The Next Stage of Russia's Resurgence: Central Asia

15 MINS READFeb 11, 2012 | 20:35 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the final installment in a five-part series on Russia's resurgence. Click to read Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4.

The Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — are important to Russia as buffers from the Islamic world and Asia and as energy and economic partners. Kazakhstan is already integrated with Russia and is part of the customs union with Belarus. Turkmenistan has tried to remain as isolated as possible, and Uzbekistan is actively opposed to Russia's attempts at resurgence. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan likely will welcome cooperate with Russia's efforts but internal instability and security issues in both countries will present Moscow with challenges.  


Kazakhstan's location makes it integral to Russia's internal security, as it lies on a traditional invasion route from the east and south and thus serves as a buffer from Asian powers. It is also a key access route for Russia to the rest of Central Asia and Asia proper. Kazakhstan and Russia share a nearly 5,000-mile border that is almost completely unguarded, so any instability in Kazakhstan could easily spread to Russia. Kazakhstan also possesses plentiful oil and natural gas resources and is a counterbalance to Uzbekistan, a relatively powerful Central Asian state that is not typically subservient to Moscow.

Russia's Levers

  • Political: Moscow has strong ties to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and other political, security and business elites including Prime Minister Karim Massimov and Nazarbayev's possible successor, Timur Kulibayev.
  • Social: Russians make up nearly 25 percent of the Kazakh population; most Russians live in northern Kazakhstan. Russian is an official state language in Kazakhstan, and 20-30 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox.
  • Security: Kazakhstan is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and Russia has a radar station in Balkhash and a cosmodrome at Baikonur. Most of Kazakhstan's military officers are ethnically Russian, and nearly all of Kazakhstan's military uses Russian or Soviet-era equipment.
  • Economy: Kazakhstan is a member of the customs union and Common Economic Space. Most of Kazakhstan's economic infrastructure — rails, roads, pipelines and energy facilities — is linked to Russia. Roughly 10 percent of Kazakhs work abroad, mostly in Russia.

Russia's Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Russia strengthened its alliance with Kazakhstan via the customs union in 2010 and the Common Economic Space in 2012. Although Kazakhstan expanded its energy relationships with other countries — especially China — most of its energy exports are still linked to Russia, and Moscow still influences the Kazakh energy distribution system.

Russia's goals for Kazakhstan are to continue integrating the Central Asian country via the Common Economic Space and eventually the Eurasian Union, and to manage the presidential succession process so that the outcome favors Russia.

Kazakhstan's Position and Strategy

Kazakhstan is roughly a third of the size of the continental United States but has a population of only 15 million scattered across different parts of the country. This makes internal consolidation a difficult task, and one that Nazarbayev (who has ruled the country since independence) has managed by centralizing the political system and security apparatus.

Because of its long and open border with Russia, Kazakhstan has difficulty balancing external powers in order to preserve its sovereignty and has allied with Moscow in terms of politics and security (Kazakhstan is one of the founding members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the CSTO and the customs union). However, economically, Kazakhstan has been more capable of diversifying partners because of its enormous energy and mineral wealth, which the West helped build up in the 1990s and early 2000s, a time of Russian weakness.

Kazakhstan exports oil west via Azerbaijan and east to China, though most Kazakh energy is still connected to Russia, either via direct exports or Russia's distribution system in Central Asia. This makes Kazakhstan broadly cooperative regarding Russia's integration plans, though it is not a pawn of Moscow. China's growing economic presence in Kazakhstan is a challenge to Russian influence, as is growing Islamist militancy in Kazakhstan and the country's rivalry with Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan will continue cooperating in Russia's integration efforts, though Nazarbayev's eventual departure from the political scene will create uncertainty and instability — in the realms of politics and security — in the country. Preventing this from obstructing its resurgence will be one of Russia's most difficult tasks.


Uzbekistan is a buffer between Russia and the Asian and Islamic powers and conflict-riddled countries like Afghanistan to the south. Its status as the most populous part of Central Asia and key to the region's heartland of the Fergana Valley makes it a natural regional leader and a potential challenger to Russia. Uzbekistan also is an energy producer and is an important part of Russia's regional energy network.

Russia's Levers

  • Political: Russia has connections with Uzbekistan's military and security apparatus and regional elites. However, relations with the independent-minded Uzbek President Islam Karimov are not particularly close.
  • Social: Russia has limited social influence in Uzbekistan, where most of the population are ethnic Uzbeks and are Muslims; about 5 percent of the population is Russian.
  • Security: Uzbekistan is a member of the CSTO, but it is not as active in the organization as other Central Asian countries (for example, it is not part of the CSTO's Rapid Reaction Force). Russia has no troops inside Uzbekistan, but it flanks the country with forces in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and has political links inside the Fergana region of the country.
  • Economic: Approximately 20 percent of all Uzbek exports (including 75 percent of its natural gas) go to Russia. Uzbekistan relies on Russian imports, from refined energy products to processed foods. Remittances from Uzbeks working in Russia also contribute to the Uzbek economy; in 2010, remittances amounted to nearly $3 billion.

Russia's Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Russia increased its military and security presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in order to contain any Uzbek engagement of its neighbors (particularly after an outbreak of Kyrgyz ethnic violence in June 2010). Russia also incorporated Uzbekistan into the Northern Distribution Network for sending U.S. and NATO supplies into Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, has retained its independence and has expressed interest in securing weapons from the West.

Russia's goals for Uzbekistan are to increase its isolation and put more pressure on the country by striking alliances with other Central Asian states, and also to manage the presidential succession process so that the result will be in line with Russia's interests.

Uzbekistan's Position and Strategy

Not surprisingly, Uzbekistan has its own ideas for the Fergana Valley that involve exercising more control over southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan (both of which have sizeable Uzbek minorities). Uzbekistan has used its large population and self-sufficiency in energy and other resources to remain strongly independent from and rebellious toward Russia and other powers. However, Uzbekistan is not strong enough to challenge Russia directly. Therefore, as with Azerbaijan, Russia is able to keep Uzbekistan in check indirectly, via its military presence in surrounding countries.

Uzbekistan has other problems as well, such as the spillover of militants from Afghanistan and its own indigenous Islamist militancy, which has been suppressed but not eliminated. This only spurs Uzbekistan's centralization of control and the resistance to influence from any external powers.

One such power — China — is focusing on Central Asia as a means of meeting its growing energy needs and diversifying away from sea-based energy import routes. China has increased its influence particularly in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan by putting money into energy projects. Russia and the Central Asian states are concerned that Chinese economic involvement could grow and lead to Chinese influence in other realms, such as security.

Like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan has been ruled by a single leader since independence from the Soviet Union, and Karimov's unclear succession plan throws the entire future orientation of the country into doubt. Russia will continue using its limited levers to pressure Uzbekistan, which will continue withstanding the pressure, while Karimov sorts out plans for his succession. This means Uzbekistan will be the least predictable country in terms of Russia's resurgence in Central Asia.


Turkmenistan's location makes it integral to Russia's security; it acts as a buffer state to the south, separating Russia from Iran and instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkmenistan is rich in natural resources, including natural gas and oil, and Russia wants to secure transit of those resources to its own territory. It also flanks regional leader Uzbekistan and is part of the drug route from Afghanistan into Russia.

Russia's Levers

  • Political: Russia has ties to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov and the country's business and security elites. It also has connections to the population in southern Turkmenistan that controls the drug trade.
  • Social: Russians make up only a small percentage of the population in Turkmenistan; most of the country's population are Turkmen, and most are Muslim.
  • Security: Turkmenistan is not a member of the Russia-led CSTO, but it does rely on Russia as a security guarantor against external powers such as Iran, the West and Uzbekistan. Russia supplies Turkmenistan's military and security services with arms and training.
  • Economic: Turkmenistan has the lowest number of immigrants working abroad of any Central Asian state, so remittances from workers in Russia do not amount to much. Turkmenistan historically has exported most of its energy to Russia, though this has changed recently — the country exported 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas to Russia, 15-17 bcm to China, and 8 bcm to Iran in 2010. Russia wants to block any Caspian projects (such as the Trans-Caspian and Nabucco pipelines) that are not in its interests.

Russia's Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Russia faced a setback in Turkmenistan when its isolation of Turkmenistan's energy forced the country to increase exports to China and Iran. Particularly important is the Central Asia pipeline which, for China, is not only a chance to take advantage of Turkmenistan's diversification but is also an opportunity to increase its leverage against Russia. However, Russia prevented Turkmenistan from participating in southern corridor energy projects that are against Moscow's interests.

Russia wants to continue preventing Turkmenistan from forging energy relationships with the West and wants to manage Turkmenistan's energy ties to China and Iran. Moscow wants Turkmenistan to remain isolated from other players in the region and prepare for integration into the Eurasian Union.

Turkmenistan's Position and Strategy

Turkmenistan is mostly desert, and the majority of its population lives along two river oases in the country's northern and southern extremities — the Amu Darya and Karakum canals, respectively. The small population facilitates internal consolidation, making Turkmenistan one of the region's most consolidated countries under a centralized state.

However, the concentration of its population near the borders of two much larger powers — Uzbekistan and Iran — has led Turkmenistan to develop an attitude of isolation and resistance toward these powers, and the centralization of control has limited Turkmenistan's engagement with the West. Russia is seen as Turkmenistan's security guarantor against these countries but is also viewed as a potential threat, hence Turkmenistan's preference for a neutral policy and avoidance of Russia's alliance system as much as possible. The other main driver of Turkmenistan's foreign policy is its vast energy resources, particularly natural gas. These resources until recently were almost entirely integrated into Russia's energy system. However, a cutoff of supplies in 2009 due to Russia's own energy glut led Turkmenistan to seek other markets, notably China and Iran. Turkmenistan prefers to use energy to balance between Russia and China in order to maintain its isolation and maximize its energy revenues.

Turkmenistan's energy diversification will be the key issue for Russia to manage, though Russia will maintain a strong foothold in Turkmenistan due to the country's security concerns and isolationist policy. Turkmenistan will be one of the last countries in the region to participate in Russia's integration efforts.


Kyrgyzstan provides Russia with a buffer to the south against China and Afghanistan. It is part of the drug route from Afghanistan into Russia. Its location in the highlands of the Fergana Valley keeps regional power Uzbekistan in check.

Russia's Levers

  • Political: Russia has ties to Kyrgyzstan's security, business and political elites. Current Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev is a strategic partner for Russia.
  • Social: Russians make up about 9 percent of the Kyrgyz population, constituting a considerable minority. Russian is one of Kyrgyzstan's official languages.
  • Security: Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Russia-led CSTO. Russia maintains a military base in Kant and other military installations in Kara Balta, Bishkek and Karakol. In July 2009 Kyrgyzstan granted Russia permission to build another base in Osh, near the Uzbek border.
  • Economic: Kyrgyzstan has officially applied to join the Russia-led customs union. Russia pays Kyrgyzstan rent for its Kant airbase and provides most of the country's refined energy supplies. Russia also provides financial assistance through loans and grants. Many Kyrgyz migrants work in Russia and send home remittances that made up more than 15 percent of the Kyrgyz gross domestic product in 2009.

Russia's Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Russia facilitated the April 2010 revolution that deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and installed a more Kremlin-friendly government. Russia also increased its security presence in the country and granted financial assistance to gain the new government's loyalty.

Russia's goals for 2012 and beyond include building up its military presence in the country, particularly in the south. Moscow also wants to formalize Kyrgyzstan's membership in the Customs Union and prepare the country for membership in the Eurasian Union.

Kyrgyzstan's Position and Strategy

Kyrgyzstan is almost entirely mountainous, a geography which greatly hampers the internal consolidation of any government in the country. The mountains split parts of the country from each other, creating a divide between the north (centered in Bishkek) and the south (centered in the Fergana Valley). Leaders have come from one of these two regions and had difficulty controlling the other region. Other factors, such as a large Uzbek minority in the south and increasing separatist and militant activity have also undermined the Kyrgyz state's internal consolidation.

Kyrgyzstan's pervasive internal instability has complicated its foreign policy, but the country has largely depended on Russia as a security guarantor against Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan's previous leaders — Bakiyev and Askar Akayev before him — attempted to balance between outside powers, particularly Russia and the United States and their use of military bases in the country, and were deposed in large part because of it. Kyrgyzstan has built up its economic ties with China, but Russia still has the most important role because it supplies refined energy products and financial assistance. Among Central Asian countries Kyrgyzstan is one of the most loyal to Russia and its interests.

Kyrgyzstan likely will support Russia's integration efforts in the region and the rest of the former Soviet Union, though chronic internal instability will make the country difficult for Russia to rely on fully.


Tajikistan serves Russia as a buffer to the south in the Pamir Mountains against China and South Asian powers. Its geography and border with Afghanistan also puts it along a primary route for drug smuggling from Afghanistan into Russia.

Russia's Levers

  • Political: Russia has some ties to Tajik political and security elites and, despite occasional diplomatic tensions, supports Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon.
  • Social: Russians used to make up a sizable minority in Tajikistan, but most emigrated after independence. The population now is predominantly Muslim and ethnic Persian.
  • Security: Tajikistan is a member of the CSTO. Russia has several military bases in the country and assists Tajik authorities in counterterrorism operations and sweeps.
  • Economic: Remittances from Tajik migrants working in Russia make up 35 percent of Tajikistan's gross domestic product. Russia also gives Tajikistan billions of dollars worth of food and financial aid each year and mediates between Tajikistan and its neighbors to secure electricity supplies.

Russia's Successes, Obstacles and Ambitions

Russia has strengthened its military presence in Tajikistan over the past few years. However, it has not been able to secure use of the Ayni air base or resume patrols along the Tajik-Afghan border.

Russia intends to strengthen its security presence in Tajikistan by reaching a deal on the use of the Ayni airbase and arranging to resume patrols along the Tajik-Afghan border. Moscow also wants to prepare Tajikistan for membership in the customs union and eventually the Eurasian Union after Kyrgyzstan joins.

Tajikistan's Position and Strategy

Like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan is almost entirely mountainous and is therefore difficult to consolidate internally. Indeed, the country fell into civil war immediately after gaining independence from the Soviets. An uneasy peace was reached when Rakhmon gained the presidency in 1994. The eastern part of the country, particularly the Rasht Valley region, remains a rebel stronghold, and the government has limited control over many parts of the country. Militants, separatists and the country's proximity to the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan further undermine internal consolidation.

Also like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan depends on Russia as its security guarantor against Uzbekistan and other external threats. Several Russian military bases are located throughout the country. China has an economic presence in the country, and Iran has social and cultural ties to Tajikistan, but these are limited compared to Russia's influence and levers in the country. Tajikistan has sought to elicit concessions from Russia for the military access it has granted to Moscow, such as lower prices for refined products and Russian participation in hydroelectricity projects, and has stood up to Russia on some security concessions like the Ayni air base or the return of Russian border guards (which is key to controlling the drug flow from Afghanistan).

Russia's resurgence in Tajikistan will be slow and difficult, due to threats like militant and drug-trade spillover from Afghanistan and Rakhmon's resistance to giving Russia full access to the country. However, Russia's influence in Tajikistan will continue to grow.

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