russians live in Kazakhstan, some even pursuing political careers in the country. Even one of the leading parties, Fair Kazakhstan, is seen as a pro-Russian party, but its loyalty remains more with the Kazakh government. This has given Moscow important power to affect the decisions of the government, yet the use of such leverage has remained restrained, since Russia would not want relationships to become strained between the two. Astana accepts that pro-Russian cultural and political movements are present in the country yet the fact that they remain moderate helps the relationship to remain peaceful. In the face of Kazakhstan’s multi-vectored foreign policy and independence, it is unrealistic that Russia will be able to reestablish its “great neighbour” influence in the country.


Moscow’s relationship with Uzbekistan also suggests a decline in the Russian position. As the West critically assessed government’s use of force during the Andijon clash of 2005, Uzbek leaders sought support from their counterparts in Moscow. Expressing Russia’s willingness to cooperate, president Islam Karimov welcomed Russian forces onto Uzbek soil by giving them access to the military base within the framework of the Allied Relations Treaty. He also joined the Russian-initiated organization of the Eurasian Economic Community and the CSTO. Yet this relationship is questionable, as from 2006, Karimov had demonstrated that he wanted to collaborate with the West. Besides, on several occasions, Russo-Uzbek relations were strained by the irreconcilability of their views regarding security with those imposed by the CSTO. For Uzbekistan, Russia is not a reliable partner, but a strong neighbour that is willing to exert power in the country, something that independent Uzbekistan is not going to accept. Russian strategies are not dominant, neither among the officials nor among the population, who recognise Moscow’s diminished power and averted ambitions in the region.


Even though President Emomali Rakmon has tried to avoid Russian dominance in his country, Tajikistan’s weak financial position and security concerns over drug trafficking have increased its vulnerability. On the other hand, similarly to other Central Asian states, Tajikistan also began welcoming Western investments in the country in 2001, yet these proved inconsistent, which reduced Tajik faith in foreign cooperation. This suggests that many of the developments depend on the events that take inside the country and the extent to which the West will express its real interest in the country. In the case of substantial genuine interest, Tajikistan might be willing to reject Russian involvement and consequently diversify its connections.

Multilateral Institutions: CSTO; EEC; CU

As mentioned above, Russia uses several multilateral organizations in order to extend its power in the region. Although at some points it proves successful, many of its outcomes are controversial and usually do not achieve the anticipated success. Russian-led institutions certainly add validity to the presence of Russia in the region as supervisor, but apart from that, progress is diminished.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan out of the Central Asian states, is one such organization. Joining the CSTO assumes that its members are prohibited from joining any other military organizations such as its Western equivalent, NATO: “ Russia regards the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as one of the key elements of the modern security system in the post-Soviet space. The task of transforming the CSTO into a universal international organization capable of counteracting current challenges and threats under the growing pressure of diverse global and regional factors in the area of its responsibility and the adjoining regions remains relevant”. The CSTO has so far failed to fulfil its duties and its employment has been limited to a small number of joint military exercises and agreements. It even failed to mediate in the Osh clashes of 2010 in Kyrgyzstan, which strongly affected its legitimacy. The fact that the army assembled within the framework of the CSTO consists mostly of Russian military forces suggests that it is primarily a solely Russian-led project to which member states submit in order to please Moscow, and that its impact as a tool for regaining power for Russia remains low. In 2012, Uzbekistan even tried to withdraw from the CSTO, quoting divergent Afghan policies, yet the real reason for this attempt was seen as Uzbek’s desire to liberate itself from Kremlin control.
Moscow has also tried to expand economic dependence through institutions that were originaly intended to facilitate the creation of the Eurasian Economic Community, which only includes only Kazakhstan of the Central Asian states. It aimed to establish common tariffs and control of subsidies provided under political and economic requirements. Its dissolution was proposed as its members were concentrated on the development of the Eurasian Economic Union, which would be an offshoot of the Customs Union. The EEU project, unlike to EurAsEc, is seen to be more determined to achieve its goals. With stricter regulations and decrees attached to the project, it aims to establish strong policies for the regulation of foreign companies. Although the EEU might be well structured, it is unlikely to increase Russian influence in the region. For Kazakhstan, the Customs Union is not seen as an organization to which it aspires, but rather as one that it has to join in order to continue “balancing” its policies with those of Russia. For Kyrgyzstan, which is largely reliant on Chinese trade, Moscow decided tariffs might not prove compatible or alluring at all. Along with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan is concerned with the extensive leverage exerted upon it by Russia, and would prefer to abstain from joining.
Moreover, joining the Customs Union would require the member states to satisfy certain economic conditions, and considering the fact that only Kazakhstan is strong enough in these terms, realization of the project will be difficult.
Another important multilateral organization in the region is Schangai Cooperation or SCO, which is a joint project of Moscow and Beijing. This organization aims to take control over terrorism, separatism, extremism and economy. Its members include Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan along with its major contributors, China and Russia. Although used as a counterweight to the influences of the US and the West, the emergence of the SCO has caused a great amount of power to be taken away from Russia. China managed to establish quick connection with the states in the region which are involved in extensive trading with the country. Its attempt to show the international arena that a Sino-Russian alliance could affect Western domination has backfired: “Chinese influence is growing and some say that soon Central Asia can become Central Eastern Asia, with final disintegration of post-Soviet space, total collapse of Russian power”. More facts regarding this development are discussed in the Economy section below.
Furthermore, the multi-vectored policy of the Central Asian states is also revealed by examining the institutional preferences of the organizations. While Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan cooperated with NATO within the agenda of The Partnership for Peace programme(PfP) they were also members of the CSTO. Both are military organizations, yet incorporate conflicting ideas and strategies. This again implies that although Russian-led institutions bring a certain degree of integration, they are unable to suppress the region’s interest in the West, and that at points, Western influence replaces that of Russia.
Each of the organizations is different in terms of its initiatives and structures, yet all display evidence of the same underlying Russian purpose. CSTO is seen as a counter-organization to NATO, emphasizing military cooperation, while EurAsEc resembled the EU, with an emphasis on economic regulations. It can be concluded that these organizations established by the Kremlin were aimed at the integration of Central Asian states under Russian control, while resisting Western dominance.

Economy: Energy sector

The Russian influence in terms of energy resources and transit routes in Central Asia has been significant since the break-up of the Soviet Union. But recent developments in the face of rising Chinese power have reduced Russian influence in the region. As the USSR collapsed, pipeline routes crossing Russian territories gave Moscow the ability to impact the energy policies of the other states, and, moreover, to acquire resources at low prices. The trend has changed since then, and the Central Asian states have managed to influence many of the decisions in this sector, on occasion contradicting the Kremlin’s preferences. The shift that is apparent suggests that Russia has lost its monopolistic possession of the region’s energy resources.
This trend is apparent if we look at the recent transit routes, which were adopted contrary with Russian preferences. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum and China-Turkmenistan pipelines have undermined Russian ambitions to preserve their gas and oil transit route hegemony. As separate projects, these three routes evade Russian territory and carry energy resources from Central Asia to the West independently.
Nevertheless, the long history of energy presence in the region suggests that even today Moscow retains a considerable influence over the energy in all of the states of Central Asia. The leading oil pipeline in Kazakhstan is controlled by Russia, and it has also managed to exploit a greater number of energy resources within the framework of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which has been proposed by Moscow over the Kazakh-Caspian Transportation system, as well as the trans-Caspian oil pipeline that would be linked with Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan, and would consequently decrease Russian influence. Kazakhstan and Russia came into conflict regarding the latter’s cooperation with foreign energy organizations in 2005; Moscow did not wait for the relationship to be extended, and cancelled its agreements with Kazakhstan’s energy company, KazMunaiGaz, claiming that Astana was acting against Russian interests while collaborating with its direct competitor in the market.
Kazakhstan, along with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, is a major energy-rich country of Central Asia, with which Moscow seeks to establishing lasting contracts. It is important for the Kremlin to have monopoly over the energy sector in Central Asia so that these countries will remain dependent on Russian investments, and so it will therefore be able to sell gas and oil to the West at higher prices with a considerable profit. To an extent, it has managed to buy valuable energy structures and has established contracts with regard to shared production. This accomplishment is only undermined by the fact that none of the states in question have placed their energy sector solely under Russian domination. In fact, all three of them have made effort to diversify their client bases and transit routes vastly. Moscow’s manipulations of foreign energy and resources over the years diminishes its appeal for the Central Asian states, and in the face of Chinese, as well as Indian, South Korean, Japanese and Western competition among others, the Central Asian states would prefer to cooperate with the latter group of investors. These energy-rich states can pursue the policy of their choice, provided they still consider the Russian factor, and therefore may find ways to act autonomously. For example, Kazakhstan has suggested that it plans to increase its oil exports to China through the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline by 2015, and that this should account for no less than 20% of its exports. It also proposed to export 25% of its oil to Europe through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. In the case of Turkmenistan, 30% of gas exports are planned to go to China and to utilize the Trans-Caspian as well as Trans-Afghan pipelines in the near future. In these states, Moscow also has more interests, and therefore cannot adopt extreme strategies that would eventually alienate it from regional cooperation.
Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, along with Tajikistan, possesses less oil and gas reserves, and with poor economies internally these states are able to retain much less sovereignty in the energy sector. In their case, Moscow is ready to grab every opportunity and fill the investment void with Russian companies. Sariqamish gas resources, Kyrgyzgas and Kyrgyzneftgas are mainly operated by Moscow-dominated policies. Russia has also achieved success in signing a twenty-five year treaty with regard with the exploitation of Kyrgyzstan’s gas reserves.

Economy: Outside Energy Sector

Chinese competition, which has been named as the main factor contributing to declining Russian influence in Central Asia, is most apparent in the economic sector. It was the major trading partner in the region before yet for now this trend does not characterize Russo-Central Asian relations and instead has been replaced by China whose involvement in the region has been increasing over the last decade significantly. According to the WTO and Asian Investment Bank information for 2010, Russian trade within the region amounted to $22 billion while that of China extended to $24 billion.
On the other hand, Russia retains its dominion in the region due to its ability to seize control of the vast number of sectors that are not appealing for Western investors. Moreover, several states, including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are indebted to Russia since Soviet times, which gives Russia financial leverage in their agreements. Agriculture, food imports – specially of grain – and various state infrastructures are owned by Russian investors, yet all of these countries express resistance when the Kremlin tries to impose totalitarian dominance over the market. Confrontation with the Turkmenistan government regarding Moscow’s attempt to monopolise the media sphere with its telecom provider MTS confirms that argument.
Besides the Chinese trading partnership, another problem that Russia faces is that of the weak and corrupted political and economic atmosphere in the region, which is apparent in all states except Kazakhstan. This factor has proved to be an obstacle for Russian investments as it causes problems with the functionality, and hence profitability, of the businesses. Struggling with the feeble economic situation in these countries limits Russian financial cooperation with them, while the stronger market of Kazakhstan has its own leverage to resist Moscow’s domination.
Observation of the economic partnership between Russia and Central Asia suggests that the former still has a strong influence on the latter, but that this is diminishing each year. It also suggests that the influence gained over the energy sector derives solely from the economic security needs of the regions and, in some instances, from political games, which are usually halted as soon as the crisis passes by. Moreover, the diversification of customers and markets have enabled these states to act independently from Moscow’s directions, and realizing that none of the Central Asian states possess genuine inclination towards Russian dominance, they seize these opportunities eagerly.

Culture: Language

Besides politics and economy, Moscow has attempted to impose its cultural influence over the region. Similarly to the situation in other spheres, its success has been decreasing, despite the fact that Central Asian countries contain a large number of ethnic Russians. The Russian language has retained most of its influence, most strongly in Kazakhstan, where ethnic Russians comprise 23.7% of the population. For several years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian continued to be the only language spoken at the administrative level, but several attempts have been made to resist cultural leverage, and along with Kazakh language, Russian it is considered as the spoken language in the government, television and among the population. Moreover, English has gained increased credibility among Kazakhs, some of whom have managed to travel in the West and so have immersed themselves in Western culture. Similar opposition was revealed by the Uzbek and Turkmenistan governments, which adopted the Latin script instead of the Cyrillic in order to circumvent post-Soviet cultural dominance. Also, culturally speaking, Tajikistan is a lost cause for Russia, since it has deliberately decreased the importance of the Russian language in its educational and political systems.
Kyrgyzstan is possibly the only state, with 12.5 % of its population consisting of ethnic Russians, whose media is still is dominated by Russian channels.


In 2011 the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in his article “A new Integration Project for Eurasia: A future that is Born Today” expressed the Kremlin’s willingness to re-establish a union that would resemble the Soviet Union in terms of its international relationships. A Post-Imperial understanding of the Kremlin’s foreign policy in Central Asia assumes that Russia is the sole major regional power. Besides conventional belief of domineering neighbour, common interests influence such logic to sustain. Yet, the fact the Moscow implements soft power and usually patient long-term strategies in the region suggests that it has felt its power there weakening, and that it needs to modulate its policies accordingly in order to preserve present authority. Putin has adopted flexible and strategic policies in the region in an effort to revive Russian importance but in the light of current developments his determination has not translated into an explicit success story. Moscow’s mechanisms for retain its position in Central Asia include, first and foremost, the establishment of cultural ties with the ethnic Russians in the region, and secondly, the setting up of multilateral organizations that would assure military, economic and political linkage. The Kremlin has also used its soft as well as (rarely) hard power to influence Central Asian domestic developments. This essay aimed to assess the successes and failures of Russian foreign policy in the region since 2001, within the context of international and regional developments, actors and decision-makers.
An examination of the economic, political and cultural ties between Central Asia and Russia suggests that all of the Central Asian states, act to further their domestic developments with different degrees of independence, while partnership with Russia is limited to tactical and financial interests, with internal, national interests dominating over them. Moreover, all five states have expressed their interest in cooperation with the West and other major powers, with China being the most successful in terms of establishing successful relationships. In spite of strong economic links and shared mutual interest globally as well as regionally, for the Kremlin, Beijing is a threat and a competitor in its geostrategic domain.
Chinese officials constantly emphasize the significance of Central Asia to the Chinese economy and especially to its energy security. For China, the region is considered as a vital resource to support the inexorable course of Chinese development – considering its geographic and economic position, a drift that it is not planning on altering. Despite Sino-Russian cooperation attempts, including that within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it is unlikely that officials in Beijing will be willing to approve the Kremlin’s plans to establish a Eurasian Union, or enable the latter to pursue the kinds of policies in the region that would be determined by the “Central Asia as Russia’s sphere of influence” logic. Currently, China is a powerful force operating in the region, and it is expected that its established relationships will develop further in the near future, replacing the Russian dominance in Central Asia. Yet, in the face of Western initiatives to become more consistently involved in the region, the prospects for Russian influence might even get worse.
As for Russia itself, neither political and economic leverages nor mutual interests have proven to be effective in increasing its power in the region. Its strategies, whether institutional or financial, have at some junctures provided Russia with short-term influence, but not enough to halt the reduction of its impact in the region. Neither the international arena, comprised of multiple leading powers, nor the relatively liberated systems of Central Asia offer much hope as arenas in which Moscow can remain the key regional player. In 2013, the Russian Council for Foreign Affairs even published a report on Russia’s strategy for Central Asia which suggested that there was a “growing divergence of domestic situations in Central Asia and calls for the lack of regional unity to be addressed by designing Russian strategies on a country-by-country basis”, underlining the fact that Moscow has become one of the many players in the region “thereby admitting that the region is now multipolar in nature”.

Post- US withdrawal from Afghanistan:

Another important factor to consider while analysing Russian foreign policy in Central Asia is the post-2014 US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Leaders in Moscow have already made statements to the effect that Russia’s role as a provider of security in the region should be increased since the US and Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) plan to reduce their military activities in Afghanistan. Security concerns regarding the post-2014 withdrawal have been emphasized by the leaders of Central Asian states as well, especially by the leaders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, considering that those three states border Afghanistan directly. They fear that Central Asian Jihadists that fled to Pakistan after US intervention in Afghanistan, and, especially, members of Uzbekistan’s most vehement Islamic Movement, IMU, might look to the region as a potential area in which to exercise their own influence. Uzbek and Kazakh foreign ministers, along with Tajik president Emomali Rakmon, have characterized the issue as a “matter of deepest concern”. The threat of arms, human and narcotics trafficking as well as the spillover effects of Islamic radicalism are emphasized as the realistic threats that Moscow will aim to counter within the Central Asian states. In October 2012, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitry Rogozin noted during his visit in India that: “Thousands of terrorists and fundamentalists will seek refuge in Afghanistan as well as the region around the country.” Moscow is prepared to refill the vacuum that will be created by the US withdrawal and to exploit this chance to extend its own influence in its backyard. In its Foreign Policy Concept of 2013, Russia indeed prioritized these very issues: “Russia will build up cooperation with the CIS Member States in ensuring mutual security, including joint efforts to combat common challenges and threats, primarily international terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, transnational crime, and illegal migration. Priorities here are the neutralization of the above-mentioned threats coming from the territory of Afghanistan and the prevention of destabilization of the situation in Central Asia and Transcaucasia.” The document also emphasizes the importance of a Eurasian Economic Union. Along with political rhetoric, military base deals and bilateral training arrangements in which the CSTO’s utilities were widely utilized are some of the strategies that have already been implemented. Whether exaggerated or not for political purposes, the threats after US withdrawal from Afghanistan are real. Nevertheless much depends on the internal progress in Afghanistan itself, since there is a strong sense that the more stability that can be imposed there, the less severe the threat to Central Asia will be. Whatever happens in the region, whether Russia will benefit is still doubtful. The Kremlin has sought over the years to find ways to get American troops to leave bases in Central Asia, and US presence in Afghanistan was largely disapproved of in recent years.
Yet, the US withdrawal might be even more threatening and risky as they have previously expected. As Dr. Anar Valiyev, Dean of International Affairs at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, stated “They [Russia] are happy that the Americans are leaving without understanding that the Americans leaving is bad for the Russians also…Sooner or later something will happen in Afghanistan and spill over, and Russia will not be able to contain it,” and that, “The enemy that comes after the Americans will be much worse than the Americans themselves.” It is largely questionable whether Russia, with its reduced resources and its domestic problems, can attain the status of the main security guarantor in the region. Weak and corrupted governments in most of the Central Asia, coupled with increased extremist spillover threat from Afghanistan cannot be countered solely by Russian military, political or economic resources. Furthermore, considering the fact that the same threats that Central Asia faces after US withdrawal will certainly affect Russian territory, at least in terms of increasing drug trafficking, for Moscow the most appropriate foreign policy is probably to seek the balance as a security provider, and again if not the Western than Chinese aid might prove to be necessary inconsiderate of what Central Asian state leaders wish for. The future will tell, and as mentioned above, several factors will affect the development of events. For now, it seems that Russia is losing its influence in the region, and that if it risks trying to reverse this trend by taking advantage of the power vacuum left after US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it may even be taking on an obligation that it will not be able to handle.


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