Russia is making a concerted effort to increase its military and security presence throughout Central Asia. Though the Kremlin is worried about the threat of spill-over violence from Islamist militancy in Afghanistan — its purported motive for deploying more troops — it is far more alarmed by what it sees as Chinese and Western encroachment into lands over which it has long held sway.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had, while visiting Kyrgyzstan recently, said Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will ensure stability in Central Asia after NATO withdraws from Afghanistan.
Central Asia has played an important role in the projection of Russian military power since the Russian Empire’s expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. During this period, Russia established military outposts as it competed with the British Empire for influence in the region. By the mid-19th century, Russia had brought modern-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into its empire. In the early 20th century, the countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia retained a military presence in Central Asia and played a major role in regional conflicts, such as the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war. Today, Russia still has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military bloc dominated by Moscow. And while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are not members of the bloc, they do have important security and military ties with Russia through arms purchases.
Because Islamist spill-over from northern Afghanistan is still a relatively minor threat, Russia’s push into Central Asia may have other motivations. Moscow is engaged in a tense standoff with the West over Ukraine, just one theatre in the competition for influence along the former Soviet periphery. Central Asia is another key region in this contest. The region possesses sizable oil and natural gas resources that are attractive to the European Union as it seeks to diversify energy supplies and end its dependence on Russia. Europe has already pursued Turkmenistan to join the Trans-Caspian pipeline project.
The United States has also been active in Central Asia, particularly from a security standpoint and has indeed, expressed interest in increasing its commitment.
Therefore, Moscow’s military and security expansion efforts stem partly from its concern about these gestures. But Russia has not limited itself to deploying military personnel. Moscow has expanded the scope and membership of its Eurasian Union to include broader cooperation on issues including border controls. Kazakhstan is already a member, and Kyrgyzstan will soon join. Russia increased the number of exercises held by Collective Security Treaty Organisation members. It also called on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to cooperate more with the security bloc, though both have been hesitant.
However, Moscow’s ability to solidify its position in Central Asia will be limited. Russia has a weak economy. Already, many Central Asian migrants who once worked in Russia have left, causing a decline in Russian remittances to the region. The West, and particularly the United States, will continue to have influence in the region. China, too, will continue to make economic and energy inroads.
Meanwhile, instability in the region will probably increase. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both have potential succession crises in the offing. Russia will see its position in Central Asia tested in the coming years and when this happens, it would realize (belatedly though) that it has made a costly mistake. It would also realize that the Islamic militancy, ISIS, is but one concern among many for Moscow and Central Asian governments.


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