Will Russia become a dominant influence in Central Asia?
There has been a lot of speculation about how the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and the drastic change of power there will affect Central Asia’s relations with the great powers.
Some say that Russia’s presence in the region will be strengthened, or perhaps China’s, and that the influence of the United States will wane in the years to come.
It is arguably more likely that Central Asia’s relations with the great powers, as they stand now, will not change at all.
Some have said that the final US withdrawal from Afghanistan was a blow to Washington’s reputation in Central Asia and the start of a ebb in relations between the United States and these five post-Soviet republics.
But Central Asian governments are unlikely to forget how 20 years of US-led military operation in Afghanistan has meant for them.
Especially now, with the apparent resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, one could argue that no country has benefited more from the US presence in Afghanistan than the states of Central Asia.
After the Taliban reached the borders of Central Asia in the late 1990s, the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were on the verge of panic.
Only Turkmenistan, with its official policy of neutrality, has managed to come to an understanding with the Afghan militant group.
After the United States and its allies launched military operations in Afghanistan in late 2001, these threats were removed from the borders of Central Asia and northern Afghanistan was a relatively peaceful area until 2013 .
During these years, Central Asia was able to develop while remaining safe from Afghan instability thanks to the efforts of the United States, its foreign allies and Afghan government forces.
While the results of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan might have been unexpected, the withdrawal itself had been announced 10 years earlier by then US President Barack Obama; Central Asian leaders therefore knew that foreign forces were leaving Afghanistan and had 10 years to prepare.
Between 2001 and 2021, the United States helped Central Asia increase its ability to identify and neutralize threats from Afghanistan through joint training, funding and equipment for border security, and military vehicles, including quads, trucks and (for Uzbekistan) MRAPs (mines). ambush resistant vehicles).
The United States has been and is still providing aid to Central Asia, including recently COVID-19 vaccines, has attempted to boost trade with individual states in the region where possible, and supported the efforts of these states to join international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).
And the United States is a counterweight to Russia and China, allowing Central Asia to avoid falling too much under the influence of either Moscow or Beijing.
Some believe that Russian influence in Central Asia will be greatly strengthened now that the United States and its allies have left Afghanistan.
In terms of security in Central Asia, Russia has long been there. It started long before U.S. and Allied troops were deployed to bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to support operations in Afghanistan.
The 201st Russian Division has been based in Tajikistan since the 1940s and, under the terms of an agreement signed in 2012, will remain there until at least 2042.
Russia opened a military base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, in 2003, after US forces were already stationed in Kyrgyzstan, and, under the terms of an agreement signed in 2012, Russian forces will remain there at least until 2027, with an option to extend this agreement for five years after that.
Technically, the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSC), which involves Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, manages the base in Kant. But almost all of the troops and military equipment there now come from Russia.
There is no indication that Russia is considering increasing its military presence in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan and, so far, there is no indication that Russia is seeking to use bases in other Central Asian countries.
Russia recently conducted joint military exercises with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan near the Afghan border, and CSTO exercises in Kyrgyzstan began on August 24.
Russian tanks are deployed near the Afghan-Tajik border ahead of joint military exercises earlier this month.
But Russia did the same in the late 1990s and regularly conducted such exercises with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan throughout the years the United States was in Afghanistan. And after Shavkat Mirziyoev became President of Uzbekistan in 2016, Moscow also renewed military exercises with Uzbekistan.
Certainly, Moscow could play on Central Asian fears over Afghan threats – most of which have been fueled by the Kremlin for 25 years – and use its new weight in the region to pressure Central Asian states to do so. they are approaching Russia and moving away from the West. , or even from China.
Russia could also convince Uzbekistan to join the CSTO, which Tashkent has already joined and left twice (1992-1999 and 2006-2012), or even bring Turkmenistan out of its isolation and firmly under Russian influence, a process already in progress in recent years.
But Moscow has been sending mixed messages lately about the Afghan threat.
Russian officials are now downplaying the dangers of the Taliban, with some suggesting that it will be easier to cooperate with a Taliban government than with the UN-backed government which has now mostly fled, which is not what Central Asian people heard from Moscow in the last quarter. of a century.
Russian officials now argue that the threat outside of Afghanistan comes from non-Afghan Islamic extremists there, some of whom are citizens of Central Asian countries, who could cross the border into Central Asia and create instability .
Governments in Central Asia may well agree with this assessment.
But even if so, how much could Russia help them?
Unless such groups were stupid enough to try to cross in droves, there was little Russian firepower could do to help Central Asians.
Small groups of extremists or individuals crossing Central Asia to carry out terrorist attacks are difficult to repel and, ultimately, would pose an internal threat to any country in question.
Bilateral or multilateral defense treaties are based on foreign or external threats, and partners are under no obligation to come to the aid of an individual country facing a threat from national enemies. Moreover, to date in Central Asia, none has ever done so.
It has been suggested that Beijing could take advantage of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to expand its influence in Central Asia.
But Chinese influence in the region is primarily economic, although it has undoubtedly helped Central Asian states deal with perceived security threats (mainly so that these threats do not spill over into China).
China sells arms to Central Asia and has conducted joint military exercises and exercises both bilaterally and as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, the ‘Uzbekistan, as well as Russia, Pakistan and India.
Beijing also operates a small military base in a remote part of eastern Tajikistan, guarding the high mountain gateway to China.
Some believe that China could send troops to help Central Asia if the region is destabilized by elements coming from Afghanistan.
This is unlikely to happen.
Deploying Chinese forces to support a government in a predominantly Muslim country could exacerbate any security concerns a Central Asian state might have, potentially making it a magnet for jihadists.
Beijing’s brutal campaign against its own Muslims – Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Hue – has already blackened China’s reputation and angered many foreigners.
Moreover, although China has built a formidable army over the past 25 years, its history of foreign military enterprises since the Communists came to power does not engender much confidence.
Chinese troops suffered appalling losses in Korea in the early 1950s and in the brief battle of the Ussuri River with Soviet forces in 1969, as well as in the Vietnam incursion in 1979. Beijing did not send its soldiers have been fighting in another country for over 40 years. years.
In 2016, two Chinese peacekeepers were killed in South Sudan, news that shocked the Chinese public. Explaining the loss of dozens of additional Chinese soldiers to another foreign company could prove problematic for Beijing.
That said, China has invested large sums of money and has been able to extract huge amounts of raw materials, including petroleum, natural gas, uranium, iron and more, over the course of of more than two decades in Central Asia.
Governments in the region have apparently taken advantage of these companies, and some of their citizens have found jobs working on Chinese projects.
But the days of huge Chinese projects in Central Asia – oil and gas pipelines, new railways and roads, oil refineries and other infrastructure – are drawing to a close, if they are not already over.
China will continue to invest in Central Asia and extract valuable resources. But Beijing won’t spend as much money as it did 10 and 20 years ago. And bills for loans Central Asian governments have taken from China over the years are coming due, leaving many of those countries hard pressed to make payments.
Anti-Chinese sentiment is on the rise in Central Asia and could increase as citizens increasingly view their governments as having sold themselves to Beijing.
Does Central Asia Need Help?
Central Asian governments’ fears over Afghanistan could lead them to make rash decisions on foreign partnerships in the coming months.
But, in truth, they might not need much outside help at all.
The first time the Taliban showed up at their doorstep, the five Central Asian states had only been independent for five years and the civil war in Tajikistan was still raging.
There were good reasons at the time for their respective leaders to worry about their future in a region of growing instability.
Now these countries have been independent for 30 years, the Tajik civil war dates back almost 25 years, Central Asia is generally considered a stable region, and regional ties are better than they have been in the early years. of independence.
Their armies are larger and better equipped.
Their borders with Afghanistan are better defended.
And they all know the Taliban better now than they were when this militant group first swept through Afghanistan in the second half of the 1990s.
Their best defense might be their own unit.
By RFE / RL
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