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Central Asia’s Post-Ukraine Future

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Central Asia’s Post-Ukraine Future

Maintaining a balancing act between Russia, China and the West will only become more difficult for Central Asia.

Central Asia’s Post-Ukraine Future

Central Asian leaders gather for their fourth summit, in Kyrgyzstan, July 21, 2022.

Credit: Facebook / Aqorda

As Russia’s war in Ukraine slogs on through its third year, its global impacts have disrupted political assumptions, weakened economies, and paved the way for geopolitical realignment. Moscow has long been the dominant external influence in the wider Eurasian region, particularly among the states of Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. However, the war has altered perceptions of Russia within Central Asia, creating opportunities for other players, especially China.

Initially, there was a widespread belief in Central Asia that Russia, embroiled in war and under sanction, would become an unreliable partner, making cooperation with it difficult. Russia knew that its role and influence over Central Asia could diminish after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and sought to deepen political cooperation with these countries to demonstrate that despite being in confrontation with the West, it could still be considered a reliable partner in the region. 

Putin has traveled to all five Central Asian countries to initiate a new chapter of cooperation during the war. However, these efforts have not necessarily been very fruitful. On March 2, 2022, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution rejecting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanding that Russia immediately withdraw its forces and abide by international law by an overwhelming majority of 141  countries approving against just five in opposition. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan abstained, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were not present for the vote. None of them sided clearly with Russia.

An important apprehension the Central Asian countries have developed in light of  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that in the long term, if Russia emerges victorious, a similar scenario could occur in their countries. This worry is particularly acute in Kazakhstan, given the significant presence of ethnic Russians in the country.

Looking ahead, the Central Asian nations face a critical agenda. First, they must engage proactively with the international community, but the challenge lies in transforming external financial and political opportunities into internal progress. Secondly, they need to strike a delicate balance in their relations with Russia and other global players, avoiding the perception of blind support for Russia’s actions while simultaneously avoiding accusations from Moscow of being anti-Russian. Achieving this equilibrium will be pivotal for Central Asia’s future stability and prosperity.

Since 2022, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have found ways to prolong the tenures of their established leaders; Turkmenistan completed a dynastic succession; Tajikistan has laid the groundwork for its own dynastic succession; and Kyrgyzstan has centralized and personalized the power of its president.

For most Central Asian countries, where Russia was the largest trading partner before the war, China has now replaced it. The war has served as additional motivation to seek out a diversity of partnerships.

Uzbekistan maintains good relations with Russia but simultaneously seeks to expand its ties with the West. Tashkent has never issued a direct statement condemning the Russia-Ukraine war, but has not stated support either. Uzbekistans economic and security situation has been significantly affected by Russias war on Ukraine. While Uzbek-Russian relations have been improving since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president in late 2016, the Kremlins aggression in Ukraine threatens some of that progress. Several million Uzbek migrant laborers work in Russia, and the remittances they send home are crucial for Uzbekistans economy. By 2023, China had replaced Russia as Uzbekistan’s leading trade partner. The Uzbek government has also been strengthening relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, seeking new trade corridors and military cooperation.

Just weeks before Russian forces began bombarding Ukrainian cities, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested an intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led military bloc, amid dramatic unrest in the country. However, on the eve of the war, Kazakhstan defied expectations by firmly ruling out the prospect of recognizing Russia-backed separatist entities in eastern Ukraine. Many commentators had characterized  Tokayev as indebted to Putin for his intervention, and Kazakhstans neutral stance incurred the collective wrath of Russian lawmakers and Kremlin propagandists. Despite the tense rhetoric, Tokayev has managed to keep ties between Moscow and Astana largely stable. As with Uzbekistan, by 2023, China had replaced Russia as Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner.

Russia has never been Turkmenistan’s top trading partner; Ashgabat, which has adopted a policy of neutrality in its foreign affairs since 1995, maintained a neutral and cautious stance during the escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Economically, China has long been Turkmenistan’s most important economic partner.

Compared to the other Central Asian countries, Tajikistan has greater security and economic dependencies on Russia. Russian military forces are still based in Tajikistan, and given the long border with Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Taliban, Tajikistan’s security interests necessitate increased cooperation with Russia. The relationship between Russia and Tajikistan has not undergone significant changes since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Dushanbe refrains from making public assessments regarding the entry of Russian forces into Ukraine, maintaining a neutral stance.

Due to the lack of significant economic interests from Western countries in Kyrgyzstan and Bishkek’s high level of economic orientation toward Moscow, Kyrgyzstan faces minimal external pressure beyond Russia. Kyrgyzstan’s involvement in major projects with Russian participation ensures Moscow’s support during this tumultuous period. Kyrgyzstan arguably leads the Central Asian countries in helping Russia circumvent Western sanctions for several types of goods, officially referred to as “parallel imports” in Russia.

Despite the countries of Central Asia hedging their bets on Russia, their greatest concern is the possibility of Russia winning the war in Ukraine. If that happens, it’s feared that a similar scenario could be replicated in Central Asia. The risk in these countries is significantly higher compared to Ukraine. The severe dissatisfaction of people with their dictatorial governments and the presence of terrorist and separatist groups are factors that increase the concerns of Central Asia should a war like that in Ukraine arrive in the region.

Therefore, the existing policies of multilateralism in Central Asia are rapidly losing their relevance. The region will inevitably have to align either with the West or the non-Western bloc, including China, Russia, Iran, and other countries. Choosing between the West and Russia is challenging for Central Asia. Politically, these countries have not experienced democracy, freedom of speech, and press freedom in the way the West envisions these norms. Economically, they are increasingly dependent on the West for technology and investment, but remain deeply enmeshed with Russia.  Having been former Soviet republics with economic and military structures based on the Russian model, breaking free from Moscow’s influence is difficult. But it is possible.