Russian Security Strategy in Central Asia: On the Edge of No One’s Seat
Russian interests in Central Asia have consistently focused on security and economic cooperation within a number of multilateral institutions. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, efforts to counter violent extremism and drug trafficking have become the most important areas of interaction.
Contemporary relations in Central Asia increasingly resemble classical game theory, specifically the prisoner’s dilemma and the Nash equilibrium. Even though it would be in their best interest to cooperate, the players choose not to and instead opt to maximize their individual gains. One clear example is the lack of cooperation among the Central Asian countries in their foreign and economic policies. Another is the stance of the Kremlin, which perceives itself as being involved in a zero-sum contest for regional influence with other external powers. As for the United States and the EU, their strategies in Central Asia have set other priorities and lie within strategic long-term programs.
Facing competition among external actors and emerging challenges, Central Asian leaders and experts have formed certain attitudes toward their countries’ relations with Russia, sometimes referred to as “forced interdependence.” On the one hand, they criticize Russia’s foreign policy and global ambitions, even within intergovernmental bodies and organizations. On the other, they recognize that downgrading bilateral relations with Russia can harm their countries and citizens in important ways (including with regard to labor migration, dual citizenships, and water and energy resources, among other factors). As a result, Russia often plays leading roles in foreign and economic relations with Central Asia states, including as a source of remittances and as a rule-setter on trade.
However, recent developments—including the economic crisis, the western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, and the falling oil prices—have forced Central Asian countries to seek alternative solutions to contemporary challenges without openly confronting Moscow. At the same time, in Central Asia and in Kazakhstan in particular, Russia’s influence has been largely mythologized, and its role in both national and regional security has not been properly and honestly discussed. Different fears and phobias still influence the decision-making process, including those over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea, the concept of the “Russian World” as a pillar of its national identity, and its soft power. Meanwhile, the Kremlin itself seeks to combat myth-making and anti-Russian information campaigns in mass and social media, while stressing integration projects and cultivating its image abroad.
Long Story Short: The Militarization Agenda
Today’s Eurasia is a center of trends and dynamics, many of which constitute security challenges to the global system. Interestingly, integration projects in the region do not primarily aim to promote economic development, competitiveness, and living standards. Rather, they focus on natural resources as a potential way to gain geopolitical dominance. International organizations that have sprung up as a result have mostly failed to establish effective security institutions.
For Central Asian counties, Ukraine has become the litmus test on their approaches to integration with Russia. There are three main positions in this regard: the centrist or traditional model; the extreme view that supports the concepts of the Russian World and the Great Russia; and the skeptical view that emphasizes Russia’s weakening position in Central Asia and the probability of rising inter-state and inter-ethnic tensions.
The centrist model has viewed bilateral ties with Russia as the natural, default mode of foreign relations, owing to the shared historical and cultural background. (This view was especially predominant before Crimea.) Extreme and skeptical positions seem to enjoy greater support in Kazakhstan, especially after the Crimea incident and Russia’s clashes with Turkey, as well as in Uzbekistan. The other three states—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—prefer to balance the centrist and the skeptical models. One indication of the countries’ eagerness to shape their own ideology was the recent push to design a new symbol to commemorate Victory Day on May 9. The old symbol—the ribbon of Saint George—has become closely associated with separatism in eastern Ukraine and with the Kremlin’s efforts to usurp the people’s victory in the Second World War.
In parallel with Moscow’s efforts to promote Eurasian integration, the Central Asian countries have had to form crisis management plans to minimize the associated economic risks. The Russian economy has been severely undercut by the sanctions regime and the falling global energy market prices, which has in turn directly impacted other member states of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEC). Pressures such as the falling trade turnover, the weakening national currencies, and the drop in foreign remittances have all complicated the existing economic and political relations with Moscow.
Another reason to seek alternatives to exclusive cooperation with Moscow is that Russia remains fixated on its rivalry with the West, manifested in everything from its military reforms to its Syria policy. This fixation can be observed in the Kremlin’s official statements, including its 2015 National Security Strategy. Official confrontation and portrayal of the West as the enemy fuel Russia’s efforts to maintain its fighting capabilities, defense industry, military-industrial complex, and the propaganda machine. An indication of the militarization of Russian strategy is the growing number of large-scale military exercises, both within Russian borders and with foreign partners (such as the recent Russian-Chinese maritime exercise known as Naval Interaction–2015).
In the meantime, the Kremlin has repeatedly boosted its military spending. Russia’s fixed military costs, shown below, increased sharply since 2010, almost doubling in size. Whereas military spending barely reached 0.14 billion rubles before 1990, it increased to 0.9 billion in 1992 and to 7.7 billion in 1993. By 2015, that number stood at 3.3 trillion rubles. The widespread presence in the Russian political establishment of officials with military backgrounds and ties to security structures does much to explain Russia’s actions at home and abroad.
The costs of militarization driven by the Russian political elite compound the economic costs of western sanctions, which adversely affect Russia’s EAEU partners as well. For example, Kazakhstan’s trade turnover with other EAEU member states dropped by 26 percent in the first ten months of 2015, to a level last recorded in 2009. Between January and September of 2016, according to Kazakhstan government data, that measurement dropped by a further $3,315 million (or 26.4 percent) compared with the same period the previous year.
Apart from the Ukraine factor, Russia has been somehow involved in several other crises that have negatively impacted the Central Asian states. For Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, managing relations with Turkey has become a challenge after the November 2015 downing of a Russian warplane and the subsequent trade and tourism wars between Turkey and Russia. (Both Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan maintain strategic partnerships with Ankara and its international cultural organization TURKSOY.) Central Asia’s dependence on the Russian ruble has pressured regional leaders to actively participate in the projects implemented under the New Silk Road initiative. In particular, the southern markets—Iran, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—present one options for Central Asia to build transport and transit capacity and diversify economic and trade relations.
In general, Russia's refusal to maintain its regional commitments (such as the counternarcotic initiative discussed below), along with its lack of strategic and institutional discipline within the EAEC, has significantly increased geopolitical turbulence in the region and cast doubt on the prospect of meaningful integration in the post-Soviet space. There is a certain fatigue and annoyance with the “post-Soviet” terminology throughout Central Asia, particularly among the younger generations. Moreover, the need to build a common understanding and a basis for mutually beneficial changes is increasingly clear. Most Central Asian experts support the idea of establishing an economic center of gravity within the EAEC by creating free trade zones among different states and pursuing regional integration initiatives in Latin America and the Asia-Pacific.
Comparing the economic potential of the EAEU member countries and the benefits they can expect from different integration-related projects brings to mind a “multi-speed” Eurasia. Six out of ten biggest EAEU infrastructure projects are currently being implemented in Russia. The country’s dominance is reflected not only in the quantity but also in the volume of the accumulated mutual FDI. In 2015 Russia attracted 84 percent of mutual FDI flows throughout its regions; Kazakhstan placed second with only 9 percent. It is no longer a secret that the Central Asian countries are not willing to cooperate with one another, including multilaterally. Russia’s strategy leaves the Central Asian states with rather narrow policy-making channels, resulting in Kazakhstan’s multi-vector policy, Turkmenistan’s neutrality, and Kyrgyzstan’s dependence.
Altogether, the Cold War paradigm appears certain to dominate Russia’s information and communications strategy and its national security doctrine into the future. Given its intent to maintain its leading role in the international arena and the recession of 2016, the Kremlin has been incapable of strategic foresight within the EAEU, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Russia-EU-US dialogue. For Russia’s Central Asia partners, this means that it is time to reassess their challenges and to learn some lessons from their evolving relations with Moscow.
CSTO: Going the Extra Mile
The CSTO has faced constant criticism after it failed to intervene in the crisis in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. It should be noted, however, that the organization at least allows countries to share intelligence and to buy weapons from Russia at a discount. In addition, the CSTO headquarters promotes interaction among member countries’ military organizations and helps to build a common understanding. With regard to the organization’s performance as a regional tool, however, there has been a marked lack of transparency. There is no public information on CSTO activities except for the regular news stories about military exercises, official statements, and announcements of initiatives (See Chart 2). As just one example, there are no publicly available details on the Special Plan for Afghanistan, adopted by the SCTO in 2012 and aimed at countering terrorism in Central Asia.
Key mechanisms to maintain stability in the region have included supporting security infrastructure and promoting development in Kyrgyzstan as well as establishing a joint emergency response system. CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha (who has held the post since 2003) has announced Russia’s intention to invest more than $1 billion in Kyrgyz military modernization. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has withdrawn from the CSTO to the deep disappointment of Tajikistan, which has faced security challenges on its Afghan border.
A 2013 initiative attempted to establish a Russian-led Corporation of Cooperation in the region under the auspices of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service. This new structure was supposed to counter drug trafficking in the CIS states and Afghanistan by boosting economic welfare and creating new jobs. Unfortunately, the initiative required 2 billion rubles in starter capital, which in the end Russia did not provide. (It was planned that 51 percent of the new corporation’s shares would be held by the state.) Moscow’s ambition to provide an alternative to the U.S. New Silk Road regional initiative and the Heart of Asia–Istanbul Process thus remained only on paper.
Not ready to substantially invest in economic and social projects in the region, Russia later decided to establish the Center for Counter-Narcotics Operations within the CSTO, tasking it with facilitating interaction among the police forces, customs and border control officials, and the Collective Rapid Reaction Force (a joined CSTO military task force). Military exercises—with names such as Thunder and Channel—are being held annually in certain member states. But there is a serious contradiction on leadership and project responsibilities between the CSTO and the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre (CARICC), set up by the UN to combat drug trafficking. According to the CSTO leadership, there is a need to establish common information space to counter violent extremism and radicalization among younger generations through different education initiatives and forums.
In late May 2016, a few weeks after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict escalated that April, a CSTO military exercise took place in Armenia. As for the Cybersecurity Center, there is no available information on this particular institution except for information-sharing and preventing cyber attacks. One of the most important joint accomplishments of Russia and Kazakhstan is communication and intelligence sharing between their special services on countering violent extremism and monitoring militants who joined ISIS and went to fight in Syria and Iraq. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Kazakh National Security Committee estimate the number of these fighters to be between 300 and 500. However, it is hard to assess the real threat presented by ISIS since the governments tend to deliberately control all relevant information.
For the past four years Russia has focused on reaching agreements with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that would secure its right to use local military bases in exchange for simplified rules on labor migration and military and technical assistance. Russia has signed deals to extend its base leases until 2032 in Kyrgyzstan and until 2042 in Tajikistan. Moscow has also announced its intention to increase its military presence in Tajikistan from 5,900 to 9,000 people in 2020. (Its base in Tajikistan is the largest military base outside Russia’s territory.) Moscow also plans to enhance the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan by sending a helicopter group to Ayni air base—an airport that it has been trying to access since 2004.
As for Kyrgyzstan, Russia is strengthening the aviation group at its air base at Kant. More than a dozen advanced SU-25 fighter aircraft have already replaced the older models. This modernization also includes other machinery such as trucks, armored vehicles, and drones.
The current situation in Afghanistan has forced Russia to try intensifying security cooperation with Central Asian states, in particular within the CSTO. However, these efforts are constantly obstructed by disagreements. They include the following:
- Tajikistan’s discontent with the increase in Russian military and technical assistance to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, in particular within the CSTO framework;
- Unresolved energy disputes between Moscow and Dushanbe, which in some way influence the situation with the Russian military base in Tajikistan;
- Tajik-Uzbek disagreements on transport and energy, including the plans to construct large hydropower stations and transport routes (such as the Rogun hydropower plant and the Angren–Pap railroad that would facilitate transit to Fergana);
- Uzbekistan’s drift away from the CSTO and toward the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO);
- Ongoing problems related to labor migration and drug trafficking;
- Russian rhetoric and growing concerns on terrorists of Central Asian origin.
Given these circumstances, Russia is seeking opportunities to strengthen its bilateral partnerships. Yet in doing so, it risks further fragmenting Central Asia. Current Russian military and technical assistance to Kyrgyzstan is already of great concern to Tajikistan. Moscow’s short-term actions might disrupt the tenuous balance between the two counties and force Uzbekistan further away from security dialogue in the region despite certain agreements during Mirziyoyev’s visit to Moscow this April (including on migration and drug trafficking). To maintain its multi-vector foreign policy, Astana has tried to benefit from balancing between the EAEU and the regional initiatives led by the United States and the EU and acting as a mediator (between Moscow and Washington as well as between Brussels and Ankara).
Russian Soft Power: Killing Two Birds with One Stone
In February 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was interpreted as a warning to other post-Soviet states, including the Central Asian republics and in particular Kazakhstan. When Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked that “before 1991 Kazakhs had never had statehood,” his words merely reinforced the fear that Russia could do to Kazakhstan what it had done to Ukraine. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev took notice, insisting, after the spring 2016 protests against land reforms, that “the people of Kazakhstan do not want the Ukrainian scenario” and warning that any people who attempt to bring it about would suffer severe punishment. It is quite obvious that many Kazakh media sources are seriously infected by the Kremlin propaganda; frequent references to Ukraine as “a country that exemplifies mass disorder” is just one proof. This problem was emphasized by Yuri Lazebnyk, Chargé d’Affaires of Ukraine in Kazakhstan, in an interview with Radio Azattyq, the Kazakh edition of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
In the aftermath of its annexation of Crimea, Russia has clearly articulated the idea of hybrid warfare that involves information and propaganda campaigns. Several recent episodes have shown how easily propaganda can mislead the Kazakh society. One was a TV program on the land protests, broadcast on the partly Russian-owned First Channel Eurasia, where the hosts tried to prove that protestors were paid between $50 and $150 to join public rallies throughout the country. Another was an attempt by a group of provocateurs to manipulate public opinion through fake messages and posts on social media that warned of an alleged upcoming “paid ambulance” law. The same TV host on First Channel Eurasia claimed in 2017 that Kazakhstanis would soon face a limit of four free ambulance rides per year, after which they would have to either pay or die. These two cases have become the first serious examples of Russian propaganda and hybrid warfare in Kazakhstan and Central Asia after the Ukraine crisis.
At the moment, Russia is actively working to increase its reach in Kazakhstan and Central Asia through soft power and public diplomacy 2:0, and to simultaneously institutionalize that influence. It has developed a special image for the EAEU (complete with a logo and a color scheme) that is obviously aimed at forming a positive perception in the expert community and among the academia. To a certain extent, Kazakhstan is seen as a relay station and a key partner in EAEU public diplomacy that would attract other economic players. The country hosts almost weekly events on EAEU challenges and prospects at universities and think tanks, and special courses on Eurasian integration are currently being included into higher education programs, summer schools for students, and conference agendas for young scholars and researchers. At unofficial activities of this kind, networking is seen as a major attraction, which also gives Russian government-sponsored NGOs an opportunity to spread their ideas and to gather information.
Since the majority of Kazakh and Central Asian societies exist within the Russian information space—which includes the Russian language, Russian TV and radio stations, and social media sites such as Odnoklassniki, vKontakte, and Mail.ru—there is a huge potential to influence public opinion through the Internet. A recent sociological study of Kazakhstan’s Internet users showed a gap between how the expert community and the general public see Russia. Whereas the expert community, which is supposed to shape public opinion, uses the English-language platforms Facebook and Twitter, the general public relies on Russian-language social media. This dichotomy underscores the limitations of any effort by the government and affiliated experts to shape public perceptions. At the same time, this gap shows greater public support for Russia and its activities, which makes nation building and language issues difficult and sensitive. It is critical to separate the wheat from the chaff while assessing Russia’s understanding of Central Asia as well as its assets and real opportunities.
Editor’s note: Anna Gussarova is the co-founder and director of the Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies and a senior lecturer at the German-Kazakh University in Almaty.
 “Kazakhstan’s Mutual Trade with EAEU States Amounts to $9.2 Billion in First Nine Months of 2016 [Взаимная торговля РК со странами ЕАЭС за 9 месяцев текущего года составила 9,2 млрд. Долларов],” the Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, November 15, 2016, https://goo.gl/RBDysg.
 “Monitoring of Mutual Investments in CIS Countries 2015,” Eurasian Development Bank Centre for Integration Studies Report, August 2015, p. 54.
 “CSTO Prepares Comprehensive Afghanistan Plan Based on Kazakhstan’s Inputs [ОДКБ подготовила комплексный план по Афганистану на основе данных Казахстана],” Tengri News, February 1, 2013, https://goo.gl/5sgN9y.
 “Nazarbayev Warns Those Who’d Like the Ukraine Scenario Repeated in Kazakhstan [Назарбаев предупредил тех, кто хочет повторения украинского сценария в Казахстане],” Nur.kz, May 5, 2016, https://goo.gl/VMgWpr.