- Central Asia will become more of a security concern for Russia, especially with the risk of spillover militancy from Afghanistan.
- Russia's financial strains and substantial military commitments in areas such as Ukraine and Syria will cause Moscow to cut and reorganize its military deployments in Central Asia rather than increase its troop levels in the region as previously planned.
- Russia will continue to be the pre-eminent external military power in Central Asia, though the region will see increased security involvement from China, the United States and others.
Ever since its unexpected loss of influence in Ukraine and subsequent standoff with the West over the country, Russia has been re-evaluating its military and security positions across the former Soviet periphery. With the war in eastern Ukraine developing into a long-term frozen conflict, Russia has worked to shore up its presence and assets wherever possible in the Eurasian borderlands. It has reinforced brigades in western Russia and engaged in talks to open an air base in Belarus and expand weapons sales to Armenia, both of which occupy strategic areas near conflict zones and are loyal Russian allies when it comes to security.
Though it is farther from the conflict in Ukraine than other parts of the former Soviet periphery, Central Asia is nevertheless important to Russia's strategic interests. The region's proximity to Afghanistan — a country significant not only for the security risks it poses to Central Asia, and thus Russian interests in Central Asia, but also for the Western activity there — only adds to its importance.
Ebbs and Flows of Western Involvement
Central Asia became militarily vital to the West after the 9/11 attacks, when U.S. and NATO forces wanted to use Central Asian countries as an entry point from which to invade Afghanistan. Russia, which retained several military bases in Central Asia even after the Soviet period, initially approved this move based on a shared concern over the risk presented by al Qaeda. Moscow granted several air bases for U.S. and NATO use in countries such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the entire region became a logistical supply route to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network.
As the war in Afghanistan dragged on, however, Russia became increasingly concerned that the West would establish a permanent military foothold in what Moscow considered its own sphere of influence. The West gradually lost military assets in the region. First was the closure of U.S. bases in Uzbekistan in 2005 following the country's Andijan uprising and resulting crackdown. Next came the 2014 closure, under Russian pressure, of the U.S. logistical air base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, Russia built up its own military presence in Central Asia, bolstering personnel and weaponry at bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and deepening integration within the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization military bloc in areas such as air defense.
Still, the scale-down of NATO forces in Afghanistan did not completely end Western involvement in Central Asia. The United States remains active in counterterrorism and counternarcotics training in countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and growing Taliban and Islamic State activity near Afghanistan's borders with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan has moved Washington to pursue greater security cooperation with these countries as well. Even though Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are officially neutral, they find themselves in the middle of escalating competition between Moscow and Washington in their respective anti-militancy efforts in the region.
Change of Plans
At the same time, growing economic issues tied to low oil prices and Western-imposed sanctions limit Moscow's ability to project military power. Russia has had to scale back its expenditures, cutting defense spending by 10 percent in 2016, with more cuts possible. This could explain Russia's recent decision to downsize its military presence in Tajikistan, which, of the Central Asian states, is the most geographically exposed to Afghanistan and is the site of Russia's largest external military deployment, consisting of several bases and roughly 6,000 troops. The force reduction, announced Jan. 30, followed a decision by Russia in December 2015 to redeploy from a base in the southern city of Kulyab to a facility closer to the capital, Dushanbe.
Russia's reduction and reorganization of military forces in Tajikistan stand in stark contrast to the build-up plans the country espoused less than a year ago. It was in April 2015 that a commander at Russia's military base in Tajikistan announced plans to increase troops to 9,000 by 2020. When he announced the force reduction in late January, Col. Gen. Vladimir Zarudnitsky, commander of Russia's Central Military District, explained that the move would enable Russian forces to enhance mobility and combat readiness. The base's role as an outpost and guarantor of regional peace and stability would not change, he said. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov then reaffirmed on Feb. 3 Moscow's commitment to defending Tajikistan, stating that Russia would continue to deliver equipment, weapons and training to Tajik security forces in response to threats coming out of Afghanistan.
Despite Russian military officials' attempts to downplay the troop reduction, the decision is likely motivated at least in part by pressures on the Kremlin, namely the contraction in Russia's economy and the sizable military assets deployed by Russia in both eastern Ukraine and Syria. Indeed, Russia has also not fulfilled previous plans to increase military personnel in its facilities in Kyrgyzstan and other countries, and Moscow has become more selective in the financial assistance that it provides to certain former Soviet countries. In addition, Russian attempts to get more directly involved in border security initiatives in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have so far not made any meaningful progress because both countries are wary of aligning strategically with Moscow. Growing concern among Central Asian states that Russia is not as strong as it was before the Ukraine crisis began may also contribute to Russia's difficulty projecting military power in the area.
Competitors or Peacekeepers?
In the meantime, other powers are becoming more involved in security affairs in Central Asia. One such country is China, whose economic presence in the region has already grown substantially in recent years. In a visit to Beijing on Feb. 25, for example, Tajik Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda discussed the possibility of a Tajik-Chinese anti-terrorism center in Dushanbe. Then on Feb. 29, China's special representative for counterterrorism and security matters visited Dushanbe and spoke with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon about strengthening security cooperation between the two countries, discussing once again the creation of a joint counterterrorism center. This suggests that China may play a more active role in Tajik security in the future. But China may not intend to compete directly with Russia by making such moves, which could instead indicate that Beijing perceives a potential security gap in a region it considers strategic.
The United States, too, has been active in Central Asian security matters in recent weeks. On Feb. 22, the Pentagon requested $50 million in counterterrorism assistance to Central Asia on top of its current support, with much of that funding slated to go to border security efforts in Tajikistan. The next day, U.S. defense officials met at the Pentagon with a security delegation from Uzbekistan, and less than two weeks earlier, the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, Pamela Spratlen, referred to the country as Washington's "main partner in ensuring stability and security throughout Central Asia." These moves come after the United States provided military equipment, including more than 300 vehicles, to Uzbekistan last year. Evidently, the Central Asia-Afghanistan border is a high priority for Washington as the United States reduces its conventional footprint in the area.
In this way, other foreign powers will increase their participation in Central Asia's security realm as Russia's ability to project its power in the region gradually decreases. This is not to say its financial problems and standoff with the West will force Russia to abandon Central Asia entirely; Moscow has historically prioritized security concerns over economic deficiencies. But competing demands on Russia's economy and military will constrain its ability to expand in the region, while the United States, China and others may be looking to fill any void left by Moscow.