Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Eurasian Economic Summit on Nov. 9, 2022, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
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Russia signaled this week that it will not take Western efforts to build ties with Central Asia lying down, with Moscow conducting its own diplomatic push in the region traditionally seen as its own “backyard.”
Keen to maintain Russia’s dwindling sphere of influence in the region, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Kazakhstan Thursday, making his presence felt a week after French president Emmanuel Macron visited the oil- and mineral-rich country, and its neighbor Uzbekistan.
On Thursday, Putin will meet the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Talks are aimed at “the further development of Russian-Kazakh relations, prospects for further interaction within “the Eurasian space, as well as current regional and international problems,” the Kremlin said.
Russia wants to maintain its foothold in Central Asia — a region comprised of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — amid growing economic competition from China, and rising geopolitical interest from the West, much to Russia’s growing disdain and disapproval.
L-R: Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Turkmenistan President Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko enter the hall during the Commonwealth of Independent States’ Head of States Meeting at the Ala-Archa State Residence on Oct. 13, 2023, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently disparaged the West’s charm offensive in Central Asia —after a number of high-profile meetings between Central Asian leaders and their U.S. and European counterparts this summer — accusing the West of “luring” Russia’s “neighbours, friends and allies” away from it.
Putin, meanwhile, said ahead of his Kazakh trip that a number of countries are acting in a way that is “directly aimed” at weakening power in the post-Soviet space and urged members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — a regional intergovernmental organization made up of Russia and other former Soviet republics — to beef up their collective security.
“The actions of some countries are directly aimed at shaking the legitimate power, social stability and traditional values in the CIS countries, at violating our traditional close trade, cooperation, and cultural ties,” he said, adding that Russia and its neighbors face common threats ranging from terrorism to organized crime, radicalism and extremism.
The CIS currently includes Russia and former Soviet republics such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its membership has dwindled in recent years, however, as some former Soviet states have aligned their positions much more firmly with the West.
The Baltic States chose not to participate in the organization when it was founded after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Georgia withdrew its participation after a short-lived war with Russia in 2008 and Moldova suspended its involvement after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Kyiv, for its part, formally ended its participation in the CIS in 2018.
Despite recent departures from the CIS, it’s likely that its current members will remain in situ and that Russia is secure enough in its political and economic relationships with its neighbors and allies — for now.
“I think Russia is confident that its position is more secure there than elsewhere. Obviously, Putin will want to do things to shore it up but it’s not worried about the U.S. sort of displacing it entirely anytime soon,” Max Hess, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of “Economic War: Ukraine and the Global Conflict Between Russia and the West,” told CNBC Wednesday.
“The highly kleptocratic and undemocratic natures of all of the regimes in the region, including those that do business with the West, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and those who don’t like Turkmenistan, and the nature of those regimes [make] it easy for Russia to find points of leverage and to use individual ties and business relationships,” Hess said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at a joint news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, on Feb. 10, 2022.
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Central Asia’s effort not to alienate or antagonize Russia, and to placate it where necessary (Kyrgyzstan’s 2009 closure of a U.S. military air base which supplied U.S.-led troops fighting in Afghanistan was heavily influenced by Moscow) while also trying to forge its own independent international trade and foreign policies, has borne fruit, with China becoming a significant trading partner for Central Asian countries.
Central Asia now has to walk the line between appeasing Russia — which is still a large trading partner and longtime political ally — and seeking new economic opportunities and advantageous alliances with wider Asia and the West.
“Central Asia obviously has to keep a fine balance and tread that line,” Hess said. He added that Kazakhstan is an example of a country looking to appease the West, with talk of Russian sanctions enforcement, while Kazakh businesses “were also looking for ways to take advantage of the situation.”
“China has undoubtedly become the key player, at least economically,” Hess said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ahead of the China-Central Asia Summit in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, on May 17, 2023.
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“In some countries, this Chinese economic dominance is far more pronounced, in Turkmenistan, for example, which now exports almost all of its gas to China. And Russia has no need for the tiny amount of gas that it is still is contracted to buy from Turkmenistan,” he noted.
“We’ve seen a few interesting cases in the years past, where Russia hasn’t necessarily been happy about everything with China’s relationship, including some of its handling of relations and position as the primary partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which both of them are members, but I think it doesn’t see the U.S. as anywhere near the same level of threat or competition.”
Given Central Asia’s desire to forge new partnerships while keeping Russia on side, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Central Asian states have been accused of “sitting on the fence” when it comes to certain geopolitical matters, such as the war in Ukraine, refusing to either endorse or condemn the invasion.
Most Central Asian countries have abstained from U.N. votes to condemn the invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory, but they’ve also been accused of helping Russia dodge Western sanctions imposed on it for the war, with European and Chinese products exported to Central Asia and then funneled into Russia.
Analysts note that while an economically isolated Russia wants and needs to keep Central Asia on side, it is gradually losing its grip on the region.
Russia “can hardly afford to lose its few remaining allies. The war and the Kremlin’s shrinking opportunities to choose its foreign partners have forced the Kremlin to put higher value on its ties to the Central Asian countries,” Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, noted in analysis examining whether Central Asia was getting closer to Russia or drifting further away.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev arrive for a working breakfast of the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow, Russia, on May 9, 2023.
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“The mainstay of Russian influence in Central Asia remains the relationship of trust between the countries’ political elites. All of the regimes are headed by aging men who grew up in Soviet times and who communicate with one another in Russian. They have known each other for decades, and any newcomers face an obligatory trip to Moscow to be looked over and approved,” he noted.
“For now, these regimes don’t want to risk falling out with the Kremlin, and their response to growing public calls for their countries to distance themselves from Russia has been very restrained … But the elites in Central Asia are gradually changing together with society,” he said.
“Half of the region’s inhabitants are under thirty. They don’t remember Soviet times; they are less likely to speak Russian; and they do not consider Russia an example to aspire to.”
Central Asia’s move away from an “increasingly unattractive Russia is a natural process” Umarov added, with the region experiencing a newfound level of self-sufficiency and public demand for change, particularly on foreign policy issues.
“Yet Moscow, instead of recognizing the agency of the Central Asian nations and working on making itself more appealing to them, demands that the former Soviet republics uphold the historical dominance inherited by the Kremlin,” Umarov said.
“Russia had every opportunity to make the Central Asian nations gravitate toward it. Instead of that, it is trying to stop the progression of time. If the Kremlin doesn’t change its approach to foreign policy — and that’s not something that will happen under Vladimir Putin — then Russia’s influence in the region will wither away,” he said.