The republics in Central Asia have reasons to be concerned about Putin’s war against Ukraine. They depend on Russia in various aspects. But at the same time they distrust the justifications of the 'special operation' in Ukraine. Helena Arntz and Michael Kemper about Russia’s geopolitical strengths and weaknesses in the region.
Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, but also Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have reasons to be concerned about Putin’s war against Ukraine. They depend on Russia in various aspects. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union, Putin’s pet project. With Russia’s economy suffering from sanctions, the Central Asian states will also be hit.
What is more, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are also part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) that is dominated by Russia. Russia has a strong military presence especially in Tajikistan to secure the border to Taliban-led Afghanistan, and after the US withdrawal from Kabul in 2021 also Uzbekistan has strengthened its security cooperation with Russia. Under the umbrella of the CSTO, Russia can intervene in CSTO member states if requested; this we saw in January of this year, when Kazakhstan’s president Tokaev called in CSTO troops to quell popular unrest and the violence organized by cronies of his predecessor Nazarbaev. Russia is making itself irreplaceable, also acting as a counterweight to China’s increasing weight in the region.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine exposes the apprehension and anxieties of Russia’s partners in Central Asia. In the UN draft resolution against Russia’s attack on Ukraine of 2 March, none of the five Central Asian states supported the Russian position. They might fear Russia’s imperial appetites – after all, Putin’s argument is that Ukraine has no historical right to exist because it is just a Bolshevik invention. The same could also be said about Kazakhstan and the other states of Central Asia, some of which still host a considerable number of Russians. Already in June 2020 Putin argued that after the end of the USSR, many post-Soviet states had run away with “Russian presents”. And also Putin’s strategic ally, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been portraying Kazakhstan as part of 'historical Russia'.
Uzbekistan tried to avoid being confronted with the war in Ukraine for more than three weeks. On 25 February Kremlin.ru reported Putin had a phone call with Uzbek President Mirziyoev in which the latter allegedly expressed his “understanding of Russia’s actions” in Ukraine. One day later a spokesperson of President Mirziyoev clarified that 'Uzbekistan takes a neutral position in this issue'. Uzbek journalists and bloggers told RadioFreeEurope that they were forced to refrain from criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Reportedly, some of them were interrogated by the intelligence service.
A clearer message came on 17 March when the Uzbek foreign minister Komilov openly stated in the Senate that Uzbekistan will not recognize the independence of the Lugansk and Donetsk breakaway republics, adding that Uzbekistan recognizes Ukraine’s territorial integrity and asks for a peaceful solution to the conflict. In 2014, on the occasion of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Uzbekistan claimed to support the principle of territorial integrity of states but refrained from objecting to the Crimean secession and its annexation by Russia. Today the Uzbek Foreign ministry’s response is slightly different as it emphasizes not to recognize the breakaway republics Lugansk and Donetsk – thereby objecting to a scenario that might lead to another annexation “by referendum”.
Whether the Kyrgyz president Sadyr Zhaparov supports Russia or not is unclear. According to Kremlin.ru, the Kyrgyz president expressed support for Russia’s 'decisive actions to protect civilians in Donbass' in a phone conversation with Putin. However, a source in the Kyrgyz government administration told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Zhaparov’s words 'about Kyiv's responsibility for disrupting the negotiation process under the Minsk agreements' were taken out of context; allegedly, Zhaparov never expressed direct support for Russia’s ‘special operation’, and the press release about the phone conversation was a blunder. Still, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the Kyrgyz ambassador to Ukraine for an explanation.
Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian state that has a common border (of 7.650 km) with Russia, and the country feels the pressure most. Shortly after Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine, the Kazakh president Kasym-Jomart Tokaev reassured Kazakhs by saying that Putin 'personally' explained to him that his reference to 'historical lands' taken away from Russia did not refer to Kazakhstan, 'whose borders are fixed and recognized by the entire world'. Even though Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies, Putin already in 2014 made public statements that Kazakhstan had never enjoyed statehood before 1991.
Given that in January of this year, Kazakhstan’s president was saved by a Russian-led intervention, one would have expected that Kazakhstan had no choice but to support Russia in its war against Ukraine. Yet this is not the case: the administration did not suppress peace demonstrations in several cities, and Kazakhstan recently announced to send humanitarian aid worth of 2.2 million Euro to Ukraine, responding to a request of the Ukrainian government. On 14 March Kazakhstan’s foreign minister emphasized that Kazakhstan is interested in “Ukraine remaining a stable, independent and territorially integral state”; 'both the Russian and Ukrainian peoples are brotherly peoples for us, that is why we are worried”.
Russian CSTO soldiers in Kazakhstan, January 2022. Source: ODKB
However, the Kazakhstan administration did extradite an employee of Radio Rain (Dozhd’, one of the independent Russian media channels blocked in Russia since the start of the war) as well as eight other Russian citizens back to Russia, allegedly for unknown reasons. References to the war are avoided; in his one and half hour state of the nation address on 16 March, President Tokaev alluded to a 'devastating geopolitical storm on the planet' but mentioned 'the events in' Ukraine only once, in the context of rising food prices at home. The address focused on domestic reforms to preserve Kazakhstan’s independence and to strengthen the foundations of national identity. Kazakhstan’s strategy is to profess neutrality and keep a low profile.
What have prominent Russian diplomats said about the position of the five Central Asian states? Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Putin’s questioning of Ukraine’s sovereignty does not apply to the Central Asian states. Already on 7 February, more than two weeks before the Russian attack on Ukraine, the Russian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Alexey Borodavkin, stated that the annual joint military training of Kazakhstani and NATO forces (called Steppe Eagle) will not take place this year (2019 was the last time it took place – the trainings in 2020 and 2021 were likely cancelled due to the pandemic). Kazakhstan should consider conducting drills exclusively in the CSTO framework. In the same interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta in the beginning of February, Borodavkin said that even after the January events, Kazakhstan is a 'very established state', adding that 'not many former Soviet countries can say that of themselves'. Such statements by the 'big brother' only reveal Kazakhstan’s vulnerability.
Impact so far on Central Asian states?
Central Asian leaders have met with the United States foreign secretary Blinken on 28 February in a so-called C5+1 format where they discussed the situation in Ukraine and its effects for the Central Asian region. Even though this is a meeting held annually, the US Foreign Secretary used the opportunity to assure the Central Asian states that the US is still willing to continue cooperation. The C5+1 conversation will continue this year in the Kazakh capital, Kazakh foreign minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi said.
There have also been some activities within the CSTO framework. On 10 and 11 March there was an online consultation between the members of CSTO. Ministries from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan jointly prepared a training of the management bodies of CSTO. Non-member organizations also participate in the training, including members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
The expected impact of the sanctions on economic level will be severe. Migrant remittances from Russia fuel the economies of especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; in 2019 they constituted approximately 28 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. The devaluation of the Russian Ruble hurts migrant families. For Central Asia, the war also means an interruption of supply lines: imports of agricultural and industrial products from Ukraine have come to a halt, and the transit trade through Ukraine must find other routes. In addition, Russia has announced an export stop of among other things fertilizers, passenger cars (until end of 2022) and sugar (until August 2022), thereby increasing the deficits in Central Asia.
Rising food prices in Tajikistan Yellow: price on 17 February. green: price on 17 March. red: the difference. Source and graphic ASIAplus
What’s next?With food prices rising in Central Asia, the governments come up with compensation measures (such as the reduction of import taxes) to avoid new popular unrest of the kind that we saw in Kazakhstan earlier this year. There are also speculations about benefits that the Central Asian economies might reap from the Ukraine war, such as the relocation of highly qualified specialists from Russia to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, or a renewed attractivity of Central Asia for Russian tourists. The closing of the EU airspace for the Russian civil aviation also stimulates ambitions to turn Kazakhstan into a hub for Russian airlines. For the time being, however, most Russian airplanes simply remain grounded.
As mentioned above, the Central Asian states are in a difficult situation. So far they have kept a low profile and – with the exception of Uzbekistan – refrained from making clear statements on the conflict. For on the one hand, the invasion of Ukraine shows Central Asian states that moving too far into the direction of NATO and/or the European Union could have the same implications for them as it has for Ukraine now. On the other hand, the invasion of Ukraine demonstrates that Russia means trouble. Therefore they would want to move away from Russia on the economic and political level as they could be next. Their economies and currency are however tied to the Russian economy. The geographical position makes it even more difficult for Central Asian states to diversify their economic cooperation and foreign policy outlook. They are closed in by Russia, China and Afghanistan and Iran to the south.
At a time when observers speculate about Belarus being forced to openly join the war against Ukraine, it is difficult to imagine that the other CSTO members Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would send troops to help Putin out. Like Uzbekistan, these states take a wait-and-see position, trying not to upset Russia without offering reliable support. Too deep, we must assume, is the distrust, and too abstruse is Russia’s justification of the 'special operation'. This does not mean that Russia’s Central Asian partners are not vulnerable to Russian pressure. As Aleksei Malashenko has recently highlighted, the Central Asian states are in a period of 'controlled power transit' from one ruler to another (Uzbekistan in 2016, from Karimov to Mirziyoev; Kazakhstan, seemingly ongoing, from Nazarbaev and his clique to Tokaev; Turkmenistan, from father Berdimuhamedov to his son, who was just 'elected' president; and Tajikistan, under Rahmon, still in limbo).
In such situations Russia can easily manipulate the elite factions. At any event, the behavior of the Central Asian states in this crisis situation can teach us a lot about Russia’s geopolitical strengths and weaknesses in the region.