On the blogosphere, across the airwaves, and in print, many people have opined about how the Obama administration should approach Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and numerous other international and domestic challenges. Despite the air base eviction notice from Kyrgyzstan in February 2009, however, there has been very little public discourse about Central Asia. Practitioners and scholars of airpower realize that access to the region is essential to ongoing operations in Afghanistan. Since Russia has extensive experience in Central Asia and seeks to play a greater role there, analyzing the evolution of its policy toward Central Asia is an important precursor to developing US policy for the region. Indeed, both architects of future engagement strategies and Airmen who ultimately operate within the parameters of such partnerships should seek to grow in their understanding of the nuances of Central Asia. This article does not recommend approaches for US policy—instead, it provides historical understanding to inform policy formulation and execution.
In order to analyze Russia’s policy toward Central Asia effectively, one must first understand the Soviet and Russian historical legacy in the region. Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia was initially indifferent—borderline irritated, in fact—toward Central Asia. Not surprisingly, the region’s fledgling nations looked for help elsewhere as they ventured out of the Soviet nest. Russia soon became aware that it had lost a great deal of influence in the region, but in the latter half of Pres. Boris Yeltsin’s tenure, it regained very little clout since Central Asians perceived a disconnect between Russia’s “walk” and “talk.” The era of Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, witnessed both enhanced focus and rigorous reassertion of Russian authority in the region. For each of these three periods, this article analyzes the security, economic, and political aspects of Russian foreign policy toward Central Asia and concisely assesses the results of Russian efforts. Before concluding, it discusses two important developments during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, a period of assertive Russian foreign policy that is still unfolding.
The term Central Asia typically refers to the five former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Russian tsars had conquered the region by the late nineteenth century.1 The Great Game continued as Russia vied with the British Empire for greater strategic influence in Central and South Asia.2 Attempting to integrate Central Asia into their own imperial realm, the Russians invested heavily in transportation infrastructure and agriculture; under the Soviet Union, “integration and absorption advanced with new vigor.”3 During the Soviet period, the region’s republics supplied resources, served as places of exile, and hosted sites for nuclear testing, the development of biological weapons, and space launches.4 In 1991 leaders of the Central Asian republics declared independence from the Soviet Union.5 Since then, relations among the Central Asian nations have typically been “limited or frosty,” and some nations are “outright hostile” toward each other.6 These relatively young nations often assume the position of “client states in respect to their former master” even though they are “wary of Moscow’s neo-imperial ambitions.”7 Regional experts attribute Russia’s lingering influence more to the mixture of proximity, history, and shared culture than to adept foreign policy.8
During the new Central Asian nations’ first decade of independence, US interests in the region included the security of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), internal reforms, and energy. The United States immediately began ensuring the security of the enormous former Soviet WMD complex; throughout the 1990s, the United States committed billions of dollars in aid to the region, primarily aimed at political and market reforms.9 But other than Central Asia’s “loose nukes,” the United States lacked “major interests” during the 1990s; Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said the United States did not intend to manage regional security and would be content “if the region remained free of great power domination.”10
Following 9/11, US interests shifted significantly. Toppling the Taliban became the priority, so America sought Muslim partners in the Taliban’s “backyard.” In preparation for Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States pursued overflight, landing, and basing rights in Central Asia. Basing rights were secured at Manas International Airport near the Kyrgyz capital and at an old Soviet air base near the Uzbek towns of Karshi and Khanabad, 90 miles from the Afghan border.11 US interests during the Central Asian nations’ second decade have been predominantly related to terrorism, with earlier interests in nonproliferation, development, and natural resources decreasing in prominence.
Russia’s Policy toward Central
Asia in the Early 1990s
From the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 to the mid-1990s, Russia was preoccupied with revolutionary internal reforms and intensely focused on joining Europe. Consequently, Yeltsin had no apparent strategy for Central Asia.12 A top Kazakh official recalls how Russia “turned its back on Central Asia, seeing it as an obstacle to its quest to join Europe”; Jos Boonstra, European Union–Central Asia Monitoring Project cochair, concurs that Russia felt Central Asia was a “nuisance that restricted Moscow.”13 Russia’s lethargic security, economic, and political policies toward Central Asia during this period embody its annoyance; a summary of the results of these policies reveals that Russia reaped what it sowed.
Russia’s security and military cooperation with Central Asia in the early 1990s was typified by very limited rhetoric and even less action. Russia became obligated to several Central Asian states via the Tashkent Collective Security Treaty of 1992, but in practice drastically downsized its military cooperation.14 Russia’s regional border troops and Tajikistan-based 201st Motor Rifle Division were obvious exceptions; that said, these remnants could neither prevent civil war in Tajikistan nor curb the flow of drugs traveling north from Afghanistan.15 Thus, despite Moscow’s announcement of a new regional “Monroe Doctrine,” Russia “was neither welcome as a big brother nor capable of playing the role of the regional hegemon.”16 Further demonstrating policy incoherence, Russia assumed the USSR’s treaty obligations toward Afghanistan but turned its back on the “Afghan problem,” setting the stage for civil war.17
Yeltsin’s early economic policies toward Central Asia were even more destructive than his dissolution of Russia’s southern defense buffer zone. Shock therapy architect Yegor Gaidar forced the Central Asian impediment out of the ruble zone in 1993, leaving the fledgling countries without currency.18 While such Russian state practices wreaked havoc, newly formed private Russian companies (e.g., LUKoil, etc.) vigorously pursued business arrangements in Central Asia, especially in the area of natural resources.19
Russia’s indifference also pervaded its political relationships with Central Asia. Instead of capitalizing on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a means for developing cooperation among its former republics, Russia perceived the CIS merely as a tool for overseeing the dissolution of the USSR.20 Furthermore, Russia ignored Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s attempt to form a Eurasian Union in 1994.21
The proverb “no gardener, no garden!” aptly describes the results of Russia’s policy of indifference toward Central Asia in the early 1990s. Due to Russia’s virtually nonexistent cultivation in the security, economic, and political realms, it effectively lost the region. The states of Central Asia, lacking military and economic strength and rapidly losing faith in Russia, actively sought “external guarantors of regional security and foreign assistance.”22 In 1994 the countries enrolled in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Partnership for Peace (PFP) program. In 1995 the defense ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan formed a joint council to assist in coordinating their PFP efforts and constituted the Tsentrazbat (Central Asian Battalion) to conduct PFP training.23 Russia’s significantly reduced level of access to Central Asian natural resources—something it had taken for granted in Soviet days—and heightened awareness that the nations were “throwing off the mantle of the ‘little brother’ ” soon convinced Russia that this “garden” needed a “gardener.”24
Russia’s Policy toward Central
Asia in the Late 1990s
During the mid-1990s, Russia’s foreign policy took a new direction under new foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, appointed in 1996. His aim of restoring Russia’s regional influence (known to many as “the Primakov doctrine”) took precedence over integration with the West.25 Russia gradually took more interest in the region, perhaps in reaction to the Central Asian nations’ ongoing efforts to forge new international relationships “out of necessity.”26 In fact, Primakov wrote that the West was “actively working to prevent Russia from having a special role” in the former Russian republics and accused the West of blocking Russian attempts at a rapprochement with the region.27
Developing its slight reawakening toward Central Asia in the latter half of the 1990s, Russia made limited attempts to boost security and defense cooperation with Central Asia. During this time, Islamic radicals had taken control of the Chechen Republic and the Taliban had gained control in Afghanistan, so Russia had become more aware of radical Islam’s threat to its national security.28 The link between Russia and Tajikistan grew slightly stronger when the Tajiks informally granted Russia a basing agreement for the 201st Motor Rifle Division.29 By the end of 1999, however, border guards were virtually phased out of Kyrgyzstan, and Russian advisers had left Turkmenistan. Adding insult to injury, Uzbekistan pulled out of the Collective Security Treaty, feeling that Russia had not helped stem the Taliban tide.30 On the whole, Russia’s security role declined and mainly centered on “the sale of military supplies, a peace-keeping contingent . . . and coordination with these states over anti-terrorist measures.”31
Russian efforts to achieve the Primakov doctrine in the economic realm were aimed primarily at hydrocarbon transport. Moscow asserted its “right” to transport Central Asian hydrocarbons across Russian territory and opposed efforts to bypass Russia.32 But other than limited oil-export collaboration with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Russia did not concentrate on strengthening economic cooperation—in fact, overall trade volume decreased below the level of the early 1990s.33
Similarly, Russia made very little effort in the realm of multilateral cooperation with Central Asia during this period. Relations became strictly bilateral since the CIS had “become ineffective” after accomplishing its purpose of conducting the former republics’ “civilised divorce.”34 Russia’s only multilateral success story was the resolution of the Tajik civil war in cooperation with Iran and Uzbekistan.35
In sum, despite new leadership in the Foreign Ministry, Russia failed to strengthen its position in Central Asia in the late 1990s. Scholars attribute Russian shortfalls to lack of consensus among senior leadership, numerous policy inconsistencies and contradictions (due to the rapid turnover of prime ministers late in Yeltsin’s tenure), and economic and military weakness.36 Russia did not fully grasp the importance of the region to its long-term security or economic interests. Regional experts Vladimir Paramonov and Aleksey Strokov assert that Russian leaders essentially “had it backwards” by thinking that in order to strengthen its position in Central Asia, Russia first needed to “recover its international status.”37 Not surprisingly, the Central Asian nations continued to lose faith in Russia. They did not appreciate how Russia’s lofty pronouncements regarding its intentions for Central Asia were rarely converted into sensible actions; furthermore, they recognized Russia’s economic and military weakness and continued to rely on their own limited internal resources and external relationships.38
Russia’s Policy toward Central
Asia under Putin
Under Putin’s leadership, Russian policy toward Central Asia markedly changed from the rhetoric largely unaccompanied by actions of the 1990s to a more determined, proactive approach. Boonstra explains that Russia perceives the 1990s as merely a “brief interval of lack of influence” in the region against the broad historical timeline including Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.39 Putin affirmed that Central Asia “constitutes a major foreign policy priority and a zone of Russian national interests,” reflecting the Russian belief that “while the Americans are here now, we are in the region for ever.”40 In the Putin era, Russia began aligning its words regarding the need for close cooperation with its actions but did not achieve unequivocal success.
Russia’s activism in the realm of military and security cooperation in the Putin years heralds an aspiring hegemon awakening after a long hibernation—attempting to “make up for lost time” and frustrated with outside influences in its domain. In April 2000, Russia led members of the Collective Security Treaty in creating rapid-reaction forces to combat terrorism; in 2001 Russia established the Kyrgyz branch of Moscow’s CIS Anti-Terrorism Center.41 Following 9/11, Putin justified American presence in the region as a helpful defense against the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan—clear threats to Russian interests.42 Roy Allison explains that Russia’s initial acquiescence to US presence soon devolved into a “sense of grievance and zero-sum thinking” among elites concerned about Russia’s “strategic displacement” from Central Asia.43 He cites Russia’s opening of Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan in October 2003 as “the most prominent example of the Russian interest in reconstituting at least some trappings of a forward security zone in Central Asia under the mantle of collective security.”44 Russia also seized the moment when Uzbek-US relations soured in the wake of the Andijon massacre, signing a “Treaty on Allied Relations” with Uzbekistan in November 2005.45
Under Putin’s leadership, Russia also reasserted its economic interests in Central Asia, especially regarding hydrocarbons. Allison contends that Russia views these resources as “both a strategic asset and a strategic instrument.”46 As an asset, Central Asian hydrocarbons are vital for Russia’s trade with Europe, the main importer of Russian energy resources.47 For example, gas exports from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan supplied Russia’s domestic market at very low prices, enabling Russia to sell its Western Siberian gas to Europe at much higher prices (e.g., $100 per 1,000 cubic meters versus $250 per 1,000 cubic meters).48
With regard to viewing hydrocarbons as an instrument, Russia’s monopoly on export pipelines enables Moscow to pressure Central Asian states to yield control of their hydrocarbons. The 2007–30 plan published by Russia’s Institute of Energy Strategy unambiguously states that “Russian control over a large share of Central Asian gas needs to be maintained.”49 Stephen Blank, professor of national security at the US Army War College, contends that Russia’s recent claim that it has no imperialistic intentions in Central Asia does not mesh with the facts. That is, its pipeline monopoly allows Moscow to pay far below market price for gas; Russian unwillingness to invest in the industry prevents suppliers from competing on a global scale; and attempts by suppliers to diversify export routes are seen as “a threat to [Russian] vital interests.”50 Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has even threatened to use “every conceivable economic pressure tactic” against uncooperative CIS regimes.51
The Russians also reasserted influence in Central Asia by establishing and actively participating in several multilateral organizations. Boonstra explains that the Kremlin perceived stability in Central Asia as a guarantor of Russian national security and intended to build stability through a “variety of regional organisations that overlap in membership and purpose.”52 The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc), and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) exemplify Russian attempts to meet this objective.
Formed in 2002, the CSTO has its roots in the Tashkent Treaty of 1992, mentioned above.53 Paramonov and Strokov’s review of Russia’s leadership of CSTO activities from 2002 to 2007 provides ample evidence in support of other scholars’ assertions that Russia used the CSTO as a counter to NATO.54 Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan signed the EurAsEc Treaty in 2000 to facilitate trade among member nations; after observing EurAsEc’s substantial progress, Uzbekistan joined in 2006.55 The SCO was formed after 9/11 when Uzbekistan joined the “Shanghai Five” countries (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). The Shanghai Five was originally formed to help “demilitarize the border between China and the former Soviet Union,” but the SCO has pursued a much broader agenda, including terrorism, trade, and trafficking.56 Russia collaborated with China to use the SCO to curb US influence in Central Asia, flying in the face of airpower’s ability to contribute to coalition operations in Afghanistan. In 2005 Russia expressed its discomfort with American air bases (Karshi-Khanabad and Manas) by encouraging the SCO to demand that the United States develop a timeline for its withdrawal from the region.57
Russian policy toward Central Asia under Putin had mixed results. On the one hand, Russia regained some of the confidence lost during Yeltsin’s tenure through its more stable, pragmatic, and well-funded policies.58 Catering to Central Asian autocrats’ heartfelt vulnerability in light of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow and Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Russian policy makers portrayed their “image as a traditional, reliable partner.”59 On the other hand, Russia’s consistent, paternalistic attitude toward its “unequal partner[s]” has been harshly criticized by some of the region’s leaders.60 Furthermore, scholars have noted that Russia perceived the geostrategic importance of the region too narrowly—as a mere tool for reviving its great-power status and securing its energy supply.61
Putin protégé Medvedev took up his mentor’s mantle in May 2008. Putin has played an active role in foreign policy from his current position as prime minister, so Russia’s ongoing activist stance toward Central Asia can be seen simply as a continuation of the policies of his presidency. Since the Medvedev presidency is still arguably in its infancy, it is too early to fully analyze the results of Russian policy toward Central Asia under his leadership. Nonetheless, a brief examination of his “Foreign Policy Concept” (FPC) and an assessment of Russia’s recent ambivalent posture toward operations in Afghanistan will prove useful to US policy makers.
The July 2008 FPC, a document similar in nature to the US national security strategy, resounds with Russia’s perceived resurgence in both global aspirations and responsibilities near abroad. The FPC asserts a “real capacity to play a well-deserved role globally” as one of the “influential centers in the modern world.”62 One of Russia’s chief foreign policy objectives, per the FPC, is “to promote good neighborly relations with bordering States, to assist in eliminating the existing hotbeds of tension and conflicts in the regions adjacent to the Russian Federation . . . and to prevent emergence of the new ones.”63
Another primary objective, according to the FPC, is to pursue partnerships aimed at stability—the essence of Putin’s multilateral efforts, discussed above. The CSTO, EurAsEc, and SCO are specifically mentioned as instruments for ensuring mutual security and combating widespread threats such as “terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, transnational crime, and illegal migration” in the CIS.64 In its section on “International Economic and Environmental Cooperation,” the FPC describes Russia’s interest in energy security and its goal of strengthening “strategic partnership[s] with . . . leading producers” in order to ensure secure transit.65 Such verbiage is consistent with Russia’s demonstrated willingness to play hardball in the energy domain.
The FPC acknowledges Russia’s perception of the “deepening crisis in Afghanistan” as a “threat to the security of the . . . CIS boundaries” and describes Russia’s intent to cooperate with multilateral organizations to prevent spillover effects and resolve the situation.66 Prior to the release of the FPC, Russia had expressed interest in discussing Afghanistan via the NATO-Russia Council framework, but this effort was shelved indefinitely after Russia invaded NATO partner Georgia in August 2008.67
In light of Russia’s statements in support of the Afghanistan mission (such as those found in the FPC and elsewhere) and the realization that Russia is a primary beneficiary, US policy makers are frustrated by Russian efforts to impede US- and NATO-led efforts. Following Russia’s undisguised involvement in convincing the Kyrgyz to evict the United States from Manas Air Base, parliamentarian and Putin loyalist Igor Barinov acknowledged that the Kremlin “shares many goals with Washington” but expressed both bitterness over “the attitude that NATO takes” and regret that little “attention had been paid toward Russia’s opinion.”68 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates responded that the Russians were “trying to have it both ways,” making “positive noises about working with us” but “working against us in terms of that airfield.”69
Recent developments indeed confirm Russia’s reassertion of a “zone of influence” in this portion of the former Soviet Union.70 Andrei Serenko, cofounder of a Russian think tank focused on Afghanistan, confirms that “Russia wants to be the only master of the Central Asian domain” and “to the maximum extent possible [will] . . . mak[e] things difficult for the U.S.—in making the transfer of American forces into Afghanistan be dependent on the will of the Kremlin.”71 Exhibiting its penchant for having the last word in the region, in the wake of the eventual Manas-eviction rollback, Russia rattled Uzbekistan by announcing plans to open a CSTO base at Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan.72
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian policy toward Central Asia has progressed from passive and annoyed to active and engaged. Early in the Yeltsin years, Russia concentrated on conducting domestic reforms and integrating with the West; the new Central Asian nations, in turn, lost confidence in Russia and pursued new partnerships. Russia paid slightly more attention to Central Asia during the late 1990s, but economic weakness and policy inconsistencies prevented meaningful progress. Under Putin, Russia demonstrated its “ultimate intention” for the Central Asian nations—namely, to “limit [their] sovereignty . . . and expand control over their foreign policies.”73 Medvedev’s FPC and recent actions in Central Asia confirm both Russia’s hegemonic aspirations and its intense focus on security and energy interests. Mindful of the evolution of Russia’s Central Asia policies, armed with an appreciation for Russia’s historic sense that the region is in its “zone of influence,” and attentive to Russia’s zero-sum thinking regarding areas near abroad, US leaders and airpower practitioners will be better prepared to craft and implement mutually agreeable, contextually sound strategic policy for Central Asia. ✪