Implications of Russia’s War Against Ukraine for Central Asia
Asel Doolotkeldieva

Kazakh "yurt of invincibility" displayed in Bucha. Source: Twitter
Eighteen months since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Central Asian regimes and societies face diverse direct and indirect effects of the war and actively shape the changing regional order. This rapidly changing order demands a delicate balancing act from Central Asian governments while providing opportunities to pursue regime and state interests. The maneuvering of Central Asian governments between divergent interests of great powers in relation to the war produces a complex picture of seemingly contradictory government responses. On the one hand, they show resistance to Russian pressure, which is especially visible in their UN resolution votes and their pursuit of simultaneous talks with China and the West; on the other hand, they continue close, if not increased partnership with Russia within existing economic, cultural and diplomatic frameworks.

Following these structural dependencies, international commentators rushed to portray the positions of these states vis-à-vis the war as another reflection of their vassalage to Russia, and the increased attention of China and the collective West to the region as the Great Game 2.0. However, none of these commentaries do justice to what is happening on the ground. If the war seems to thus far have benefited the regimes, it is detrimental to Central Asian societies, as the changing order is accompanied by another tightening of the screws in the form of authoritarian consolidation, soaring prices and uncertainty for millions of labor migrants working in Russia. This memo zooms in on these regional and local developments to provide the context needed to understand the Central Asian government responses to the war.

Changing regional security and trade order

Despite Russia’s intensified efforts to bring Central Asia closer to itself, the regional order is changing. For many in Central Asian government policy circles, the current war against Ukraine implicitly symbolizes the failure of Russia’s foreign policy toward its ‘near abroad.’ The Russia-led CSTO could not mitigate the recent armed conflicts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and between Azerbaijan and Armenia, while Russia is also failing to defend itself, as the Prigozhin mutiny demonstrates. Russia’s neo-imperial divide-and-rule policy toward these regions has reached its limits, opening the space for other actors. The security paradigm is shifting, and it remains to be seen whether China is interested in getting more involved in security issues, since its investment projects require stability across the region and, as in the case of the most recent inter-state conflict in Central Asia, its leverage on both Kyrgyz and Tajik authorities is sufficient to play a mediating role. China’s move to create a new multilateral mechanism “C5+1,” showed off in Xi’an in May 2023 – in addition to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Beijing’s bilateral relationships – is a success, which contrasts with Russia’s failure to bring the region under the Eurasian Economic Union with Tajikistan’s systematic refusal to join it.

Second, the invasion has pushed regional actors to find alternative trade routes bypassing Russia. Western partners first seek to promote regional connectivity “so they’re [the Central Asian states] not dependent on any one country or any one source for trade and investment,” and second, to prevent Central Asia from becoming a buffer zone for Russian imports of goods under Western sanctions. These topics have been the reason for high-level official visits, multiplied since the war within the US ‘C5+1’ and EU ‘C5+1’ initiatives, and the recent EBRD-funded study on sustainable transportation links between Europe and Central Asia. Meanwhile, for China it will be vital to speed up alternative routes to secure its exports to Europe. All these developments that were spurred or accelerated by the war bring renewed attention to the region and Central Asian leaders’ work to make the most out of their increased importance. Whereas before Central Asia was treated as Russia’s backyard, today regional leaders can hope to gain prominence in its own right, as the new contours of the regional security paradigm are yet to emerge.

Pursuing national interests within the changing regional order

In past months, Russia, China and the collective West have intensified their ties with Central Asia. In an attempt to maintain its few friends left in the world, Russia has increasingly courted Central Asian leaders, holding more than 50 meetings with them in an unusually high number of visits to the region. While most of these meetings and summits take place within the existing inter-parliamentary, inter-governmental, CSTO and EAEU frameworks, what has changed is rather the tone of Russia’s approach to the region. Sources in government circles say that their Russian counterparts have never been so respectful as now, a timely correction to the earlier complaint of the Tajik President Rahmon that Russia “does not respect” Central Asian states. The same tone could be observed during the second high-level regional meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia and the president of the European Council on June 2 in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, where Charles Michel made a 20-minute speech on the importance of “hearing and listening to each other.”
At the economic level, the region has become the new home for Russian capital and international companies fleeing from Western sanctions.
In Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second major city, sources among city officials observe that there have never been so many delegations of ‘Russian oligarchs’ visiting the country in search of potential investment schemes and local partners. Despite initial expectations of a dampening effect from the war, regional economic growth reached 5.2% thanks to domestic reforms, as well as the influx of Russian capital and China’s reopening. The recent Chinese C5+1 summit in Xi’an demonstrated China’s renewed interest in the region in the form of a promise of $49 billion in investment and a railroad connecting China with European markets through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Central Asian governments are also seeking to diversify their trade partners and are looking increasingly toward Asia, realizing that the West can hardly offer anything concrete to help them to escape from historical dependencies.

Central Asian governments have been also proactive in resuming their bilateral and multilateral relations after the pandemic. Several summits took place; the most interesting was perhaps the Fourth Consultative Meeting of Central Asian leaders in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, in summer 2022, where they all stressed the importance of intra-regional alignment as a response to external shocks. Working toward much-wanted but thorny regional integration, this summit indicated a strong political will for dialogue, compromise, and cooperation across a wide range of spheres, at least on the part of the majority of participants. Diplomats from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan informed each other on their respective UN resolution votes in an attempt at a concerted approach to the war against Ukraine.

A careful balancing act

Nevertheless, navigating through these diplomatic and economic changes is a daunting task for smaller states. Since the onset of the war, Central Asian governments have found themselves in a difficult situation of balancing between their own economic and diplomatic contexts, pressures from Russia and the West, and domestic regime-society dynamics. Kazakhstan shares a border with Russia and since the invasion of Ukraine, a significant minority of Kazakh citizens fear the possibility of a Russian invasion from the north, while Kazakh President Tokayev owes his political survival to Putin during the massive anti-government demonstrations in January 2022. For more fragile states, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the war on Ukraine also means that thousands of their citizens working in Russia and holding double citizenship might be subjected to forced military conscription. The war has also brought significant disruptions to supply chains and high inflation, especially for food. And for all these states, Russia remains the major trade partner and energy and food supplier.

In their navigating between domestic interests and Russian pressures, first we see that
Central Asian states are pursuing cautious foreign policies that support “strategic autonomy” and do not breach commitments with international organizations.
Official meeting of Central Asian leaders. July 21, 2022. Source: Twitter
Despite their historical ties, they did not side with Russia and either did not cast a vote or abstained on five UN resolutions in relation to the war against Ukraine. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have explicitly stated their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and Kazakhstan’s president refused to recognize the Russia-backed occupied Luhansk and Donetsk republics. However, we also see that the governments participate in the collective commemoration of Victory Day in Russia, forbid local anti-war protests, arrest and deport Russian anti-war emigrants and punish any war-related manifestations. These measures are undertaken within the regimes’ repressive traditions perhaps to limit politicization of the war at home and potential societal polarization rather than to please the Russian leadership. Yet, the zigzagging only attracts criticism from their divided publics that see the authorities constantly balancing on the verge of losing sovereignty and independence.

Authoritarian consolidation amid shifting regional order

One important development parallel to the war is that geopolitical realignment is going hand in hand with authoritarian consolidation in Central Asia. Although authoritarian consolidation in each country is an internal regime dynamic, it indirectly benefits from the war, as the international community is keen to turn a blind eye on increased repressions in order to keep its modest leverage in the region. Thus, in Tajikistan, we see a gradual dynastical transfer of power on the way, from father to son. Uzbek President Mirziyoyev orchestrated constitutional changes allowing him to annul his previous terms and extend his time in office at least until 2037. Kyrgyz President Japarov has been ridding the political space of his opponents, claiming the repressions are forestalling attempted coups. Kazakh President Tokayev further took control of elites with carefully orchestrated national elections and by discouraging civic activism.

Consolidation of authoritarian regimes in Central Asia is effectuated by heavy suppression of political and civic freedoms. The Uzbek authorities brutally suppressed and criminalized a peaceful demonstration against constitutional changes in Karakalpakstan in July 2022. Labor strikes and civic protests are still forbidden and get repressed in Kazakhstan. In Tajikistan, the harsh crack-down on the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan Region is ongoing, while in Kyrgyzstan the authorities are seemingly set on eliminating the opposition, civil society and independent mass media. Journalists, bloggers and ordinary citizens across the region are arrested and sentenced for liking and reposting news on social media.

Various bills designed to tighten control over the Internet, social media, peaceful assemblies and NGOs defined the authoritarian trends in the region long before the war. But Central Asia’s renewed geopolitical importance for the West will likely mean that these authoritarian policies are ignored by the region’s most democratic partners. Thus far, besides concerns expressed by the US and EU leadership, they have been rather silent about the real prospects of adopting anti-democratic bills on foreign agents and against independent mass media. At the recent EU summit in Kyrgyzstan in June 2023, Michel paid lip service to the Kyrgyz regime by endorsing its fake commitment to human rights and political freedoms.

When assessing ongoing changes in the regional order that were induced by the invasion, one has to keep in mind that it is not only long-term economic interdependencies, but importantly also the authoritarian dynamics of regime survival that bind Central Asian leaders to Kremlin. Considering the CSTO’s first deployment ever (to Kazakhstan to quell the anti-government demonstrations and safeguard the authoritarian regime), Russian authoritarianism goes well beyond its geographic borders, creating a larger space where Putin’s power co-produces domestic autocracies in Central Asia. By seeking to keep their influence in the region and thus turning a blind eye on authoritarian consolidation in the short run, the West tacitly supports the continuation of this power space between Russia and Central Asia in the long run, to the detriment of Central Asian societies.

This is the first essay of a series on Central Asia's perception of Russia.
  • Asel Doolotkeldieva

    Nonresidential Fellow, GW
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