June 27, 2013
Center on Global Interests, 10th Floor, 1050 Connecticut Ave, NW, Washington, DC

With the 2014 U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan fast approaching, Russia faces new security challenges in neighboring Central Asia. The closing of the U.S. Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan and potential spillover from Afghanistan threaten to further destabilize a region already rife with domestic conflicts. Will the possibility of escalating tensions in Central Asia lead Russia to increase its arsenal of hard-power tools in the region? What can we expect with regard to its use of soft-power channels, such as the energy sector, the labor market, and long-standing cultural ties? Using the upcoming transition as a launching point, the Center on Global Interests convened a roundtable of experts from the diplomatic, academic and security spheres to discuss Russia’s strategy in Central Asia in light of shifting geopolitical concerns.

While Russia identified the CIS as a top foreign-policy priority in its February 2013 Foreign Policy Concept, participants found that it has yet to develop a concrete strategic approach to the region. In an effort to spearhead regional integration, Russia has loosely coordinated joint military activities through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and has sought to promote economic ties through the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) and a nascent Customs Union (CU). However, Russia’s direct engagement in Central Asia has been inconsistent and, in large part, reactive to singular events. For example, it has provided significant assistance to combat drug-trafficking and illegal migration, two issues of primary concern for Russian security. But when violence erupted in Uzbekistan in 2005 and in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, Russia pursued a policy of non-intervention, pointing out that its obligations under the CSTO agreement did not cover internal conflicts. Such behavior suggests that Russia views its leadership in regional organizations primarily as a way to preserve its national interests and is less willing to take action when they are not directly at stake. This, in turn, makes organizations like the CSTO less credible as a regional stabilizer, and less effective as a tool for projecting Russian soft power in its self-proclaimed “near abroad.”

Despite grand statements about regional unity, Russia’s ambivalent security approach to Central Asia lowers its standing in the eyes of its partners and raises questions about its ability to withstand potential shock waves from Afghanistan. At present, the prognosis for the country following the U.S. withdrawal is highly uncertain, with particular concerns about decreased military assistance amid an increasingly active Taliban. Meanwhile, Russia is losing its reach through the CSTO, as evidenced most recently in 2012 when Uzbekistan—the country with the highest threat of religious instability in the region—pulled out of the organization’s counterterrorism operations.

In recent months, Russian officials have strongly warned about the threat of radical Islam in Central Asia. But their past inaction has raised suspicions among the region’s leaders that the rhetoric is more an effort to convince them that future security plans must develop around Russian priorities rather than mutual concerns about potential threats. Given Russia’s spotty commitment to regional security and the resulting mistrust from its partners, it is so far unclear whether Russia will have the capacity to develop and enforce a coherent post-2014 security strategy in Central Asia.

In addition to security, the roundtable noted that Russia’s economic soft power in the region has gradually fallen behind that of China. One participant pointed out that while Russia remains a top-three trading partner for three of the Central Asian states and wields significant leverage through remittances from migrant labor, it is no longer the dominant player in the region’s markets for energy or consumer goods. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the region’s top energy producers, are now diversifying their export routes eastward and developing ways to bypass Russian pipelines that deliver the region’s oil and natural gas exports to Europe. The same participant noted that Turkmenistan even aims to develop and export its own oil—a marked change from earlier days, when 90 percent of the country’s hydrocarbons ended up in Russia. Central Asia’s growing energy independence has diminished Russia’s ability to exert economic influence in the region through a tactic that has become known as “resource nationalism”—the exploitation of natural resources and their transit to promote state interests abroad. The participants suggested that Russia’s relationship with Central Asia will be largely driven by resource exports to the area, as Russia confronts an increasingly competitive environment in the energy market.

With its military and economic influence in Central Asia waning, Russia has held on tightly to existing cultural and linguistic ties with the region as a potential source of organic soft-power influence. But according to participants, here it also finds itself in a difficult position. Calling forth an increasingly distant Soviet past, Russia has remained dependent on old networks and has not invested sufficient resources in courting a new generation of Central Asians who would be interested in cooperating with Russia. In fact, one participant’s observation of Internet comments on news sites and social media revealed a growing level of anti-Russian and anti-American sentiment among young people in Central Asia, who view the larger powers as exerting unwelcome pressure on their domestic affairs. In Russia’s case, growing hostility among the region’s youth may stem partly from the steep decline in Russian-language education across the region as a whole, a natural trend following post-Soviet independence that Moscow has nonetheless done little to address. Meanwhile, China has promoted its cultural presence in the region by opening Confucius Institutes for language and culture in four of the five Central Asian states.

When asked to identify Russia’s main policy goal in Central Asia, the roundtable participants each gave a different response, reflecting Russia’s similarly disparate regional approach. One participant suggested that Russia would focus on preserving military dominance in the region as it struggles to change its image from being “the country of ‘no’” to the country that proposes alternative paths for mutual security. An alternate view was that, far from seeking a compromise, Russia would try to create and dominate a Eurasian equivalent of the European Union, complete with its own common border, single currency and integrated labor force. A third scenario suggested that Russia, in the absence of an overall plan for the region, would simply fight to maintain the status quo. The roundtable concluded that Russia’s main challenge is to develop a clear policy approach to the region and identify the soft-power strengths it can use to get there. Otherwise, Russia risks losing its existing mechanisms of cooperation in Central Asia as local players increasingly come to see the cementing of Russian influence as an end in itself.